Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu May 19, 2011 2:16 am 
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A femme fatale; a scandal within a scandal; a movie about movies

The IMDB thumbnail bio puts it this way: "Cult director Monte Hellman has made a handful of offbeat, inventive and intriguing low-budget independent features throughout the years. His movies are distinguished by slow pacing, vague, but compelling plots, and often obsessive characters." Hellman has made only six movies in a fifty-year career. His last feature seems to have been Iguana in 1988, when he was in his fifties. The one I shall never forget it his slow off the main highway American epic of the road from 1971, Two Lane Balcktop, which starred James Taylor and Warren Oates. For me nothing has so skillfully transformed American restlessness and rootlessness into celluloid myth.

Now Hellman is 78, and Paris is showing his new film, which debuted at Venice last September and people have said compares favorably with his best work. It's a David Lynch-style oddball study that confuses real people in a crime story with their doubles in a crew making a movie about the event. Everything is a little garish and out of kilter, with many homages, some overtly in the form of clips, to great European -- and Hollywood -- cinema; indeed to cinema itself. It is impossible not to be reminded of Lynch's recent masterpiece Inland Empire. However Hellman doesn't veer into surreal dreamworlds but stays obsessively focused on the slow process of shooting the film. Road to Nowhere goes on for more than two hours. It's minute and plodding, but also compelling and suspenseful. One can imagine it broken up into a serial in 15- or 20-minute segments.

The film opens by announcing it's directed by "Mitchell Haven." This isn't a pseudonym for Hellman but the director in the story (Tygh Runyan), which concerns the disappearance/murder involving a wealthy couple and the spiriting away of a large amount of money following the crash into a lake of a small plane. The main role of the femme fatale, who in real life is still missing, is played by Shannyn Sossamon. Her character, whom Haven wants both to possess and to immortalize the minute he meets her, is a hauntingly beautiful unknown who insists she is no actress, whose performances during the shoot nonetheless seem so convincing people begin to suspect she is the real missing woman hiding in plain sight. Mitchell Haven falls hopelessly in love with her. Every night they lie together and watch old classic films. Most suspicious of what's going on here is a firebrand insurance investigator (Waylon Payne) hired because he is one who has explored the real events very thoroughly, though he has not actually seen the femme fatale. He is the most suspicious that non-actress star is the original of her character and that everybody's being duped.

Ultimately this is, of course, a movie about movies, and their power to enchant and usurp reality. It's also about how love can delude us into ignoring what's in plain sight. The insurance investigator's angry suspicions grow more and more intense, leading him to violent action when he repeatedly finds the young director unable to look beyond his passion for his star. At that point reality and illusion collapse into each other in sudden action, and Hellman's predominantly slow, contemplative action is punctuated several times by shocks.

My feelings about Road to Nowhere are mixed. It is a decidedly original, personal piece of work and the self-referential theme is appealing. The digital images are hushed and often beautiful, but also sometimes look like crudely played back rushes, and the scenes too sometimes seem to be read-throughs, even amateurish. The screenplay is by Steven Gaydos, a longtime collaborator, is dense and interesting. But the whole thing seems a little too self-conscious and contrived, better perhaps in the conception than in the execution. Multiple viewings might be necessary to appreciate the subtleties and come to a better understanding of the pace. French reviews recorded on Allociné with a rating of 3.1 (good average) indicate some admiration but many reservations. One review (Chronic'art) calls the film "more intriguing than emotionally involving." Another calls it "flat." Still another implies it's second-rate David Lynch. Indeed the Lynch magic isn't there, but that may be the wrong thing to look for. Whatever that is, I did't find. Yet I felt in the presence of something original, definitely the work of a director who's gone his own way since before the counter culture briefly made him utterly in tune with the zeitgeist with Two Lane Black Top.

Seen in Paris at a small cinema, Le Nouveau Latina 20, rue du Temple, 75004 Paris on May 18, 2011. It opens in NYC June 10 and LA June 17, 2011.

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