The first new Monte Hellman feature in 21 years is cause for no little celebration, and the American Cinematheque gave him a fine hometown bash at the Egyptian theatre last week, with double bills of his classic Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Cockfighter (1974), and his pair of metaphysical westerns The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind (both 1965). Hellman was present after each screening to speak lucidly and generously about his work, but the high point was the sneak preview presentation of his almost indescribable new movie, the dizzying, marvelous Road to Nowhere, radical in both content and execution.
Despite the auteur reputation, Hellman has always worked as a film-maker for hire, albeit with frequently loose reins. He speaks of this as his “first” film, therefore, in that for once he originated the material himself, with writing partner Steven Gaydos, and made the film with complete independence. He has described it as a “love poem to cinema” and that such a personal and unusual picture should have been made – and so successfully – is due in part to the tireless efforts of his daughter Melissa as producer, the family-affair harmony of the production, and the comparative ease and thrift with which the film could be shot on the Canon 5D mkII, the first feature to use this now ubiquitous DSLR. It is also the camera being used to shoot the film-within-the-film and is explained onscreen in a slightly clunky fashion, but otherwise the definite modernity of the film, as ever with the physical aspects of Hellman’s work, plays with an unshowy realism that allows it to slip into the background as part of the unobtrusively believable texture of the real world.
The story, such as it is, concerns a movie shoot on location in North Carolina, directed by one Mitchell Haven (Tygh Runyan) and written by Steve Gates (Rob Kolar). Check those initials. The subject is a true story, a real-life intrigue in which Rafe Taschen, an older man with political connections, seems to have entered into some plot with a young woman, Velma Duran, which results in their supposed deaths, and a missing $100,000. Haven is captivated by a clip of an actress perfect for the part, travels to Rome to woo her and, as filming progresses, is drawn into an infatuation even as it appears that she and the dead woman may in fact be one and the same.
That we should be mistrustful of taking what we see on screen as “truth” is indicated immediately, as a disc marked “Road to Nowhere” slips into a laptop, the camera zooms into, and then inside, the computer screen, and the credits roll for a Mitchell Haven picture. We can rarely be sure, until film-making paraphernalia enters the shot, whether what we are seeing is backstage story or Haven’s reconstruction of it – luminous Shannyn Sossamon is presented equally as Velma and actress Laurel, and Cliff de Young plays both the actor playing Taschen, and a slick-looking fellow in London who appears to be Taschen himself. Trying to answer our questions for us are a suspicioning blogger (Dominque Swain) and insurance agent Bruno (Waylon Payne) but they make notably little headway; she flippantly declares “fuck the facts” and his aggressive, self-serving assumptions usher in the denouement, which answers nothing, and which appears to be take place in the real world of the (Hellman) film. Until we are reminded that the director himself is on camera..
The point is of course not the plot, nor indeed where in Hellman’s film (or in Haven’s) some kind of “objective’ truth may lie, but the fact that, in cinema, these levels of reality can coexist in a way perfectly analogous to the flux of the ”real” world, especially in terms of the illusions created by and for love. The film-within-a-film, and our awareness of what lies beyond, has reality eating its own tail in a way that renders the experience more of a dream than story. Indeed, although Hellman has always allowed bits of the real world to penetrate his films, he has spoken of, for the first time, letting the film control itself, of allowing the ambiguous relation between fiction and reality to assert itself in the film-making. The pared-down logic of his best work, and the practice of shooting actors as people rather than actors, has always suggested a cinema that grows organically from its own process, and which develops its own perfect form as it progresses by the successive removal of extraneous elements. Abandoning himself more than ever to real life and a tonal rather than literal cohesion, Hellman achieves here almost the opposite: instead of a straight line of progression, a self-generating cloud of possibilities.
This cloud of meaning is made more dense by the fact that it is a self-avowedly personal movie. The characters of director and writer originally bore the names Hellman and Gaydos, altered simply to be less distracting for the audience; and the project was conceived in part to celebrate the independent way in which they made their movies back in the day. Laurel’s character is a shade of Laurie Bird, Higgins or whatever her name is from Two-Lane Blacktop and one-time paramour of Hellman’s. This is a Hellman dream of a movie, full of his own experience and preoccupations, in which a clip from his beloved Spirit of the Beehive can be included simply for pleasure, found later on to have thematic relevance. Never mind the intrigues of the plot or the layers of reality and identity, the film’s emotional core is this man’s growing infatuation for this woman, whoever she may be, a heartfelt, doomed obsession, a situation from the artist’s life. Hellman’s abiding focus remains the tragedy of the human condition: that relationships should prove unsustainable and that man should end up isolated and powerless comes as no surprise; it is all the more poignant that it should this time be the film-maker himself.
The film does not call for us to decode these personal references, however; that would indeed be distracting. Neither, in its willful obscurity of detail, does it really ask us to untangle the plot and chronology. It’s a game, a puzzle, an American Marienbad, which can probably be solved, but probably need not be. It may demand attention, but the reward is simple enjoyment of the game. It’s no surprise to learn that Hellman is a fan of Robbe-Grillet and Resnais, as well as Rivette; his puzzle is far more intricately and organically married to the actual creation of illusions, however, than any of them attempted. To describe the human heart that beats beneath as sensitive is simply to emphasize its poet’s clear-eyed compassion. The intrigue and genre trappings are familiar elements for us to enjoy, but they are an excuse to conjure something more elusive and magical in terms of atmosphere and direct emotional engagement, to communicate before being fully understood. As Haven has it, if it all made sense, “who’d be interested?”