There's not as big a difference as you think between the ragtag assortment of low-budget horror and crime-film directors in every country and the artiest, most iconoclastic Cannes-friendly filmmakers (Terence Malick, Bela Tarr, Carlos Reygadas, Claire Denis, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, et al). They're all wrestling with the same challenge, namely finding innovative ways of telling stories in worn-out genres.
Given the abridged distance between high and low, it's only natural that a scuffler on the margins, if he or she hangs in long enough, will receive some of the acclaim and affection heaped on upper-echelon directors. That's what's happening with 69-year-old Monte Hellman, who's out with his first new film in 20 years. Road to Nowhere, a curiously fascinating yet ultimately slight parable of life imitating art on a movie set, receives its Bay Area release this Friday, backed by an appearance by Hellman and a week-long revival of three of his best-known yet little-screened films.
The New York native, a graduate of Roger Corman's real-world school of ultra-low-budget filmmaking, made a few waves in Hollywood in the '60s and early '70s when the new youth culture turned the fissures in the old-guard studio system into cracks big enough for Robert Altman, Bob Rafleson, Hal Ashby, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese to crash through.
"Ride in the Whirlwind"
Teaming up with Jack Nicholson, a friend from the Corman days, Hellman made a pair of off-off-offbeat Westerns, The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, in the mid-'60s. The testosterone-inflected titles notwithstanding, the films aren't driven by plot so much as by the characters' internal, unexpressed dilemmas. That also applies to Hellman's cult success, Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), featuring the deeply stoned, once-in-a-lifetime casting of North Carolina singer-songwriter James Taylor, Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson and laconic character actor Warren Oates.
There's no pot of gold at the end of their journey for Hellman's typically male characters. The best they can expect is a revelation, an inevitably expensive insight, a hot, bright light cast on their soul. Road to Nowhere is a title made in heaven for Hellman, but don't be scared off: Self-deception, not nihilism, is what he's interested in.
Adapted from a script by Steven Gaydos, a longtime staffer for the venerable show-biz trade magazine Variety, Road to Nowhere follows a likable, unexpectedly modest, 30-something director as he embarks on what he hopes will be his breakthrough studio picture. The story he's filming involves betrayal, murder, faked disappearances and a very large insurance settlement. The movie-within-the-movie is based on a true story, we're told, and that proves to be the wild card in the deck.
"Road to Nowhere"
Road to Nowhere, which premiered last fall at the Venice Film Festival (remember what I said about narrowing distinctions between directors?), is about filmmaking as much as male-female (dis)trust. The director (played by Tygh Runyan) instinctively cast his unknown lead actress (Shannyn Sossamon) on the basis of watching her in an unreleased exploitation movie. As the shoot progresses, he falls gradually in love. Of course, this being the ambitious world of the movies, it's difficult to differentiate between his personal feelings and his professional need for her to give a great performance, and therefore be supported in any way necessary. That particular mystery gets cleared up in a harrowing and beautiful way in the last few minutes.
Hellman has fun making us guess if each new scene is from the movie-in-progress or "real life." Unfortunately, the script isn't quite sharp enough, nor are the characters beyond the main duo sufficiently developed, to entwine us fully in the twisty puzzle. Instead, we're often left wondering why Hellman sticks with shots, and scenes, past the point where most directors would cut and move on.
It's quite clear, actually. Hellman is doing what he's always done, pushing back against convention and cliché, provoking unanticipated reactions and stretching a genre beyond its usual shape. That's the job the man signed up for, and he's too young to retire.
Road to Nowhere opens Friday, July 22, 2011 and "Monte Hellman: On the Road Again" runs Saturday-Monday, July 23-25 at the Roxie Theatre in San Francisco and the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. Hellman appears after the 7pm show on opening night at the Roxie, and after the 4:30pm show of The Shooting on Saturday at the Rafael. For information on Roxie screenings visit roxie.com and information on Rafael Film Center screenings visit cafilm.org.