THE GETAWAY by DAVID THOMSON
[This essay was originally published in Vienna as “The Getaway”, in German, in The Last Great American Picture Show, New Hollywood 1967-1976 (Wespennest), edited by Alexander Horwath, in 1995 on the occasion of the Viennale of that year. This is the original English text, corrected and somewhat shortened by the author, but not updated. Thus the essay has no knowledge of films or events from after 1995.]
I OWED MYSELF A BREAK, and I could not think how else to get the writing job done. So early one morning in San Francisco, I tiptoed through the creaking house listening to the nocturnal breathing, so coarse, so tender—wife, child and new baby—how could there be any air left for me? I wondered—and I put together just a few things, some maps, the necessary tapes, those books I read on journeys, and took myself, as quietly as a thief going away, to the car.
I hesitated a moment at the threshold, so fond of all those sleeping sounds—why is it that one needs to go away? Is it adventure or some unfitness, close to madness? Minutes later I was on the Bay Bridge, impatient to see the first flush of rose or fire in the eastern sky. There is no way of telling escape and its folly from going after the bold new thing. The American experiment has always had its neurosis, its great dread of surrendering its capital, the loneliness.
These are the tapes I had taken—The King of Marvin Gardens, Badlands, The Gambler, Chinatown, The Parallax View, Taxi Driver, The Long Goodbye, the first two parts of The Godfather, Night Moves and The Passenger (the one that contrives to find America in London, north Africa and Espana). These are the films I want to propose for the 1995 Viennale and its examination of the American movie, circa 1968 to ‘76 or so. Oh yes, and I took the VCR, too, leaving its wires dangling from the wall, aware that my son would come down the next morning, bereaved and aghast, to discover not just that Daddy was gone but that he was cut off from Red River, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Winchester ‘73, Lives of a Bengal Lancer, Captain Horatio Hornblower, Treasure Island and the unending struggles of Tom and Jerry.
With ease and relief the car headed east, gravitationally drawn to the West. In San Francisco, our car becomes tense, crotchety, old before its time, aggravated by the hills, the STOP signs on every block and the small erranding to the market, to school, to friends after school, and that especially awkward trip, where there is never any parking, to Captain Video. But in half an hour on the road, slipping through the Oakland hills and then climbing up through Altamont beneath the windmills, all still and alert, the car reclaims its youth and a chance of adventure. I am encouraged, sitting in the small, warm shell, hurtling past scenes that bloom in the night. In one bright window, as I pass, the angle always changing, I see a woman stretching her arms and letting a dark sweater drop down over her white body—I will never see or know her, but I feel stirred by the remote intimacy.
In Tracy, I stopped for breakfast—it wasn’t seven yet—marveling at the eggs, over easy, white and pink and gold, the trim pancakes and the smiling syrup, all for a few dollars. There is such vitality in the American road breakfast; it comes so swiftly and so lyrically, whereas at home I would curse and stumble over making the same meal—break the eggs, burn the coffee, and produce ignominious pancakes. Here, and at a million places on the road, the breakfast is as pretty as the girl at the counter in a Hawks movie—some girl he’d spotted and sought to keep around, like Dorothy Malone at the bookstore.
Over breakfast I was reading The New York Review of Books, a review of the biologist Edward Wilson’s autobiography. It speculated on ways in which a chosen concentration of study—insects or primates, say—might be borne out in the physique, the behavior and even the neurological make up of the scientist. This is intriguing, for I have for some time been working towards a kind of biological portrait of the cineaste. He or she is not a replica of the people on the screen, alas. But surely the moviegoer is shaped by the experience of watching and its dark—by sitting, by the bright light, by the unseen flutter of the machine, by the ultimate inaccessibility of the screen. The cineaste is a bulb (I mean the type of plant life), sheathed in dark earth, leaning towards the light, hoping to bloom. The special fantasizing impulse leads us often to overweight, pale, shy, recessive if not depressed creatures whose dreams are in turmoil.
I drove down the gray, gloomy valley where dust, mist and agricultural spray drew in the horizon. I crossed the canals of irrigation; I passed the great herd of cattle waiting patiently in fields of excrement, waiting to be hamburger; I saw the faint outline of California’s creased hills in the distance, like folds of dun colored brain. Then at Bakersfield I turned east to skirt the southern end of the Sierras. It was winter and all the passes were blocked. The legend of California would be incomplete if its large cities were not within such easy reach of wilderness—the Sierras, so many miles of peaks and unreachable valleys where there might be forbidding desolation and rogue creatures, a cat from Track of the Cat, or ghosts of lost pioneers and prospectors. It is at the northern end of the Sierras, after all, that some of the Donner party dined on their companions.
And then, beyond Tehachapi, bending north again on 395, I was in reach of that other wonder, the desert, something that can be seen from the top of Mount Whitney, highest point in the Sierras. That desert provides the greatest temperatures in the continental U.S., as well as the lowest altitude. It is Death Valley, and you go right through the valley on your way to Las Vegas: it surely helps the notion that Vegas is not quite, or not simply, on Earth….
Header photo from Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975).