We drive into the Black Hills, about an hour from Rapid City, South Dakota, where we’d spent the night. All is quiet in the backseat, where my children’s eyes are fixed on a small screen hanging from the car ceiling. As our car climbs toward Mount Rushmore, they are halfway into the extended climax of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.
Beside me, my wife, Kate, looks out the window. In a mirror, I catch a glimpse of three of my four children absorbed by a spectacle that I can’t see within the car.
But now we have arrived at the entrance to Mount Rushmore National Memorial. I shut off the video system. The kids sigh. They know the rules we are playing by: movies off when we face an especially awesome vista, or arrive at the gate to a national park. It feels wrong to turn off North by Northwest now, however, when we might watch the final twenty minutes in the parking lot. I had tried to plan it so they would already have viewed the great chase scene across the presidents’ faces before we arrived, but I was off by about fifteen minutes.
I punish myself silently for the miscalculation.
The summer road trip was Kate’s idea, but I was the one who suggested we screen a moving film festival while driving between sights. The road trip, once a rite of passage of young adulthood, is now a rite of passage of middle adulthood, too. Other friends with kids had followed similar itineraries. Our neighbor gave us a folder of pamphlets and printouts of maps from Google. The printouts reminded me of the AAA TripTiks I’d had when I crossed the country twenty years ago. Kate convinced me that we should have hotels reserved and a fixed itinerary, unlike my solo trip, when it was just me, a Honda CR-X, and an improvised route. She proposed that we take our four children, who ranged in age from nine months to just shy of thirteen years old, put them into our Honda Pilot, and drive what would turn out to be four thousand miles in two weeks. Kate convinced me that this was not only the best time to get all our kids into the car for so many miles, but in fact the only time for a long time—maybe the last time—that we might be able to do it.
It had been six years since we’d taken a family road trip. During the second Bush administration we had traveled through North Africa by car with our then three children, tracking down Star Wars shooting locations in Tunisia, and afterward we had driven through much of southern Morocco. That desert trip was more of a propaganda project: my parental prophylactic against the idiocies of the early years of the “war on terror,” whose cultural logic suggested that wearing turbans or living in sandy places makes you automatically fearsome.1 I wanted my kids to see that exotic landscapes—and people who dressed in ways that 1970s science fiction had crafted as otherworldly—were in fact homes to family friends and places where community comes first, where Hollywood’s fictions might dissolve when you took a closer look.
Here was a different desert, a different car, and a less ideological project: see great movies, see America the Beautiful, and try to get along in close quarters.
So we planned. Our journey would take us from our home, outside Chicago, west through South Dakota, that land of kitsch with a long tradition of tourist traps—from the Corn Palace, in the east of the state, to Wall Drug and Mount Rushmore, in the west. Then, having crossed the Badlands, we’d pass into Wyoming, desolate territory, and up into Montana, with all its expanse and sky. From Billings, we would backtrack through the Beartooth Pass and eventually across Yellowstone, down through the Tetons and into Utah. We’d visit its canyons, traverse Monument Valley, head back through Moab and the great natural arches, then climb the mountains of Colorado and cross the cornfields of Nebraska and Iowa and race home.
I guessed that my idea of screening road movies to accompany a family road trip wasn’t original, though I thought I deserved a few props for timing the screenings to correspond with driving through the locations where they were set or filmed. The trip had a nostalgic quality to it, something out of the Ford administration, or at least the Reagan years. Everything about the road seems like a throwback: the national parks, the Wild West attractions, and state-magnet-selling rest stops.
The film shot on location, too, harkens back to an era predating over-the-top special effects or 3-D motion-capture CGI cinematography. Actually, even films seem outdated. My kids have iPads loaded with apps and games and TV episodes. It seems rare that they watch an entire movie from beginning to end. The feature film and the automobile road trip are vestiges of the twentieth century, both built around the logic of the wheel. Reels of film and the wheels of cars are analog technologies. You have to watch a film straight through for it to make sense, just as you have to drive from point a to point b.
In narrative terms, we’d all be crushed into the same small space. Certainly something interesting would come of it. Also, there was something vaguely family-channel rom-com-ish about the setup. The last time I had done this drive, in the summer of 1993, was the month after I’d met Kate. She’d responded to an ad I posted subletting my apartment so I could take a road trip.
Here are the movies I chose and where I planned to show them during the festival. (There were films I wanted to include but couldn’t, because I worried they’d be too difficult for children or too dark. For example, I would have included Easy Rider and Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, but the drugs and the nudity would have been distracting.)
- 1. North by Northwest (1959, directed by Alfred Hitchcock). To be shown in South Dakota, at Mount Rushmore.
- 2. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977, directed by Steven Spielberg). To be shown in Wyoming, approaching Devils Tower.
- 3. National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983, directed by Harold Ramis). Comic relief, to be shown on a stretch of road in Montana.
- 4. A River Runs Through It (1992, directed by Robert Redford). To be shown on a drive between Montana and Wyoming via Yellowstone National Park.
- 5. Smokey and the Bandit (1977, directed by Hal Needham). The film is set between Texas and Florida, at least 1,400 miles off our route. I planned to show it in Utah.
- 6. The Searchers (1956, directed by John Ford). To be shown in Monument Valley.
- 7. The Cannonball Run (1981, directed by Hal Needham). I’d planned to show this at the beginning of the drive, soon after leaving Chicago, a fun bit of road-trip fluff to set the vacation tone. In fact, the kids watched it at the end.
- 8. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969, directed by George Roy Hill). To be shown in the West, somewhere. Unfortunately, I completely forgot to order this movie.
I hadn’t seen most of these movies for twenty years (and one I’d never watched). I looked forward to every single one.
A week before we set off on our trip, however, it occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to see the movies at all, since most likely I’d be doing the bulk of the driving. Instead I’d have to listen to the soundtrack. Perhaps separating the visual from the aural elements of the films would elicit from them alternate meanings, or perhaps that bifurcation would enhance the strangeness that often accompanies a second encounter with a text one knew long ago.
NORTH BY NORTHWEST
Interstate 90 and US 240 west from Kadoka, South Dakota, to Rapid City via Badlands National Park; US 16 south to Keystone; 135 miles covered (950 since departure)
In western South Dakota, two days since we left Chicagoland, I open the film festival with Hitchcock. It seems to be a success. About forty-five minutes into it, I stop for gas in a place called Wasta. Oliver, nearly thirteen, gets out to do the windows while I fuel up. The protagonist, Roger O. Thornhill (played by Cary Grant), is already up to his neck in trouble, having been mistaken for another man and nearly killed for it. Oliver comments, “He’s the guy with no luck. Even his mother doesn’t believe him.” It’s only his second Hitchcock movie, but the boy has already identified one of the master’s obsessions.
By the time we stop for the night in Rapid City, there is still about an hour left in the movie for tomorrow. At least the kids have watched the scene in which Cary Grant is chased through a cornfield by a low-flying crop duster. Pia, who is ten, helps me bring in our bags. It is dark in the lot, nearly midnight, and the others have gone ahead to the room. Pia says to me, “It would be so creepy if wherever you went, people were following you. Like if you went to Paris, they would know you were there.”
The anxiety the film has already provoked pleases me and suggests that the festival is off to a good start, which is lucky, since there is a long way to go. North by Northwest has not lost its punch. But we have to stop for the night. Everyone is exhausted.
My poorly timed break does not, fortunately, kill the narrative momentum. The next day, as we drive to Keystone and then toward Mount Rushmore, the tension is nearly unbearable as the film’s plot makes its way toward the Black Hills as well.
Roger Thornhill has chased Phillip Vandamm, the urbane villain played by James Mason, up to his midcentury-modern hideaway in the woods behind Mount Rushmore. Vandamm is a spy for the Russians. He is preparing to leave the country with his girlfriend, Eve Kendall (played by Eva Marie Saint), carrying a statuette that is stuffed with microfilm secrets. Thornhill, outside in the dark, tries to get Eve’s attention. By now he knows that she is only pretending to be Vandamm’s girlfriend and is really a double agent. Upstairs, Eve packs her bag. Thornhill throws pebbles at her window. Meanwhile, downstairs, the henchman Leonard, played by a thirty-one-year-old Martin Landau, tells his boss that Eve is a fake. Vandamm doesn’t believe him. He loves her.
Leonard tries to convince Vandamm otherwise. “Call it my woman’s intuition,” he says. It’s a startling line. At the time, it raised eyebrows. Today the homoeroticism is more easily named—and palpable. Suppressed sexuality is everywhere here.
In the mirror, I see Pia held captive by the screen. Her mouth is slightly open, a slight twitch in the soft skin where her cheek meets her nose. The sequence spills over with danger.
Bernard Herrmann’s score draws out and sharpens the points of the intersecting love triangles: Vandamm, Leonard, and Eve; Vandamm, Eve, and Thornhill. (In his next Hitchcock collaboration, Psycho, Herrmann would achieve immortality by using dissonant violins.)
But I have timed the climax wrong. When we get to Mount Rushmore, the crisis in the film has not been resolved. We exit the story and the car, but the mood remains tense. We visit the iconic faces of the presidents in a state of heightened anxiety. The children are intrigued by the monument, but they are distracted by the lack of narrative closure. It is, perhaps, a harbinger. After our visit, we watch the end of the film, but too many disruptions have hurt the buildup. There are no revelations. We stop near the still-unfinished Crazy Horse Memorial to see how much has been done in the twenty years since I last visited. The face of the great Lakota leader is visible, but the rest of the mountain looks much as I remember it. I have no film to accompany a stop at Crazy Horse.
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND
US 16 west to Billings, Montana, via Custer, South Dakota, and Gillette, Buffalo, and Sheridan, Wyoming; 390 miles covered (1,325 since departure)
If I tell you that I listened to Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind without seeing any of it, I imagine you will, if you are the right age, think of five musical notes in sequence: Daa-dee-dah-do-dum: the haunting but simple melody at the center of John Williams’s score. One of the first times the notes occur is in a scene in which a scientist (François Truffaut!) plays them on a reel-to-reel tape recorder to other scientists at a conference.
(A few minutes after starting the movie, I hit pause. I want to explain how important those notes were to the late 1970s. “Play!” the children yell. I shut up. I push play.)
Listening to Close Encounters without seeing it reveals an entirely different film from what I remember. There is very little dialogue; the scenes with Teri Garr and Richard Dreyfuss, who play Ronnie and Roy Neary, the married couple at the center of the film, make up the bulk of it. (There are a few occasions when Truffaut speaks French. In fact, I had no memory at all that François Truffaut was in this movie.) Apart from the scant dialogue, listening to Close Encounters is like listening to an extended track of sound editing—snippets of sound effects, jingles, songs, Bugs Bunny cartoons—all of which place it immediately and inescapably in its moment in time. (Early in the film there’s a sound clip of the opening notes from the theme song to the soap opera The Days of Our Lives.) In fact, in 1978 it won the Oscar for best sound editing and was nominated for an Academy Award for sound mixing.
I’d also forgotten that Dreyfuss’s character is so bitter at the beginning of the film, and that he really doesn’t seem to like being a father. He mocks his kids for asking for help with their homework, and he’s obsessed with his model-train set. In the opening scene of Close Encounters, before the first sighting of the aliens, Roy’s wife and kids beg him to take them to play miniature golf. But he wants to take them to see Pinocchio.
His kids complain: “Who wants to see some dumb cartoon rated G for kids?”
Roy mocks them and half-threatens them. Roy tells his wife: “I’m just saying that I grew up with Pinocchio, and if kids are still kids, they’re going to eat it up.” Then he proposes a vote.
OK, let’s have a vote. Tomorrow night you can play Goofy Golf, which is a lot of standing in line and shoving and pushing, and probably getting a zero, or you can see Pinocchio, which is a lot of furry animals and magic, and you’ll have a wonderful time. OK? Now let’s vote.
The kids vote for golf, of course.
I feel a bond with Roy at this moment, as I make my own kids watch this movie, which to them must seem as much a throwback as Pinocchio seems to Roy’s kids, with the amateurish special effects and baby-like aliens.
When I chose Close Encounters for my film festival, I remembered it meaning something different. It was about the need for connection between disparate creatures, in this case between humans and aliens. In a way, the film is really about the breach between generations. As I listen from the front of the car, it now seems ominous in the still-early stages of a long family trip.
The goal today, of course, is to stop by Devils Tower, the otherworldly mountain in Wyoming to which Roy Neary is drawn and where he will meet the funny-looking aliens. There is a lot of ground to cover—today started in Rapid City and we lingered longer than expected at breakfast and in the Mount Rushmore gift shop, and there are a total of something like four hundred miles to cover to make our reservation in Billings, Montana. The detour to Devils Tower is going to add another thirty miles to the drive and at least an hour, even if we get out of the car only to gaze at the tower from afar, and Kate asks me how important it is to me that we see it.
Before I can answer, Pia says from the back: “We already saw it in the movie” in a tone not unlike that of the kids in the movie who want Goofy Golf. Oliver, who knows me better and tries to stop me before I slip on the road to stubborn, says: “Dad, it’s OK, we can skip it.” But to me, at that moment, the entire film festival is at stake. I have already screwed up the timing of the last film, and now we won’t even make it to the site of the second film, and I can hear all the exceptions and excuses. It’s not some masculinity crisis, as it is in the Spielberg movie, but rather it’s about the kids calling the shots, and what is one hour, or thirty miles, in a trip that will exceed 130 times that distance, if it’s about giving me the one thing I asked for, which is this festival?
“Trust me, kids,” I say. “You are going to be happy you saw Devils Tower when this is all done, because then you will have seen all the places in the movies in our film festival, and that is, after all, a special thing.”
“But we want to have time for the water park at the Best Western in Montana,” Theo says. Theo will turn seven in a week. I have a soft spot for Theo (and for water parks).
We skip the tower. We have seen it, in a way.
NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION
US 212 west from Billings to Gardiner, Montana, via Red Lodge and the Beartooth Pass; 185 miles covered (1,510 since departure)
After the anxiety provoked by North by Northwest and the unexpected darkness of the family drama in Close Encounters, I thought National Lampoon’s Vacation would offer simple comic relief on the drive from Billings toward Yellowstone. Just thinking of Chevy Chase makes me smile, especially in the scene where, as bumbling patriarch Clark Griswold, he falls asleep at the wheel, drifts off the road, and somehow dodges trees, barriers, and oncoming traffic before waking up just in time to slam on the brakes in a motel parking lot. (This scene was a running joke when I was a kid; my own father would routinely fall asleep on our annual drives from Connecticut to Florida.)
But if I felt almost embarrassed to include Vacation in the moving festival—I saw it as pandering to the lowest common humor denominator—little did I expect that it would be one of the most awkward and controversial films I showed.
I had forgotten that Chevy Chase films, from Caddyshack and Fletch to Vacation, almost all include a gratuitous sex scene, a flash of nudity, or a fantasy-hot blond running through Chase’s mind. I’d noted that Vacation was rated R, but I didn’t think very long about screening it anyway. What counted as R in 1983, I figured, is about what you’d expect in a PG-13 movie today, probably a few fucks and a maybe a flash of nipple (the PG-13 rating was introduced in 1984).
I had also forgotten that even if Vacation stuck in my memory as a light comedy about the pitfalls of a family road trip, it could also be described as a film about Chevy Chase betraying his wife in a motel swimming pool with a woman he meets on the road (through open car windows, no less).
Kate and I stay silent during the screening, listening with an increasing feeling of awkwardness. First there is a scene set in St. Louis laced with racist humor; then Chevy Chase suggests that his wife give him a blow job while he drives; and there is an incest joke made by a fifteen-year-old Jane Krakowski (“Daddy says I’m the best at it [French kissing]”). At a motel bar, Clark meets the unnamed character played by Christie Brinkley, whom he has been making eyes at on the highway, and invents a ridiculous story that the family he is traveling with is really his brother’s family, and accepts her seductive invitation to go skinny-dipping in the motel pool.
The first time I saw a movie with nudity in it in the company of my parents was when they took me to see Stir Crazy, with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. I was twelve. I don’t remember anything about the plot except that at some point the action moves to a strip club and there are topless women dancing on a stage. I can recall that moment as if I were sitting in that movie theater today: how, without moving my body a centimeter, I tried to shift the weight of my organs and everything inside my skin away from my parents, who were seated to my right.
In the driver’s seat, I feel my body undergoing a similar process as the film unfolds. I have again misremembered a movie I thought I knew well. It’s not nudity at stake here, but something more intimate and that strikes closer to home. I wonder how much the kids recall about the ups and downs of my marriage to Kate. The details were nothing like the movie, but what’s the difference, really? We are good now, but it wasn’t always so.
Kate turns to me and asks: “Why don’t you wear your wedding ring anymore?” She doesn’t wear a wedding ring either. I thought there was a tacit agreement not to.
I flash a look in the rearview mirror and see that Pia’s eyes have dropped from the screen to the back of my head. “What did you say?” Pia asks Kate.
“Nothing,” Kate tells her. “Watch the movie. I’m having an adult conversation with Dad,” she says.
There really is no space in this car to answer Kate’s question. Like so much, it goes unanswered. Maybe if there were time at the end or at the start of one of these days, Kate and I could have a real conversation, but the itinerary, it is now apparent, can hardly bear a detour without me paying for it. Any deviation from the schedule means me driving late into the night while everyone else sleeps.
Pia boycotts the rest of Vacation. She claims to be offended by the bad language, and that it’s “inappropriate” for Theo to hear such words, but I think it’s about Chevy Chase’s indiscretion. The film festival is struggling. When we stop for lunch, I apologize to the kids for Vacation. I tell them I didn’t remember that the movie was the way it was, and try to give the story some historical context to lessen the discomfort. “We are lucky, kids,” I tell them, “that we get to spend much more time together than the Griswolds do in the movie.” Clark Griswold tells his wife, near the beginning of the film, that the reason he is determined to stick with the trip despite the many pitfalls along the way is that he gets to see his kids only a few minutes in the morning and in the evening, and maybe three hours on the weekend. He wants to reconnect. (Griswold is a “food additives expert,” based in Chicago, and from the look of it his family lives not far from where we do, on the North Shore.) From my seat in the front, without seeing Chevy Chase’s facial expressions, which redirect every line of dialogue (and which Oliver says make the film so funny), the pathos of the writing is especially evident. And without that comic relief, the famous ending of the film—when Griswold goes postal upon his discovery that Wally World, the destination of the entire road trip, is closed, and so forces John Candy, at gunpoint, to let them ride the roller coaster—seems even more dangerous and threatening than it did in 1983.
Oliver says he predicted that Wally World would be closed or otherwise inaccessible to the Griswolds. Their trip, he’d known from the start, was doomed.
“It’s OK, Dad,” Oliver says again.
I knew somewhere deep inside me that the trip we were taking was also wrong or doomed. We were passing frozen-yogurt stands and chain restaurants and water slides and cheery flags. The land was becoming a kitsch paradise for us, costing seventy-five dollars a day in gas to enjoy. It was all feeling a bit bleak.
That night I start to read a book on the Lakota that I’d bought eight hundred miles back, at a gift shop in the Badlands. I read about the road that the settlers called the Oregon Trail, or the Bozeman Trail, and that the Lakota understood as ruts carved in the land, pushing the buffalo away.
A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT
US 89 south from Gardiner, Montana, to Jackson, Wyoming, via Yellowstone National Park; 170 miles covered (1,680 since departure)
The grandeur of Yellowstone—from the great sulfur basins and the shocking geysers to the American magnificence of the herd of buffalo that emerged to cross our path—does much to salve the open wounds that are by now festering. And despite the ways in which the greatest of our national parks is staged (a wooden boardwalk through the basins, the grandstands around Old Faithful), the landscape overwhelms all attempts to contain it. At Yellowstone, geysers are marked by name, height, and the frequency of eruption, and if ever before it had seemed as if it were just a matter of time before another explosion, it does to me now as we get back into the car for the drive south.
As usual, there is much driving to do once the sun goes down. Since Pia’s boycott apparently extends to the next movie, Kate moves to the backseat to watch A River Runs Through It with the boys. I am struggling to make out, in the dark, the unlit contours of US 89 while Brad Pitt and Craig Sheffer (as Paul and Norman Maclean, respectively) argue and fight through the sound system. The chaos becomes almost unbearable. I want to be in a room where I can lie down and not look at the road; I want not to have to drive eight hours a day in order to get only two hours in the next national park; I want a Wi-Fi connection so I can use my laptop to answer some of the emails I can see on my phone; I want a day alone with no one to talk to so I can read the book about the Lakota; but most immediately I want the Maclean brothers to stop fighting.
Robert Redford’s voice-over begins this film. It might have been the epigraph for our trip. “Someday, when you’re ready, you might tell our family story. Only then will you understand what happened and why.”
When we pull into Jackson Hole, I see that Kate has booked us a room in a ski resort that is both beautiful and far too precious for how I am feeling. (Robert Redford: “It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.”)
In the morning, the tension explodes. Kate and I decide we should head back. The trip has failed. We are spending too much money, having too many fights, and have too little time to ourselves. She will take a long run, and I will spend a couple of hours catching up on email, and then we will cancel our upcoming reservations.
US 9 east from Springdale, Utah, via US 89 east, to Arizona 98, to US 160 east to US 163 north into Monument Valley, Utah 261 north, to US 191 north to Moab, Utah; 400 miles covered (2,620 since departure)
We do not cancel our reservations. Jackson Hole works its charms. A few hours each on our own eases things remarkably and gives Kate and me a second wind that carries us through the second half of our trip. We go to a rodeo in town where a conservative emcee tells offensive jokes and the crowd does not laugh, but when he asks how many people are traveling with their families, and people cheer, and how many people would never again take another road trip with their families, and the crowd roars, it is a good moment.
And now we are in Utah. Southern Utah is the color of heaven and for me is matched only by the colors of the Moroccan Sahara; here it is impossible not to be moved by the reds and the gold and the sand-colored land formations. But there is one important screening that has to take place within these next thousand miles.
Of the films in the festival, The Searchers is the only one I haven’t seen before. Kate takes the wheel and for the first time I sit in the back of the car and watch the film as we drive now across the northern border of Arizona toward Monument Valley. The landscape outside matches the landscape on the screen. Pia moves up front to make room for me, and perhaps it is just as well, because at the heart of John Ford’s film is a narrative about the abduction of a young white girl, Debbie (played by an eighteen-year-old Natalie Wood), by Comanche Indians and the ceaseless search for her by her uncle Ethan Edwards, played by John Wayne, and her adopted brother, Martin Pawley (played by Jeffrey Hunter), who is part Comanche himself.
If you read about the film, you’ll find directors you respect talking about its great complexity of character development, about its influence on the great films and filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s, and about how it is one of John Wayne’s greatest achievements. But to me, watching with my boys in the back and with my daughter sitting in front of me, it is hard to reconcile the profound racism portrayed in the film with its place in cinema history. When Ethan is asked to examine some white teenage girls who have been rescued from Comanche captivity to see if either is the missing Debbie, the actresses play their post-captivity trauma as lunacy. “It’s hard to believe they’re white,” the local authority tells Ethan. And Ethan says, in that familiar John Wayne drawl: “They ain’t white anymore. They’re Comanche.” When Debbie is finally located after years of searching, she’s become attached to her Comanche captor, Scar (or Cicatriz). Ethan wants to shoot her. Being with “a buck” is a crime so horrific that it justifies his niece’s murder.
I don’t try to salvage the experience. I don’t tell the children how iconic John Wayne is and was and what the masculinity he personified meant to the generation before my own. Instead I fixated on John Wayne’s loose jeans and oversized ass, and this became my way of rejecting the politics that ran from The Searchers right through the films of the early Reagan years, like Vacation. I think for a moment of explaining to the kids the anger that miscegenation caused in the generations that preceded their own (John Wayne was born ninety-eight years before Theo), and then of connecting it to that racist scene set in St. Louis that I wish were not in Vacation.
Finally, I have to ask myself, Why am I showing these films instead of making the kids look out at the landscape or allowing them to play games on their iPads? The idea had been that America was a road trip and that I could show them films that celebrated America the Beautiful. Instead I had screened films that celebrated America the Really Pretty Fucking Ugly.
THE CANNONBALL RUN
I-80 east from Omaha, Nebraska, via I-88 east to Evanston, Illinois; 470 miles covered (4,000 since departure)
The festival ends in Moab, Utah.Now we have to pay for all the long mornings in motel swimming pools and all the extended sunsets that had left us in Moab with only two nights to spare and 1,350 miles to go. We need one last film to get us through the home stretch.
The Cannonball Run was safe; how could it not be? We had watched Smokey and the Bandit earlier in the trip, which from my spot in the front seemed to be a venue for stunts, car chases, and a script so thick with CB-radio language that the kids needed subtitles. The Cannonball Run was directed by the same man: the stuntman Hal Needham, once the highest paid stuntman in the world, who had a knack for films that involved danger. All I could remember about The Cannonball Run was that I was thirteen years old when it came out, and now my oldest boy was about to turn thirteen.
On the last day of our road trip, the final 470 miles we have to cover to get from Omaha to Chicago allow for only one hour at rest stops if we are going to get Oliver to the first practice of a new baseball team back home, and while it doesn’t matter if we make it, somehow it is all that matters as we pull out of Nebraska. I even convince Pia that she should watch the last film in the festival, that she will like it. I promise.
Do you remember the cast of The Cannonball Run? It’s fun just to list the stars: Burt Reynolds, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Dom DeLuise, Farrah Fawcett, Roger Moore, Jackie Chan, Peter Fonda, Adrienne Barbeau, and Jamie Farr, with minor parts or cameos by Bianca Jagger, Terry Bradshaw, and Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder. How could we go wrong?
I should have learned by now that the coda always repeats the main theme.
From Pia’s perspective, the key moment in The Cannonball Run is when Farrah Fawcett is abducted by Burt Reynolds and Dom DeLuise and stuffed into the back of a van with an extremely creepy bug-eyed doctor played by Jack Elam, who threatens her with an enormous syringe filled with a sedative. Farrah Fawcett’s character—she has a name, but Burt Reynolds never asks for it, and tells her he’ll just call her “Beauty”—accepts her fate without too much struggle. “I’m sitting here having a conversation with somebody who kidnapped me,” she says. But she doesn’t really seem to mind, and leans back with her transparent tank top and takes off her glasses so as to better flutter her eyelashes at him.
“What did you expect, anyway?” he asks.
“A gang bang or something like that,” she says with a light chuckle and a coquettish look.
“A gang bang? We’re racers, not rapists,” Burt tells her. Chuckle chuckle, eyelash eyelash.
Pia, the budding feminist, all of ten years old, is having none of it. She launches into a diatribe about how terrible The Cannonball Run is, and how the woman was kidnapped and now doesn’t care. She is right. There is nothing to do but turn it off.
At the next rest stop we buy a couple of pre-owned DVDs from a bargain rack—something from the Harry Potter series and the sequel to Night at the Museum—and we drive the kids home in their own cultural moment.
I ask them to turn their headphones on so I don’t have to listen anymore. I still have a couple hundred miles to think. And I want to think of an answer to the question of how we, the generation that came of age in the 1970s and 1980s, can raise our children without exorcising the popular culture with which we grew up. It wasn’t at all my goal on this road trip to wonder how impossible our task is—those of us who care about our cultural heritage and who aren’t stuck to highbrow ideas about what American cinema history means. These Chevy Chase and Burt Reynolds movies can’t be the equivalents of the Elvis pictures and Johnny Mathis records and 1940s and ’50s films our parents made us watch, which seemed so antique and irrelevant, can they? We were the generation after civil rights and of the women’s movement—weren’t the films of our teenaged years supposed to be from a more enlightened time?
But as I race my family through half a thousand miles of the dry cornfields of Iowa and Illinois in yet another summer drought, bringing my children back to their lives of the present and the season to come, I look at that which receded in the rearview mirror. Those brittle stalks are not holding up well in the intense heat of an August without rain, and the fields are browned with stunted growth. A poor harvest is foretold. Is it too late to salvage this summer?