What Are the Best Road Movies? Talk of the Nation hits the open road in another installment of the summer movie festival with listener nominees for Best Road movie.
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What Are the Best Road Movies?

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What Are the Best Road Movies?

What Are the Best Road Movies?

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NEAL CONAN, host:

And finally we bring you the TALK OF THE NATION's summer movie festival. Even before the interstate highway system, there was the all-American road movie.

(Soundbite from movie, It Happened One Night)

Ms. CLAUDETTE COLBERT (Actress): (As Ellie Andrews) I'll stop a car, and I won't use my thumb.

Mr. CLARK GABLE (Actor): (As Peter Warne) What are you going to do?

Ms. COLBERT: It's a system all my own.

(Soundbite of tires screeching)

CONAN: A flash of thigh always worked for Claudette Colbert. On the big screen the open road is home to outlaws, nagging in-laws, and it must - let me emphasize - must have a killer soundtrack. What's your favorite road trip movie and why? Our number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. E-mail us:

As always we're joined by Murray Horwitz, director and CEO of the American Film Institute Silver Theater and Cultural Center here in the Washington area. And he's with us here in Studio 3A. Murray, how you doing?

Mr. MURRAY HORWITZ (COO, American Film Institute Silver Theater and Cultural Center): I'm doing great and I've got a full tank today.

CONAN: You're ready to put the pedal to the metal? All right. Let's get through all of these right now. We've got lots of movies with driving scenes. How do you define a road movie?

Mr. HORWITZ: Well, believe me it is not the home video of when we took the kids to Sea World. Honest. That's not my favorite road movie. But the truth of the matter is these - definitions are good. Movies and cars and, not surprisingly, good paved roads started at roughly the same time in America, Neal.

So like movies and the road kind of grew up together and it's part of an American literary tradition where the road is really a character. If you think of the water roads that appear in Huckleberry Finn, where the river's a character. A book that I haven't read but I understand has something to recommend it, Moby Dick where the sea is quite something.

The road kind of took on these characteristics. So we're talking - it's a very broad category. There are reasons for that, but we're not talking about quest movies here. So that the Lord of the Rings and…

CONAN: Well, let me ask another question, though. Does it count - do there have to be cars? I mean is Red River a road movie?

Mr. HORWITZ: Well, that's a very good question. I would say no, because that's the road. And also, probably my favorite of favorites that really started the formula in many ways, as he did with many filmmaking innovations, is Buster Keaton's The General, which is a railroad movie. But a lot of the conventions are - you know, like having dinner inside while somebody's stealing your vehicle outside, the romance, all that. It shows up in The General. So I'm liberal enough to include other vehicles.

CONAN: All right. So let's get some listeners involved in this conversation. Let's talk to Rachel. Rachel's with us from Anchorage in Alaska.

RACHEL (CALLER): Hello.

CONAN: Hello, Rachel.

RACHEL: How are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

RACHEL: Good. Well, I narrowed it down to two, but I think one might be considered a quest, so I'm not sure if it's going to count. But I narrowed it down to Powwow Highway and also Thelma and Louise.

Mr. HORWITZ: Well, tell me a little bit about Powwow Highway, Rachel. Because that's one that's new on me.

RACHEL: Ok. It's - I think it was made in the ‘70s and it's a Native American film about two gentleman on the road, but it's almost a questy kind of thing where one of them - Gary Farmer is one of the actors who…

Mr. HORWITZ: I know this. Yes this is…

RACHEL: He finds his totems on the way.

Mr. HORWITZ: This is actually from the late ‘80s.

RACHEL: Late ‘80s, ok.

Mr. HORWITZ: Right. He goes on this vision quest to find enlightenment, right. And meets this Indian activist. I think that the road's involved in that, someway, but when you mentioned Thelma and Louise you're really talking about one of the iconic road movies.

CONAN: And I'm glad you…

RACHEL: It is a classic road movie.

CONAN: And I'm glad you defined the other one as the quest movie, because Thelma and Louise had a lot going for it but let's not think of it as a quest movie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RACHEL: They're not really on a…

(Soundbite of movie, Thelma and Louise)

(Soundbite of train)

Ms. GEENA DAVIS (Actress): (As Thelma Yvonne Dickinson) You want to go to Mexico from Oklahoma, but you don't want to go through Texas?

Ms. SUSAN SARANDON (Actress): (As Louise Elizabeth Sawyer) Thelma, you know how I feel about Texas. We're not going that way.

Ms. DAVIS (As Thelma): Yeah I know, Louise, but we're running for our lives. I mean, can't you make an exception? I mean look at this map. The only between Oklahoma and Mexico is Texas, look.

CONAN: And managed to work the railroad in there as well. Rachel, why do you like Thelma and Louise?

RACHEL: I think it's - well first of all, I love the car. And I love the friendship, how the friendship develops and how they move through, you know, crisis and how they're constantly problem-solving and discovering new ways to get through. And it's just a powerful movie.

CONAN: What they did to the ex-husband, that was problem-solving.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RACHEL: That was problem-solving.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RACHEL: It's always creative, problem-solving.

Mr. HORWITZ: Well, what you say about discovery I think is exactly right. I mean, so much of American art has to do with space, you know, with distance and wide - the vast expanses. And so there are a lot of movies about sort of discovering America - search-for-America movies. But also, search-for-identity movies, with independence, and freedom, and characters - or a character -against the system in some way.

RACHEL: Yeah.

CONAN: All right. Rachel, thanks very much for the call.

RACHEL: Thanks so much.

CONAN: I guess that independence and making a statement and identity, all of that could be summed up - we got an e-mail here from Dustin Grey(ph) who listens to WCPN and lives in Worcester, Ohio - and he says without question Easy Rider. Peter Fonda redefined cool. And even though it's my all-time favorite, the ending still breaks my heart every time.

(Soundbite of movie, Easy Rider)

Mr. JACK NICHOLSON (Actor): (As George Hanson) What you represent to them is freedom.

Mr. DENNIS HOPPER (Actor): (As Billy): What the hell is wrong with freedom, man? That's what it's all about.

Mr. NICHOLSON: (As George Hanson) Oh yeah, that's right. That's what it's all about, all right. But talking about it and being it, that's two different things. I mean, it's real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace.

Mr. HORWITZ: Well that's the other icon.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORWITZ: Easy Rider, and you mentioned the soundtracks, Neal.

CONAN: Yes.

Mr. HORWITZ: I mean, for some reason music has a lot to do with it. There are -I think of the South-American/American co-production Motorcycle Diaries, and of course this one, Easy Rider, which has Steppenwolf and other rock-and-roll soundtrack… And also there's a terrific road movie based on Woody Guthrie's autobiography, Bound for Glory, in which music is…

CONAN: Amazingly they managed to work the music in.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's get Kirk(ph) on the line. Kirk is calling us from Beaverton in Oregon.

KIRK (Caller): Hi there.

CONAN: Hi, Kirk.

KIRK: It's the Road Warrior, with Mel Gibson.

CONAN: Ooh, Mad Max. It's got cars, it's got road, it's got to be a road movie, Murray.

Mr. HORWITZ: That's right, and it really is. And what's interesting about it is there aren't a lot of road movies that are in the future and apocalyptic, but it's about, you know, a guy and his car in a certain way.

KIRK: Yeah, and he covers it, yeah.

CONAN: And a lot of the action happens exactly on the road.

Mr. HORWITZ: Yup, absolutely, including one of the great chase scenes of all time.

CONAN: Great chase scenes of all time. Anyway, Kirk, thanks very much for that.

KIRK: Thank you.

CONAN: And let's see if we can get - this is Joe on the line. Joe's calling us from Dover, Tennessee.

JOE (Caller): Hi. Without doubt it's Planes, Trains & Automobiles.

CONAN: Oh, what makes you think of that one?

JOE: Oh, I mean it's just - you have every mode of transportation possible and, you know, everybody loves to laugh. And that movie will make you laugh, it'll make you cry. It gives you every emotion, every mode of transportation. It's the best road movie without a doubt.

CONAN: And it turns out that even the sleeping scenes are pretty good. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of movie, Planes, Trains & Automobiles)

Mr. STEVE MARTIN (Actor): (As Neal Page) Why are you holding my hand? Where's your other hand?

Mr. JOHN CANDY (Actor): (As Del Griffith) Between two pillows.

Mr. MARTIN: (As Page) Those aren't pillows.

(Soundbite of scream)

CONAN: And it's amazing. That's just one of the many great scenes, Joe, in Planes, Trains & Automobiles.

JOE: There are a hundred of them.

Mr. HORWITZ: And Joe, I'm glad that you brought it up, because Planes, Trains & Automobiles I think we're all a little fonder of than something - well, I've got this little sub-genre that I call the puerile comedies genre.

CONAN: How could you come up with a title like that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORWITZ: Even though some of them are great, fun movies, the things like Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, and I would say the Bing Crosby-Bob Hope-Dorothy Lamour road movies - Morocco, Singapore, Zanzibar, you name it - and the National Lampoon Vacation movies, which fall into that category, and the road as you point out, Joe, comes up with all kinds of opportunities for laughter.

JOE: Oh absolutely, absolutely. But there is one other movie I'd like to mention. It doesn't involve laughter, but it's a wonderful movie. It's from the late 1990s, and it - the lady - Rachel, I believe her name was, that called a minute ago and was mentioning Native Americans. Another movie I'd like to mention is Smoke Signals.

Mr. HORWITZ: Right. It's a Chris Eyre movie, it's from 1998, and it's - right. These are Coeur d' Alene Indians, and they travel - we go from Idaho from Arizona, I think.

JOE: Right.

Mr. HORWITZ: To get one of theirs' dead father, and again it's a search for themselves, too. They discover their identity along the way. It's a beautiful little bittersweet movie.

JOE: A wonderful movie. It is, it really is.

Mr. HORWITZ: Thanks for mentioning it.

JOE: No, thank you.

CONAN: And thanks for the call, Joe. Again, if you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255. E-mail is talk@npr.org, and you mention in there the Vacation movies, the National Lampoon Vacation movies, which I think still the first is the best.

(Soundbite of movie, Vacation)

Mr. CHEVY CHASE (Actor): (As Clark Griswold) Well, I was thinking about shooting over to 54 and zipping down to Liberal.

Ms. BEVERLY D'ANGELO (Actress): (As Ellen Griswold) What for?

Mr. CHASE: (As Clark) The house of mud.

Mr. ANTHONY MICHAEL HALL (Actor): (As Russell Rusty Griswold) What's the house of mud?

Mr. CHASE: (As Clark) It's only the largest free-standing mud dwelling every built, that's all.

Ms. D'ANGELO: (As Ellen Griswold) Clark, let's just skip the house of mud. I think Dodge City was enough for one day.

Mr. CHASE: (As Clark) It's living history, Ellen.

CONAN: It's living history, Ellen.

Mr. HORWITZ: Oh, God. I think the reason I do feel the way I do about those movies is they bear an incredible resemblance to my home videos of taking the kids to SeaWorld.

CONAN: Here's a couple of e-mails. We got this from Pamela in Guthrie, Colorado. My 15-year-old daughter's favorite is Road to Morocco with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope because they're both part of and commenting on the movie, unlike some of the other Bing-and-Bob pairings. And it has a plot, she says, unlike some of the other Bing-and-Bob pairings

Mr. HORWITZ: True.

CONAN: And a slap-stick and verbal humor and a talking camel. And I do think Dorothy Lamour does show up in this.

Mr. HORWITZ: I think that's right - and the music. I mean, there's some incredible…

CONAN: (Singing) We're on the road…

Mr. HORWITZ: To Morocco, but also - but Beautiful, I think, was introduced in the Road to Rio. I mean, there are some really first-rate songs that come out of those movies.

CONAN: I'm trying to think of the song - God, Johnny Mathis re-did it later -it'll come to me, it'll come to me. But I think it's from that movie.

Mr. HORWITZ: Really.

CONAN: Anyway, here's another e-mail. Two For the Road with Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney - we could not find a copy of this, we tried.

Mr. HORWITZ: It's one of your favorites, right?

CONAN: Yes indeed, one of my wife's and mine first date. We've been married for 38 years. It has been a wonderful journey.

Mr. HORWITZ: And a really sophisticated - and the other thing about that is the road - we think of the road movie as a quintessentially American form, and it is, almost like a Western, and you know when we see a European western…

CONAN: Moonlight Becomes You.

Mr. HORWITZ: Oh Moonlight Becomes - it is - I don't know if it's from that one, but it's one of the road movies. Good for you.

CONAN: It goes with your hair.

Mr. HORWITZ: I only remember Jonathan Winters' wonderful parody of a CPA singing Moonlight Becomes You.

CONAN: …certainly know the right thing to wear. Now I'm remembering all the lyrics. This is insane. Anyway, let's get another caller on the line. This is Peter. Peter's calling us from Kansas City.

PETER (Caller): Hi there. I just saw one of my favorite road movies last night, and that's Little Miss Sunshine. My wife and I did exactly the same thing, took the same trip, took our daughter to the same pageant, and although she didn't win, she came off pretty well. The only difference is we didn't have a dysfunctional family and a broken-down micro-bus.

Mr. HORWITZ: I was going to say I hope you didn't do it in the same vehicle, that's all…

PETER: No, no we didn't.

CONAN: And it must've been tough on Grandpa.

PETER: Same trip.

Mr. HORWITZ: Yeah, and right. Not the same superannuated heroine addict.

CONAN: Well, let's listen to a clip from the currently available - go out on a screen and watch it - Little Miss Sunshine.

PETER: Thank you, that's a good movie.

(Soundbite of movie, Little Miss Sunshine)

Ms. ABIGAIL BRESLIN (Actress): (As Olive) I don't want to be a loser.

Mr. ALAN ARKIN (Actor): (As Grandpa) You're not a loser. Where'd you get the idea you're a loser?

Ms. BRESLIN: (As Olive) Because dad hates losers.

Mr. ARKIN: (As Grandpa) Whoa, whoa, whoa. Back up a minute. You know what a loser it? A real loser is somebody that's so afraid of not winning they don't even try. Now you're trying, right?

Ms. BRESLIN: (As Olive): Yeah.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. HORWITZ: It's just - it's really terrific. We've been showing it at the AFI Silver for weeks, and it looks like it's going to run for weeks more. And it brings up an important point. There was a highly honored film from a couple of years ago - it was at the Oscars last year - Sideways, which is really a road movie.

CONAN: It is a road movie.

Mr. HORWITZ: And you know, there were - a lot of road movies really proliferated in the 60s and 70s, you said even before the interstate system. But it was using the road for that kind of rebellion thing. But also it's the era when the interstate system is complete and really becomes a real factor in American life.

CONAN: We're talking about the annual summer film festival here at TALK OF THE NATION. Our guest is Murray Horwitz of the AFI's Silver Theater in the Washington area. If you'd like to continue this conversation online and read some of the e-mails that have come in, you can go to the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org, and this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line, and this is Bruce, Bruce with us from El Dorado, in Kansas.

BRUCE (Caller): Hello there.

CONAN: Hi.

BRUCE: Hey, I love your show.

CONAN: Thank you.

BRUCE: I just caught a movie the other day flipping channels called The Long, Long Trailer with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. And I laughed at that movie, it was hilarious.

CONAN: The Long, Long Trailer. You know, it somehow has escaped me. Murray, have you seen it?

Mr. HORWITZ: No, and again, this is one of the - it's from 1954. I have not seen it, and it was actually when they were Lucy and Ricky, you know when it was I Love Lucy. And it's a honeymoon that they take, and I think the comedy's probably just as much about the long trailer that they're in - am I right, Bruce? Or is it about the road?

CONAN: I think I've seen clips from this. They're trying to take it down a mountain road?

BRUCE: Yes. She was collecting rocks and had so many rocks in the trailer they couldn't make it over the pass. They told her she had to get rid of the rocks, and she just hid them all over that trailer. There was rocks all over that trailer. I had to laugh. It was hilarious.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Bruce.

BRUCE: Sure.

CONAN: And let's think about this, Murray. Who's going to get the Murray award?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORWITZ: Well, I mean, I mentioned The General. You played a clip from maybe my favorite, which is It Happened One Night.

CONAN: That's a great movie.

Mr. HORWITZ: Which is terrific. But there are also - I think in terms of drama one that we haven't mentioned, and the king of all American roads is the Lincoln Highway, Route 66, and The Grapes of Wrath may be the ruler of all road movies.

CONAN: And that's a little hard to argue with. You know, it's, you know…

Mr. HORWITZ: I try to pre-emptive here, Neal.

CONAN: Well there is - you mentioned though the problems of expressing that rebellion, and there's probably no more road movie that did that better than Marlon Brando in The Wild One.

(Soundbite of movie, The Wild One)

Mr. MARLON BRANDO (Actor): (As Johnny Strabler) The bunch gets together after all week, it builds up. You just - the idea is to have a ball. And if you're going to stay cool, you've got to wail. You've got to put something (unintelligible), you've got to make some jive, don't you know what I'm talking about?

CONAN: Yes, we know what you're talking about, Marlon, we know what you're talking about.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: We always did. But there are so many others that are out there every year, and as we say, Little Miss Sunshine was out there even as we speak, and oddly enough we had that clip recycled from last week when we didn't play it in best and worst child actors.

Mr. HORWITZ: Right. It's - and The Wild One is maybe a good example - there's also a genre that I like, since you're asking for my opinion, of a genre of road movies where nothing happens. So there are two movies I'm really fond of. One of them is a John Schlesinger film from about 1969, I think, called Honky Tonk Freeway, where they're stuck, and they can't go anywhere. And the other is one of my favorites of all time, which is a Laurel and Hardy two-reeler. It's a silent movie called Two Tars, where they are sailors on leave with two girls and a couple of bottles of hooch, and they just get - they get into the mother of all traffic jams. It's hysterical.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: And I'll just go back to a favorite I've mentioned in another context, Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels.

Mr. HORWITZ: Yes indeed.

CONAN: Murray Horwitz, director and COO of American Film Institute's Silver Theater and Cultural Center. We'd also like to give special thanks to Maria Assua(ph) and Laura Donnelly(ph) from AFI for their help today. Murray will be back with us next week, the last in our series this year. E-mail us now with your nominees for the movie you've seen more than any other movie you've ever seen. Got it? We'll see you next week. Murray, thanks very much.

Mr. HORWITZ: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: I'm Neal Conan, this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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