August 11, 1969: “Sick and…cross”…

…So let’s go to the Movies!

We are on Day 57 of Mom and her boys spending nearly every waking moment together. This the first time she cites any hint of acrimony (besides her ongoing trials with Sears). I hope it didn’t take too much of a toll.

Mike bought a “power sub” and we got back to Ithaca in the afternoon. Tim sick and the others cross.

With folks out of sorts, perhaps this is a good time to escape into an afternoon of movie watching.

Roadtripping Movies, Part 5: The Best

In the past few weeks I’ve revisited a few favorite films about roadtrips. You can click on the Movies & Books link to the left to find those posts. To catch you up, here are ones that have been covered:

  • About Schmidt
  • Almost Famous
  • Beavis and Butthead Do America
  • The Blues Brothers
  • Cannonball Run
  • Duel
  • Dumb and Dumber
  • Flirting with Disaster
  • The Great Race
  • The Hangover
  • Harold and Kumar go to White Castle
  • The Hitcher
  • It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World
  • Little Miss Sunshine
  • Motorcycle Diaries
  • O Brother Where art Thou?
  • The Roadtrip
  • Sideways
  • Smokey & the Bandit
  • The Sure Thing
  • Thelma & Louise
  • Tommy Boy
  • Y Tu Mama Tambien

Choosing my favorites was pretty easy, once I laid out a list of the 25-30 to be included. The Top 3 were there all along.

5. “Easy Rider” 1969

This is a no-brainer, like listing out the best presidents: George Washington just shows up there. I get that he was a statesman, a brilliant politician and a war hero. But he was also a bit of a pretentious bore, even by that era’s standards. It’s only when he meets up with Jack Nicholson do things get interesting. That applies to pretty much everything. Extra credit for this film’s release coinciding with our roadtrip. As you might remember from our July escapades, we too communed with some hippies.

Watch this trailer. Just do it.

4. “Rain Man” 1988

This one was late to the list, and I had a hard time writing commentary about it. It’s a good movie, maybe a little too sentimental in places. For sure, the road, car and destination are all central to the plot. So why doesn’t this feel like a roadtrip? Maybe this one looks great through the windshield, but you don’t smell the fuel or feel the pavement.

Or perhaps the Oscar-winning performances overshadow the simple romance of a roadtrip. It won four of the biggies (best picture, actor, director, screenplay). I don’t think the other 20 or so movies listed in this blog have four Oscar between them. For sure: “Kmart sucks.”

Wild Card: “The Shawshank Redemption” 1994

Wait, what? But they were in prison the whole time! Hear me out. The lure of the road is often born of routine and boredom, of feeling confined and trapped. In the case of Andy and Red, they had been hobbled for 30 years. Great quote from Red, riffing on Andy’s love of rocks: “Geology is the study of pressure and time. That’s all it really takes. Pressure and time.” What happens once that pressure escapes?

Andy “squares” his accounts and hits the great, wide open road — with the top down and the wind in his hair — and beelines to the Pacific coast of Mexico. Red follows a few years behind him, going Greyhound with the windows open and the sun in his face. They are delivered to Eden, and we want it to last forever.

“You get busy living, or you getting busy dying. That’s goddamn right.”

Shawshank might be the most perfect of roadtrip films.

3. “Midnight Run” 1988

In addition to this being among the best roadtrip movies ever, it’s also one of the best buddy pics as well. The chemistry between DeNiro and Grodin is surprisingly rich; thank God they didn’t try to reprise. Instead this is a one-off piece of pure fun, great storytelling and brilliant roadtripping from coast to coast. Final scene: Deniro stands on the curb at LAX, newly rich but unable to get a ride, “Looks like I’m walkin’!”

How they made a 2-minute trailer without an expletive is beyond me.

2. “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” 1987

Another buddy pic as the foundation of a roadtrip, this time with two legendary comedy acting who didn’t need to stretch to make this work. Five or six unforgettable sequences and lines (e.g., “Those aren’t pillows!”), as well as direction by John Hughes, helps this films stand up to time. In fact, we screened it last Thanksgiving for a multi-generational audience to rapt attention — until the last scene. In its Hughes-ian way of blending warm light, longing looks and an alt-80s ballad, it always felt a bit much. The youngsters agreed, groaning “that’s pretty cheesy.” Okay, but Neal and Del deserved some cheese.

1. “National Lampoon’s Vacation” 1983

Two reasons for calling this the #1 roadtrip film: It’s about a family, as opposed to a buddy film, and it aspires to be no more than a silly roadtrip film — no lessons, no mission, no purpose. Clark & Co. just want to ride rides at their favorite amusement park. Along the way they encounter a series of unpredictable but mostly familiar tropes: urban crime, crazy extended families, an empty dog leash on the bumper, a mad aunt’s corpse tied to the roof of the car, urine-soaked cheese sandwiches, hot blondes in convertibles, and so on.

Written by John Hughes and directed by Harold Ramis, the film colors generations of family roadtrips with the legacy of the Griswolds, the magical allure of Walley World, and the trusty and reliable Family Truckster.

August 5, 1969: The ER!

Mike snorting and snuffling. Ran into rain in Omaha (yesterday). Crossed the Mississippi. Camped near Utica, Illinois. Tim fished. Mike swam. Had to take him to St. Mary’s LaSalle emergency room for his ears.

Marge Binder, August 5, 1969

We are officially back east, now that we’ve crossed the Mississippi into Illinois. Even with the typical daily activities of Tim fishing and Mike swimming (where was I? Knitting?), Mike also found time to snort, snuffle and eventually visit the ER. I would agree that this post’s headline is a little sensational for an ear ache, but this is — shockingly — the only ER visit cited on the entire trip.

Below is a postcard of the hospital in La Salle, Illinois back when people sent postcards of hospitals they visited. Actually, my brother Mike would have been a prolific mailer (sorry, Miko!).

August 2, 1969: “…head under water…”

Was going sightseeing but discovered a hunk of the trailer tire tread missing when I washed it so had to get a new one. Doug getting his head under water. Tim killed a scarlet king snake.

Marge Binder, August 2, 1969

In a place like this, I know Mom got us out and about on the adventure trail, especially on a Saturday. On this day, thought, it appears she had to first deal with a missing “hunk of trailer tire tread.” That sounds bad and I’m positive that I was of absolutely no use in righting the matter.

This picture appears to have been taken later than 1969. My eyebrows were finally started to fill out.

Maw also writes about me getting my head under water. I don’t know if she meant that this was the first time. My memory is that it happened much earlier in this trip, hence all the subsequent swimming. But I didn’t memorialize it in writing, so I guess I lose in the history books.

Here’s my take, corroborated (and much embellished) by Tim over the years: There was a boat ramp covered to turtle poop. We three were cavorting about in the shallow, as we did, and I was strutting along, chattering some smack. And then I stepped off the side of the ramp and “PLOOP!” I was under water. Tim recalled that when I went silent he turned to see only a little tuft of dark hair bobbing on the surface. Then I emerged, lungs gasping at full born-again vigor.

No matter when it actually occurred, I can still feel the sensation: frigid and foreign immersion. Because we glasses-wearing Binders were practically blind when we swam, all I saw was darkness and little bubbles. I wasn’t scared; I think I was more stunned by my atmosphere changing so completely and abruptly. At some point, probably about a second in, I chose to go back to the life I had above the surface, and so I flailed about in whatever madness might hasten my return.

Let’s do that again!

July 31, 1969: A Kid Drowned!

You can see (kind of) that much of the interstate construction was not complete in this area of the country.

Also, I spoke with Mom today, and she recalled that the “mountain stream” she describes here made her uneasy. She’d seen flooding before and she worried that, because we were perched on a bend, just a bit of a rise might wipe away our tent.

More Wyoming then Colorado—short day for a change. Set up on rocky ground next to a mountain stream at Eldorado Springs. Mike & Doug swam in a big pool there and saw a drowning.

Marge Binder, July 31, 1969
This appears to be a recent photo of the “nationally known swimming pool,” and it still has a diving board!

This episode I (think I) remember. Great pool, lots of kids, lots of activity, Mike and me splashing about. And then everything stopped. Silence. Something weird was going on.

It’s one of those memories, like the Redwoods and “Bomb Cambodia” a few weeks back, where I might be melding it with others. As I recall, this sad occasion is when Mom offered the advice: Don’t swim for an hour after eating. If it did happen like this, it was brilliant of her, because I still subscribe to that advice today.

Mom picked a great place to spend a few days (note the three Ws in the ad below; that’s Woodall’s highest rating!). I don’t remember anything else, but her diary lists out Mike’s allergy shots, shopping and some car maintenance. I have to think there was also plenty of hiking, playing and other things that make childhood childhood in a place like Colorado.

Sorry for that kid though.

I love that the ad for the campground welcomes “wagons.” I’m picturing a wagon train emerging Brigadoon-style from a dust storm on the prairie and finding this place most welcoming. Act II: Everyone is strung out on “modern restrooms” and “sanitary.” Act III: We’re staying.

Also, as I mentioned above, the place had a “nationally known pool.” Gotta say, the only other that can boast that is the Reflecting Pool in DC. I don’t recommend diving.

July 30, 1969: Pedal to the Metal

Drove across Wyoming all day and camped at a barren spot outside Rawlins. Took Mike to swim in the town pool. Found some more pine cones.

Marge Binder, July 30, 1969

Close observers might have noticed that Mom is hauling butt back east. 370 yesterday, 352 miles today.

What better time to revisit some roadtrip movie classics! We started all this back on July 25 with some introductory fluff and five roadtrip films that led nowhere. On the 27th, I rolled out a few of the crash-worthiest (in terms of body count, both human and auto). So far we’ve covered:

  • About Schmidt
  • Almost Famous
  • The Blues Brothers
  • Duel
  • The Great Race
  • The Hitcher
  • Sideways
  • Smokey & the Bandit
  • Thelma & Louise
  • Tommy Boy

Since Mom is driving us across Wyoming today, minus 50 years, how about we look at some roadtrip movies that are flat, dry and forgettable.

Okay, okay, there is some art in here, as well as some teenage angst, ribald college humor, forbidden romance, lepers and subtitles. Herewith…

Roadtrip Movies, Part 3: A Hodgepodge

“Little Miss Sunshine” 2006

I forgot all about this one. Greg Kinnear does that to me. It’s a fun little ditty that features Steve Carrell as a suicidal Proust scholar and Alan Arkin as an elderly heroin snorter. They, along with Tony Collette and Abigail Breslin, pilot a VW van to a kids’ beauty pageant. Some critics decried its undertones of child pornography and pedophilia. As I write this paragraph, I wonder how I could possibly have forgotten about this movie.

“O Brother, Where Art Thou” 2000

Is this really a roadtrip movie? I say yes. It’s a quest to get somewhere, loosely based on The Odyssey (which is not a roadtrip, per se). Updated for the 20th Century, the characters make their way across the South availing themselves of trains, trucks and cars, including one driven by Baby Face Nelson. Admittedly, I am biased to this Cohen Brothers’ opus; it’s one of those movies that I will watch any time, no matter where in the film I might tune in. Fun, smart, soulful, surprising and occasionally profane.

“Motorcycle Diaries” 2004

There are some nice moments in here, fueled by what makes a youthful roadtrip so thrilling — freedom, the open road, beauty and mystery. I know it centered on a young Che Guevara; that’s all I really, truly remember of it. And there were lepers.

“Y Tu Mamá También” 2001

NSFW

Another subtitled film that I mostly remember because I watched it in an air-conditioned art house in NYC that I frequented on many summer days. It’s rather saucy with an art-house-appropriate level of sexual tension and exploration. Still, it’s no “Little Miss Sunshine.”

“Road Trip” 2000

Tom Green is on the poster so I very nearly left it off the list. The title, though, made that hard to do. My advice: if this happens to come on your screen while you find yourself in traction, and the remote is out of reach, go ahead and give it a watch. It’s got some laughs.

“The Sure Thing” 1985

This epitomizes the 80s teen rom-com; interpret that for yourself. What’s at stake, initially, is unabashed prurience (in the visage of Nicolette Sheridan). That was aok back then. Of course we will grow and learn along the way, conveyed most acutely by a mirthful — and angst-sprinkled — three-minute montage, set to one of the decades most tender songs. (I actually don’t remember if that happens in this film, but how else would we have learned and grown?) Warning: John Cusack. Even so, it’s directed by Rob Reiner and the soundtrack is pure 80s bliss.

July 28, 1969: Eastward Ho!

From Paradise to Farewell, with a Splash of Pee.

Doug kicked over a full [pee] can. Packed and drove across Oregon all day. Camped at Farewell Bend State Park on the Snake River. Kids swam and fished but it was a miserable site—slept in the car because of wind.

Marge Binder, July 28, 1969

‘Twould appear from Mom’s musings that I might have caused the toppling of a full jar of urine in the tent. I don’t remember that, and I’m not copping to it. When you’re the youngest, a lot of bad stuff gets pinned on you. It’s a real burden, it is.

If Mom’s account is true, I’m sure I had a reason.

“Es mejor que nada, baby!” Part 2 (or more likely Part 54)

Mom is not one to complain. Especially after six weeks on the road with three boys, one of whom recently tipped over the pee jar (or was unjustly implicated). So for Mom to call this campground a “miserable site” makes it clear: It must have been a new low.

Camping in a tent is typically not that comfortable. I haven’t done it in a while so I don’t know what tent innovations have been made. Back then, our tent’s floor, made of some sort of thin poly-something (cancerous? we’ll see), took on the contours of what was directly underneath. If it was jagged rocks, so was the floor. Concrete begat concrete. We had cotton/flannel sleeping bags that provided warmth, but not much in the way of support, aeration or water resistance.

I don’t remember this, but Mom recently assured me that we also employed air mattresses, inflated using the Chevy’s engine. She conceded, though, by morning the mattresses had deflated.

In the case of Farewell Bend, turns out we slept in the car anyway, due to the weather. For Maw, sleeping in the car with three boys must have been a whole ‘nother level of restful bliss.

The above photo is likely NOT the Farewell Bend misery that Mom describes. I think she’d actually consider this a better-than-many situation — flat concrete slab, a garden bed, and there was an outhouse right there!

I know I’ve gone soft, but every time I look at this photo, my mind conjures up the lobby bar at any W or JW.

July 27, 1969: Drive Safely!

Photo credit here

Waited for Tim & Doug to return from fishing. Drove to Jo’s and we went to the beach for a picnic—2 hours plus drive but it was beautiful. Saw 2 accidents on the way home. Tim stayed at camp and caught several more large bass.

Marge Binder, July 27, 1969

This is the first time Mom mentions car accidents along the way. The data in the chart below shows that Americans are driving almost 3-times the miles we were in 1969, and traffic deaths are less than half of what they were. Some of the other numbers aren’t as encouraging. For more happiness, check out the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s website.

Some other fun facts: When it comes to the deadliest states for highway travel, you might want to avoid South Carolina and Mississippi. But I probably didn’t have to tell you to avoid those places. You’ll drive more miles without dying in a fiery collision in Minnesota and Massachusetts.

Bliss Sign

For cocktail chatter, mention Henry Bliss, the first person killed by a motor vehicle in the US. There is a plaque at 74th and CPW in New York City to commemorate the fateful moment when he stepped off a street car and into the path of a taxi in 1899.


Roadtrip Movies: Part 2

In the post two days ago, I introduced the first in a series recounting the best films about roadtrips. Scroll back to check out some of my Siskel & Ebert psycho babble, the definition of a roadtrip film and some pointers from Aaron Sorkin. You can also review my list of five movies in which the roadtrip leads nowhere.

Given today’s blog topic “Drive Safely,” I thought it’d be fitting to take a look at roadtrip films with a body count — auto bodies and otherwise. Herewith…

Honorable Mentions: Movies with a Body Count — Automotive and Otherwise

“The Blues Brothers” 1980

It didn’t even occur to me to include this when I jotted down a list of roadtrip films a few months back. That might be for two reasons: 1) Is this a roadtrip or a musical? Or both? Are there any other roadtrip musicals? …and 2) the forward momentum of this film is interrupted every few minutes by a car crash of epic proportions. It’s like a Greek tragedy on wheels in Chicagoland: their journey starts at the gates of a Joliet jail and careens through a shopping mall, diners, churches and orphanages, a Nazi rally, Bob’s Country Bunker, Chicago’s North Side and more. Ultimately, in good Greek roadtrip form, the Brothers get themselves to the Cook County Assessor’s Office (near that new Picasso) to pay the back taxes for the Penguin’s orphanage. Mission (from God) accomplished. And then they go back to jail. Along the way, we meet Aretha, Ray Charles, James Brown, Cab Calloway, John Candy, an armed and dangerous Carrie Fisher, Twiggy, as well as cameos by Steven Spielberg and Frank Oz. Next time you see me, ask me this: “Orange whip? Orange whip?” Do it.

“Duel” 1971

It can’t be easy to make a full-length feature about a truck chasing a car, especially when neither of them is a Transformer. But if you can make it really suspenseful and scary though, you deserve a long and storied Hollywood career. This was Steven Spielberg’s directorial debut, and the rest is history.

“The Great Race” 1965

This trailer didn’t age well!

I had this one filed under Screwball, but I will play it here. Jack Lemmon, Peter Falk, Natalie Wood and an ensemble of greats race from New York to Paris — the long way — and encounter a slew of smoky sabotage and relentless silliness, icy peril and epic pie fights. It has no reason to exist except for pure fun and good old fashioned vengeance. Professor Fate’s “Push the button, Max!” became one of the family’s random references in my youth.

“The Hitcher” 1986

What happens when C. Thomas Howell stops to give Rutger Hauer a lift in the middle of nowhere in the dead of night? Answer: I redouble my resolve to never pick up a hitchhiker. This one had an such an exquisite sinister appeal and a shocking body count, but I don’t remember how many of them were cars. RIP Rutger.

“Smokey & the Bandit” 1977

Great trailer!

To a nerdy 7th grader with horn-rim glasses, braces, acne and b.o., the Bandit was the idol of escapist idols. This film has everything: Burt Reynolds, a Trans-Am, CB radios, bootleg beer, a ride-along basset hound and lots of good-natured traffic violations and non-life-threatening vehicular pile-ups. It’s actually a pretty tight film – go fetch beer and come back —  but it somehow has room for Sally Field, Jackie Gleason, Paul Williams and a gratuitous romp in the woods set to a Jerry Reed country ballad. I watched it again recently and damn if it doesn’t hold up after 40 years, if you can forgive some wince-inducing reminders of 70s culture.


And now, let’s drop this morbidity at the next exit and get on with our life-affirming adventure. Eastword ho!