August 3, 1969: Bulldogging and more

Packed up and drove across Colorado and Nebraska. Stopped at Gothenburg and Mike swam in the municipal pool. Tim fished. He is breaking out with poison something again. Watched men practicing bull dogging.

Marge Binder, August 3, 1969

Mike swam. Tim fished and got “poison something” again. I’m not accounted for, so I’ll assume I was sold to the rodeo to become a bulldogging master. I guess that didn’t work out.

Bulldogging is steer wrestling; duh. If you’d like to learn more about the sport, or even how to become a bulldogger, click here.

Roadtrip Movies, Part 4

The bulldogging got me thinking about roadtrip movies again. Both are very American institutions. This correlation reminded me of the rodeo scene from “Borat…” but I’m not making that part of the official record. It is one funny movie though.

Let’s consider a few of the most fun roadtrip films out there. Sure, movies like “The Blues Brothers” and “Smokey…” are really fun, but I cited them for (auto) body count a few days ago. I also considered “Beavis and Butthead Do America” and “Harold and Kumar go to White Castle.” Both fun, in their way, but…

Herewith…

Honorable Mentions: Fun Roadtrip Films

Do yourself a favor: Watch the accompanying trailers and clips.

“It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World” 1963

Screwball comedy meets American greed meets the splendor of the open road as an ensemble cast from the 50s and 60s races to find hidden treasure (350 large!) in the desert. Spencer Tracy surrounds himself with the likes of Jonathan Winters, Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Ethel Merman and so many other legends; that alone is worth your time. (Speaking of time, the original cut was three and a half hours long!)

“Cannonball Run” 1981

It’s an homage to the classic ensemble road films like the one above, with an all-star, odd-ball cast including Roger Moore, Farrah Fawcett, Mel Tillis, Dean Martin and of course, Burt Reynolds and Dom D. What makes it extra-special: it opened on June 19, 1981 — the same day as “Superman II” – at Roth’s Tysons Corner 5 Theaters in Virginia. I was one proud usher/concessionaire whose 16th summer – armed with a shiny new driver’s license and the keys to the family’s green Buick station wagon — was about to go epic.

“The Hangover” 2009

The premise is shaky: four guys gin up a bachelor party in Vegas just two days before the wedding – instead of, say, three months out. Once you accept that, the rest of this movie falls right into place. Is this a roadtrip film? I say yes, because the drive to and from Vegas makes it so. And during their escapades in and around Vegas, cars of all kinds figure prominently. Leave that aside. This film is so incredibly clever, profane and unpredictable, you could stretch these gags out over 5,000 miles.

“Flirting with Disaster” 1996

With a cast including Ben Stiller, Tea Leoni, Patricia Arquette, Marty Tyler Moore and Alan Alda, and directed by David O. Russell, this has got to be good. It’s chock full of surprises, mistakes, misunderstandings and bad choices, but it doesn’t feel like a screwball comedy. It’s smart, and it just keeps going relentlessly to the heart of the story: finding one’s home. The fun never, ever stops.

“Dumb and Dumber” 1994

No matter how hard I try, I cannot deny that this is a roadtrip classic. Sometimes it’s okay to have no redeeming social value. Fun is fun.

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 29, 1969: Chitty-Chitty-Wut-Wut?

Drove across Idaho all day. Camped at a KOA in Pocatello—still windy and threatening. Washed, bought groceries & went to a drive-in to see “Chitty-chitty-bang-bang.”

Marge Binder, July 29, 1969

50 years ago tonight we screened “Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang” at a drive-in near Pocatello, Idaho. As some readers might know, I’ve spent a couple of blog posts talking about roadtrip movies (and there are a few more posts in store as we head home). CCBB would seem to qualify: car and road. But I’m going to leave CCBB out of those posts and cover it here. And there is a reason why.

For decades, I was of the opinion that this film was a classic — a kid’s fantasy. There’s silly old people, candy factories, flying cars, a toy maker, a child-like king, humanoid dolls, fun sing-along songs and some scary-making moments: when that fugly guy with the gnarly nose reveals himself to the children not as a candyman but as a twisted, pervy kidnapper…that’s haunted my conscience ever since. It was so risky and revolutionary, right up there with Wizard of Oz, Willy Wonka and anything from Disney. Or so I thought.

So when I learned recently that Mary had never seen it, I was eager to fill her in on something very special, a gaping hole in her childhood.

WTF!

The plot is all over the place — literally and figuratively! Suspend all the disbelief you want, this thing makes no sense. I can’t imagine the chatter in the edit room, assembling this scene of a pontoon with that of a castle, this crude visual effect with that out-of-focus piece of stock. And no one in the movie seems fazed by any of it, no matter how ludicrous or random. Where is this going? And when will it stop?

I want to scream at the screen: “For the love of God, Dick Van Dyke, look into the camera and say, ‘I KNOW! But it’s too late!'” Just give me a sign that no one spiked my Kool-aid!

CCBB is less a roadtrip than an acid trip. A really bad acid trip. The kind that should scare you straight.

This place closed in 2007. Pocatello’s famous Sunset Drive-In Theater!

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!

July 25, 1969: “Bye Dad!”

Must have been a dreadful way to start the day: 4AM alarm so that Mom could drive Dad to the airport. And, just like that, he was gone, leaving Maw with her three boys to navigate 3000+ miles back east.

Oh, and Tim fished.

Jim and I got up at 4 AM and took him to catch the 6:10 plane for Seattle. Got Mike’s shot, did the laundry, washed my hair, bought groceries etc. Tim caught some nice fish in the Lewis River.

Marge Binder, July 25, 1969

Open Road. Big Screen: Roadtrip Movies

A few weeks ago we looked at books about roadtrips. There weren’t a lot to include, best, worst or otherwise. But movies? Oh yeah, the movies were invented for the roadtrip.

There’s a great chapter in Aaron Sorkin’s Masterclass program that uses the roadtrip as a means to explain intention and obstacle — the basics of story. It’s simple but brilliant. You can’t just go from point A to B, you’ve got to want to get there so bad — money, love, freedom, salvation. You have to be willing to put your life on the line for it. And, of course, obstacles arise that must be overcome.

Intention and obstacle make for great stories (especially movies), but for this series of posts, I’m going to veer into other roadtrip films that are merely good or special to this scribe.

As with the post about books, we need to define what is a true roadtrip film. Because film is a modern invention, compared with the written word, most tales of travel tend to rely on a motorized vehicle and a surface on which to operate it. Unlike, say, The Odyssey or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I also considered films like “The Wizard of Oz” but called a DQ. So basically, I consider a roadtrip movie to be any movie where the plot centers on people who quest to go somewhere in a motorized vehicle that follows a road or surface. Nuance: it’s not about the car, it’s about the journey, so no “Herbie the Lovebug” or James Bond.

And, as with any list based on personal opinion, this list will rile critics and detractors. I don’t care. Make you own list if you feel the need.

Herewith, the first of a few lists of roadtrip films, starting with the five honorable mentions for films about roadtrips without destination.

Honorable Mentions: Roadtrips that Lead Nowhere

“Sideways”

With great writing and direction by Alexander Payne, it’s a buddy film set against the lush wine country of SoCal. Mix in a little mid-life crisis-times-two, lots of drinking and a star turn by Virginia Madsen, and there’s a lot to love about this movie.

“Tommy Boy”

A silly frat boy pic that involves a lot of driving with no destination. Good gags and great chemistry — Chris Farley is a one-man chemistry set; David Spade is a beaker. If only Brian Dennehy’s Big Tom had survived the inciting event, that would have been a great movie.

“About Schmidt”

Another Alexander Payne film and one that got me hooked when I saw the trailer. Unfortunately, Jack Nicholson’s Schmidt is a miserable wretch, and in the end, he finds peace not on the road but in a letter from his adopted “pen pal” child in Africa. He didn’t need to leave the house for that.

“Thelma & Louise”

You can tell early on that T&L need more than a girls’ weekend. To me, what keeps this from being a top-tier roadtrip film is probably its most memorable scene. (Spoiler) Great roadtrips and films find a way to avoid the cliff. I suppose, though, that if you can’t find an alternative, gunning the gas into fiery oblivion makes for a spectacular send-off.

“Almost Famous”

The “Tiny Dancer” scene epitomizes the joy of a true roadtrip: rolling together, warbling harmonious with conviction, even though everyone is royally hung over and the bus reeks of stale beer, old bathroom and bruised testosterone. Or, as I like to call it: my college days.

July 17, 1969: Trip Lit = Lit Trip

Feels like the blog needs a little tap on the gas. Might be that all those hippies got us digging our mellow.

Earlier I covered some of the diversions we had for long days in the car, one of which was Tim reading aloud from John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. Even though we’re a little north of Steinbeck country by now, it got me thinking about some of the other books about roadtrips.

Of course, first we need to agree on what constitutes a roadtrip. Does any quest like The Hobbit suffice? The Odyssey? Huck Finn? I’m going to limit it to books that center on a motorized vehicle and the surfaces laid down for them. That’s going to constrict the scope a bit. But hey, I haven’t read that many books about roadtrips anyway, as you’ll see.

Five Favorite Books About Roadtrips

First off: Honorable Mention goes to Mom’s diary from the 1969 roadtrip. Friends and followers have praised her terse but comprehensive style as of “Hemingway.” Had she not documented the trip on a daily basis (no doubt a task past exhaustion most nights), this retracing would not have been possible or even conceivable. Thanks to her for allowing me to use it as the basis for this 50th anniversary project.

5. Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck. 1960

I jumped on the Steinbeck wagon after reading The Grapes of Wrath in middle school. Travels with Charley featured less angst than Grapes, and a dog. To a nerdy high schooler living in the suburbs in the early 80s, this book made solitude seem like a reward (and I was so winning!). Of course, a lot of us were craving “freedom” at that age; the open road, adventure and experience sounded pretty good. I got the impression from Charley that Steinbeck wasn’t looking for that anymore. That’s why this was not my favorite of Steinbeck’s and, for all the catharsis, I’ve heard it was not a favorite of his either.

Get a copy

4. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson. 1971

I didn’t read it. I tried, I really did. But I never found a way in. Same with Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Yep, feels good to admit it. Perhaps I’ll start another blog of all the other staples and classic literature I didn’t read. First up: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. If anyone actually made it all the way through that behemoth, I’d love to hear what it’s about.

Go on, YOU read it!

3. On The Road, Jack Kerouac. 1957

Kerouac wrote the book on, well, roadtripping books. Reading it was an exhausting rite of passage, as most Beat books were, forcing you to wake up, get hip and keep up. It reads like the kind of frenzied work that went into it: three nico-caffeinated weeks typing on one continuously scrolling piece of paper. It oozed with the restless angst that Charley didn’t.

In the end, after all of the drama and adventure, the road leads nowhere and nothing really matters.

“‘Where we going, man?’
‘I don’t know but we gotta go.’”

And that’s the beautiful thing, man. Dig it!

Read it here.

2. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck. 1939

This book made me proud to have read it. Steinbeck was a master of restless dreaming, of seeking out a better life somewhere, someday. Of course, it doesn’t work out that way. It’s the journey that helps us arrive at who we really are. Okay, enough psycho babble. The Joads got a raw deal, and the raw deals kept coming everywhere they turned. There’s plenty of political and social symbolism (and the reality of migration, xenophobia, desperation and human nature) in here, but I always come back to this: Tom Joad was an idiot. I’m sure not everyone would agree.

Get you copy here!

1. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig. 1974

This was an assignment for a sociology class during college May session, and it changed my summer and my life. For one thing, it made me a pretentious ass — or, rather, it made me aspire for pretentious assiness. Example: the word chautauqua. For years (and even a recently as last month) I will refer to some occasions five or more people are chatting as a chautauqua. Someone needs to break an acoustic guitar over my head.

After 30 years, a few symbols still resonate with me from this book — forgive the brevity:

  • The road is time: the past, future and the present. Be conscious of which is most important at any given moment.
  • The motorcycle represents one’s life: there is the right way to make it work, and there are other ways. Seek out what is the right way for you. Understand the machine well enough so that when it acts up, you are able to make it right again.
  • “Helmets” (while a good idea, I suppose) prevent us from fully experiencing the world around us. Remove it and see the world with better clarity, feel the wind and breathe it in, and savor the nits and gnats as you encounter them along the way.

What really took me in was the indefinable matter of values and quality that we are immersed in everyday. At age 20, this was an epiphany. The prologue is a grabber:

“What is good, Phaedrus, and what is not good, Need we anyone to tell us these things?”

As for Phaedrus, I still spar my own Phaedrus every day. I’m happy to observe that with age comes wisdom, and so my Phaedrus and I have arrived at a healthy entente.

I encourage you all to meet, know and feed your own Phaedrus.

Really, you should read it.


Though the events of these books are a far cry from Mom’s July 17, 1969 — the laundry and Mike’s shot — I’ll bet she learned a lot about all of the above that summer.

Tim & Jim took a hike while Mike got his shot and we did the laundry. Took us 2 hours to find Dee’s at Hayward but had a nice visit and dinner. Got back about 10.

Marge Binder, July 17, 1969

I’ve been living in the Bay Area for 12 years and have yet to visit Mt. Tam or Hayward. I’m not really proud of that. But there it is.

July 6, 1969: Once Upon a Time…

“…in Hollywood.”

Took a drive around Beverly Hills. Had hamburgers in Hollywood. The boys swam at Redondo Beach.

Marge Binder, July 6, 1969

In addition to it being the 50th anniversary of Marge Binder’s Epic Adventure, this summer also marks 50 years since the Tate-LaBianca murders at the hands of the Manson family. That’s why there is a picture of Leo D on this page: he’s starring in a new Tarantino movie about the crime. Looks good, except for it starring Leo.

Tomorrow’s post looks at other memorable events of 1969. Spoiler: It was a pretty good year, compared to the previous few.

Casting Call!

Here’s a thought: If Quentin did a movie about the roadtrip, who would play Mom? Too bad MTM has passed. She was Mom: fun and smart, a loving wife/mother like Laura Petrie. A trailblazer like Mary Richards. And as pretty as they come.

What about Uma? Pretty badass. That’d work too.

Mom wasn’t really a smoker, but she knew how to get a laugh.