As soon as someone utters the words “spiritual journey” to me, I’m outta there. There’s nothing more vomit-inducing than listening to someone educate you on the wonders of nature living for four hours after they have returned from a two week all inclusive excursion to Thailand. What could be worse than having to accept the patronising clap-trap of an over privileged ‘traveller’ who has just returned to the comfort of their parents’ multi-million mansion in the countryside? What could be more irksome than having to act like they are the first person in the world to touch an elephant, or try apple flavoured tea, or ride a rickshaw?
Watching a film which spews the same nonsense.
Films such as Eat, Pray, Love or Into the Wild are similarly self-righteous, pretentious and shoegazing and, whilst you can answer back to a real person, a film will just keep on running. Journey films are a tricky thing to get right. Lean too far into introspection and you will alienate a vast majority of your audience. Blow up too much and you will eliminate all signs of validity. There is a delicate balance in place in the best journey films. Self aware, meaningful and just a tad ironic, the best of the best make you believe as if you could take a similar trip yourself. They are unafraid to show the minor tragedies that may befall you along the way (holed-shoes, for instance) and undeterred to make sweeping gestures of deep emotional resonance. They last in our memories because they are authentic. They do not make us want to vomit as they don’t shove their message down our throats. Like the best storytellers, the journey film gives us the answer to the riddle without spelling it out to us. Just look for the glint of light in its eye.
Thelma and Louise
If there’s anything that I learned from this film, it’s that there is nothing more enduring than friendship. Especially if you share the same hair style with your best friend. Turning the male-dominated road movie on its head, Thelma and Louise proved that travel ain’t forbidden for the ladies. Although following typical road movie fare, the film presents the wanted-and-on-the-run plot in a wholly fresh light. The key to the film’s success is its refusal to venture into darker, melancholic waters. The plot is consistently upbeat, to the very bitter end and there is not much that comes better than that.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the protagonists of Easy Rider. Where Thelma and Louise had laughter and deep conversation, Easy Rider had fist fights and drugs. And yet, the plot hasn’t failed to resonate with just as many people as other journey films, leaving its audience with an equally deep feeling of cinematic satisfaction. The key with Easy Rider is the figure of the motorcycle. Where other films had cars, the motorcycle in this film stood as a symbol for its rebel protagonists in the conformist world around them. Out in the open, they were faced directly with their element, unprotected from the man made structure of the automobile. Easy Rider works as a journey film because it twists the conventions of the world in which it is set. It offers an alternate view of life and, as a result, allows its audience to think more deeply about their own.
Oh Brother Where Art Thou?
Of course, we can’t have a list without the Coen Brothers and in their retelling of The Odyssey, they too contribute to the journey film genre. Telling a journey of a different sort, the protagonists of Oh Brother Where Art Thou? escape from a chain gang and seek the fortune which one of them claims to have buried in an armoured car. Perhaps the most authentic of the journey films, the characters are subjected to whatever type of transport they can lay their hands on and therefore, their relationship with the environment around them is ever more direct. For most of the film, the characters are true nomads and therefore must adjust to whatever nature throws in their path. Whilst other films of its type have fallen into the trap of man dramatically overcoming nature, the cinematic gaze of the Coens is naturally matter of fact. The film lasts as it does not claim anything that its characters have done is extraordinary. And that is worth taking note of.
Lost in Translation
Not a journey film as such, Lost in Translation presents the emotional journey two characters make towards each other, whilst dropped in the middle of another world. Meeting by chance in the bar of a Japanese hotel, the couple find themselves moving increasingly away from their real lives and into a new place, created out of the unreality of Tokyo by night. Lost in Translation may sound like a pretentious, self-righteous film essay but its message is never entirely spelled out. Concealing many of its most important moments behind half whispers and lost gazes, the film feels as if it never reaches its final destination. The journey of the characters ends but they are not where they are supposed to be.
Jim Jarmusch’s sometime-comedy Broken Flowers follows a similar journeying arc to the likes of Lost in Translation. Maybe it’s something about Bill Murray. Living life as a bachelor, the film’s protagonist one day receives a pink letter informing him that he has a son. In light of the revelation, he decides to journey across America in order to track down his former lovers and discover who sent him the letter. Inevitably, the answer to the question is of little consequence. And really, with Jarmusch, we have come to expect no less. Leaving you with a loose sense of an answer, the film seems to question the validity of the journey’s end and if it can be said to exist. It is unclear when the journey ends and real life begins and, eventually, how can we distinguish between the two? If the journey does come to an end there is only one lasting question: When we find the thing for which we search, what happens next?