The view through the front windshield of a moving car evokes cinema in many ways. The seated passenger looks ahead at a rectangular image, utterly passive before this view, while the driver, who may think of himself as the free, in-control creator of views, is in fact restricted to a very narrow range of choices. He can change lanes perhaps; he can vary his speed, but not by much; his only real choice is to get off the highway, to exit the "theater." On the road, what one sees has already been selected — by highway planners, by landscapers, by those who put up advertising billboards or by the legislatures that in some states have banned them, by the builders of roadside structures.
There are two main types of highways. The older, more common before the 1960s, consists of two lanes, one for traffic in each direction, with no physical divider between. Side roads often enter; the road will cross railroad tracks, at which points one must look out for trains; there are often very slow-moving vehicles, such as farm tractors, which force cars behind to slow down. Cars passing each other in the oncoming direction pull into one another's lane; one must watch closely to avoid a collision. When such a road comes to a town, it passes right through its center; one's surroundings change radically, and there are frequent stops. Driving on such roads, one experiences many such differences, to which one must react.
In 1956, the U.S. government began construction of a system of "Interstate Highways." These roads have a minimum of four lanes of traffic, two in each direction, and the opposing directions are generally divided from each other by a "median strip" of grass. Exits and entrances are limited. There are no stoplights or railroad crossings; Interstates continue, often elevated, through city centers. Vehicles on them must maintain a minimum speed, typically 40 miles per hour. There are of course many precedents for such roads — the German autobahns and a few U.S. superhighways, such as the Pennsylvania Turnpike, built in the 1930s. But the Interstate system, and a number of state roads and urban expressways constructed to similar standards, made the experience of superhighway or Interstate driving near universal for Americans. The system, planned to provide links to all cities with populations of at least 50,000, criss-crosses the nation in an irregular grid, with three, Interstates 10, 80, and 90, providing continuous routes with nary a traffic light between the east and west coasts.
Driving on an Interstate, it is said, makes the diverse American landscape look all the same. This complaint is somewhat unjustified. No one could mistake I-25 in Wyoming for I-95 in New Jersey, or I-80 in Pennsylvania for the same Interstate in Utah. No one who has driven I-70 into the Colorado Rockies or I-80 through California's Donner Pass could claim that Interstates completely wipe out the drama of the North American landscape.
But the experience of driving on an Interstate is still one utterly different from driving on an older, two-lane road. The active vigilance required of the driver on the older road becomes almost completely unnecessary on an Interstate, which reduces the driver to a near-mindless passivity. The only real threats will come from other vehicles; the road almost completely insulates the driver from his surroundings. There will be no sharp curves; no sudden entries of cars from side roads; no stopped vehicles. All turns are neatly banked; up- and down-grades slight (which makes the rare exceptions, such as I-80 in the California Sierras, all the more dramatic). Areas of pavement on either side of the driving lanes ensure that a driver who veers off the road a bit will be on smooth asphalt, also blurring the boundary between road and its surroundings, as the linear road-following landscaping does even more. The Interstate does all it can to deny the driver variety.
The superhighway driver is lulled into a stupefying passivity. Curves require only the gentlest adjustments to the wheel; they almost seem to steer the car into them. Speed, except in traffic, can remain constant. Everything is designed to make the scene that unfolds in the windshield as uniform as possible. Modern American cars, with their soft suspensions, automatic transmissions, power steering, and "cruise controls" that automatically maintain a preset speed without the driver having to do anything, are designed to match such roads perfectly. The driver is endowed with the illusion of tremendous power; a hill requires no more than a tap of the foot; one can leave one road for another. The fact that one is limited to the small percentage of land reachable by road, and that there is really very little feeling of speed in a modern car on a modern highway, is something few think about, though in fact one could get more of a feeling of actual, active movement by roller-skating on the sidewalk.
There are several strains within the American Cinema that are curiously analogous to the experience of driving on different types of roads. In some periods of Hollywood filmmaking styles evolved in which images were highly differentiated from each other. In the late 1920s, at the end of the silent era, the influence of German Expressionism, in films like F. W. Murnau's Sunrise and John Ford's Four Sons, manifested itself in a mixture of complex camera movements and carefully composed images whose variegated lighting seemed to actually encourage the viewer to think — about the differences between the past and the present, between good and evil. Again in the late 1940s and 1950s, the film noir style, itself partly derived from German Expressionist cinema, was replete with images whose complex chiaroscuro might at least require the viewer to blink once or twice before taking in the composition. Perhaps the greatest of noirs, Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly, a simultaneous paean to and critique of America's obsessions with cars, speed, money, and death, begins with a night scene on a rural two-lane highway. The intense visual contrasts between blacks and whites is perfect for depicting a roadway which, the opposite of a superhighway, is full of threats, from behind, from in front, from the sides. It reminds one, too, that there's an absolute difference between right and wrong, even if the film often makes it hard to tell which is which.
From the 1920s through the 1950s, most Hollywood films were constructed out of a mixture of static compositions, pans, and shots in which the camera actually moved through space. Even in the most mindless of films, one notices the difference between static images and moving ones, which create a certain visual drama by constantly changing the perspective from which the scene is viewed.
Simultaneous with the development of film noir, an American avant-garde filmmaking practice emerged. Films like Kenneth Anger's Fireworks (1947) and Stan Brakhage's Anticipation of the Night (1958) are based on dramatic differences between the different kinds of compositions and rhythms they contain, jarring the viewer out of complacency and requiring active involvement. Avant-garde filmmakers have occasionally engaged the question of roads. In Bruce Baillie's Mass (1963), a long take follows a motorcyclist approaching and then crossing the San Francisco Bay Bridge. This bridge is at the terminus of Interstate 80, then under construction, which stretches from New York to San Francisco. One sees only cyclist, bridge, and sky, with no other landscape visible; the shot describes well the monotony of Interstate travel even in this most spectacular of settings. In Ernie Gehr's Transparency (1969), the filmmaker set up his camera by the side of New York City's old West Side Highway. A six-lane elevated structure, now demolished, its narrow lanes and many twists and turns were way below Interstate standards. While we see none of the road, what we do see is cars suddenly and dramatically filling the frame, each a momentary blur of near-transparent color. Each car suddenly enters with the violence with which a moving car, from the perspective of a stationary viewer, pierces, intrudes on, and briefly subsumes the space it passes through, even as the driver experiences only the silken smoothness of his window view.
By the 1960s, Hollywood cinema began to change. Television, which the moguls had tried to fight off in the 1950s with devices such as widescreen and 3-D, had by then become a major economic force on picture-making; the revenues earned by the sale of films to television — and later, to cable and on videocassette — became a major source of studio income, eventually larger than that from theatrical showings. Directors and cinematographers began to make their films with the knowledge that they would be seen by more people on video than in theaters. Camera viewfinders came inscribed with an oval "TV safe action area" within the 1.66:1 or wider shape of the film image. Lighting contrast began to be reduced, with the limited range of video display in mind.
This new filmmaking style was ruled less by the capabilities of the projected film image than by the limitations of the TV screen. Video is notoriously poor at suggesting spatial depth; all levels of the image tend to blend into one. Lighting contrast, and fine detail, the kinds of things that help differentiate one part of the image from another, don't transfer well to TV. Camera movements through space lose much of their force; with video's limited ability to reproduce depth effects, they don't look all that different from zooms.
More appropriate to video are images of limited detail, such as close-ups and medium shots of faces and figures; lighting that causes the parts of the image to smoothly blend with each other; and the pairing of camera pans with zooms to replace camera movement. The latter combination tends to collapse and compress space, to create a kind of artificial movement toward something that seems to grow larger without really getting any closer, an illusory mechanical move forward not unlike the view of an Interstate through the windshield. The overall visual space of Hollywood films in recent decades no longer contains finely-honed and articulated differences between parts; it is a kind of muddled, incoherent soup. Actual space, actual distance, and actual differences are effaced by a smoothing, and smothering, styleless-ness.
Interstate highways and Hollywood product, two of the primary vehicles through which Americans experience the world, both place the viewer at the center of a system that surrounds him with a near-seamless movement, collapsing differences into an illusion of continuity, a formless vacuum into which no real thought is permitted to enter. In both, the world — the landscape that surrounds a highway, the supposedly "real" characters of film fiction — is located in a space which has no substantive coordinates, a game which runs only on its own mechanical energy.
This lie, of movement without consequences, is attained only by wounding the truth. In the real world that parallels film fiction, real humans, not fragments of celluloid, sometimes get murdered. There are differences, there are ideas in this real world; there is even an ethics by which we may judge, or fail to judge, ourselves and others. And in the real landscape, the smoothness of an Interstate is achieved only at great cost.
In 1972, I bicycled alone the 200 miles from New York to Boston. Mid-way through, reaching a height of land near Willimantic, in central Connecticut, from which I could see into a valley many miles ahead, I was met by a hideous and chaotic gash in the otherwise smooth landscape that stretched before me. Mounts of earth were strewn everywhere; heavy equipment was at work. This was the construction of a new extension of Interstate 84, a highway I'd thought had stopped its eastward march in Hartford. Seen from the perspective of a lone bicyclist, who feels every bump in the road and every tiny rise and fall in the land in his pedaling feet and legs, this gaping wound in the earth was like a vision of hell; a monumental displacement of soil and imperialist reordering of the land, creating a machine-made landscape, covering, subduing, smothering, conquering, smoothing America's vast spaces. One can only wonder how much of the original "soil" of the American soul has also been rearranged, even obliterated, by the brain-numbing, hypnotic visual pabulum served up by each new commercial product from our media mega-conglomerates.