Over the years the road trip has cemented itself as an integral aspect of Western culture. The expressions of freedom and self-determination, which one finds in the ability to “leave it all behind” with the turn of a key, afford the road trip a lasting appeal that continues to be explored by new generations. In film, the road trip can be seen as a substitute for the western. Like such classics as The Covered Wagon (1923) or Stagecoach (1939), more recent films like Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) and Lynch’s The Straight Story (1999) explore the hardships and dangers (not to mention the heteronormative heroics) of pilgrimage. Undoubtedly, as our experience with the western has illustrated, ideology is lurking in here somewhere. If we turn to the internet phenomenon Wikipedia, we can catch a glimpse of it. Wikipedia identifies the road trip as a “rite of passage,” which initiates many young adults into a world of independence beyond the constraints of the family:
Today many teens and young adults see a road trip as a rite of passage, their first solo journey from home, frequently across state boundaries. It is the idea of shedding parental bonds and taking that great leap out on one’s own that attracts many young men and women to saddle up and head out on the open road. This is due in part to the feeling of freedom some people get when traveling the open roads.
In other words, the road trip is about transcending boundaries, both those of the state and those of the family. It is finding oneself outside of these boundaries that gives the road trip its appeal and reproduces it as a cultural phenomenon. Within the context of queer studies, the ideology of the road trip takes on a more pressing importance. It means a quite another thing to transgress the boundaries of state and family when one one is talking about sexual identity. In her 1993 film Rules of the Road Su Friedrich explores the road trip from a lesbian perspective as she narrates a story about an old station wagon she and a girlfriend once shared. The visual images that accompany Friedrich’s narrative include, hands playing a game of solitaire, blackness, and a pastiche of traffic with a particular focus on a specific type of station wagon–presumably the same kind she and her partner shared.
The ideology of the road trip, as discussed above, is a major trope in Rules of the Road as the narrator continually dwells on the freedom the car gives here. No longer does she have to walk to the laundromat, and when the daunting fact of the New York subway might have kept her at home, the station wagon allows for a day trip to Manhattan. Freedom is further materialized in the car as the narrator describes road trips out of the city, which allow for a deeper intimacy between her and her partner. For instance, she tells us that “when I was driving, I felt as though I was carrying her in my arms, way from the relentless, claustrophobic city towards an unpredictable and generous expanse of forest or ocean” (quoted from Holmund, 137).
Freedom is further exemplified in the form of the film as Friedrich generates an explicit disconnect between her words and the images on the screen. In Rules of the Road, contrary to most mainstream films, the visuals and the narrative don’t necessarily match up. Rather than being confined to the narrow trajectory offered by the “talkies,” which combine audio and visual to coax the audience down a pre-determined path, Rules of the Road asks its audience to draw its own connections between the two mediums (audio and visual), thus returning film to the realm of “free-floating contemplation,” which Walter Benjamin suggested was lost in the age of mechanical reproduction.
Of course the boundaries that Friedrich and her partner are transgressing in this film are not simply speed limits (although the narrator does admit that speeding is one of her favourite things to do when she is alone in the car). The “1983 Oldsmobile Cutlass Cruiser” (136) provides a way for Friedrich to re-think kinship and family. Besides sharing tender moments in the car the narrator and her lover also use it to conduct the more benign tasks of familial existence, such as doing laundry and driving into the city. The station wagon is also the scene of vicious fights, “fights much like those Friedrich says she witnessed as a child from the backseat of her family’s car” (137). Placed within the “sensible family car” (136) Friedrich’s lesbian characters denaturalize the “state boundaries” that define family and transgress “the rules of the road” that police kinship. In this sense the Oldsmobile acts as a vehicle (pardon the pun) for change that contextualizes the ideology of the road trip in a queer framework.
The title of Lynch’s film hints towards the heteronormativity reproduced and maintained by the road trip genre. This is an idea I would have like to explore further, but it deserves more attention than I could give it here.