There is an aggressive sense of reality in Joseph Strick's work that plays perhaps like a halfway house between Italian neo-realism films of the late forties, like Germany Year Zero and Bicycle Thieves, and American fiction's 'dirty realism', the latter term coined to cover American writers of the seventies and eighties including Raymond Carver, Richard Ford and Ann Beattie. In films like The Savage Eye, Tropic of Cancer and Road Movie, Strick doesn't want sympathy, the sort often central to neo-realism, so much as to explore an interesting form of antipathy: realism at its dirtiest.
Born in 1923 in Pittsburgh, Strick wasn't quite the outsider and drop out his films might indicate, with their low-budgets and furtive reputations, and indeed Strick, who was a science student before the war, and who worked as a cameraman during it, founded a group of technology companies that he sold off to fund his films. In 1977 he also invented the use of six-axis motion simulators as entertainment systems, a system that is now used in Disney theme parks.
There is something wonderfully ironic about Strick's technology being used by Disney, for his aesthetic couldn't be more antithetical: a brazen assault that incorporates the misanthropic, misogynist, the miserabilist and the abject. Also his films aren't at all technological ingratiators; the aesthetic is rough, pushy and pragmatic, and though he sometimes uses the frame and moves the camera with great wit and intelligence, such moments seem spontaneous and not part of a broader aesthetic of screen space. In Tropic of Cancer there is a lovely moment where Ellen Burstyn's character, Henry Miller's girlfriend, arrives in Paris and almost as quickly leaves again, having promptly enough of Miller's penury. As she slips out of the apartment, Strick pans from Burstyn pulling the door behind her to Miller lying in bed awake. A cut might too readily have indicated a passage of time, however brief, while the pan across contains an obscure mischievousness, a hint of ambiguity in Miller's own reactions. Meanwhile in Road Movie, the prostitute who hitches a ride from a couple of hapless truckers goes into a diner and orders some food. She's short with the waitress, and when the food arrives it slides into the frame with the viewer well aware of the waitress's attitude without seeing her at all entering the shot.
Yet there is nothing precious about Strick's visual style: he manages to offer a shot like the latter as if not with cinematic purpose, but as though alluding to an aesthetic indifference. This isn't the elaborate exploration of off-screen space, more the casual disregard for the waitress's presence. She turns up at the end of the scene after the prostitute leaves: a 'fuck you' to the waitress written in salt. Obviously we have no idea how much fussing went into the shot, but there are many uses of off-screen space in film that give the impression of aesthetic parti pris, of the filmmaker working with a cinematic system that counters on-screen assumptions, of which Robert Bresson is of course a prime example. In his little book Notes on the Cinematographer he says "when a sound can replace an image, cut the image or neutralize it. The ear goes more towards the within, the eye towards the outer". This is cinema as phenomenological investigation. Strick appears much more a cinema of practicalties; what you see is more or less what you get, and sometimes you'll get little less and often a great deal more. In other words Bresson's off-screen space is part of a mastering of ellipsis. Strick's is a ready acceptance of there always being a world beyond the frame. Bresson offers formalist precision; Strick's camera has a documentative sense of what is always going on elsewhere.
In this sense Strick's work, and especially the three films we're choosing to concentrate on here, attacks reality, rather than frames it, and there was of course a cinema veriteelement to the The Savage Eye, a feature he co-directed in 1959. Here working with a semi-fictional story of a woman coping with living alone in LA after her husband leaves, Strick's film is also a time capsule account of the city at the end of the decade. The central character doesn't so much function as a character in a story that takes her from scene to scene, more as a figure of semi-identification taken into various situations, evident for example in the lengthy sequence in a church where faith healers set out to cure numerous invalids. From a fictional point of view the scene is endless; from a documentary perspective endlessly fascinating as cameraman Haskell Wexler captures footage of extreme behaviour.
Strick's films are often at their most interesting when working within, and pushing beyond, the expectations of both fiction and documentary. If critics might claim Strick has no sense of mise-en-scene, or little sense of dramatic pacing, these are what we could call fictive expectations, while immediacy of observation and contingent capturing are documentative boons. Strick seems frequently to allow the former to give way to the latter, and never is this more fascinatingly evident than in the shots of the highways and byways of America in Road Movie. Rather than showing the sexual encounters in the sleeping compartment of the truck, Strick shows us shots of the passing scenery: billboards, filling stations, factories and motels, all creating a melancholic sense of time passing and the US cluttering its landscape with industrial endeavour. Yet though these moments function extremely well documentatively, they also serve the fictive. They function not too unlike the 'pillow shots' Noel Burch notes in Ozu's work, the cutaway as contemplation. Yet here the world contemplated is in disrepair, as the action in the truck generates a lack of meaning, so the images that pass indicate a certain meaninglessness also. The prostitute's attitude to sleeping with the truckers is an indifference matched by the towns the camera passes through.
Yet while Strick seems a filmmaker of the lamentable (especially evident in the voice over to The Savage Eye), he is something less than a moralist. What is the difference? To lament is basically to regret, to mourn, and in such moments Strick seems to be mourning for what America has become and what womanhood is reduced to. He doesn't judge the behaviour as a narrow moralist might; and there is often a paradoxical element to the moralist that focuses on the human without great concern for the individual. The person is seen as an agent of his or her own choices, and the society merely the area in which one acts. When that great political moralist Margaret Thatcher insisted there was no such thing as society, or when someone wondered whether the poor were forced into crime by poverty, with Thatcher asking the interviewer if they were saying that the poor are thieves, this was clearly a moral position. People are responsible for their own behaviour, and looking beyond their own agency is a form of buck-passing. There is a strong sense of human responsibility in such a position, but little sense of humanity, of human fellow feeling. A person's value basically resides in their respect for and behaviour in relation to the moral code.
In The Savage Eye, Tropic of Cancer and Road Movie, all three films focus on characters that are superficially at least morally dubious. Barbara Baxley's character Judith in The Savage Eye relies on alimony cheques after her husband leaves her, Miller scrounges a meal where he can, and takes a job teaching in a provincial school that he bails out of as quickly as he can. In Road Movie the hooker turns tricks and a blind eye to what it might be doing to her general moral well-being. During a meal in Road Movie a character explains how truculent the prostitute can be, that she once abused a gangster and his wife who she thought was disrespecting her. Later the prostitute, Janice (Regina Baff), tells the story differently, but there is a plucky aggression that comes through in so many other scenes that we're aware she can cause trouble without much provocation - evident obviously in the scene with the waitress - and most especially so in the film's conclusion.
It is the film's ending that really gives Road Movie its heft, and though what Janice does is horrific, our response is nevertheless unlikely to be one of outrage in the general moral sense. What happens is that the prostitute is told by the truckers that they don't want her company any more, and so she releases the brakes and the truck goes trundling down a steep road. One of the truckers jumps on board and grabs the truck door window, but it is moving too fast for him to get into the truck. It ends up crashing down a hill, with the trucker caught underneath. Of the two truckers he has easily been the most sympathetic - where his colleague initially slaps Janice about, the other one is kind. His death is certainly presented as a major loss, but not quite as an outrageous one.
To help us here we need to think of violent acts that rouse our indignation - our moral outrage we might say. There is Henry Fonda shooting the young boy dead near the beginning of Once Upon a Time in the West; the dude cowboy played by Keith Carradine shot on the bridge in McCabe and Mrs Miller, the gangster ripping open a young woman's face with a bottle in The Long Goodbye, the rape in Irreversible, the finger Holly Hunter loses in The Piano after her husband finds out about the affair. All these are acts rousing indignation, however subtly and ambivalently the filmmakers sometimes present them, and generally we give examples from significant films rather than movies where the good and the bad, the heroic and the villainous, are more obviously and clearly drawn. In each case we have character agency where the intention of the act is met with the intention of result. Now the clearer the film moralist, usually the clearer the action; in other words the social environment isn't remotely credited with having any responsibility for the deed, and the action has the desired consequences. Obviously after the event a character might accept his culpability, but at the moment of the action the intention is clear. Fonda wants to kill the boy, no matter if he feels he has no choice, while Sam Neill wants to remove Hunter's finger. Janice in Road Movie clearly doesn't want the trucker to die, and the film has carefully etched the difficult life she has lead. The difference between the ethical and the moral here is the twofold relative absence of agency Strick invokes - a deprived background, and an un-deliberate action: Janice merely, however maliciously, wants the truck to career off down the road.
The ending is almost in direct contrast to the conclusion of Tropic of Cancer. Here Henry ends up with money courtesy of a friend who goes back to New York, and he promptly splurges out on a taxi around Paris. As he crosses a bridge all we see is his head moving along at high speed, the bridge's wall blocking the car off as the camera views it from the position not front on but from a nearby bridge along the Seine. Tropic of Cancer ends fortuitously; Road Movie un-fortuitously, but there seems to be a perspective that is consistent. Neither Henry nor the prostitute are 'bad' people in the moral paradigm, but they are what we could call characters of circumstance.
This isn't quite the same thing as saying one is a victim of circumstance in the manner of a character caught within grinding poverty as in the neo-realist films we invoked at the beginning of this piece; Henry and Janice, no matter Henry's high social status and social network, are more like people quite deliberately living circumstantially. Neither character generates stable meaning; instead they seem to search out contingency. In some way they choose their destiny but seize an opportunity; they choose not to live regular lives, but they consequently become hostages to fortune. Another way of looking at this is to say that there is no way that either character could have predicted that shortly one would come into a bit of money, and the other responsible for the death of a trucker. In goal-oriented behaviour, in films and in life, the intent comes close to matching the result: Tom Cruise becomes the fighter pilot he hoped to be at the beginning of Top Gun, Michelle Pfeiffer becomes a national news reporter in Up Close and Personal, and Jodie Foster in Panic Room will find a way out of her new high-tech brownstone after three burglars break-in. Whether the initial event is planned ambition (as in the case of Top Gun and Up Close and Personal) or motivated by others (as in Panic Room), the end result comes quite clearly out of the initial premise.
Is this not generally true of realism, where a determined despair follows from an initial decision: in Ken Loach's Raining Stones the characters' insistence to buy their daughter's communion dress creates problems with loan sharks; in Sweet Sixteen, the boy's determination to buy his mother a flat for when she gets out of prison, leads to a life of crime and a violent ending? Loach works with victims of circumstance, just as the Hollywood films work with heroes of circumstance or ambition. In each instance the films remain tight and quite arced. The characters all live in various ways restrictively, whether through their ambitions, their contingent situation, or unfortunate circumstances, they are narratively constrained.
Strick seems to search out freedom over choice or achievement, with freedom capable of giving a man money to spend on a fun trip around Paris, or letting a truck trundle down a road and killing someone. Strick, in this sense is very interested in looking at neither victim nor hero, as though each role is too socially pre-ordained and morally codified. Though Road Movie is hardly a work of radical ethics, as we can say that one of the truckers is clearly warmer and more sympathetic than the other, that many of the people they meet on the road are looking to make fast bucks or get quick fucks, it is, like The Savage Eye and Tropic of Cancer, a great film of trying to get by. Now often when someone gets by in a social-realist film they are doing so to survive: the underpinning motivation is that they if they could work at all, or in better jobs, they undeniably would. From Bicycle Thieves to Raining Stones, part of the goodness of character resides in the immediate poverty, yet the characters' wish to work. The films ask social rather than existential questions; where Strick appears to want the social to be secondary to the existential.
One can see that this is clearly the case in Road Movie, which constantly threatens to be the socially oriented work it never quite becomes. The film is too full of perverse moments for the overwhelming sentiment of pity to take hold, so that whether it is one of the truckers slapping Janice at the beginning of the film, her rudeness to the waitress, or her attitude to the gangster's wife, the social is not strictly where the problem lies, no matter if the film narrativises the moments of economic desperation. For example when the truckers realize the frozen meat load they're taking across the country has defrosted, they are constantly looking for alternative methods to recoup their losses, a loss that is no fault of their own. Yet whose fault is it then? None other than Janie who pulled out the wires that allowed the meat to defrost. They never find out that she was responsible; and indeed she does her best to help them take an alternative, non-meat load instead.
Here we notice that the imp of perversity is stronger than the social message as Strick searches out not moral throughlines, but singularity of emotion. At one moment in his companion book to Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, Miller's narrator says "I am thoroughly irresponsible for my fate...I wake up and looking about me I understand absolutely nothing of what is going on about me, neither my own behaviour nor that of my neighbours, nor do I understand why the governments are at war or at peace, whichever the case may be."
Strick would seem to share Miller's interest in the enigmatic and at the same time the pragmatic. The two come together in Miller's Sexus, where the narrator says "From the time I left school I have begged and borrowed almost continuously...I don't know any more about the act of borrowing now than I did when I started." As he says, "I know there are certain people whom you must never, not under any circumstances, ask for help. There are others again who will refuse you ninety nine times and yield on the hundredth, and perhaps never again refuse you."
In such circumstance one is absolutely practical and at the same time aware that such practicalities of need are not always met with consistency of behaviour. In Road Movie, Strick will play out the socio-economic problem of a couple of truckers trying to make good on their load after the meat starts to defrost, but it has been set in motion by Janice's enigmatic gesture. And the moment is a mystery; not least because though she has been treated badly by one of the truckers she has been treated well by the other; and though she may have reservations about continuing to travel with them, it becomes clear that she is drawn to their company, and wants to help them make money after they lose out on the meat.
Is this really central to Strick's notion of freedom? Not so much freedom being nothing left to lose, in Kristofferson's famous words, but freedom as a coalescence of the enigmatic and the pragmatic: inexplicable, or at least spontaneous behaviour, and practical survival. Whether in Miller's attitude in Strick's Tropic of Cancer, or the Janice's in Road Movie, there is a sense that they want to escape from the codification of a life; to avoid the predictability of behavioural codes that make us safe in our daily existence, but insulated from the necessities of both our psychological and physiological instincts. Like Miller's, Strick's work is interested in eating, drinking and fucking as primary needs, but also in the freedom of feeling, as though random behaviour is equally primary, covered over by social necessity and morality.
There is a nice anecdote Strick tells concerning his Oscar nomination for Ulysses. He is sitting next to Warren Beatty and they start arguing over the respective merits of Ulyssesand Bonnie and Clyde, also up for nomination. Eventually Strick walks off fed up with the Hollywood game. There is a Miller like insistence to take on the egomaniac without oneself being at all competitive. Strick presents the story as that of the maverick and the conservative: Beatty with everything at stake as he invests his personality in the Oscar outcome; Strick trying on the personality of the Oscar ambitious. In The Savage Eye, Tropic of Cancer and Road Movie Strick seems drawn to the farther reaches of the drifter, of the person who would rather not, in Bartleby's words. They suggest a personality rather than possess one, as if any social role they play cannot quite be as reflective of their temperament as their impulses. In The Savage Eye, the Judith tries to move on with her life but the impulse is to phone her ex, to try and get back with him. When she goes out on dates she isn't quite there. This is a negative impulse, however, and very different from Miller's. Judith is someone who can't quite be herself or find herself. It is partly why Strick's film works as cinema verite - as though the surrounding milieu is documentative because Judith cannot quite impose herself enough on the environment she is in. Miller on the other hand does, and so while he is perhaps no more in control of his impulses than Judith, he at least has some control of the environment.
In Road Movie Janice is a curiously clingy presence, confident in situations (when tying to persuade the guys to get more money for a job they've done, for setting up deals), but weak in the face of potential affection and its removal. We might note that anyone so willing to get slapped about at the beginning of the film and ask little more of the other trucker that his friend won't do it again, is emotionally troubled. At the end of the film she of course lets the truck go, and a trucker dies underneath it. We are not outraged, as we've made clear, but we may be angrily sad, angry at the loss of the life, and wondering where exactly to put the blame. It is not the act of a villain, but rather of someone who cannot quite find a place for herself in the world emotionally, sexually and economically. Her impulses may be signs of freedom, but they also curtail the freedoms of others - of their livelihood early in the film, of one of the truckers' lives at the end.
In sum, Strick attacks reality in a twofold way. Firstly his compositional freedom where a shot is less framed than caught. Secondly in his characterization, where for various reasons his characters cannot quite fit neatly into a schematic existence. This is Judith's misfortune in The Savage Eye, Miller's happiness at the end of Tropic of Cancer, and Janice and trucker's tragedy at the end of Road Movie. Yet of course at the end of Road Movie Janice doesn't hang around: she hitches another lift and embarks on another life. In this instance she seems not to share a Miller perspective, offered during one abject moment in Sexus, and where the central character says he wishes to be "cleansed of all iniquity". "I wanted to be soaked through and through, then stabbed, then thrown into the gutter, then flattened by a heavy truck, then ground down into the muck and mire, obliterated, annihilated for good and all." Or maybe Janice does share this need to be cleansed of all iniquity, but she is also, inevitably, like Miller himself, a survivor. And so she hitches that lift.
© Tony McKibbin