Wednesday, September 16, 2009

In Review: Route 66: An American (Bad) Dream

~ In 2002, three young Germans, Stefan Kluge, Mathias Eimann, and Gerald Menzel set off on their Great American Adventure, hoping to drive the length of Route 66. Their transportation of choice is a massive 2.3 ton, 1974, red Eldorado Cadillac convertible.

The resulting film: Route 66: An American (Bad) Dream, is a salutary lesson on what not to do on your American road trip – or any road trip for that matter. Clearly, these travellers where under prepared for their journey, since it would appear they had no insurance, no AAA cover, and no idea that the car they had paid $2,500 for was barely roadworthy.

The Caddie either breaks down constantly, runs out of fuel, or suffers a litany of other mechanical problems throughout the journey (broken gear box, flat battery, worn brakes, oil leaks, blown tyre and an exhaust pipe that needs to be replaced en route). In fact, the car breaks down before the journey even begins, which surely must have been a portent of the problems to come.

However, the three travellers are saved by their naivety; the assistance offered to them by complete strangers; the friendliness of the people they meet along the way; and the little mechanical knowledge they do share between them.

As you would expect, they meet an assortment of characters, and offer wry observations, such as this gem: “Americans live in their cars, and they eat there. For that, you need cup holders. Nowadays, new cars will be judged by the number of cup holders they have. If you watch advertisements, you will find that the number of cup holders seems to be as important as the number of cylinders or the vehicle load capacity. Modern minivans like the Chevy Venture have up to 17 cup holders. Above all, that could be the reason why our car [is] no longer been seen on the American highways. A missing cup holder! In 1974, even Cadillac wasn’t thinking about cup holders.”

Intriguingly, the credits note that the film is “Based on the book, Route 66 in einem 74er Cadillac”, (Route 66 in a ’74 Cadillac), written by Stefan Kluge and co-authored by Mathias Eimann. Stefan Kluge has also added the following brief plot summary to the film’s entry on the Internet Movie Database, where the film is given the title: Route 66: An American (Bad) Dream.

“Route 66: Ein amerikanischer Albtraum (2004) Three German provincials are searching for Hollywood. So they take the most American values they can picture: an absurdly vast car, full of fast food, bottles of oil and camera equipment on the way to California via Route 66. That they never find Hollywood is not the only surprise - on their quest for the American clichés they face unplanned incidents. A documentary drama somewhere between Jackass and Michael Moore, between gloating and satire.”

As Germany’s first Open Source film, you can download and view the film for free from the VEB Film website. You also get a good idea of how technology is being used to today. The creators of Route 66 filmed, edited and produced the film themselves. They are using the internet to ‘distribute’ the film around the world, and on top of that, they include a Creative Commons License which allows you to add to, or reedit the film in any way you choose.

As for the film itself, as already noted, is provides a good lesson in how not to organise and conduct a long road trip. Preparation is the key to a safe, successful journey, and while it is impossible to guard against every eventuality or potential problem, a little planning – as the saying goes – goes a long way.

Along the way we get to see vast stretches of open highway, interspersed with our intrepid travellers eating fast food (McDonald’s seems to be their main diet); repairing the vehicles brakes; visiting the famous Cadillac Ranch with its series of Caddie’s buried ‘nose first’ in the open prairie near Amarillo, Texas; doing the laundry; replacing a flat tyre; get brief glimpses of Washington, DC., New York City, and Las Vegas; more breakdowns; etc, etc.

As the three travellers cross the country, we learn almost nothing about the towns, cities, and country they pass through. If it wasn’t for their encounters with helpful strangers along the way – strangers who essentially save the travellers from themselves; from their own disorganisation and incompetence – we might not have even got to ‘meet’ some of the 300 million people who inhabit the United States today.

At 103 minutes the film is over long, and could easily be edited down to a workable 90 minute version without losing any flow or drama. In fact, apart from a brief encounter with a police patrol car, and watching them deal with constant mechanical problems, nothing particularly dramatic happens. The first 20 minutes of the film is spent waiting for the Cadillac to be fixed, and when the journey proper finally begins they head for New York and the ‘start’ of their road trip.

Because the three travellers presumably talked to each other in their native German, we learn about the details of the trip via a voiceover which, despite the strong German accent is quiet and unobtrusive, and never gets in the way of the unfolding journey. The commentary is filled with wry observations and explanations such as the one already quoted above, as well as others in which we learn about the ‘joys’ of cheap motel accommodations. Where “…every motel has its own individual characteristic, and while you are driving in the dusk, you are already wondering…if the indoor aerial will fall off during the NBA playoffs”; or this, “…the distance between your bed and your car won’t be more than three metres...”

Where the three are filmed talking to each other, subtitles allow us to listen in on their conversations as we ride with them inside the Cadillac.

Finally, excellent atmospheric music is provided throughout by the German electronic group, Valley Forge (note: the website is entirely in German). The group consists of Thomas Bechholds (synths, organ, piano, vocoder), with Michael Seitz (drums, percussion, synths) and Jürgen Winter (guitars).

To sum up, if you are planning your own road trip across America (or anywhere), Route 66: An American (Bad) Dream, is worth viewing for the many lessons to be gleaned from our hapless adventurers.

By the way, the ‘bad’ dream alluded to in the title, is entirely the result of the film makers own lack of care and forethought. As I’ve said throughout this review, and repeat once again, the film is a great lesson in what not to do when embarking on a long road trip, and if viewing Route 66 encourages you to put more thought and care into planning your own travels, it will have been worth the 103 minutes you invest in it.

View the Route 66 trailer…

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