By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 27, 2023)
Traditionally, Memorial Day Weekend triggers thoughts about summer getaways and/or road trips. I say “traditionally” because those thoughts have been on hold for many these past several years. Now that things have “opened up”, even shut-ins like moi have begun to think about stepping foot outside the Shire once again. Then again…have things truly opened up?
I received an email from Seattle & King County Public Health this week that opened with this cautiously optimistic advisory:
On May 11, 2023 the Federal Public Health Emergency Declaration for COVID-19 ended. The expiration of the emergency declaration does not mean that the pandemic is over as COVID-19 continues to circulate in our communities and people continue to die from it, especially among those at high risk. The end of emergency declaration reduces the flexibility government agencies have for some COVID-19 efforts.
According to the Seattle & King County’s “Public Health Insider” blog, vaccinations and boosters remain free…for a limited time:
The federal government purchased a large supply of COVID-19 vaccines that is predicted to last through the summer of 2023. COVID-19 vaccines will remain free to all people, even if they don’t have insurance, while the national vaccine supply lasts.
After the federal vaccine supply runs out later this year, COVID-19 vaccines will shift to the private market.
Like Buckaroo Banzai says, wherever you go-there you are. So the basic tenets remain in place: be proactive, and use common sense. Yes, I know…easier said than done, considering the behavior of some of our freedom-lovin’ fellow passengers on those crowded flights:
Federal officials have referred more than 250 unruly airline passengers to the FBI for possible criminal prosecution since late 2021, including one as recently as [March], when a man tried to stab a flight attendant with a broken-off spoon.
The pace of the criminal referrals is slowing, however. The Federal Aviation Administration identified 17 cases it has sent to the FBI in the first three months of this year — mostly for incidents that happened last year but took time to investigate.
Airlines have reported fewer cases of unruly passengers since last April, when a federal judge struck down a requirement that people wear masks on planes and public transportation. Before that ruling, about two-thirds of all incidents on planes involved disputes over masks.
Cranky fliers aside…how are those friendly skies looking for this year’s travel season?
Pack your patience, travelers. Those hoping that last summer’s “airport chaos” headlines were a distant memory are in for a nasty case of déjà vu.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) expects 2023 summer air travel volumes to surpass pre-pandemic levels, and industry experts are warning that many of the problems that led to last year’s meltdown have not been resolved.
“This summer’s travel demand will be as strong as we’ve seen since before the pandemic, and potentially the strongest ever,” says Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association. “That kind of demand in a system that is woefully underfunded and understaffed is likely to create substantial frustrations among travelers.” […]
While many of those flight disruptions were blamed on airlines’ supply-chain issues and pilot shortages, the meltdown also exposed cracks in the country’s aviation infrastructure and staffing deficiencies. Flash forward one year and many of those same problems still exist.
So much for the planes. How about the trains and automobiles?
AAA projects 42.3 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from home this Memorial Day weekend*, a 7% increase over 2022. This year, 2.7 million more people will travel for the unofficial start of summer compared to last year, a sign of what’s to come in the months ahead.
“This is expected to be the third busiest Memorial Day weekend since 2000, when AAA started tracking holiday travel,” said Paula Twidale, Senior Vice President of AAA Travel. “More Americans are planning trips and booking them earlier, despite inflation. This summer travel season could be one for the record books, especially at airports.” […]
Memorial Day road trips are up 6% over last year. 37.1 million Americans will drive to their destinations, an increase of more than 2 million. Gas prices are lower this holiday compared to last year, when the national average was more than $4 a gallon. Despite the lower prices at the pump, car travel this holiday will be shy of pre-pandemic numbers by about 500,000 travelers.
More people this holiday are taking other modes of transportation, like buses and trains. These travelers are expected to total 1.85 million, an increase of 20.6% over 2022.
You know what? On second thought, I’ll just chill out here at the crib.
If you are of like mind, you’re welcome to join me on a (virtual) road trip this Memorial Day weekend with one or more of my picks for the Top 10 Road Movies:
Five Easy Pieces — “You see this sign?” Thanks to sharp direction from Bob Rafaelson, an excellent screenplay by Carole Eastman (billed as Adrien Joyce) and an iconic performance by Jack Nicholson, this remains one of the defining American road movies of the 1970s.
Nicholson is an antihero teetering on the edge of an existential meltdown; a classically-trained pianist from a moneyed family who chooses to martyr himself working soulless blue-collar jobs. Karen Black delivers one of her better performances as his long-suffering girlfriend. The late great DP Laszlo Kovacs makes excellent use of the verdant, rain-soaked Pacific Northwest milieu.
Genevieve — This marvelous British film from 1953 follows the travails of a young couple (Dinah Sheridan and John Gregson) who join their bachelor friend (Kenneth Moore) and his latest flame (Kay Kendall) on an annual road trip from London to Brighton as participants in an antique car rally. After the two men have a bit of a verbal spat in Brighton, they agree to convert the return trip to London into a “friendly” race, with a 100-pound wager to be awarded to whoever is first across the Westminster Bridge.
Engaging from start to finish, thanks to the charming performances, and a droll screenplay by William Rose (The Ladykillers, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner). Oh, in case you were wondering- “Genevieve” is the name of the couple’s antique car. American harmonica player Larry Adler’s memorable score received an Oscar nomination (unfortunately, Adler’s name did not appear in the credits on the original U.S. prints of the film because of the blacklist). Director Henry Cornelius’ next project was I Am a Camera, the 1955 film that was reincarnated as the musical Cabaret.
Kings of the Road — Wim Wenders’ 1976 bookend of his “Road Movie Trilogy” (preceded by Alice in the Cities and The Wrong Move) is a Boudu Saved from Drowning-type tale with Rudiger Vogler as a traveling film projector repairman who happens upon a suicidal psychologist (Hanns Zischler) just as he decides to end it all by driving his VW into a river. The traveling companions are slow to warm up to each other but have plenty of screen time in which to bond (i.e., at 175 minutes, it may try the patience of some viewers). If you can stick with it-I think you will discover it’s worth the trip.
Lost in America — Released at the height of Reaganomics, this 1985 gem from director-star Albert Brooks (who also co-wrote the film with his frequent collaborator Monica Mcgowan Johnson) can now be viewed in hindsight as a spot-on satirical smack down of the Yuppie cosmology that shaped the Decade of Greed.
Brooks and Julie Hagerty portray a 30-something, upwardly mobile couple who quit their high-paying jobs, liquidate their assets, buy a Winnebago, and hit the road with a “nest egg” of $145,000 to find themselves. Their goals are nebulous (“we’ll touch Indians”).
Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, the “egg” is soon off the table, and the couple find themselves on the wrong end of “trickle down”, to Brooks’ chagrin. Like most Brooks films, it is painful to watch at times, yet so painfully funny (he’s the founding father of the Larry David/Ricky Gervais school of “cringe comedy”).
Motorama — Barry Shils’ darkly comic 1991 road movie/Orphic journey defies description. A rather odd 10-year old boy (Jordan Michael Christopher) flees his feuding parents to hit the road in pursuit of his Great American Dream-to win the grand prize in a gas station-sponsored scratch card game called “Motorama”.
As he zips through fictional states with in-jokey names like South Lyndon, Bergen, Tristana and Essex, he has increasingly bizarre and absurd encounters with a veritable “who’s who” of cult film stalwarts including John Diehl, John Nance, Susan Tyrell, Michael J. Pollard, Mary Woronov, Meatloaf and Red-Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea.
What I find particularly amusing is that none of the adults think to question why a 10-year-old (who curses like a sailor and sports a curious bit of stubble by film’s end) is driving a Mustang on a solo cross-country trip. Not for all tastes-definitely not for the kids (especially since the venerable parental admonishment of “You’ll poke your eye out!” becomes fully realized). Written by Joseph Minion (Vampire’s Kiss, After Hours).
Powwow Highway — A Native American road movie from 1989 that eschews stereotypes and tells its story with an unusual blend of social and magical realism. Gary Farmer (who resembles the young Jonathan Winters) plays Philbert, a hulking Cheyenne with a gentle soul who wolfs down cheeseburgers and chocolate malts with the countenance of a beatific Buddha. He has decided that it is time to “become a warrior” and leave the res on a vision quest to “gather power”.
After choosing a “war pony” for his journey (a rusted-out beater that he trades for with a bag of weed), he sets off, only to be waylaid by his childhood friend (A. Martinez) an A.I.M. activist who needs a lift to Santa Fe to bail out his sister, framed by the Feds on a possession beef. Funny, poignant, uplifting and richly rewarding. Director Jonathan Wacks and screenwriters Janey Heaney and Jean Stawarz keep it real. Look for cameos from Wes Studi and Graham Greene.
Radio On — This no-budget 1979 B&W offering from writer-director Christopher Petit is one of those films that I have become emotionally attached to. That said, it is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea; in fact, it may cause drowsiness for many after about 15 minutes. Yet, I am compelled to revisit it annually. Go figure.
A dour London DJ (David Beames), whose estranged brother has committed suicide, heads to Bristol to get affairs in order and glean what drove him to despair (while reminiscent of the setup for Get Carter, this is not a crime thriller…far from it). He encounters various characters, including a friendly German woman, an unbalanced British Army vet who served in Northern Ireland, and a rural gas-station attendant (Sting) who kills time singing Eddie Cochran songs.
As the protagonist journeys across an England full of bleak yet perversely beautiful industrial landscapes in his boxy sedan, accompanied by a moody electronic score (mostly Kraftwerk and David Bowie) the film becomes hypnotic. A textbook example of how cinema can capture the zeitgeist of an ephemeral moment (e.g. England on the cusp of the Thatcher era) like no other art form.
Sullivan’s Travels — A deft mash-up of romantic screwball comedy, Hollywood satire, road movie and social drama from writer-director Preston Sturges.
Joel McCrea is pitch-perfect as a director of goofy populist comedies who yearns to make a “meaningful” film. Racked with guilt about the comfortable bubble his Hollywood success has afforded him and determined to learn firsthand how the other half lives, he hits the road with no money in his pocket and masquerades as a railroad tramp (to the chagrin of his handlers).
He is joined along the way by an aspiring actress (Veronica Lake, in one of her best comic performances). His voluntary crash-course in “social realism” turns into much more than he had originally bargained for. Lake and McCrea have wonderful chemistry. Many decades later, the Coen Brothers co-opted the title of the fictional “film within the film” here: O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The Trip — Pared down into feature length from the 2011 BBC TV series of the same name, Michael Winterbottom’s film is essentially a highlight reel of the 6 episodes; which is not to denigrate it, because it is the most genuinely hilarious comedy I’ve seen in years.
The levity is due in no small part to Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, basically playing themselves. Coogan is commissioned by a British newspaper to take a “restaurant tour” of England’s bucolic Lake District and write reviews. He initially plans to take his girlfriend along, but since they’re going through a rocky period, he asks his pal, fellow actor and comedian Brydon, to accompany him.
This setup is an excuse to sit back and enjoy Coogan and Brydon’s brilliant comic riffing (much of it feels improvised) on everything from relationships to the “proper” way to do Michael Caine impressions. There’s unexpected poignancy as well-but for the most part, it’s comedy gold.Director and stars reunited for three equally enjoyable sequels, The Trip to Italy (2014), The Trip to Spain (2017). and The Trip to Greece (2020).
Vanishing Point — I don’t know if there was a spike in sales for Dodge Challengers in 1971, but it would not surprise me, since nearly every car nut I have ever known usually gets a dreamy, faraway look in their eyes when I mention this cult classic, directed by Richard C. Sarafian. It’s best described as an existential car chase movie.
Barry Newman stars as Kowalski (there’s no mention of a first name), a car delivery driver who is assigned to get a Challenger from Colorado to San Francisco. When someone wagers he can’t make the trip in less than 15 hours, he accepts the challenge. Naturally, someone in a muscle car pushing 100 mph across several states is going to get the attention of law enforcement-and the chase is on.
Episodic; one memorable vignette involves a nude hippie chick riding around the desert on a 350 Honda to the strains of Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen”. Cleavon Little plays Supersoul-a blind radio DJ who pulls double duty as Kowalski’s guardian angel and Greek Chorus for the film. That enigmatic ending still mystifies.
Bonus miles! 10 recommended side trips…
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
Harry and Tonto
Road to Utopia
The Straight Story