Fade to Black: Bruce McDonald’s Rock ‘n Roll Road Trilogy
By Geoff Pevere
Like Woody Guthrie, Jack Kerouac, Mad Max, or Wile E. Coyote, Bruce McDonald performs best on the road. This would explain why the three road films thesuburban-bred filmmaker and formereditor made between 1989 and 1996 – Roadkill, Highway 61, and Hard Core Logo – remain the most distinctive and full examples of McDonald’s moviemaking so far. He never seems more at home than when watching it vanish in the rearview mirror.
This might also explain why these three films – two of which feature the scruffy filmmaker as a scruffy filmmaker – about people taking flight on highways strangely barren save for the sound of rock ‘n’ roll and the possibility of strange encounters are sufficiently codependent to seem a trilogy of sorts. A trio of variations on the themes of life, deliverance, and death on the road. This certainly helps one appreciate why the third road trip, the rawly elegiac end-of-punk romance Hard Core Logo, also feels like the most expertly navigated of the three. It`s the one with the most mileage on the speedometer.
In this mock documentary about the doomed whistle-stop reunion tour of an incipiently middle-aged Canadian punk band, McDonald not only overtook the spiritually ventilating myth of the open road, he captured the poignant, wind-swept emptiness that lay beyond Ð the realization of the void beyond the dream. If the road according to Bruce Mcdonald has an end, it is arrived at in this film where everything held valuable in the two previous movies, i.e., fun, escape, rock ‘n’ roll, idealism, and eternal adolescence, is left to smolder like a wreck in the ditch.
The films are not strictly consecutive. In 1994, between Highway 61 and Hard Core Logo, he directed a non-road movie called Dance Me Outside, which bears mentioning principally for the fact that its setting, a native reserve in Northern Ontario, qualifies it geographically as a pit stop on the journeys taken by the other three. Transpiring in the kind of hardscrabble, non-urban environment the other movies pass through, this lighthearted account of contemporary aboriginal teenage life – produced by Norman Jewison and co-written by McDonald`s frequent collaborator, Don McKellar – emphasizes the extent to which the filmmaker is drawn to places most urban Canadians merely drive by. This fascination with the vastness beyond the city`s outskirts is a defining one in McDonald’s movies, and it darkens as we speed toward Hard Core Logo. By the time we reach the third movie`s doomed punk revival tour, the giddy impulsiveness of Roadkill and the screwball romanticism of Highway 61 have given way to outright delusion.
It`s this realization of the highway’s stubborn refusal – a refusal articulated visually by the rock and scrub seen through car windows – that becomes the hard core of Bruce McDonald`s road. Where both Roadkill and Highway 61 depict escapes undermined by the landscape`s bleakness itself, and while both associate this barrenness with a form of death (Roadkill ends in a bloody roadhouse shoot ’em up, while Highway 61 is about a coffin borne the length of a continent) in Hard Core Logo, ambivalence gives way to full-bore futility. If these films constitute something like a trilogy, and if Dance Me Outside qualifies as a related side trip, it`s because the films are made both coherent and cumulative by this journey along the road to nowhere, from romance to ruin.
Ironically, considering the violent mock-documentary note on which the trilogy concludes, Bruce McDonald`s first road film wasn’t supposed to be a fiction movie at all. It was supposed to be a real documentary about the Northern Ontario tour of a little-known Toronto post-punk outfit named Neon Rome. After the band imploded on the tour`s eve – and the lead singer went AWOL in Big Nickel Country – McDonald found himself with a small pile of unspent grant money to make a film about a band that no longer existed.
Demonstrating the same knack for turning a potential disaster into a creative opportunity that he had with the short film Knock! Knock! – a film about the film made by McDonald`s crew following his own sudden absence – McDonald cobbled together a low-budget fiction movie (scripted by McKellar) about a road trip to find a missing person. When the lead singer of a band called The Children of Paradise disappears midway through a Northern Ontario tour, the Toronto tour promoter`s non-driving assistant Ramona (Valerie Buhagiar) is sent to track him down. She takes a cab.
In Roadkill, and Highway 61 particularly, McDonald nails the allure of the un-scripted impulse. The films are not only about impulsive decisions to hit the road and see what happens, they have the spontaneous charm of why-the-hell-not? decisions. Roadkill, the film that became a feature by default, aptly abounds in moments of circumstantial happenstance: Ramona`s walk through the Good Friday Passion pageant in Toronto`s Little Italy near the beginning; the dancing woman McDonald is seen filming (and then dancing with) on a riverside rock by a highway overpass; the ice cream trolley that appears out ofnowhere; the surreal sight of musicians in the apparent act of busking on a northern road; and the sudden and spectacularly incongruous appearance of New York uber-punk Joey Ramone. Even the discount-Peckinpah finale, in whichpeople in a packed roadhouse start splattering each other, seems to occur less out of any pressing dramatic urgency than the notion it might be cool if everybody just suddenly started shooting.
Highway 61, the more meticulously assembled and generously budgeted follow-up to Roadkill, which reworks that movie`s themes in more geographically, dramatically, and financially expansive terms, also has moments of surreal serendipitousness; however, they already bear the stamp of being not so much found incidents as ideas of found incidents. The trio of dancing sisters travelling in a Winnibego driven by their trigger-happy father (Peter Breck); the dissolute rock star (Art Bergmann) living in a dilapidated antebellum mansion who hunts chicken à la Elvis in the corridors of his own home; the bingo game artfully intruded upon by the satanic figure of Earl Pastko`s Mr. Skin; and the biker gang that shows up at the lonely New Orleans corner where our flat-broke hero Pokey Jones (McKellar, acting and script writing again) has set up a shave-and-haircut stand.
Seeming less like spontaneous events than fond approximations of spontaneity, these logic-bumps along Highway 61 nevertheless underscore one of the most significant ways McDonald stands apart from the other Toronto filmmakers who comprised the local indie boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Alone among such disparate but determined formalists as Egoyan, Mettler, Mann, and Rozema – all of whom distinguished themselves from the Canadian documentary tradition by exerting varying degrees of auteurist formalism – McDonald was the sole filmmaker to embrace the freedom of chance. Compared to the intellectualized cinemas of Egoyan, Mettler, and Greyson, or the art-house constructs of Rozema, McDonald`s movie practice approached anarchy.
Or seemed to. McDonald`s films are most unquestionably not anarchic – in truth, they’re conventional verging on sentimental, at least in terms of their romantic preoccupations – but the local context in which they appeared certainly made them seem so. Perhaps this is why McDonald, even after all these years and very little evidence to support the claim, still gets called the local scene`s “outlaw” filmmaker. Alone among his generation of Toronto filmmakers, McDonald was the one who wedded the on-the-fly cinéma-vérité impulse – remember that he twice cast himself in the trilogy as the buzzing documentary truth-seeker – to the rock romantic, teen-eternal notion of living in the moment just for the hell of it. Perhaps this is partially accounted for by McDonald`s upbringing on the urban frontier of Toronto`s suburban outskirts, not only a good place to acquire a taste for the sonic deliverance of loud music, but a perfect one to hear the siren call of the highway. Not to mention an ideal place to have access to drive-in movies. For it bears mentioning that McDonald, alone among these Toronto filmmakers, is the one who demonstrates the keenest appreciation for the pleasures of pure trash. Disposable, immediate, and impulsive, three qualities which apply equally to Bruce McDonald`s work at its best, and which also set it apart from the work of his contemporaries.
Buoyed by the kind of make-it-up-as-you-go exuberance that is prerequisite for maximum appreciation of spur-of-the-moment directionless driving, Roadkill gets a lot of mileage out of this sheer, gassed-up verve. Essentially a series of whimsical episodes strung along Ramona`s northward pursuit of the stray band, the movie makes the terms of McDonald`s personal road romance perfectly clear. The road is an avenue of flight from responsibility and reason. It`s a place where one finds both oneself and significant others, and it`s a place where the mythology of rock ‘n’ roll achieves maximum density andfertility. It was along rural highways that rock ‘n’ roll took route, and it is along highways that one of the most cherished rituals of that mythology – the road tour – is played out.
But the road has its trials as well as its trails, and this dark side of the myth bears down on the kickass side like a Mack truck on a little deuce coupe. For all the freedom the road represents in rock ‘n’ roll terms, it also holds beyond those headlight beams the looming threat of death, disillusionment and – in those most temperamental and fragile alliances called bands – dissolution. It was the road that took Bessie Smith, Hank Williams, Eddie Cochran, and James Dean. It was the road that delivered Robert Johnson to the Devil (who also stalks the travellers in Highway 61) and it was the road that played heavy havoc with the delicate equilibrium of Elvis, the Beatles, and the Sex Pistols. As even the title of McDonald`s sunny-tempered first movie reminds, the road kills.
If the trilogy takes on gravity andresonance as it moves toward the last days of the unmistakably Pistolesque band Hard Core Logo, it`s because it also seems to be steadily gaining on an acceptance of the end of the road as the ultimate and the only destination, the place where dreams go drier than an empty gas tank. In the process of journeying from Roadkill – the very title of which suggests there`s blood on the blacktop – to Hard Core Logo, the movies also seem to be divesting themselves of whimsy, casting teenage diversion and solipsism out the window, throwing romance in the ditch. It`s not just that the trips grow geographically more linear as the films progress – with Roadkill`s happenstance roadside encounters moving toward Hard Core Logo`s carefully pre-mapped western-city tour – it`s that they gain in self-awareness as they gain on the horizon.
While death presses the shoulders of even the first two of McDonald`s road films, before it ends in a rather giddy bloodbath, Roadkill introduces us to a drolly self-deprecating serial killer with a culinary specialty in squashed bunny, in Highway 61, the story of a coffin borne atop a Ford Galaxie 500 travelling the length of a highway, death literally bears down on the proceedings like a corpse. In Hard Core Logo, death is perceived less as a roadside attraction than the inevitable destination itself. The only destination. Perhaps this is why of all the shooting and dying that takes place in the first two movies – both of which have closing-act shootouts that feel like spasms of writerly irresolution – it is the single death at the end of Hard Core Logo, the sudden suicide of Hugh Dillon`s well-named Joe Dick, that bears anylingering emotional weight. It feels like something has truly been lost, and for good.
If I stress the triumph of death in Hard Core Logo as a sign of artistic development in the work of McDonald, it`s because, in the context of romantic rock ‘n’ roll mythology which informs the movies, the acceptance of death represents not just a step toward dramatic cohesion but a form of emotional matur-ity as well. It is this process of seeing the myth for what it is, as a form of denial of responsibility, of age, of maturity itself, which invests the trilogy`s third act with a sense of depth, of emotional gravity, of a closure that the other movies merely hint at.
In Hard Core Logo, the literal and metaphoric romances are as inextricably inseparable as they are inevitably doomed. Indeed, it`s the very connection between love and doom that lends the movie a power, not to mention acohesive momentum the other movies lack. It`s the doomed romance between the maturity phobic, misogynist punk-purist lead singer Dick and the gone-Hollywood guitarist Billy Tallent (Callum Keith Rennie) that gives doomed romance of rock ‘n’ roll itself such a potent articulation. In the same way that Hard Core Logo is a doomed love story between two men struggling with age, frustration, and their own imminent obsolescence – struggling, that is, with the horrifying rock ‘n’ roll realization of no longer being teenagers – it`s also an account of disillusionment with the very myth of eternal youth through rock ‘n’ roll.
The road does end, and eventually – as it always must and always does – death catches up and wins. The road kills, man.
This article is reprinted from a 2004 issue of Take One. Northernstars.ca acquired the archives of Take One Magazine in 2007.