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‘Goin’ Down the Road’, Movie Review Example

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Movie Review

This paper will analyze the opening three minutes of the Canadian cult classic film ‘Goin’ Down the Road’. This sequence was chosen because it puts the fundamentals of the film in place, it sets the audience up for the downbeat and often somber film which is to follow. Directed by Donald Shebib, ‘Goin Down the Road’ was released in 1970, at the end of a decade when the counter cultural narrative had flowed across world culture and art, and had even reached Canada. The film recalls much ‘Beat’ writing of the 1950s and 60s, in its attempt to realistically, yet poetically, portray the lives of two drifters, Peter McGraw and Joey Mayle, who travel from their home in the Maritimes, to Toronto, to try and make something of their lives. Katherine Ann Roberts writes in the American Review of Canadian Studies (March 2009), that the movie is, “both a film of its time—a portrait of 1960s urban in-migration coupled with changing sexual attitudes and social freedoms—and a quintessentially Canadian story of regional displacement motivated by economic inequalities.” (qtd in the Torontoist.com) Donald Shebib, the director, was described as, “One of the best filmmaking talents of his generation, whose first feature film, Goin’ Down the Road (1970) (made for $27,000 on grant funding), is a key reference point in English-Canadian film, and probably the Canadian feature cited most often.” (McSorley)

The context for the film’s narrative is set perfectly by the first two minutes of the film. A folk song plays over images of dereliction and decay. The song’s lyrics reference tradition and continuity, with lines about fathers and grandfathers fishing in the oceans, and mining the coal, of Canada’s Atlantic provinces. “Newfoundland from the beginning has lived by the products of the sea and its early history is essentially that of the cod fishery. For more than a century before the establishment of French or English colonies in North America the fishermen of Western Europe came year after year to Newfoundland to fill their boats with cod for the markets of the Old World.” (Claude Belanger, p.1)

The optimism that the work, and the wealth it created, seem to be on the wane now. The images the director presents point to a dying land, at least in terms of its people, where nothing is newly built and everything is virtually in ruins. The buildings are not that ancient in terms of when they were built, either, indicating that the boom years were short in this part of Canada.

The sequence begins with an aerial shot of rural, east coast Canada, showing the spectacular natural beauty of the place. The houses are dotted around the landscape, though, also showing how hard and isolated life can be in the region. The shot then changes to a poetic view over a misty lake. Any thoughts that the audience may have had that this was to be a bucolic film are cut short quickly, though. The shot changes to that of a disused railway line, leading to a mine. From here, the sequence shows images of decay and poverty, giving an impression of a wasted land. The camera adopts a magisterial gaze, but the intent is not to show a land of opportunity and progress, but to show a land reeling from the effects of colonization. A ruined house is shown, with holes in its wooden walls and roof, standing lonely on a hill. The next shot is of a field full of derelict cars, a shot pregnant with significance, with broken-down cars a recurring theme throughout the movie.

When the sequence moves into what passes for an urban area in this region and era, the audience sees empty streets. Impressive looking buildings look badly maintained and neglected. A blond-haired young boy stands in the street, looking at the camera in a way which suggests he has little comprehension of his circumstances, his expression showing the bafflement and alienation which motivates so much of the film’s later actions. A sunken boat lies wrecked, just as the lyrics in the song being played refer to fishing, showing how times have changed. The sequence ends with the audience seeing Joey’s house, as he bids it farewell, and rides away in his car to pick up his friend Pete. In many ways, the shot of his car heading onto the long, open road is the most optimistic part of the film. The optimism does not last long even when the boys reach the big city.

This sequence shows a land which has been scarred by progress, emptied, and then left to decay. This is almost colonization as progressive narrative in reverse. ‘Goin Down the Road’ is a film which marks a point of self-awareness in Canadian cinema, and, in common with much of the rest of the world at that time, concepts such as progress and industrialization were being re-evaluated. The film-maker is asking basic questions in the whole film about what capitalism and progress actually bring for ordinary people, a question which continues to be asked to this day. It is a work which focuses on alienation. There also seems to be a questioning in the film of the American model of life, and whether it can really work for Canadians. Working hard to buy televisions and record players may look great on the outside, but the random factors that are constantly in play for working-class people, such as being made redundant, can often bring the dream crashing down, as happens to Pete and Joey.

This sequence is an important part of the film. It creates an impression of a run-down land, where opportunities disappeared a long time ago. Shebib is allowing the audience to experience the contrast between what the characters are escaping from, and the world that they escape to. Of course, in the end, we discover that things are basically the same, wherever one chooses to go, and alienation and poverty are hard things to escape. As Bruce Elder (p. 144) states, “The film’s naturalistic features are integral to the story of the Maritimer’s efforts to make it in Toronto, for they are evidence of the less than ideal conditions in which the characters find themselves.” The opening sequence, with its naturalistic, and realistic, shots of landscape, set the conditions for the story perfectly.

Works Cited

Belanger, Claude, ‘Newfoundland History: Early Colonization and Settlement Policy in Newfoundland’, 1950, retrieved from: http://faculty.marianopolis.edu/c.belanger/nfldhistory/NewfoundlandHistory-EarlyColonizationandSettlementofNewfoundland.htm

Elder, R. Bruce, ‘Image and Identity: Reflections on Canadian Film and Culture’, Wilfred Laurier University Press, Ontario, 1989.

McSorley, Tom, ‘Donald Shebib’, Canadian Film Encyclopedia, web, retrieved from http://tiff.net/CANADIANFILMENCYCLOPEDIA/content/bios/donald-shebib

Plummer, Kevin, ‘Historicist: Hustle, Bustle, Rush, and Roar’, Torontoist.com, October 9, 2010, retrieved from http://torontoist.com/2010/10/historicist_hustle_bustle_rush_and_roar/

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Movie Review

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