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Entertaining but not totally enlightening documentary on the road movie genre

Author: bob the moo from United Kingdom
26 January 2013

I recently watched another BBC4 documentary from Rich Hall and enjoyed it so much that it reminded me that he had done others I was yet to see. As a result I managed to seek out Continental Drifters in which he examines the road movie genre – a genre which he explains is almost uniquely American in its creation. The film traces the roots of the American love of the car and the open road and follows the genre from the 1940's (The Grapes of Wrath and Detour) through to the more recent examples of Paris, Texas and Thelma and Louise (although it makes me feel old to think of those films, both over 20 years old now, and call them recent – but comparatively they are).

This film tries to cover a lot of ground in terms of cultural context, the history of the road network within the US and then of course the films themselves and as a result it is not totally successful for anyone looking for an in-depth documentary into any one of those subjects. Instead Hall tries to present everything needed in the simplest terms so that the viewer comes away with more of an appreciation of the roots of the genre and what it became over the decades, rather than really drilling down to cover all the details. The focus is this appreciation and it has to be done in a way that is entertaining too. So we get constant comedic presentation of the subject as well as asides where he digs at Jeremy Clarkson and George Lucas (not at the same time). As the subject is simpler than his film on Native Americans, I didn't think this approach worked quite as well as it had there but this is because I didn't find the subject to be as engaging. It was still consistently amusing though and Hall's presentation and humor gives the film a good rhythm throughout.

There are a lot of clips and a lot of films discussed but unfortunately too many are discussed very generically and it would have been better to have drawn more specific points out, dropping a few nuggets the viewer doesn't know along the way, but as I say, the lighthearted tone and steady pace it had made it engaging as a general overview. This wasn't quite as strong as his most recent film then, but still an engaging 90 minutes and Rich Hall makes very good company across it.

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