No Bus, No Fuss

I have a rant about public transportation and people’s behavior on it brewing inside me. Trust that I will repress it till a more appropriate time and a better place (in all probability never and nowhere, because rants about public transportation behavior are venting and many of them tend to be pretty much “get off my lawn”-y and achieve nothing positive).

Let’s talk a little, instead, about road trips.

The hero’s journey has been a part of fiction as long as fiction has been written down, as far as I can tell. And it seems that frequently the movement through space often parallels some inner movement or growth. I mean – this is litcrit 101 stuff, really.

But a road trip is something that I think is often both more specific and more vague than just a journey. A road trip is definitely at least as much about the journey as it is about the destination.

The mere concept of a road trip strikes me as really American and rooted in American’s notions of independent lateral movement as one of our fundamental freedoms or something inherent to the American spirit. Road trips in life can be spontaneous, self-directed, and contain arbitrary diversions and twists. This is often echoed when they come up in pop culture, in my experience.

The vital aspects that define a road trip in my head are thus:

  • the traveler is moving at their own pace – there is lots of room for schedule shift
  • stops happen when and as the traveler is feeling it
  • there may be an objective but there is not a point-by-point plan on reaching that objective
  • the traveler is open to the possibilities of the universe or fate or whatever you want to call it and also open to eating some truly awful diner food

The venerable and gravitational TV Tropes claims road trip fictions are usually comedies and are vulnerable to cascades of cliches and to sappiness. And frankly, I am frequently vulnerable to those things myself, and so may not be the best judge of the depth of their truth, there. The road trip stories I like the best, though, often share characteristics I find more poignant than that.

Close Quarters – Magnified Interactions

Anyone who has been in a car with someone for four hours or more knows how it can make a relationship closer or leave it cracked and teetering on the edge of an abyss or even both, by turns. Fictions that use road trips often take advantage of this and give us moments of emotional intensity that is tangential to any intensity of situation.

Sensory Immersion

Real life road trips are steeped in a sense of place and of passing. Movies often echo this and give us a sense of the landscape being traveled through that includes soundscapes, vistas and even visions of foods and scents that can only be transported to the viewer via imagination.

Inner Journey with the Outer

Road trips are not just about getting somewhere. They are deeply about the experience of the interval between leaving and arriving. There’s something mindful about bringing your brain through space and through the different environments and experiences it represents. And even if you just wind up back at home, the brain you come back with isn’t the one you left with. And the only thing that connects the story together is the path that brain took.

Meandering or Lateral Narrative Structure

Like a road trip itself, a road trip story often doesn’t take a direct approach to moving its characters through the story. Emotional beats can switch quickly with place and the shifts in physical space can be like a renewal of the mental – one doesn’t exactly start fresh in each location, but it’s easier to move from one beat to another without direct cause and effect.

Ordinary Obstacles: New Frameworks

People on road trips aren’t exempt from the boring business of keeping the body alive, and often the beats in a road trip story have something to do with meeting a usual need in an unusual location or being forced to meet it in an unusual way.

* * *

Of course, all of this really hinges on what is and isn’t a road trip movie. And certainly there are lots of arguments to be made and definitions one could mete out here. By these criteria, Magic Mike 2 and Priscilla: Queen of the Desert are road trip movies, sure, but so are The Wizard of Oz, or Mad Max: Fury Road. 

I mean – even the TV Tropes folks would agree, I think, that when you start *really* building boxes for stories to go in, you can wind up defining almost as many as there are stories.

And my list isn’t really intended to be a definition, just a group of qualities I enjoy about road trip movies (and about road trips, for that matter). I’ll leave the boundary-painting to other folks.

Dragons Exist

“Fairy tales,” Neil Gaiman once wrote, “are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

Narratives can teach us that we can win against our demons, or, I suppose, that we can lose. They also teach us the costs of fighting and of persevering. There is a strength to knowing one isn’t in that fight alone. And a strength in knowing that success is what happens if you keep going through failure after failure.

Modern fairy tales can also teach us other things. I was thinking about this again, in regards to The Shape of Water. We can learn that the one wearing a dragon skin may not always be an enemy. Just as ones wearing human skin are not always friends.

Of course, anyone who grew up a little bit Different already knows this. The ones wearing human skins (and standing, often as not, in judgement over our own) are not always friends, do not always have our best interests at heart (even when they’re supposed to) and sometimes set out to wound and erode.

One could make an argument that a dragonish heart is what makes a dragon — that someone who behaves so poorly is a dragon no matter how human the skin they are wearing. But we all know what assumptions are made when difference is so palpable and what pressures are put upon the different.

Through the cultural forge, we sometimes learn that it is easier to hate ourselves than it is to incorporate the truth that society can be quite as unfair as it is.  If you believe in the justice of judgments passed upon you, it’s an ugly feeling, but the cognitive dissonance is so much less that it can be a relief, at least temporarily.

So stories where monster and beloved are one and the same are distinctly powerful. Through people sympathizing with the ugly, the broken, the overly powerful, the weak, the different and the peculiar, we learn not only that dragons can be beaten, but that they can be appreciated. They can be supported. They can be loved.

Knowing that you can be loved no matter how monstrous you appear to yourself or others is at least as profound a statement as that that evil can be defeated. That you do not, in fact, have to stop being a monster to be loved. That there is nothing wrong at all with what many people find to be monstrous.

Here are a few films for when you feel like an unloved dragon:



Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Warm Bodies

Wreck-It Ralph

What We Do In The Shadows


Young Frankenstein

What’s funny? The Curse of Corrosive Snobbery

[This post contains spoilers for A Bad Moms Christmas and Bridesmaids]

A friend of mine, after I posted about not liking cringe humor a few weeks back, asked me what kind of humor I do like in movies.

She loves lots of cringe humor and considers that we have very similar senses of humor (we definitely find a lot of the same stuff funny) and wondered, I think, where the disconnect is.

I generally don’t consider myself a fan of comedy movies qua comedy movies. So many of them seem to feature humor that is cruel and punches down (humor that hinges on mocking people who are already disadvantaged in our culture), or takes someone else’s embarrassment and expects me to laugh at it.

A prime example of this kind of humor is Bridesmaids, which I went to see because all the media around it kept harping on the notion that it was a make or break for women in comedy — as though if that movie failed, there would be a decade before there were any more comedies featuring women.

As it was, it did pretty well and paved the way for The HeatGirls Trip and Pitch Perfect and a lot of the other great women-led comedies of the past several years. (Not that it was the only thing paving the way for these films, but without it, some of them may not have been green lit.)

I found a lot of the movie terribly funny, but some scenes made me squirm and at least one made me want to wither and die right there in the theater. The scene where one of the characters, bitter that everyone else can afford to fly first class and she can’t, gets super drunk and makes a scene on the plane.

Watching someone continuously and egregiously push social boundaries like that tweaks my anxiety in the worst way. I’m sure there’s plenty of psychological issues inherent in my reaction, but it goes well beyond finding it not funny. It hurts.

I enjoy absurdist humor. I enjoy fourth-wall breaking and self-aware self-mockery. The Heat‘s humor all came out of the main characters being unapologetically what they were and then doing the best they could. They weren’t incompetent or bumbling, but they did behave outside of expectations for their jobs and gender sometimes. They felt real and honest and well-drawn. Most of the humor came out of their methods conflicting with each other and how they each learned to roll with the other’s style.

So I don’t actually hate comedies. I like them. But I’m wary of embracing them all sight unseen as a group the way I do scifi films or horror films. Yes there are films I can’t stand in the latter two genres, but there are a lot fewer and it feels like the reasons I don’t like those films are individual and specific rather than a systemic issue that builds to a whole sub-genre of things that make me squirm in discomfort.

Of course, this disinclination to engage with an entire genre can lead me to miss stuff that I should see.

This weekend, I saw A Bad Moms Christmas with a friend. In spite of my adoration of Mila Kunis and Kristen Bell, I hadn’t seen the first film in the franchise. I saw this one because I’ve been having a nagging feeling that missing the first one was an error.

BMC may be my new favorite Christmas movie. It was hilarious. It was also moving in places, but wasn’t too heavy. Perhaps the funniest scene in it involved one of the main characters waxing the genitalia of a male stripper and having a romantic meet-cute conversation with him at the same time. It was genuinely a sweet conversation but the juxtaposition of the sweet words with over-exaggerated waxing sound-effects and matter of fact descriptions of what was going on out of the camera’s sight lines made it so fucking funny to me.

Everyone in that scene was happy. No one was (emotionally) uncomfortable. Yet I laughed my ass off.

Humor and laughter are a way of processing disrupted expectations and assumptions. So is anxiety. I almost feel like they’re two areas of a spectrum the way that anger and sadness are two areas of the spectrum of dealing with hurt and disappointment. It’s not really a surprise to me that something that provokes laughter in one person might well provoke anxiety in another.

Opening myself up to a broader range of art always feels like a good thing to me. And the knee-jerk snobbery and fear that leads me to avoid entire franchises or entire genres, sometimes always winds up leading me astray in the end.

So I don’t know exactly where to draw the lines. Maybe they should just go entirely. After all, being anxious for a little while in a movie isn’t the worst thing in the world. But, of course, lines always get drawn because I can’t see everything. We’ll see.

In the meantime, here’s a short (and incomplete) list of comedies I really, really enjoyed:

The To-Do List

Love and Friendship

Pitch Perfect

Obvious Child

Dear White People

Top Five

What We Do In The Shadows



What do all these films have in common? Not freaking much, as far as I can tell.

It’s finally getting genuinely cold, here. Today is clear and bright with a crisp breeze. It’s just the kind of autumn day I like the best. It makes me want to take a journey (not a trip…a serious Journey) or contrarywise to do picturesque fall things like baking or trekking through the woods in big boots and a chunky sweater or reading in a big chair under a hand-knitted blanket with hot tea at my elbow.

Of course, I work at a university, so autumn is usually the time of year I am least able to do things like that. Fortunately for me, actual fall weather held off till the second week of November, here. I can do all the picturesque things I want in the deep dark of evenings when the sun sets an hour and a half before I get off work.

It’s a season for comfort in food, in living space and in mind. We sit in the brief pause between the Halloween feasting season and the endless festive crawl that is the Thanksgiving into Hanukka into Christmas (and in particular all the relentless commercialized frivolity the latter exposes us all too, which are awful even if Christmas is a holiday you celebrate and can be a freaking apocalyptic nightmare if you don’t).

Just anticipating the mix of good and bad of stress and fun together that the Festive Season represents can make me feel as small and irrational as Gir in Invader Zim. Who eats his cupcake and then cries about it being gone.

Gir crying and saying 'Awww...I miss you, cupcake.'

We can all take this pause before we’re exposed to endless parties with uncomfortable co-worker chitchat and tense family meals where you’re just bracing yourself for some relative to say something microaggressive (or, indeed, just aggressive) about something near and dear to your heart, to feed our souls before the storm hits.

I feed mine with comfort foods and with comfort fictions. After the spook-fest of Halloween, I often like some serious rose-colored glasses viewing and reading material. It’s the time of year I’m most likely to re-read the Oz books, for example. Or to watch some of my favorite classic movie musicals like Hello, Dolly or Singin’ In the Rain.

Sometimes I also like to re-watch favorites from when I was a kid like The Muppet Movie or Pollyanna or the Winnie the Pooh Disney movie.

I also like shows with unreasonable amount of idealism (Vicar of Dibley) or an unreasonable amount of fantasy wish fulfillment (Leverage).

The real trick is to find something that I’ve never seen before that feeds the gaping maw of my small, irrational feelings to stave off the weltschmerz that winter can bring.

In the same way that it can be difficult, in adulthood, to find something that *blows your mind* and excites and captivates you as much as the things you loved in your youth, it can also be difficult to find anything that makes you feel as safe and as positive.

This is the time of year I go out on limbs for high-quality schmaltz. I like to find small, happy stories that make the best of the world shine a little brighter. I think this is the impulse at the back of the scores and scores of truly awful Christmas films and specials that infest everywhere in December. But I am looking for something more emotionally resonant than those — something that can truly soothe the savage anxiety brain-weasels and make the dark seem cozy instead of opressive.

It’s rare enough that I am not sure I can name the last time I saw a film that struck me this way, though a few things I’ve seen this year vibrate on the same frequency.

Table 19 is a comedic drama that has realistic and bitter moments, but has an overall warm and human feel that makes it well worth the ride. It’s difficult to describe without giving away the twists and turns but suffice it to say: the trailer is not remotely using the full emotional palette.

The Big Sick is on the very short list of romantic comedies that I adore. Perhaps because it’s a story straight out of real life. Perhaps because the comedy is tempered with plenty of heavy things. Probably, though, it’s just because it doesn’t follow any of the stupid compulsory-heterosexuality tracks that romcoms often do.

Logan Lucky is a story about people being much more clever and devious and ingenious and persistent than other people believe possible. And then developing a nefarious plan that is applied for good. It felt almost like a lost Leverage episode to me, in some ways.

Hidden Figures is another inspired-by-life movie about awesome women kicking ass against a system that is one hundred percent designed to hold them back. It also has bonus space nerdery. (Space nerdery is always a point in something’s favor for me.)

Gifted is a movie about family being difficult and human and also being super important.

I’m sure I’ll encounter more movies that are almost right before next fall. And if I am very lucky, maybe I’ll find a film that will be worthy of watching in a double bill with The Music Man….while sitting under a hand-knitted blanket with hot tea at my elbow.

In the meantime, I wish you mashed potatoes and gravy.