“The Road Movie”: Absence, Obscured Vision, and Haunted Frames

Dmitri Kalashnikov’s The Road Movie – a found footage compilation assembled entirely from recent Russian dash cam recordings – is frequently concerned with the display of carnivalesque spectacle. Wild car crashes and road rage incidents intermingle in an often-surreal dance with windshield-views of police chases, animals darting into traffic, and strange weather conditions. An emphasis on spectacle privileges the hyper visible and the image captured on video with unbelievable timing and clarity. Despite this, I couldn’t help but find myself more so drawn to moments throughout the film that instead complicated such notions of vision. Rather than simply presenting carnage and calamity front-and-center (like an outlandish mash-up of America’s Funniest Home Videos, Ridiculousness, and Faces of Death), Kalashnikov’s documentary collage is often comprised of images that are quite difficult to discern or contextualize – the once legible suddenly rendered obscured or distorted by thick darkness, blinding light, precipitation, dirt, shattered glass, digital glitch, and the very limits of the dash cam itself.

Not dissimilar to the act of driving (cars rushing by out of view, blind spots troubling our sense of what is near us on the road, the shifting proportions of buildings and bodies, wipers pushing away moisture and grime), the film represents a continuous tension between presence and absence. Thinking through this tension in the most straightforward way, we of course only see what the dash cam sees, our vision restricted to directly in front of the car. Despite the expansive shooting coverage and continuous recording and storage capabilities of these dash cams, the footage culled from the Internet for The Road Movie is still fragmentary and incomplete – not just in the blurred edges and limited frames of the camera itself, but in the ways we can assume the footage to have been edited by both Kalashnikov and those that originally uploaded the videos.

Given to ellipses, missing pieces, and lack of resolution, The Road Movie offers a way to critically consider the limits and challenges of both the mechanisms of surveillance and the documentary form. The privilege of the hyper visible and the supposed revelation of some type of truth are here put into question by the things we don’t see in the film – the moments where absence figures more prominently and grows more affectively resonant than the presence of bodies and objects within the frame. Early in the film, we witness a scene where a construction truck cuts across the shot, slowly tipping on its side as it careens from the top right of the frame to the bottom left, quickly disappearing from our view. Though we hear a loud thud and the concerned conversation of those within the car capturing the footage, we never see the moment of impact or the aftermath of the accident. What is the condition of the truck? Is the driver hurt, or worse? Have other people and cars been harmed? Kalashnikov often doesn’t answer such pressing questions throughout the film, leaving the audience to wonder as we shift to the next exhilarating video.

Speculation and difficulties with vision are thus defining features of The Road Movie. Indeed, the film begins with a still shot of opaque whites and grays, the camera’s eye dominated by falling snow and dense fog. Ice-covered wipers oscillate across the screen as the dash cam struggles to maintain focus – the recording technology at the heart of the film here already implicated as potentially unable to provide consistent or reliable vision. When the car begins to move, fragments of the road and hazy outlines of cars fade in and out of view. This is an anxiety-inducing moment, one that foregrounds the possibilities of danger that lurk within and beyond the frames of so many scenes featured across the film. While Kalashnikov could have successfully announced such prospects of ruin and loss by opening the film with a garish and dynamic car crash, I find it significant that the first image we see is so fuzzy, hushed, and drained of vibrancy.

In this way, bodily harm, vehicular destruction, and aberrant behaviors cannot just be thought of as stars of the show – the reasons for watching the film, the only things to be gleaned from combing through hours of dash cam footage, or the lessons learned about life on the road (in Russia or elsewhere). Rather, the specters of death, devastation, and transgression haunt the frames of The Road Movie. Lingering beyond both the horizon of the roadway and the scope of the camera are the possibilities of trauma, confrontation, cartoonish excess, and overall bewilderment; when these moments do occur, they leave traces across seemingly disconnected videos – a spectral residue that allows the film to be far more poetic and even experimental than its surface appearance as a feature length gag-reel might suggest.

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In one such moment, two cars collide on a wintry road, the car supplying our POV breaking just in time to avoid crashing as well. Kalashnikov allows the footage to run for about three minutes as concerned motorists check on the passengers involved in the incident. Offscreen, the voice of a woman asks her husband if “everyone is alive” – his response: “Everybody’s alive…still.” The film abruptly cuts to black, transitioning to footage of a vivid lightning storm right out of a horror film – the silhouettes of trees jarringly illuminated by pulsing fragments of white and purple. That “still” at the end of the husband’s response haunts the storm footage that follows, a simultaneous assurance of safety and a reminder that mortality is not a guarantee.

While the bursts of lightning both accentuate such sentiments with a kind of foreboding power and create a further disjointed frame, they also feel oddly calming. The Road Movie is filled with similar passages: gently waving blades of grass viewed through cracked lenses; gorgeous streaks of color and light on rain-soaked windows; flames of violet and orange giving off a spectral glow as they yield to ash and smoke. Though these shots might obscure vision or leave us wanting to see beyond the scope of the dash cam (or, pushing this further, create the desire to escape the car), they ultimately strike me as often quite lovely and indeed necessary; in a film all about perpetually watching and being watched, these moments of stasis and abstraction – moments where there is supposedly “nothing” to see, where the spectacle is unexpected or even non-existent – are visually gripping reminders of the beauty and strangeness of the everyday that these dash cams find themselves endlessly recording.

 

Alex Svensson is a PhD Candidate in Film and Media Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, and his research focuses on the intersections and tensions between horror media, promotional culture, and mediated public and private spaces. He currently resides in Boston, where he works as a film studies Technical Instructor at MIT. Previously, he studied film production and theory as both an undergrad and MFA student at Boston University. His work can be found in Transformative Works and Cultures, Participations: Journal of Audience & Reception Studies, and the recently launched Ruining Trailers blog. 
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