Passenger Lust: An Essay by Nora Rosenthal

Easy Rider, 1969

A rental store was, to teenaged me, the mythic backdrop against which I would meet, and successfully flirt with, boys. That indistinct dick-possessing multitude I thought about with the all-consuming testosterone-fueled dick-grabbing fantasy of the angry adolescent girl with exemplary grades. My scheme was to lurk in the back of my neighbourhood rental place, languidly browsing titles no one I knew ever wanted to watch, in the hopes that, in the dust that smelled of ice cream and asthmatic longing, I would find the anonymous dick of my dreams. Then we’d go off and drink coffee like teens in movies whose subject is something other than teen drug abuse and jerk each other off like teens in movies whose subject is premarital sex. 

My inner film was fleshy, art-house, and without dialogue. Meanwhile, I rented movies with the panting enthusiasm of people having actual sex. And here is how I discovered the road movie. Maybe because porn was too close to what I most desired, and maybe because I also couldn’t drive, but the road movie was it. And the first, or the first to stick onto my mopey virgin psyche, was Two Lane Blacktop

Natural Born Killers, 1994

Natural Born Killers, 1994

Thelma & Louise, 1991

Bonnie and Clyde, 1967

In the 1971 cult film, everyone is existentially stripped down to their title: The Driver, The GTO, The Girl, The Mechanic, and a series of hitchhikers and cops later listed in the credits by state of origin. The overwhelming colour of the film is a textured blue-grey: an elephant seen at night, an expensive purebred cat, a suede shoe. And in the midst of this all The Girl (forever sweet-faced Laurie Bird) has to do is exude a faint aura of on the lam and she can get laid with the sludgiest long-haired drivers her era had to offer. Her role as mop-headed innocent who’s totally down to fuck might not fly today, but you are not experiencing the rabid slobbering pornographic jealousy of the Straight A Teen. 

And I was so busy mentally mapping my face onto hot pouty passengers with big eyes and little braless breasts and big American skies above them that I never noticed the total absence of women at the wheel. Themselves throbbing down a highway at night, picking up smelly men with nice faces. Where does this absence live? Where are the purgatorial bars where all these lonely women with greasy hair hang out wistfully clinking the keys to their old cars and not talking? What hotels do they sleep at, mostly alone and occasionally with utilitarian company? Because this absence percolated into me, deep into my psyche, me who loves holding sway, me who hurtles along through life with a show of egalitarian ideas while tamping down all the while a raging internal Will to Power. 

Two Lane Blacktop, 1971

Faster, Pussycat, Kill! Kill!, 1965

Faster, Pussycat, Kill! Kill!, 1965

And yet, I am still scared shitless of driving, sweating copiously at the wheel. But I was and am still stupidly unscared, just like The Girl, of the role of passenger. The Girl, who at one point meekly objects, “Why don’t I ever get to sit up front?” Sure, nothing ends well for Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s Wyatt and Billy in Easy Rider, but are they ever easeful on the road. Hopper even does an arabesque on his motorcycle, his quiet swagger is that palpable. All The Girl gets is a single hasty driving lesson that abruptly ends in a gropey kiss when she can’t cope with the stick shift. 

Trying to drum up a selection of filmic idols, of female drivers whose competency is only rivaled by their moody appeal, is pathetically difficult. There is of course Faye Dunaway’s Bonnie of Bonnie and Clyde, trapped in a tense and sexless relationship and eventually shot to smithereens. Juliette Lewis’ Mallory Knox in Natural Born Killers may have the better sex life if the less wholesome personality, but is likewise poor and criminal and completely co-dependent. The entire cast of Faster, Pussycat, Kill! Kill! are sexy grindhouse freaks, petty glorious in their way, but again, murderous and still trapped in the fetish universe of the male gaze. The closest we get to that seething feeling of freedom and escape of past is Thelma and Louise, and the very pretext of their freedom is sexual assault, the retaliation of which can’t fail to eventually sabotage their frenzied last hurrah.  

This should leave me with a passion for driving, for the agency withheld from all my favourite road film starlets, but instead I have only a passenger’s passion, dead phone in a coat pocket and some world weary expression of neutrality belying a total incapacitating thrill. My joy increases exponentially with adjacent cliffsides, desolate dark highway, oncoming sleet-like storm or even that famously dangerous dusk where deer and children at play blend grayly into the contours of oncoming trucks.

And paradoxically, the less I know the driver, the more easily I nod off, thrill mysteriously evolving into a narcoleptic cozy sense of ease. The kind of dumb comfort that invites kidnaping and death. It’s as if the pleasure of the passing landscape is so hallucinatorily huge, just to be somewhere totally new and passively sucking up the sight of gas stations and or rocks and or farms and forest motels—all the bland archetypes of New Topographers but also postcards—exerts me so blissfully that I need to post-coitally snooze afterwards with delusional happiness under the giant iguana lamp of somebody else’s windshield.

In the road film, unlike the world, there are seemingly no friends or companions, just co-existers with hurtling forward momentum. Both alone and not-alone. Alone like the carapace of a beetle or like a UFO in daytime. Not-alone like a fillet on a plate of rice (the thousand granular companions!); not-alone like the so-called purr of an engine that blends with the screams of drunks and songbirds at dawn. 

But somewhere you’ve got to suspect there’s more to an idiosyncratic love of passengering than internalized female self-doubt or passivity, some culturally-taught blight on your otherwise immaculately self-assured personhood. You realize that you like being the passenger because you, like the broody stars racing for pink slips, you (real and whole and of the world and not the rental place) can be alone and not be alone at the same time. The passenger gets to fidget. The passenger, saying goodbye to her reflexes and responsibility in the embrace of a catapulting energy, can idly curl, can chat with one mouth and scheme with one brain and pick her fingers and stretch her hamstrings on the dashboard. Can turn behind and peer hopelessly into the past.