What’s the longest you’ve sat in traffic? Whatever it is, consider that a blessing and be thankful you’re not in the world’s largest traffic jam, currently in its tenth day outside Beijing, China, in the Inner Mongolia region and Hebei province. Stretching at least 60 miles, it’s expected to last weeks. Far longer than the comparative bit of congestion you expect to encounter next weekend when you go away for Labor Day. In fact, the cause of the pile-up is road construction that won’t be finished until mid-September. It’s not stand-still, but autos are reportedly only gaining half a mile a day. Meanwhile vendors are capitalizing on the jam by selling extremely overpriced noodles and water, yet drivers are said to be putting up with the whole ordeal rather than finding other routes because they’d rather save on gas.
Traffic jams have been a great source of inspiration for cinema, resulting in a number of memorable scenes in anything from silent comedies to foreign classics to modern disaster and horror flicks. But none of these can really compare to current cluster over in Northern China. Hopefully someone is documenting the incident and tying it to the problems of increased automobile use in the PRC. Maybe Lixin Fan can do for road traffic what he did for train overcrowding in the brilliant “Last Train Home.” For now, let’s look at some of the great, yet now seemingly tiny jams throughout cinema.
“Two Tars” (James Parrott, 1928)
One of Laurel & Hardy’s best silent shorts, this comedy shows us what road rage looked like back when cars were very easily taken apart by feuding motorists. Stan and Ollie play sailors on leave who’ve rented a car and are out for a joyride with their girlfriends. Eventually they come to a stop on a country road where construction has caused initial congestion and a vehicle is blocking the single lane of available traffic after running out of gas. Once the slapstick heroes show up to the party all hell breaks lose as they start fights with a number of motorists and ultimately a cop. It’s hard to imagine the automotive industry took kindly to “Two Tars” given how fragile the cars — and the policeman’s motorcycle — appear in the film. Parts are ripped off, whole vehicles are tipped over with little effort or collapse on impact — or they just simply break down. Here’s the second half of the film (the jam begins at the end of the first half, which you can watch here), featuring most of the mayhem:
“8 1/2” (Federico Fellini, 1963)
Very likely my favorite opening scene of all time, from one of the greatest films ever made. This jam is part of a nightmare dream sequence in which Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) is stuck in a standstill an underpass. Others halted at the scene include Guido’s mistress, Carla, though we don’t know her yet (we don’t even know Guido, or see his face, for that matter). Suddenly his car fills up with smoke from the ventilation system and he struggles to get out of his car, from which he ultimately floats up and escapes. The sequence is an metaphorical prologue laying out the filmmaker’s career standstill, creative trappings and the suffocation he feels from the industry, from which he attempts to fly away.
“Week End” (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967)
Certainly the most famous of movie traffic jams is the metaphorical one at the center of this grand finale of Godard’s peak period. It kind of does for bourgeoisie travel what Bunuel would do for bourgeoisie dinner parties a few years later, somewhat delaying a Parisian couple’s trip to the wife’s parents home. Even if you’ve never seen the classic film you’ve no doubt heard of the lengthy tracking shot along the gridlock, with its lions and monkeys and horseshit and chess playing and bloody accidents being passed by the couple in their black convertible. Godard apparently meant for the sequence to annoy the audience, but I’m one of the many people for whom the shot fails since I enjoy it every time.
“The Cannonball Run” (Hal Needham, 1981)
Yes, I’m following Godard with Needham, a stunt driver-turned-director of comedies involving stunt driving. Most starring Burt Reynolds. I’m probably also forgetting traffic jams in his “Smokey and the Bandit” movies and other guilty pleasure Southern-set trucker movies that I adored as a youth. I mainly recall this moment of “The Cannonball Run,” in which Reynolds and the rest of the all-star cast are halted by another big road block (this one not arranged by anti-Cannonballer villain George Furth), because it’s obviously the perfect way to interrupt an ensemble film about a cross-country race for which to have all the characters come together for a climactic sequence of rivalry confrontations and a unifying brawl with a biker gang before quickly wrapping the movie up at the finish line.
“Falling Down” (Joel Schumacher, 1993)
From one of Schumacher’s few great movies comes this opening sequence that sets antagonist William Foster (Michael Douglas) off on his insane, rage-filled odyssey through Los Angeles on the way to his young daughter’s birthday party. I just realized while re-watching this after the “8 1/2” opening that it’s surely influenced by the Fellini. Only here it’s a bee rather than smoke that triggers his escape. Now I want to believe Foster once had an affair with that woman applying lipstick. Also, I know REM’s “Everybody Hurts” video came before “Falling Down” and was inspired by “8 1/2,” but Michael Stipe would fit in more here than in the earlier film.
“12 Monkeys” (Terry Gilliam, 1995)
It’s a quick little scene in the movie when Cole (Bruce Willis) and Kathryn (Madeline Stowe) are in a stalled cab on route to the airport as a traffic jam is caused by giraffes, elephants, lions, zebras and other zoo animals let loose by the Army of the 12 Monkeys, but it’s a beautiful moment when the duo realize the true mission of crazy-eyed Jeffrey (Brad Pitt). It’s interesting how many great traffic scenes involve animals, like the one in “Week End” and a humorous accident and subsequent pile up in John Schlesinger’s “Honky Tonk Freeway” (1981). I can’t find a clip of the “12 Monkeys” scene, so here’s a so-so quality screenshot instead:
“Deep Impact” (Mimi Leder, 1998)
Traffic jams are a common sight in disaster movies. There’s the traffic leaving alien-destroyed cities and the traffic attempting to leave cities threatened by global-warming-causing tidal waves. But this is my favorite, the traffic on a road towards higher ground as people flee the Atlantic coast in anticipation of a comet-fragment-causing megatsunami. Never mind all the usual smashing of the NYC skyline and other disaster film staples, the heart of this moment is in the stalled drivers watching first as the fragment shoots across the sky and then abandoning their automobiles in a last chance effort to outrun the water. Elijah Wood and Leelee Sobieski just manage to weave through the traffic and escape via their motorbike, which illustrates the common cinematic reminder that two-wheel vehicles are always better in jams, traffic-wise and apocalyptic disaster-wise (but not Oliver & Hardy-wise, lets not forget).
“Office Space” (Mike Judge, 1999)
A post at The Consumerist about the China traffic jam related the motorists’ desire to stick with it to “not wanting to switch lines at the grocery store because you’ve already stood in the current one so long.” The comparison immediately reminded me of the opening of “Office Space,” which is a spot-on gag depicting what always happens to us impatient drivers who try to get into the lane that’s moving only for it to become the one stationary lane. And yeah, the same thing happens to us at toll booths, grocery stores and ticket counters. Once again this list has me realizing that these movies all tie together. “Office Space” is like a lighter look at a mental collapse similar to that in “Falling Down.” Actually, Milton is the one that’s most likely to end up shooting up a fast food joint, I guess. But he doesn’t drive to work.
“Final Destination 2” (David R. Ellis, 2003)
When is a traffic jam really great? When it saves your life, such as the one caused by a prognostic young woman who foresees a deadly highway accident while sitting on the on ramp and then refuses to move her vehicle, keeping the drivers and passengers behind her safe from the actual disaster. Of course, those people she saves end up dying gruesomely soon afterward, because the woman disrupted Death’s plan. You can imagine that following the horror sequel’s spectacular opening sequence that another jam occurred on that highway for quite some time. That mess is going to require a lot of clean up.
“Taking Woodstock” (Ang Lee, 2009)
Lee’s film about the story behind Woodstock is not great, but it has a lot of worthwhile moments. Most of them involve Imelda Staunton, but one not featuring the actress brings us through the infamous jam blocking the New York State Thruway. And again we see the benefit of having a motorcycle in such a situation, as Elliot (Demetri Martin) hitches a ride with a state trooper (fortunately Oliver & Hardy are nowhere to be found) and the camera follows them as they pass a cornucopia of 1960s music fans on the way up to Max Yusgar’s farm. Unfortunately, the clip is not available online anywhere that I can find, so make do with the photo below and rent the movie if you ever want to see a criminally under-seen comic performance from Staunton. And Liev Schreiber in drag. Also, here’s a neat video of the real-life traffic heading toward the fest 41 years ago.