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Road Trip to Escape, USA

Artist Julie Langsam opens up about the open road, the dark side of sunsets, why Texas reminds her of NJ, and her favorite road trip films.

#WeAreMadeOfMigrations #LivingArchive

Julie Langsam, Still image from documentary, to be released 2022. Image courtesy of the artist.
Julie Langsam, Linden, Pink Pipe (Pink Stripe), 2021. Ink on photograph. 11 x 8.5 in.

Within the safety of our screens, the moving image transports us when we can’t transport ourselves. We can travel across oceans, bounce through time and soar into far-off galaxies, all from the comforts of our own stillness. But nothing revs us up like a road trip on film. The soundtrack isn’t inside your head, it’s blasting from the car speakers. The windshield isn’t so much shielding as it is framing carefully crafted narratives of adventure, longing, decay, youth and malaise. With characters stuck together for hours on end, a car interior makes for the perfect confessional for our sins and desires. And while we may be obsessed with over-the-top car chase scenes, it's within the speed limits of a road trip where our human dramas unfold.

Artist and filmmaker Julie Langsam knows a thing or two about the power of the open road, and myriad landscapes that burn onto our collective imagination. For Issue 1, as she was concluding a 3-month, 15,000-mile long journey to capture footage for her new feature-length film, we asked Langsam to imagine new landscapes along the Turnpike. The result is a set of piercing images that colorfully augment what she calls “cuts into the fabric of normalcy and complacency.”

With her film now in final production, Dense editor Andrew Harrison invited Langsam back into a conversation, to open up about the open road, the dark side of sunsets, why Texas reminds her of New Jersey, the courage we find in unsuspecting places, and her “Best Of” list of favorite road trip films.


Julie Langsam, Still image from documentary, to be released 2022. Image courtesy of the artist.
Julie Langsam, Still image from documentary, to be released 2022. Image courtesy of the artist.

ANDREW HARRISON: At the end of your essay in Issue 1, you left us with a doozy of a cliffhanger:

As I write this, I have just spent 95 consecutive days driving 14, 678 miles on roads and highways all across the country, documenting the United States as seen through the lens of the landscape. [Robert] Smithson forced us to look at our everyday surroundings and consider these structures as soon-to-be (if not already) relics, or remnants of our battered civilization. But we can also look at the spaces in between those monuments --- to the landscape --- for glimpses of our future.

It turns out, you went on that 3-month journey to make a film! [laughs]

JULIE LANGSAM: I did! Along the way, I got to understand the phenomenon of ‘going on the road’ or ‘taking to the road’. My first introduction to the idea of being “On the Road” was by way of Kerouac’s novel, and film versions do it particularly well, too, but within the “road trip” category are all these subcategories: the buddy movie, the outlaw movie, the searching-for-something movie. Then on top of that is what the film looks and feels like, whether that’s in the style of noir, sci-fi, fantasy or realism.

AH: But let’s be real, we all know that great road trips start on the New Jersey Turnpike! [laughs] So, what kind of questions were you thinking about on the road? What were you looking for in that cinematic road movie sort of way?

JL: I was trying to make a film that looked and felt like Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven but told as real and compelling a story as Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA which, interestingly, is the very first documentary I ever saw.

AH: In your essay, you described paintings by Frederick Edwin Church as deeply inspirational but also complicated, especially in their desire and call for westward expansion. In what way were paintings like this on your mind as you made your own way west?

JL: The way I feel when I look at his paintings is both intoxicated by its beauty and stopped cold by its intentions. That is exactly how I feel when I look at a sunset, any sunset, anywhere. I see simultaneously, the sublimity of nature played out against the literal backdrop of ‘progress’. This conflation of beauty/horror is everywhere I look. I think it's just the way I actually ‘see’ things when I look at them, quite literally.

AH: Your beautiful new work for Issue 1 includes a series of photographs pierced by “interventions” you rendered in ink. As you made your way westward, did your notion of these disruptions, “cuts in the fabric of normalcy” as you describe them, change at all as you took in all the vastness? I wonder what type of future you may have imagined out there on the road.

Julie Langsam, Linden, Double Tanks (Yellow Sheet), 2021. Ink on photograph. 11 x 8.5 in.
Julie Langsam, Linden, Double Tanks (Yellow Sheet), 2021. Ink on photograph. 11 x 8.5 in.

JL: I see my hand drawn interventions into the photographic space as descriptors or placeholders for the literal intervention of human impact in and on the landscape. The future does not look good, unfortunately.

AH: In what way?

JL: I’ve taken this 15,000 mile trip twice, once in 2018 and again in 2021. The difference in only 3 years couldn’t be more stark. In 2018 I encountered one large forest fire in Colorado where I had to turn around and change direction. Fast forward to 2021, we couldn’t escape the fires; everywhere we headed, north, south, east the fires followed. The Dixie Fire burned for more than 3 months and scorched 963,309 acres; the Caldor Fire burned 221, 835; and the Snake River Complex Fire burned 109,444 acres. I was shocked to see Joshua Tree National Park decimated by a fire in 2020 that killed 1.3 million trees. Drought has increased dramatically-- we documented water lines in Lake Mead in both 2018 and 2021 and the reservoir has shrunk dramatically in this short time. It appears that soon there will not be enough water in the reservoir to produce any electricity.

The other disruption in the “fabric of normalcy” (besides the rampant destruction of the planet that just seems to increase exponentially every day) is this deep, deep cut in the psyche of humanity. As a collective culture we seem to have lost the ability to see others as we want to be seen ourselves and to have compassion for those who have less. It’s never seemed so ugly before in my lifetime, although I was not alive during the holocaust. But there is a lot of anger being stoked every minute of every day and it is deliberate, purposeful and effective, just as it was in the 1930’s.

AH: What other landscapes that you encountered on your trip immediately took you back to our beloved Garden State, for better or worse?

JL: Is it weird that Texas reminds me of New Jersey? [laughs] There are so many parallels. First, I completely fell in love with the area of Texas between Baytown and Texas City where the San Jacinto River feeds into Galveston Bay. It reminds me of one of my favorite places in New Jersey on the turnpike between Kearny and Carteret except on serious steroids. New Jersey is just so dense (!lol) that you can’t get far enough away from anything to really see it. Texas is, well, big. A structure that might take up a few blocks in NJ can sprawl over a mile or more in Texas. Then of course there is the beach which also reminds me very much of the beaches in the Garden State. But I have to say, there really is no other place that feels like New Jersey in its sheer density. You can’t really get far away anywhere, there are no unknown spaces/places. New Jersey really is unique.

AH: After 3 months on the road collecting interviews and footage, does Jersey look any different to you now?

JL: I don’t think so. It looks more like what I thought it looked like, if that makes sense. Seeing the rest of the country really solidified the singularity of our state. It really, truly is like nowhere else.

AH: You're a busy woman. Can you tell us a little about the more experimental film you’re also working on titled Garden State? I’ve seen a rough cut preview and the sonic quality of the landscape seems to play a large part in how you are thinking about the spaces you are depicting and it seems closely related to your ink on photographs you made for Issue 1.

Julie Langsam, Still image from documentary, to be released 2022. Image courtesy of the artist.
Julie Langsam, Still image from documentary, to be released 2022. Image courtesy of the artist.

JL: For a while now, I have been wanting to make a film that was kind of like a moving painting or a moving photograph. Or maybe a better way to say it would be a painting that took up time. I am interested in the verbs looking, viewing, seeing, which to me all seem very different from one another. I was thinking about how they could become one thing, one way of being present. The extended viewing of the image – which is only 20 seconds! – forces us to sit with the image until it is almost uncomfortable, to the point of becoming enveloping. The sound I think of as a form of both narration and interruption.

AH: Your film Garden State shows New Jersey in a very different way. Still, composed, and resonating sonically. What about this project made you make the jump from painting, which has been a large part of your practice to date, to film?

JL: I started painting in the 80’s. At that time, filmmaking was very expensive. The cost of film, processing, and editing, not to mention camera and crew, seemed very out of reach. I went to SUNY Purchase, which has a very robust film program, and I couldn’t see how the film students were financing their projects. I could barely afford to buy oil paint. But I was also watching a lot of movies in the 80’s and 90’s. The VCR really changed everything! And it really was the heyday of indie filmmaking at that time. So many films had an impact on me.

I remember once in the 90’s, I was at a dinner with Elizabeth Murray, who I was in awe of – the first woman painter that really felt, to my generation, that she was holding her own and flourishing as an artist equal to men – and Kenneth Dingwall, the chair of my department where I got my first full time teaching job. Anyway, during the dinner, I admitted that had I been born 10 years later, I probably would have ended up going to film school. They both looked horrified and said neither of them had ever had the desire to make a film. They were painters. I put the idea away. It was too complicated to make a film. Too many skills I didn’t have. Too much money I didn’t have. My stepmother was an award-winning documentary filmmaker. We were close and she died a painful death right before Covid hit. As she was dying, she told me that I should make this film. I told her I couldn't. I didn't know how. She said ‘you can do it’. That gave me the courage.

AH: Can you leave us with a few of your favorite road movies?

JL: So many! Seriously, there are too many. But this would be my “Best Of” list:

Badlands (1973)

Bonnie and Clyde (1987)

Days of Heaven (1978)

Easy Rider (!969)

Grapes of Wrath (1940)

It Happened One Night (1934)

Kings of the Road (!976)

Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Paris, Texas (1984)

Stranger than Paradise (!984)

The Road (2006)

Wanda (1970)

Wild at Heart (1990)

Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001)



Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in Green Book. Patti Perret / Universal Studios

Langsam warned us that her list could be much longer, which we took as an invitation to share a few more titles with you. 52 more, to be exact. Yes, we went a little overboard. Happy road tripping!

Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in Green Book (2018). Patti Perret / Universal Studios

About Schmidt (2002)

Almost Famous (2000)

Bad Trip (2020)

Carol (2015)

College Road Trip (2008)

Detour (1945)

Driving Miss Daisy (1989)

Duel (1971)

Dumb and Dumber (1994)

Five Easy Pieces (1970)

Flirting With Disaster (1996)

Green Book (2018)

Gun Crazy (1950)

Harlan County, USA (1976)

Hollywood or Bust (1950)

Into the Wild (2007)

La Strada (1954)

Logan (2017)

Mad Max (1979)

Magic Mike XXL (2015)

Midnight Run (1988)

My Own Private Idaho (1991)

National Lampoon's Vacation (1983)

Natural Born Killers (1994)

Nebraska (2013)

Old Joy (2006)

On the Road (2012)

Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985)

Rain Man (1988)

Road Trip (2000)

Scarecrow (!973)

Sideways (2004)

Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

Something Wild (1986)

Starman (1984)

Sullivan's Travels (1941)

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) The Blues Brothers (1980) The End of the Tour (2015) The Hitch-Hiker (1953) The Living End (1992) Thelma & Louise (!991) The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) The Muppet Movie (1979) The Straight Story (1999) The Wiz (1979) Thieves like Us (1974) Tommy Boy (1995) True Romance (1993) Two-lane Blacktop (1971) Wizard of Oz (!939) Zola (2020)

Julie Langsam is an artist, educator, and curator who works in a wide-range of image-based media. On her latest three-month, 15,000-mile film shoot about the US landscape, Langsam credits The Sopranos title sequence for quelling her homesickness.

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