Binge-Worthy #5½: I Need A Ride To California (Morris Engel, 1968)

Binge-Worthy is a series that explores films made by iconic photographers.

Photography is front-and-center in Morris Engel’s recently restored, previously unreleased, and somewhat abstruse 1968 feature I Need a Ride to California. The film, which centers around the East Village counterculture scene, is a departure of sorts from the trilogy of movies he made in the 1950s.  Nevertheless, Engel’s filmmaking approach remains largely consistent with his earlier body of work. Ultimately, it’s a footnote rather than a major addition to the canon, but while the whole may not be more than the sum of its parts, a few of those parts are revelatory.

The film begins with the main character, a free-spirited young bohemian (Lilly Shell, playing a fictionalized version of herself), stonily explaining the premise of the film to several friends: “It’s about a girl who comes to live in the East Village, just like the way I have…and she goes through all these different scenes that I’ve gone through,” she tells them. Her somewhat rambling explanation serves as both a preamble and a manifesto, alternately explaining and advocating for Engel’s neorealist, quasi-documentary filmmaking approach. True to Lilly’s word, the purposefully unstructured narrative closely hews to the way life naturally unfolds, as she meanders through a handful of relationships and life events. At times, it veers close to stream-of-consciousness storytelling.

There are cameras present in practically every shot. Lilly spends the bulk of her days wandering around Manhattan with a 35mm Pentax slung around her shoulder. She is herself an observer of life as it unfolds and a street photographer who often focuses her lens on children playing. (This is a Morris Engel joint, after all.) Additionally, one of her boyfriends, a handsome Black man named Rod (played by Rod Perry), works as a professional photographer.

Engel’s love of photography shines brightest during an extended dialogue-free montage, as Lilly and her friends explore Manhattan. People stop to photograph the coterie of young people in hip fashions. Lilly, in turn, photographs the city, and Engel focuses almost as much on the act of photographing as he does on the characters themselves.

These young bohemians are as wide eyed, innocent, and childlike wandering around Manhattan as Joey was wandering around Coney Island in The Little Fugitive. For the most part, Engel presents an idealized and sanitized portrayal of the counterculture. Although he belongs to an earlier generation, it’s clear that, as a politically progressive artist, he empathizes with and admires the 1960s counterculture.

Engel’s tender portrayal of Lilly and Rod’s barrier-breaking interracial love affair becomes the heart and soul of the film, and the movie is never sweeter than when exploring their relationship. (Perry is especially magnetic in his supporting role.) These characters communicate a great deal implicitly while staying true to the ways people actually interact and avoiding the pitfall of overly literal and heavy-handed dialogue exchanges.

As in Engel’s earlier films, the cinematography (co-credited to Max Glenn) takes its cue from still photography to excellent effect. One of the strongest elements is the visual aesthetic—all the more impressive considering it marked Engel’s first foray into color filmmaking. There are moments when the movie resembles a magazine spread on the counterculture that suddenly sprang to life.

The candid and evocative moments captured in a number of cut-away shots, such as the two below, are much more reminiscent of street photography than cinematography. These shots have little to do with our main characters (although at times, they obliquely or analogously reflect their lives and interests) and everything to do with the world they inhabit.

As a viewer, it’s a pleasure to immerse oneself in the worlds that Engel portrays in his films. His daydream vision of the East Village is just as enticing as Coney Island was in The Little Fugitive.

However, Lilly is self-admittedly naïve to the ways of the big city, and as a result, the last half hour takes an unpleasant turn. She begins making questionable decisions and encounters the flip side of her seemingly idyllic lifestyle. In the process, she discovers that other people don’t often live up to your expectations, share your values, or even play by the same set of rules.

Towards the end, an overly-literal “flower power” montage of a barefoot Lilly handing out flowers to her non-hip East Village neighbors provides the setup for a shocking climax. The ending sneaks up on the viewer and shatters the pleasant spell that the film has cast, puncturing Lilly’s rose-tinted idealism—and the audience’s by extension. It’s raw, controversial, and effective.

Fortunately, Engel lets the final moments play out without interruption. Earlier, at different points, Engel chose to insert shots of the small film crew, and of Lilly herself watching the daily rushes, calling attention to the conditions under which those scenes were created. There’s a seed of a great idea in observing Lilly as she observes herself reenacting events from her life. However, Engel’s attempts at metatextuality don’t quite function as intended. Instead, he winds up dissipating the scenes’ emotional impact and undercutting his actors’ performances. Nevertheless, such instances of self-reflexivity, along with the film’s experimental narrative structure, help make I Need a Ride… a significant example of early postmodern cinema.

After years of collecting dust, Engel’s long-lost film was restored by MoMA, and it had its debut screening at the museum in 2019. It has just been released as part of a DVD box set via Kino Lorber, and it’s available to stream on Kino Now.

I Need A Ride To California (directed by Morris Engel). 35mm film (color), 83 min., 1968.

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