A wise man once said, “Funny how weekends don’t mean as much when you’re unemployed.” The same thing could be said about “getting away from it all” while chronicling every last minute of the journey: sure, it’s an escape, but from what? And that’s the major issue to be had with Josh Caldwell and Hunter Weeks’ documentary, 10 mph. While it is in fact the story of two computer nerds who gave up cushy corporate gigs in order to ride a Segway from Seattle to Boston, it’s impossible to know if what we’re seeing is the voyage of discovery claimed in every other scene, or simply a slick public relations ploy designed to generate buzz for budding careers in Hollywood. It’s terribly self-conscious to a fault, even in these Michael Moore infused times, and about halfway through, it becomes apparent that the landscapes and lonely roads of America are taking a distant backseat to the egos and machinations of the protagonists. Ostensibly an “old-fashioned” tour through a bygone era, when, like the film’s title, travel was severely limited by technology and equipment, it is instead a colossal fraud; two men (along with their posse) who go through the drill of actually riding the ridiculous contraption, but only so that they can make a movie and appear on talk shows.
For the first leg of the journey, it is easy to be sympathetic to the plight of these two victims of the rat race. They are bored and tired, and the allure of big money has done little but leave emptiness and longing in its wake. It’s hollow and silly, to be sure, as only white upper-class twits ever come to the conclusion that money is a burden, as the rest of us see it not as a thief in the night, but rather the first and most important necessity of life. Would this be yet another pity party where yuppie scum see a sunset or something and feel it is time to take stock before the heartache of a second home completely sets in? Given that Caldwell and Weeks did not seem like the type to push some sort of religious epiphany, it appeared to be a ride worth taking. Maybe the conclusions would be trite and obvious, but at least we’d get a unique worm’s-eye view of an America too often ignored in the vacation brochures. And this is why it was so important to begin out West, given that Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, and the like rarely get an opportunity to defend themselves on screen. Here, with the natural wonders in full command, the film shines, as it’s impossible not to envy anyone in possession of the needed time to amble among the sort of beauty we’re used to seeing at high rates of speed.
And who doesn’t want to escape from obligations and expectations? 10 mph, at least in the beginning, successfully taps into this near-universal desire, even if the manner undertaken in this instance is artificial and soaked with arrogance. Let’s begin with an obvious violation of any true expedition of enlightenment — taking along a “media relations” guide, even if she is your sister. Is this really that common among nomads, vagabonds, and hitchhikers? Sure, Josh needs a team following behind him, as the Segway requires frequent battery changes, but every time they cut to the car, complete with on-board computer systems and GPS technology, I couldn’t help but sag in my seat a little. OK, a lot. And since it was decided well in advance that this would be a movie, every gesture and exchange is tainted by the strong possibility that all we see is simply forced cleverness for the cameras. Oh yeah, the media chick: She’s there to contact radio stations, alert newspapers, and get as much press as possible so that sponsors can be secured. Excuse me? A middle finger to the corporate elite while simultaneously seeking their financial support? Again, only pampered white people could ever conceive of a scheme so inherently hypocritical, but there we are. As the second half rolls along, and the towns and farms become less and less important, the whole enterprise switches gears and becomes an event without any real substance. In the blink of an eye, they’re famous simply for being famous. Their giddiness after hitting The New York Times says it all, and also betrays the true motivation for the trip.
At about the fifth time they appeared on some nitwit DJ’s morning show, the emotional worm turned and what at first seemed quaint and charming, suddenly grated with volcanic force. These two “average guys” became media darlings, and every utterance a smug in-joke with all the appeal of a frat party having spilled forth into your own front lawn. They try to suck us in with tales of woe related to fund raising (and an ex-partner who had the audacity to get a job during their three months on the road), but the moment we might empathize, in comes information about retirement accounts being cashed in, or cases of goodies being delivered by eager companies. Sure, we are only getting 90 minutes of a massive undertaking, but the way the movie is edited, it’s impossible to get the sense that our heroes are ever in any real trouble. We’ve witnessed little difficulty, no heartache, and even the rider’s back problems (and visit to the hospital) come across as hopelessly minor. Yeah, a kidney stone sucks ass (even a small one), but a life on the road shouldn’t even involve hospitals. Where’s the ad hoc tourniquet in the forest during a Midwestern blizzard? Or the howls of danger as the crew members are forced to sleep on a frozen patch of unfamiliar earth? Instead, these people are invited into the homes of strangers after no more than a few words, I’m guessing because they have a camera and readily announce that they’re making a movie. The “caretakers,” then, are hardly taking a chance. Whatever the case, these visits allow for free lodging and hearty meals, further adding to the feeling that these are just nutty kids on an extended spring break holiday.
But before these people reach the Segway headquarters in Bedford, N.H. (the real last stop after the original goal of Boston) — a painful corporate-whoring session that might as well be a commercial — Josh, Hunter, and the gang try to demonstrate how their lives were changed by the experience. While I’m glad that they didn’t turn the thousands of miles into a sappy, reactionary propaganda piece about the essential goodness of common folk, it would have been nice to have, say, some perspective on what they saw day after day. Sure, they hammer home half-baked wisdom about “chasing your dreams” until you want to puke, but what about America? Since they spent so much time in sparsely populated areas, is there a genuine red/blue divide? Is the essential American soul, like D.H. Lawrence said, “hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer?” I doubt these gentle dweebs would ever tender such pessimism, but there’s so little to go on, that at any given point, we half hope that one of them tosses the Segway to the ground, curses the heavens, and flips out on some 35-minute, epithet-ridden rant. At least it’s an opinion, for fuck’s sake. Instead, we’re treated to a few vacation photos and a trip or two to McDonald’s, which itself is little more than a plug for the Man these two claim to hate with such vehemence. Throughout, I couldn’t help but wonder if their gall was so grandiose that their next project would be some hysterical screed against capitalism, complete with full funding from Warren Buffett.
And let’s face it, any film — even a documentary barely upholding the meaning of the word — trying to capture the spirit of reinvention is, at best, pure fantasy. We’d like to get away and start again, but every new enterprise requires capital, and somehow a full bank account undermines the notion of heedless risk. 10 mph, then, is the perfect film for a civilization unwilling to admit that Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Hypothesis ever really took hold. There’s nothing left to fight for, no real place to go, and there hasn’t been for quite some time. One can “live the dream” much like the trust fund revolutionaries of college campus and affluent enclave alike, but eventually, fighting daddy no longer cuts it as a substitute for fighting the power. Or one can really go over the edge, live off the map, and struggle each and every day without any real support, foundation, or possibility of survival. It’s likely to end in violent death or frozen starvation, but hell, at least it’s authentic. In short, it’s over, folks. This is who we are, how we live, and what we believe in. We buy and sell, work and slave, and compromise so much and so often that resignation comes to act as the only thing keeping us alive. And while we can tinker with a few minor gears and shave away a bit of the rough edges, the core at the center of things will remain fixed and unchanging. But rather than accept that grim, but unavoidable reality, we’ll continue to coo and sigh in the face of these “alternative visions.” It’s why religion continues to thrive, even though hard-bitten truth knocked it down for the count centuries ago. The hope in things unseen, the possibility of a future yet to be lived: Wthout them, we’re just a bunch of dumb clucks waiting to die. Or holding out for our own corporate champion.