Escaping the gridlock

Communicative English class about traffic and congestion, featuring cinema, rock videos, adverts and more

My last post about Michael Patterson’s work and portals to other dimensions put me in mind of one of cinema’s mindblowingly strange opening scenes, namely that of Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963). The sequence shares much of the urban claustrophobia and anxiety that characterizes Patterson’s Commuter, as well as its framing of that unease within the context of travel and transport.

Unlike in the animated film, the Fellini scene images an improbable escape from the suffocating traffic jam in which the protagonist is imprisoned. The besuited figure is seen levitating from his car and disappearing above the traffic and into the clouds. In a truly striking image, however, it is revealed that his leg is still attached by rope to the earth, with figures on a beach determined to pull him back down – upon which the scene is revealed to be a nightmare.

The scene would work well in conjunction with the earlier lesson idea about portals but also those focused on urbanization and the environment. It would be a good way to elicit vocabulary and discuss the stresses and sustainability – or lack thereof – of car travel. 8 1/2 is also a film with a rich legacy, its influence on cinema inestimable. As this British Film Institute article also relates, Fellini’s classic was also alluded to in another famous pop video, REM’s Everybody Hurts.

Not unlike in the A-ha video we looked at, the imagery of the video has no direct link to the lyrics of the song, although connections can be made. The song calls for those suffering in silence to take “comfort in [their] friends” and reminds them that “they are not alone”. The video adds a new layer of discourse, depicting various families and other groups stuck in their cars apparently unable to voice their true feelings, the substance of which is alluded to through subtitles.

Rather like in the Fellini scene, a behatted Michael Stipe embarks on an escape from the gridlock. Instead of levitating, he and his bandmates lead an exodus on foot. The end of the video cutting to television news reports speculating on the whereabouts of the car drivers who have simply left the tailback and disappeared. The effect is somewhat liberatory. In leaving the isolation and frustration of the traffic jam, we could wonder, have they found new togetherness?

Everybody Hurts is not my favourite song on what is otherwise a great album (Automatic for the People, 1992) – one of the few from my early adolescence to which I still return today. Yet the video is widely considered a classic in its medium, and the lyrics would be interesting to analyse in class, as would be the links to the imagery chosen and the allusion to Fellini.

The way that the car drivers abandon their vehicles and wander off reminds me of a number of other interesting clips that could be used in tandem with, or instead of, the Fellini and REM extracts. There is, for example, this classic scene from Five Easy Pieces (1970), in which musical prodigy turned oil-rig worker Bobby Dupea (played by Jack Nicholson), abandons his gridlocked car before scaling a pick up truck to play an old piano. The scene could also be harnessed for discussions about class prejudice: few people watching would guess that irascible, impulsive Bobby – dressed in hard-hat and overalls – would be a secretly be a gifted pianist. Here is the clip:


Another one that might be interesting for students is this Wrangler jeans advert from 1990, in which a New York taxi driver abandons his vehicle, and the frenetic city streets, to be with his family. I always remember this advert as having used Jimi Hendrix’s original Crosstown Traffic, whereas in fact it is only a cover version and few of the lyrics actually feature. The interest might be in building vocabulary around city life and congestion, and having the students to predict what happens before showing them the eventual “twist”. Here is the clip:


Finally, if it is just scenes of traffic jams you want, then you can’t go much wrong with this iconic tracking shot from Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend (1967), which could at the very least prove interesting for the purpose of brainstorming.


Level B1 +

The theme and associated vocabulary and discussion could interest teenagers or adults.


It might be worth beginning with some brainstorming about traffic and congestion, just to elicit and share the vocabulary the students already have on the subject.

Clip analysis

Clip one

Step one

Show them the first 2’18” approx. of the clip from Fellini’s 8 1/2 and have them share their observations in pairs / small groups around the following prompts:

  • Describe the scene (who? when? where? what? why? etc.)
  • How does the scene make you feel and why?
  • What do you think happens next?

Once they have had time to share their ideas, solicit suggestions from the whole class, noting down useful vocab for all to see.

Step two

Show them the rest of the clip and share their observations again, describing what happens in the rest of the clip. Once they have shared their ideas with the whole class, you can extend the discussion with some further questions.

  • How does the scene make you feel and why?
  • What is the worst traffic jam you have been in? Tell your partner.
  • Have you ever had a nightmare like this, describe it your partner(s).

Clip two

Step one

Tell the students they are going to watch a second clip. Show them the first 45 seconds with no sound and have them discuss in small groups/pairs the following prompts:

  • Describe the scene (what? where? who? when? etc.)
  • What do you think the clip is exactly from?
  • What do you think happens next?
  • What link is there to the last clip?

Step two

Show them the full clip with sound this time, but have different groups focusing on different elements.

  • Group one – imagery (What happens in the scene? What are all the different elements you can see?)
  • Group twomusic (Make notes of lyrics you understand. What is the song about? What is the mood?)
  • Group three subtitles (Make a note of the subtitles you understand. What do they refer to?)

Allow students time to share their ideas, then solicit suggestions from the whole group.

You can follow this up with a gap-fill or just give the students a transcript of the lyrics, after which you can ask the students to discuss some further questions:

  • What is the message of the song?
  • What links can you see between the song lyrics and the video?
  • What do you think of the video?
  • What do you think of the song?
  • Do you think the song is a good match for the video? Why (not)?

Creative-productive activities

  • So that the students can use the new vocabulary in a free or creative way, put them in groups ask them to prepare and present a plan for a music video on a different car/driving/traffic-related song. They can explain what imagery they would choose for which verse, or even develop a narrative-based sequence, for which they could do a rough storyboard. There are so many inspiring songs to choose from, to name a few: Jimi Hendrix’s Crosstown Traffic, Iggy Pop’s The Passenger, Gary Numan’s Cars etc.
  • Have students imagine and present a story about being stuck in a traffic jam. What unexpected event could happen?
  • Have students write a short story about their daydreams when stuck in traffic. What do they think about? What impression of the world does it give them?
  • Have a debate or discussion about cars and traffic and the future of transport in cities.

Language focus

  • In addition to the whole lexical field surrounding traffic and congestion, it might be necessary to elicit and/or provide additional vocab about cars themselves, with the US and British English variants (hood, bonnet, trunk, boot, tire/tyre etc.)
  • Vocabulary for explaining narrative stages (first, then, next, after (that) etc.)
  • Modals for degrees of probability (It must be a pop video, It could be a movie etc.)
  • Prepositions for both moving (into, onto, through, along etc.) and static objects (in, on, at etc.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *