Film Review #142: Two Lane Blacktop
1971/Criterion DVD 2007
Director Monte Hellman
Cast: James Taylor, Dennis Wilson, Warren Oates, Laura Bird
There’s something perfect about musicians playing the two leads in this most enduring and mystique-laden of road movies, just re-released again two weeks before Christmas by Criterion on a snazzy two-disc set. It was also the only screen performance by either man. Director Monte Hellman first spotted his choice for the character called just “the driver” on a Los Angeles billboard advertising James Taylor’s 1968 debut album, and Taylor kept his flowing locks for the part. These days, you can get the singer’s newest CD compilation of live tracks with your latté at Starbucks. Beach Boys drummer-composer Dennis Wilson played “the mechanic,” also nameless. The anniversary of Wilson’s drowning in 1983, shortly after his 39th birthday, is actually Friday.
As for the rest of the main cast, Hellman regular Warren Oates died a year before Wilson. Young and very slender here, he plays the garrulous, ever self-reinventing “GTO,” nick-named for the gold car he drives in the film. And cast as “the girl,” a hitch-hiker who works her way through all three men during the cross-country contest between the Pontiac and the customized matte gray ’55 Chevy, Laura Bird made just two more films after this one, dying by suicide at age 25 in 1979. Harry Dean Stanton, who got his start with Hellman and here has a memorable cameo as a gay hitch-hiker who weeps when GTO rejects him, is now in his 80s. Hellman remains as wiry and frizzy-haired as ever, zestfully teaching film directing at the California Institute of the Arts. He calls Two Lane Blacktop, filmed over seven weeks in the early fall of 1970 for under one million dollars, a “time capsule” – for its youthful glimpse of this cast, its story filmed along the fabled and now largely disappeared old Route 66, and its dark watershed post-60s mood.
Two Lane Blacktop starts in Los Angeles at one of the LA Street Racers’ rowdy, well-attended and very illegal midnight drag matches. Police sirens sour what starts off looking like a good evening for the driver and the mechanic, two lanky guys in jeans and tee-shirts without much attention span for anything but fast cars who finance a rambling lifestyle by racing their souped-up Chevy. Whether on local dirt tracks, at street drag club events or in ad hoc contests struck up in gas stations along the way, their adversaries routinely under-estimate both the car and the young men. Without much specific intention they head east – a reversal of the mythic American way west that underscores the moment’s alienation.
One morning during breakfast, they watch a blond teenager through a diner window. Just feet away in the parking lot, she hauls her duffel from an old van and dumps it into their back seat for no better reason than it’s the closest car available. Before long, in a deceptively simple and languid maneuver that Hellman says is the real start of the film, these three set the hook for GTO in a desert gas station. He’s been eying that Chevy in the passing lane himself and so proposes a race to Washington, DC. They’ll race “for pinks” – what’s at stake is the losing car’s pink registration card.
Along the way, the three men vie irritably for the girl’s wandering attentions, race other cars, narrowly avoid crashes and cops, meet odd folk in backwaters, stop for repairs and occasionally day-dream about a vague future after Washington that may consist of checking out Florida’s beaches or maybe “run over to Arizona and build a house.” As laconic as the driver and the mechanic both are – Hellman says their lines are more soundtrack than dialogue, not meant to move the story any more than the songs on their car’s radio – GTO is talkative. With each new stranger, GTO effortlessly spins himself a colorful new history and purpose. Soon we’re anticipating this as each new encounter gets under way. Similarly, by the time this quartet lands in the movie’s final diner, we know who that girl’s going with next simply because there’s a motorcycle parked out front.
Warren Oates, though not the lead here, made four films for Hellman – besides Two Lane Blacktop, two Westerns, The Shooting (1966) and China 9, Liberty 37 (1978), and the contemporary Southern Gothic-tinged Cockfighter (1974). Arguably all are road movies, a genre too often dismissed as low budget primitive. An excellent companion to Hellman’s work is Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman’s 2005 documentary, Wanderlust – an absorbing 90 minutes that’s only a Netflix click away – with filmmakers like Callie Kouri (screenwriter, Thelma and Louise), who sees the road movie emerge quite organically from the Western, and Walter Salles (director, The Motorcycle Diaries) notices that young countries with unsettled identities make these movies (“You never see a Swiss road movie.”), and Alison Anders (director, Gas Food Lodging and a commentary track speaker for Two Lane Blacktop) remarks that the only place irony-phobic Americans willingly tolerate shades of gray is the road.
Proving he’s still got chops, Hellman directed the bonus features. A film teacher, he speaks especially well about making movies. Early on he piles five Cal Arts grad students into his van to visit the film’s shooting locations. He explains how shooting in Technoscope provided the best depth of field for a story where often he’s got two or three characters inside a car or in three different planes and wants them all in focus (you’ll watch for this next time you’re at the movies, promise). Or elsewhere, how filming in a pelting rainstorm unexpectedly infused his favorite gas station scene with enormous energy because throughout this scene all the cast members ran from spot to spot to avoid getting wet. He and James Taylor, facing off in simple wooden chairs, ask one another the questions each has harbored for 37 years. When Taylor – now short-haired and balding, he still hadn’t seen Two Lane Blacktop during this conversation – diffidently apologizes for his youthful bursts of temper, Hellman laughs it off with the kind of generosity that you sense informs his classrooms now as it once must have his movie sets. And the producers discuss how the 60s unraveled – that, as one puts it, “America was having a nervous breakdown, and lots of the people wandering around never stopped.” For once, “blast from the past” lives up to its name.
This review appeared in the 12/27/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that didn’t open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.