Friday, July 8, 2011

The Best Movies I've Never Seen Before: Two Lane Blacktop (1971)

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) ****
Directed by: Monte Hellman.
Written by: Rudy Wurlitzer and Will Corry.
Starring: James Taylor (The Driver), Warren Oates (G.T.O), Laurie Bird (The Girl), Dennis Wilson (The Mechanic).

Two-Lane Blacktop was supposed to be the movie event of the year in 1971. Before anyone saw the film, Rolling Stone called it an instant classic and Esquire put it on its cover, and published the entire screenplay. This was supposed to be the next Easy Rider, Bonnie and Clyde or The Graduate. Then it opened, and no one showed up. The film didn’t even come out in any form of home video until 1999. Now it is regarded as a classic – which it surely is – but in 1971 it was a flop.

Why no one showed up in 1971 becomes clear when you watch the film. This was never going to be the next Easy Rider – the film it most resembles of the three mentioned above – because Monte Hellman, the director, had no interest in doing a version of Easy Rider. The movie is actually the antithesis of Easy Rider. This is not a romantic version of two counter culture martyrs, who get high, hit the road, drop out of society, with a rock n’ roll sound track and orgies in cemeteries. Where Dennis Hopper’s movie celebrated its “heroes” (even giving them names straight out of Western – Wyatt and Billy, for Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid), Hellman sees their lives as empty and meaningless. The kids wanted fast moving, violent, sexy movies inspired by the French New Wave, and instead Hellman gave them a slower, more meditative film influenced by Antonini. Even something as simple as the direction they are travelling – from the West to Washington DC - flies in the face of movies like Easy Rider, where everyone always heads West. The question isn’t why no one showed up to see the film in 1971 – but why anyone ever expected them to.

But it’s these differences that make Two-Lane Blacktop seem so contemporary even 40 years later, and makes Easy Rider seem so dated. I like Easy Rider for what it is – a time capsule of 1960s cinematic style and attitude – but the film has never excited me as much as it did the kids in the ‘60s. It is from another time and place, whereas Two-Lane Blacktop still feels fresh.

Hellman’s movie doesn’t even bother to give names to its characters. Folk Singer James Taylor plays The Driver and Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson plays The Mechanic. They have hit the road in their supped up 1955 Chevy, driving along Route 66 from one desolate town to the next, making money by drag racing, in which they never lose. They pick up The Girl (Laurie Bird), who simply gets into the back of their car one day. By the end of the movie, she will have slept with both The Mechanic and The Driver, but this isn’t a love triangle – that would require at least one of the characters to feel something and I don’t think any of them do. Along the way, they meet GTO (Warren Oates), who yes, is driving a brand new GTO. He is older than the others, but he gets sucked into their game anyway. They agree to race across country to Washington DC. The stakes? The winner gets the loser’s car. But pretty much right from the get go, no one seems all that interested in the race. The Driver and The Mechanic have an opportunity to put themselves so far ahead in the race early on that GTO could never catch up, but they don’t take it. Instead, they decide to help him out. “I have no interest in being 600 miles ahead” The Driver says at this point. The winner of the race is never determined in the movie – they simply seem to give up on the race altogether once The Girl leaves with a boy on a motorbike at a diner – leaving her backpack behind her.

I’m not sure if Taylor and Wilson are actually poor actors, or if Hellman told them deliberately to deliver all their lines flat and emotionless. No matter the reason, it works here. The Driver and The Mechanic never really say much of anything to each other – just talk about the car and what needs to be done, and their current money situation. They don’t even turn on the radio because it would be a distraction. They seem to have hit the road in order to avoid all sort of human connection to anyone else – including each other. They simply do not care. GTO is different – he seems to have hit the road because there is nothing for him at home, wherever that may be, and being on the road gives him the chance to talk to people. Throughout the movie, he picks up hitchhiker after hitchhiker, and tells each one of them a different story of what he’s doing on the road, and how he got the GTO. The last hitchhiker he picks up, he tells that he got the GTO by beating its driver in a cross country race in his supped up 55 Chevy – thus adopting The Driver and The Mechanic’s story as his own. Oates’ performance is the best in the movie – one of the best of the 1970s really – because it perfectly captures his story – that of an older man, who seems to have missed out on the 1960s, but is trying anyway.

The film has, what Richard Linklater has called, the “most purely cinematic ending in film history”, and in a certain way, he is correct. The film, as I mentioned before, doesn’t answer the question of who won the race, because no one seems to be racing anymore. Instead, it ends with The Driver and The Mechanic involved in yet another drag race – this time though, we don’t even get to the end of that race. The film starts slowly down, and eventually, will catch fire and simply disintegrate in front of our eyes – as if the film itself caught fire in the projector. As Neil Young once said “It’s better to burn out than fade away”.

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