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Two-Lane Blacktop

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
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Directed by: 
Monty Hellman
James Taylor
Dennis Wilson
Warren Oates
Laurie Bird
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A 1970s mood piece par excellence, Monty Hellman’s superbly laconic “Two-Lane Blacktop” finally comes to Blu-ray in the UK as part of Eureka Entertainment’s exemplary Masters of Cinema series. Perhaps no film of the 1970s better encapsulates the romance of the American open road than does this one with its almost documentary evocation of the precise landscape one would’ve encountered when driving the historic Route 66, back in the late-sixties/early-seventies. Especially for those of us who grew up during the decade entranced by the allure of Americana, and now look back Don Henderson-style, with hazy nostalgic yearning, for a time when carefree summers seemed endless, but our memories tinged with the sweet melancholy born of the knowledge that the dream would one day come to an end. No other film quite manages to capture this blissful/regretful feeling with such effortless awareness, neatly excising along the way, I might add, all the rather more embarrassing fashion-led excesses of the era – so often an unwanted distraction in time-capsule summations from this vanished period.

 All those present-day American films that set their action in the 1970s are, intentionally or otherwise, invariably using “Two-Lane Blacktop” as their idealised aesthetic model -- simply because the film’s shimmering Techniscope colour cinematography captures the quintessence of how one would want to remember that decade visually: a mellow, easy-going, sunlit dream of endless horizons and cloudless blue skies, punctuated en route by the odd father-son owned gas stop or roadside diner baking out in the dusty summer heat; and further highlighted in sweeping wide angle lens photography with a sprawling 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The Southern-western landscape is perhaps the most pronounced character in this film, the shifts in ambience and tone encountered from place to place  when travelling the route eastbound from Arizona to Chicago, provide for perhaps the most noticeable on-screen developments across the hour and three-quarter running time; certainly the inscrutable protagonists we accompany on this journey in their souped-up ’55 Chevy remain inert and apparently emotionally unvarying throughout, youthful emblems of a shallow but attractive rootlessness, drifting from place to place as late summer showers in Oklahoma accompany the fade-out to a burnished gold-brown autumn when hitting Memphis, Tennessee -- still with no real ultimate destination in mind.

Monty Hellman once described “Two-Lane Blacktop” as the last film of the 1960s and the first film of the 1970s. It also stands as the acme of that brief moment in time during which Hollywood briefly managed somehow to synthesise its own take on the values of European cinema -- the uncompromising cinema of ‘60s Goddard and Antonioni – by adapting them to the American experience in its documentation of the come-down after the Summer of Love met the harsh reality of the post-hippie dream in the form of Vietnam and the draft, political assassination and police violence against student demonstrators. The road movie had become the metaphor of choice for a generation that rejected the toxic conservatism embodied in the political establishment of the day, especially with the independent hit “Easy Rider -- a movie whose success the big studios tried to exploit by financing their own low budget ‘indie’ hits for a million dollars each in an attempt to replicate the same feel, style and attitude.

Although “Two-Lane Backdrop” benefited from this scheme, it opened to audience indifference and was a victim of internal politics at Universal. The studio’s mistrust is easily understood though: Hellman’s film avoids the now embarrassing and anachronistic celebrations of the paraphernalia of the counterculture, which stick out like a sore thumb in “Easy Rider” or Antonioni’s “Zabriskie Point”, for instance, but it embraces fully the challenging elliptical, indirect approach to narrative pioneered by European arthouse cinema of the period. As Hellman himself says on this Blu-ray edition’s accompanying commentary track, the film has no ostensible story; or at least any ‘story’ it does have is all but buried in the subtext. Give yourself over to the immaculately evoked atmosphere, though, and that subtext soon becomes a powerful undercurrent that highlights the sense of isolation and loneliness which lies at the core of the apparently idealistic, carefree lifestyle which dominates the surface proceedings of the lives of these characters. Without even seeming to be trying, the film casts off affectation and becomes moving and indefinably sad even as the final frame seems to burn up in the projector, identifying the nameless protagonists’ urge to escape and float free of any responsibility with their inability to ultimately connect properly with anyone or anything around them, not even each other. Hellman doesn’t need to rub our faces in any particular ‘message’ to make a point – the film just quietly leaves its irrevocable, lingering sense of melancholy and romanticised longing bleached into our consciousness.

Despite the aesthetic maturity on display in the film’s visual landscape, with its delicately wrought atmospheres and cool emotional shadings, “Two-Lane Blacktop” really succeeds on the strength of its genius cast. On paper it looks like the most preposterously opportunistic stunt casting imaginable for any film from this period: a movie marketed squarely at the countercultural hippie movement and it’s got angelic, acoustic folk pop troubadour James Taylor in the lead with uber-cool Beach Boy drummer Dennis Wilson in support -- neither one of whom had ever acted before in their lives! What could be more nakedly calculated, right? Hellman cast Taylor after seeing his picture on a billboard advertisement for his first album and judged him perfect for the role. The disc includes about twelve minutes of a screen test that was shot with the singer in which we can see the qualities he brings to the film nakedly on display; his is a naturally wired but introverted persona and he also possess the stillness the part required, while Wilson comes across like the prototype for every cool ‘90s slacker dude who ever slouched -- with the bountiful long-hair and the easy-going carefree nonchalance of an Evan Dando in his prime. Together they’re perfectly judged ciphers for their specific age. Dressed in the now standard proto-grunge uniform of grubby jeans and floppy t-shirts, neither of them would even look out of place on the street today. Although perfect in the film, their presence at the top of the cast list might well have disappointed the fans who turned up at the theatre upon the film’s release expecting a musical showcase, since neither of them sing nor have any of their music featured in the film, which instead delivers a mellow jukebox selection with snatches of country and blues numbers best summarised by Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Me and Bobby McGee’.

The two famous musicians play nameless itinerant speed freaks (in the credits they’re identified merely as ‘The Driver ‘[Taylor] and ‘The Mechanic’ [Wilson] respectively) who together drift across the states in their customised classic 55 Chevy, periodically participating in illegal night time street and drag racing events. A heavy-fringed hitch-hiking panhandler (‘The Girl’, played by another [at the time] non-actress, Laurie Bird) invites herself along for the ride just outside New Mexico, and the duo wordlessly accept her presence when she appears sullenly entrenched in their vehicle’s backseat soon after they set out once more on their journey to nowhere, having briefly stopped at a roadside restaurant. Somewhere on the road they get into a rivalry race with a bright yellow, factory-made, Pontiac GTO sports car, driven by a toothy show-off played by the brilliant Warren Oates, surely one of the greatest overlooked character actors in 1970s American cinema. Oates’ is the only performance in the film that actually looks like one: dressed in a series of natty, identical brightly coloured cashmere sweaters (which he must keep a special stash of in a variety of primary colours, hidden somewhere in the back of the car), he picks up a series of hitch-hikers en route whom he proceeds to regale with elaborate and probably fictional (since the life history details change with every new rider) anecdotes about his past. Despite his garrulousness and apparently relentlessly upbeat nature, GTO (in this case the credits identify Oates’ character exclusively with his flashy vehicle) is unable to connect with any of his fellow travellers in any meaningful way, his interactions with them remaining always superficial. A young Harry Dean Stanton appears on the road at one point as a desperate gay cowboy who tries to come onto him -- but by then GTO is far too concentrated on his race with the Chevy to be interested in such matters.

This road race between one middle-aged loser and two handsome, youthful drifters (in which all three agree that the first one to reach Washington DC will win the other’s driver’s certificate), on the surface of things seems to be at the centre of the unfolding plot, but in reality it soon fades into the background until barely even acknowledged by any of the three men ostensibly participating in it, and no one ever actually reaches DC. In fact, united with him in their very rootlessness and their unending search for speed, The Driver and The Mechanic tend to help out their adversary as time goes on when it becomes apparent that, though competitive and desperate to court approval from the expanding circle of strangers he often encounters on the road, GTO doesn’t actually know an awful lot about cars. The beauty in the film comes out in its subtly wrought delineation of character against a picturesque American landscape. It’s been called an existential road movie and that’s not an inaccurate description, seeing as how all four main characters are engaged in some sort of search for meaning and fulfilment. But there is a sadness in this which is brought forth in a realisation that each one of them wants something quite different from the other: The Driver and The Mechanic are as harmoniously attuned to each other’s sensibility as their vehicle’s purring engine is to the road when they’re cocooned, away from the rest of the world, in the front seats of the Chevy. They don’t need to speak; they communicate in a language whose terms seem to be expressed entirely by the varying noises of their refined racing engine and the specific tyre-change needs of the car it dwells in. When The Girl appears on the scene she introduces a sub textual rupture in these synched up male relationships. Laurie Bird’s affectless performance perfectly captures the listless ennui of a teenage girl searching for self-expression and unable to find anything in her fleeting relationships with any of the three men to compete with the freedom of the hitch-hiking lifestyle. The fruitless rivalry that develops between The Driver, whose desire for The Girl can barely express itself apart from within the context of a failed driving lesson, and GTO, whose attempts to impress are always doomed by his inability to find a solid identity that goes beyond his consumption of lifestyle-defining paraphernalia, simply add to The Girl’s bored alienation with her surroundings.

Viewer sympathy notably shifts, though, as the film goes on. The youth and the attractions of the Driver and The Mechanic’s easy-going, freewheeling existence begin to look stultifying and alienating, actively cutting them off from meaningful relationships, even though they are often surrounded by people  -- the mostly male ‘admirers’ who cluster silently around them at street races.  GTO’s perplexed look of hurt when, after he begins to open up about his personal failings to The Driver in a manner that seems to cut through all his previous attempts to impress, expresses a lifetime of frustration and miscommunication when the Driver simply responds that he’s not interested because it isn’t his problem -- a reaction that perhaps illustrates best of all how the counterculture ended up spawning the self-centred acquisitiveness that came to define the Yuppified eighties.

“Two-Lane Blacktop” is a wistful expression of curtailed desires and thwarted dreams all wrapped up in Jack Deerson’s immaculate cinematography, perfectly capturing a rarefied moment in American cultural history when ‘60s optimism curdled into disheartened despair at brutal 1970s realities. Monte Hellman personally approved this excellent high definition transfer and it’s difficult to believe it could ever be bettered. The disc features a commentary track between Hellman and associate producer Gary Kurtz (producer of “Star Wars”) in which they note the difficulties of shooting a film on the road with very little light apart from the natural sources they were able to find en route. This meant that for years the film looked lousy on TV, not only because the pan & scan format which was standard back then cut away half the image (this is a film that really does benefit from its deep focus wide angle lenses and its 2.35:1 aspect ratio) but because it rendered TV prints looking so dark that little could be seen in some scenes.

That’s not a problem here; although night time scenes inevitably occasionally exhibit excessive grain, most of the time this transfer looks simply gorgeous. The commentary is excellent, Hellman explaining how the film’s appearance of naturalness was obtained not only by the incorporation of sequences shot with real road racing subcultures and by a complete lack of artificial sets (all the places travelled to during the course of the film, and often the people seen in them, are real) but by none of the cast apart from Warren Oates being allowed to see a finished script, Hellman doling out the next day’s scenes sequentially the night before, meaning that just as in life, neither Taylor nor Wilson knew how the film was going to develop or end until Taylor’s control freak nature led him to demand a copy, although his girlfriend at the time, Joni Mitchell, claimed he never actually ever looked at it. There’s a lot about the origins of the film here as well, particularly how Hellman threw out all of Will Corry’s original script apart from the basic idea of a road race, handing the project to novelist Rudolph Wurlitzer to completely redraw. Wurlitzer’s next project was to be Sam Peckinpah’s “Pat Garret and Billy the Kid”, which also starred Warren Oates. Wurlitzer apparently got this job because of Peckinpah’s admiration for “Two-Lane Blacktop”.

The disc features some enlightening extras including a 43 minute video piece, “On The Road Again: Two-Lane Blacktop Revisited” in which Hellman re-travels the route followed in the original film, visiting some of the original locations in the company of some film students and family members (including his daughter, who was about six at the time and appeared in the film as one of GTO’s passengers, seen visiting a cemetery with her aunt). “Somewhere Near Salinas” is a 28 minute discussion between singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson  and Monty Hellman who talk about the importance of Kristofferson’s song ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ to the movie, while the singer remembers the period and gives his thoughts on the relevance of the film. “Sure Did Talk To You” is a 24 minute video which examines the production background to the movie with the help of producer Michael Laughlin, production manager Walter Coblenz and the director’s son Jared Hellman (who also briefly appears in the film as one of the family members who stop after an accident in the road). Taken together, all this material furnishes the viewer with just about every detail there is to know about the production and shooting of the movie. In addition we get rare archival screen test footage of James Taylor and Laurie Bird (who, aside from Monty Hellman’s follow-up film “Cockfighter”, only appeared in one other film: Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall”) shot by Hellman; the option of viewing the movie with its sound effects and music track only; the original theatrical trailer,  which disingenuously tries to make the movie sound like an action-packed melodrama; and a lavish 36-page booklet featuring reprinted articles and reviews and rare production stills.

“Two-Lane Blacktop” is one of the defining road movies of the early seventies and looks truly beautiful in this marvellous HD edition. The Masters of Cinema series has produced another superlative, must-have Blu-ray cult item. Recommended.  

Read more from Black Gloves at the blog Nothing But the Night!

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