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Long out of circulation because of disputes over music rights, Two-Lane
Blacktop, now available on DVD, is one of the most original and
compelling American movies of the twentieth century. It is a road
movie, a film about cars, and a search for meaning in American life
that could easily be called "Zen and the Art of Drag Racing". Shot from
the inside of a car, it is an authentic vision of what it is like to be
driving across America at a specific historical moment. Promoted by
Universal Studios in 1971 as an answer to Columbia's Easy Rider, the
film was originally released to less than enthusiastic audiences but
has since taken on the status of cult classic and it is richly
deserved. Unlike Easy Rider, it is a film that simply observes and what
it sees is pure Americana: its people, gas stations, diners, and drag
strips. We feel the claustrophobia, the spaces, the speed, and the
The film stars singers James Taylor (Fire and Rain) and Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys as taciturn drag races who drive their souped-up 1955 Chevy across the country challenging locals to a drag race. The main characters are drifters. They come from nowhere and are headed east, toward a destination that is murky at best. They are people whose reality begins and ends with their machines. Everyone talks about how good life can be -- somewhere else -- in New York, Chicago, the beaches of Florida, and the coast of Mexico, somewhere up the road apiece. Warren Oates, a Monte Hellman regular, turns in a truly outstanding performance as the driver of a Pontiac GTO who challenges Taylor and Wilson to a cross-country race, the prize being the ownership of the cars. GTO is a talkative fellow who concocts tall tales about his background to impress every hitchhiker he picks up (one is a gay cowboy played by Harry Dean Stanton). He is a sad and perhaps self-destructive individual but he is human and you can reach out to him and feel his pathos.
First time actors Taylor and Wilson express little emotion and there is scant dialogue but they also seem right for their roles. Their total focus is on their car. Though the Chevy looks old and ugly, it is as powerful as any car on the road and the driver and the mechanic treat it like their own flesh and blood, constantly fine tuning to maintain its impeccable performance. They go from town to town, just trying to survive by racing. In the words of author John Banville, they "have no past, no foreseeable future, only the steady pulse of a changeless present". Along the way they pick up a cherubic young roadie (Laurie Bird) who is willing to go wherever the ride takes her. After each of the boys has sex with her in motel rooms and in the car, she becomes moody and resentful and fears that she is being used but has nowhere else to go. Though the main thrust of the plot is the race to Washington, DC, the focus seems to get lost along the way, and the film becomes more of a character study of the lack of human connection than about racing.
The film looks for the soul of America in the early 1970s and comes up empty. It was released in 1971 at a time when the hopes and dreams of the '60s counter culture had given way to the disillusion of Kent State and Altamonte, the bombing of Cambodia, and the media's cynical preemption of the Hippie movement.
The movie is about everything and nothing. Everyone is biding their time waiting for life to turn out rather than creating the possibility. Though they live for the moment there is no joy, only the gnawing reality of something missing. They are like many of us, skimming along on the surface of life, reminiscing about a goal that once seemed real but is now just out of reach. They look ahead to a blank future, while ignoring the life around them, what is in the present moment. Two-Lane Blacktop is an exceptionally beautiful film, a poetic description of a world without possibilities. It may also be the definitive statement of the anguish of the materialist paradigm that has begun to crumble and fall apart.
In my view this is the best road movie ever made. Carping about the
slow pace or minimal dialogue is like complaining Scorsese's movies are
too violent or the Marx Brothers too zany.
Like the car the two friends drive, this is an exercise in stripping things down to their essentials in search of authenticity. Like a Ramones song or an Edward Hopper painting there is absolutely nothing here that doesn't need to be.
Warren Oates' character on the other hand is a study in inauthenticity. After visiting the US in the 80's and 90's with its malls and fast food chains (and indeed looking at the kind of product Hollywood churns out these days) it's clear that his kind won the race in the end.
I've seen this on TV and in art cinemas a couple of times and I'm glad to hear I can now get the DVD. A true American classic.
As an admirer of Monte Hellman's superb 1960s westerns 'Ride In The Whirlwind' and 'The Shooting' I had been dying to see 'Two-Lane Blacktop' for many years as most people who have seen it regard it as Hellman's best movie, and one of the greatest road movies ever made. Impossible to find on video, and rarely (if ever) screened on TV here in Australia, I finally managed to get hold of it on DVD, and boy, does this movie REALLY live up to its reputation! I think if it had have been more easy to see over the last thirty years it would be spoken of in the same breath as 'Easy Rider'. Both movies are landmarks. Existential road movies that really capture a lost slice of Americana. Hellman, like so many other talented directors, got his first breaks from b-grade legend Roger Corman. But Hellman's unwillingness to compromise, and a lot of bad luck, sadly meant that he never crossed over into the mainstream like other Corman proteges like Coppola and Demme. Too bad, because 'The Shooting' and 'Two-Lane Blacktop' showed he had talent and originality to burn. Both movies feature the legendary character actor Warren Oates ('The Wild Bunch', 'Dillinger', 'Race With The Devil', 'Drum', 'Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia'), and Oates fans MUST see this movie as his performance is simply superb. Oates plays G.T.O. a drifter and dreamer who challenges two young revheads (played by James Taylor and The Beach Boys' Dennis Wilson) to a cross country car race. The winner gets the other drivers pink slip and (possibly) the affections of "The Girl", played by the late Laurie Bird (who only made two movies after this one and who tragically suicided in her mid twenties). Taylor, Wilson and Bird all give low key, almost non-performances. None were actors before they filmed this, but their minimalistic styles suit the material wonderfully. By contrast Oates is just dynamite and dominates every scene he appears in. I'd say this, and Peckinpah's cult classic 'Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia', are his two most impressive performances. It's worth watching this movie just to see Oates, but there's a lot more going for it. It is however an acquired taste, and if you aren't a fan of 1970s movies you may find it hard going. Please persevere, it's really worth it! Also keep an eye out for Harry Dean Stanton's unforgettable cameo as a lonely hitchhiker. Stanton had previously worked with Hellman in 'Ride In The Whirlwind' alongside Jack Nicholson and Cameron Mitchell, and would go on to appear with Oates and Laurie Bird in Hellman's next movie, the controversial 'Cockfighter', another difficult one to get hold of (until now). 'Two-Lane Blactop' is one of the best movies I've ever seen, and I can't recommend it highly enough! An American classic. It's pure magic!
Problems with music rights have kept this film from being seen much since its release, which is a real shame. Recently, the Roan Group released a laserdisc version (not sure if there is a VHS or DVD version), which I rented on a total whim. It turned out to be one of those rare treasures that not only lives up to its hype--it exceeds it. Anyone who wants to know why so many of today's films are sub-par would do themselves a favor by exploring this title. The problem with movies today is that everything is so formulaic, characters (if any are present) are forced to react in completely illogical ways just so the plot can hit prefabricated beats. "Two Lane Blacktop" follows the characters and lets the plot flow from the dynamics between them. Add to that some really unique characters and what you end up with is a movie that's always coming at you from the most unexpected angles, and not one second of it feels false or forced. The writing, directing and acting are dead-on, with Warren Oates a stand-out (his performance should be studied by anyone who wants to act), and James Taylor surprisingly intense and charismatic. It should be noted that this is not an action movie, so don't go into it looking for suspense or great racing scenes. Rather, you should sit back and let this movie work its almost invisible magic on you. And don't be surprised if you're still thinking about it days later.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Two-Lane Blacktop is not the piece of disposable drive-in fare it
appears to be - it has a quality that sticks with you, a sense of
sadness and disenchantment that approaches hard-scrabble poetry. Monte
Hellman has created a movie that succeeds almost entirely via tone.
It's not the sort of movie that connects to us in the usual ways,
through melodramatic artifice or overt displays of emotion. The key to
its success is that it never really connects with us at all - it
remains abstract, wrapped up in its own little arcane, ritualistic
world. Yet there's something familiar about this place too, the sense
of disconnectedness and longing. Despite the movie's fetishistic,
self-absorbed quality, there's a universality that is undeniable. We
might not be that interested in the arcana of life as itinerant
drag-racers, but we can relate to their need for a meaningful
experience and the sadness of their ultimate failure to connect.
Hellman stages the action in such a way as to de-emphasize any normal sense of character and to point-up the relationship between the characters and their machines, which is the real theme of the movie. These people have no identity away from their cars - the two main protagonists, played by creepy singer-songwriter James Taylor and lunky Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, spend almost the entire movie talking about cars, driving or working on their jalopy (a souped-up '55 Chevy coupe for those of you keeping score). Taylor, the driver, is a crack drag-racer, his entire existence revolving around racing or setting up races or driving to the next race. The performance Taylor gives can only be described as detached, yet this druggy, cut-off quality is perfect for the character, who strikes one as the kind of fanatic who can only be really alive when he's doing the one thing he loves. He seems barely aware of the movie's female lead, a wandering hippie-chick who provides a moment or two of distraction from the road, the perpetual search for excitement, but can't tear any of the men away from their machines for long (not that she doesn't try). The movie is one big Kenneth Anger-like fetishistic male fantasy about cars, their power and speed, and the sense of identity one derives from possessing and controlling them.
This makes the movie seem like a bummer, but trust me when I say that it's not. It's an unconventional movie to be sure, but it still provides some conventional B-movie amusement along the way - primarily in the form of Warren Oates, who gives a vivid, fully-realized performance as a mid-life-crisis sufferer with a rather loose sense of the truth. This pathological liar in a banana-yellow GTO is a marvelous caricature of the classic American jerk. Oates, a brilliant sketcher of masculine bluster, creates one of his most memorable sleazy/sympathetic characters, a pitiful braggart who can't even fix his own carburetor when it springs a leak - the character's impotence being expressed in terms of automotive know-how, which is fitting given the film's gear-head ethic. Yet Hellman doesn't just laugh at Oates - he's broad-minded enough to see what the impotent nit-wit in the muscle-car has in common with his super-ethical heroes, namely this inexpressible yearning. These are not John Cassavettes heroes spraying their masculine angst all over the screen like palsy victims though. They're monosyllabic highway cave-men, half-civilized car-fetishists for whom women are inexplicable, unconquerable creatures, and for whom life is one big escape from something they can't even put into words. This non-verbal, semi-poetic quality of the characters is sometimes a little hard to swallow, but it's often funny too. It's like Kerouac if Kerouac had had a sense of humor.
In Easy Rider the motorcycles were symbolic of rebellion, the spirit of independence supposedly embodied by bikers, but there's nothing especially rebellious about the characters in Two-Lane Blacktop. Hellman's not trying to take an ideological stance like Dennis Hopper, who saw his biker-fantasy as revolutionary - his movie is less '60s than '70s, less hippie-era trip than post-'60s trance-out. It has more in common with Loving and Blume in Love than with Easy Rider, the sense of America as this great disjointed place where no one has anything to believe in except the next experience, the next empty affair or drug-party or drag-race. The car-crazies of Two-Lane Blacktop are not martyrs like the bikers in Hopper's trippy opus, they're lost souls like Nicholson's Robert Dupea from Five Easy Pieces. They're characters of a certain tragic dimension, but the tragedy is rather non-descript. There are no great flaming climaxes in Two-Lane Blacktop, nothing as trumped-up as the finale of Easy Rider, but there is this portentousness, this sense of doom hovering over the characters - and it's this sense of doom that keeps Hellman's movie from floating off into some romantic la-la land. Kerouac seemed totally committed to the idea of irresponsibility as freedom, but Hellman isn't quite so convinced. Taylor and Wilson, as Kerouacian as they are, are not blissful libertines but thoughtful sober people, and Hellman suggests some awareness on their part of what a dead-end their lives really are. As wrapped up in car-culture as the movie may be, it never quite buys into the myths of the open road. There's always this grain of doubt, and it's this lack of certainty, this touch of ambivalence, that makes Two-Lane Blacktop more than just some loud, grease-spattered B-movie highway extravaganza.
This is either the best film I've ever seen, or just an interesting exercise
in film-making that is ultimately of little value. The problem is that I
can't decide which! No film has ever given me as much trouble in terms of my
deciding where to place it in my personal Top 250 list. I mean, I know it's
difficult to compare the relative merits of movies from different genres
(e.g. "Schindler's List" vs "Monty Python And The Holy Grail"), but this
movie is so unlike almost any others that I still don't know what to make of
I tried listening to the DVD commentary for some help, but Monte Hellman and Gary Kurtz had obviously pre-decided that they wouldn't talk about any aspect of the "meaning" or intent of the movie, preferring to concentrate on technical aspects such as pre-production, casting, locations, logistics, acting, lighting, sound, camera-work etc. I kind of respect them for this - leaving Joe Public to use his/her own brain in order to decide what the movie is all about.
One of the people in a featurette on the DVD said that "people haven't begun to realise how good Two-Lane Blacktop is" and I think that's right - the more I think about it, the better this film becomes in my estimation.
My take on the movie is that it's basically a contrast of the two extremes of human behaviour, as characterised by the brash, noisy "GTO" played by Warren Oates and the quiet, understated-to-the-point-of-lifelessness "Driver" and "Mechanic" - their personalities perfectly mirrored in their choice of cars. Most people's personalities lie somewhere in between, but by juxtaposing the extremes it forces one to think about one's place in that spectrum. "The Girl" is mainly a plot device to create a little bit of dramatic tension, as blokes left to themselves tend to go with the status quo. But we only want a little bit of drama, because that's not really the point, and too much drama would distract from the underlying theme.
I really love the "space" in this movie: the long takes, the long silences, the wide-open scenery, the fact that nobody SAYS anything (Warren Oates talks a lot, but never SAYS much). In modern life in general, I think people talk too much - try sitting still and shutting up for 103 minutes while watching this movie.
Not that I suppose anyone is interested, but I eventually rated this at about #70 in my Top 250, but next time I watch it I may move it up to #1 or drop it out of the 250 entirely...
Two Lane Blacktop is one of those movies that doesn't offer a lot of narrative and its characters don't have names, but it seduces us with its images of freedom and a seemingly constant nomadic cruise through beautiful landscapes. The four prominent characters consist of three car-enthusiasts and a hitchhiker. The brilliant Warren Oates is the star of the show as 'G.T.O', the driver of a bright yellow 1970 Pontiac G.T.O, who passes a 1955 Chevy driven by 'The Driver', musician James Taylor, who is accompanied by 'The Mechanic', former Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, and a hitchhiker they pick up 'The Girl', Laurie Bird. Later at a gas station they agree to a cross country race to Washington D.C. and we follow them on their way. G.T.O picks up some weird hitchhikers, or creeps as he calls them, including a homosexual who tries it on, played by Harry Dean Stanton. He tells these creeps some very exaggerated tall tales of his life and that is one of the resounding features of the film, with the ultimate statement being the one he tells to two soldiers he picks up near the end, which turns the film around from its outlook at the beginning. Also the other theme seems to be who can win the affection of 'The Girl'?, the old guy or the two young ones? But the film is memorable because of its rarity (it has never been released on video and is still unavailable, but has just been released on DVD) and its bizarre and infamous conclusion. But it is a film that you will want to watch again and again.
First off Monte Hellman is a genius. Secondly Two Lane Blacktop is one of the greatest "road" films of all time. In the film, like most road movies, the land becomes a character within itself, and Hellman creates that here. Like that of Rio Bravo with Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson, Hellman chooses two individuals out of there element in selecting Dennis Wilson and James Taylor. One might say that the two men don't say much, but when they do it is to the point, and in fact it is what they don't say that matters. Not to leave out Warren Oates, quite possibly the real lead in the film. Oates gives a top notch performance in all the films he graces, but here as GTO he really out does himself. Those who love films such as Easy Rider, and later Vanishing Point, will chalk this up, not only as one of the greatest "road" movies of all time, but as one of the lasts attempts at true"American" freedom.
Warren Oates plays a GTO driver who, on his road East, challenges two
car nuts for "pink slips". The first to get to Washington D.C. wins the
other's car. The two young guys have also picked up a girl on their
way, or more accurately, she just got in their car, no questions asked;
who she is, where she's going, nada. She's just tagging along for the
ride. All four major characters are drifters, men (and woman) with no
names, and their credit titles reflect that: G.T.O., The Driver, The
Mechanic, The Girl. They're parts of a long tradition of genre
anti-heroes, drifters and outcasts, that includes the likes of Sanjuro
(Yojimbo) and The Man with No Name.
However they face the same paradox every cinematic anti-hero faces: by separating themselves from society, by refusing to sit still and conform, they're free; it's just them, the engine revving and the road. The problem is that even though they are free, they don't seem to realize it. They keep trying to define themselves through society values. As Warren Oates muses about settling down: "If I'm not grounded pretty soon, I'm gonna go into orbit". The only thing that still permits these people identity and a place in society is through their cars. If the end is a symbolic representation of this moral double-bind that pushes them into two opposite directions, only Monte Hellman knows.
The reason I'm musing about characters in a car movie however is simple. Two-Lane Blacktop is not just about the race between a 1955 Chevy and a 1970 Pontiac. And that's probably why the movie meanders seemingly aimlessly in places, as if in a trance. It's not a racing movie. It doesn't try to be a tight, gripping thriller. In that light, the sometimes slow pacing becomes part of what defines the movie. It feels more like some sort of existential journey through 70's America. But the beauty (and Hellman's talent) is that he refuses the easy way out of obvious allegories (the kind of which Jarmusch used in Dead Man). Things are pretty much open and left for interpretation. But as the two cars cross country on their way to Washington D.C., Hellman captures the zeitgeist of the times in a unique way. I don't know how this slice of Americana looks in the eyes of Americans, but for a European like me, it paints the country in the same mythic colours Sergio Leone's movies did. The difference being this is not a reconstruction of a time and era seen through the eyes of a fascinated European director, but real locations and people.
In any way, Two-Lane Blacktop is closer to Vanishing Point than Gone in 60 Seconds. A superb road movie on all counts and more than a road movie.
In "Easy Rider" two bikers are in search of American as they travel
from coast to coast. The lead biker even calls himself Captain America.
In "Two-Lane Blacktop" two car freaks, one a mechanic the other a
driver, speed across the nation in search of what? Cars to race? Their
trip turns into a cross-country race between their 55 Chevy and a GTO.
How the driver of the GTO (played by Warren Oates) got the car depends
on which of his stories the viewer believes. The revelation at the end
of the film may possibly be the truth.
This film by existentialist director Monte Hellman who later helped produce Quentin Tarantino's seminal "Reservoir Dogs" is an important one. The dialog and acting are minimal, only one of the leads is a professional actor, Warren Oates. The others are two recording artists, James Taylor of "Fire and Rain" fame, and Dennis Wilson from The Beach Boys and a flower child Laurie Bird who tragically committed suicide in Art Garfunkel's apartment a few years later (ironically Garfunkel had helped Paul Simon sing the hit "I've gone to look for America"). The only other professional actor in the movie that this viewer recognized was Harry Dean Stanton who played the homosexual Oklahoma hitchhiker. This gives the film a more realistic feel and adds to the minimalism of the script and direction. The abrupt ending is a bit disconcerting but after a few viewings it makes more sense.
In "Easy Rider" the rock music was an integral part of the story. The soundtrack is one of the best ever. The music in "Two-Lane Blacktop" serves as mere background, kept so low that at times it's difficult to hear. There's a wild version of "Hit the Road Jack" by Jerry Lee Lewis who pumps the keyboard so fast that at times it sounds as if the keys are leaving the piano. The first rock song about racing, Chuck Berry's "Maybelline," is also heard at one point. It's hard for the listener to discern if Berry wrote the song about a woman or about a car. Otherwise the music corresponds with the simplicity of the rest of the flick.
The existential humor is easy to miss on the first viewing. GTO confesses to Mechanic and Driver that he is tired of picking up fantasies. Another part of the film has Driver asking Mechanic a question. Mechanic tells Driver to pull over and stop because it will take him a while to explain. When Driver stops it takes Mechanic only one sentence to give him his answer.
The viewer needs to watch "Two-Lane Blacktop" several times to get its full impact. The time is not wasted for the true believer.
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