Some of the last century's most celebrated works of art explored existentialist themes, featuring characters who waste their entire lives on repetitive, futile trivia, waiting in vain for some external redemption, even as they throw away opportunities to escape their rut. Dino Buzzati's novel "Desert of the Tartars", the most affecting novel I have read, was the standout in the literary field, and was made into a superb film. "Waiting for Godot" was the most celebrated theatrical example. But for me, the standout film in the genre is "Two Lane Blacktop". While the "Desert of the Tartars" film and Antonioni's Blacktop ripoff "The Passenger" were excellent, they, like the above-mentioned novel and play, were self-consciously artsy, the characters and situations artificial and fantastic. "Two Lane Blacktop" by contrast is believable & unpretentious, yet still an intelligent masterpiece. You can imagine such characters really could exist. Some people seem to think it's all about cars and drag racing, or is plot less. But as Hellman pointed out, the plot is entirely in the subtext. The Tennessee hitchhiker summed up the movie's true theme when belittling GTO's fantasies: "It's not important. What we got: 30
40 years?" Cars bore me, but I watched this 3 times in a row.
Like their cars, the nomadic main characters have stripped their lives of anything that might slow them down - relationships, non-automotive possessions, permanent homes, even names and identities beyond their automotive roles. Unconcerned with external appearances, they travel hundreds of miles slowly to drive a quarter-mile quickly, to make just enough money to continue the cycle. "How much bread we got?" from Driver elicits the reply "300 racing bread, 20 to spend" from Mechanic, which sums up their priorities. Their talk is similarly minimal, and what little they say concerns cars and racing. When Mechanic needs to communicate a single, complete sentence, he asks Driver to stop the car because "it's gonna take a long time". The only variance in their conversation topics (when Driver tells Girl of the even more minimal lifestyle of cicadas) is revealed by Hellman in his commentary to be an improvisation, prompted by excessive cicada noise during filming. No future, no past, on a road to nowhere, going nowhere fast - all clichés, but the boys live them out literally.
The immaculately groomed GTO (both man and car) picks up hitchhikers to inflict on them his self-aggrandizing life story, a different one each time. "Image and performance, that's what it's all about" he says, but that's another lie, and everyone see through and tires of him immediately. His lies invariably fail to win the respect he craves, so he tells more. The immaculate presentation conceals a leaky carburetor, personal failure and alcoholism. The one time GTO tries to tell the truth about himself, Driver stops him with "I don't wanna hear about it. It's not my problem." to maintain the context-free eternal present. Life on the road is about always leaving and never arriving. Similarly the Girl jumps wordlessly into their lives, jumps from man to man, then ends the movie by yet again leaving wordlessly with yet another nomad, symbolically dropping her baggage as she does so.
The cross-country race promises a break in the Sisyphean lives of the characters, with a large prize to the winner. They all tell the Girl insincere fantasies of going to Florida and beyond after winning to keep her around. But no sooner does the race start than both sides lose interest in achieving any real goal. "It doesn't interest me to be 500 miles ahead" says Driver, and Mechanic fixes their rival's carburetor trouble. When GTO races ahead with the Girl overnight while the boys are distracted earning cash, he slows to a crawl by next morning, and the boys easily catch up. Yet they turn back after going past him, and talk to him & Girl of picking up spares in Ohio instead of racing to Washington. Both parties stop when they see each other's cars parked at cafés. The only important thing to the boys is to impress upon others their automotive superiority, not earning money that might change their lifestyles.
The move was cut down from 3½ hours and it shows, in that there's not a single redundant scene in the 102 minutes of this ostensibly slow and plot less movie. The acting is flawless, apart from Laurie Bird, which is surprising given how few professional actors were used. Taylor especially is utterly convincing with his brooding, charismatic man-on-a-mission intensity. Bird (who suicided at 25) is suitably sulky and aloof, but her delivery is unconvincingly wooden.
Much as Joseph Conrad said of sailors, through their perpetual motion and dynamic impermanence the characters lives never change. Every road, drag strip, motel, conversation, gas station and roadside café is essentially the same. The film's final dialogue ends with GTO's biggest lie, closing with: "Those satisfactions are permanent". Nothing, least of all satisfaction, is permanent for these characters. The film's celebrated finale is perfect - burnout is the only possible exit from their locked-groove lifestyles.
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