Pick of the Week: Classic
Two-Lane Blacktop (Four Stars)
U. S.: Monte Hellman, 1971 (Criterion Collection)
1. ’55 Chevy
I’m thinking of a movie, a really special one. There’s these two guys riding around, picking up races, in 1971 in a ‘55 charged-up gray Chevy and they’ve got faces blank and cool as a desert ride after sundown, and we never learn their movie names. They’re just called The Driver (James Taylor, of “Fire and Rain“) and The Mechanic (Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys). Round about the stops on Route 66, they run into a fast-talking volatile weirdo, driving a new orange Pontiac GTO, and we never learn his name either. He’s just called GTO (Warren Oates of The Wild Bunch).
All three of these existential car dudes (they’ve got no past, they’ve got no future, and what little there is of either was probably made up by Oates), get together for an outlaw car race — the Chevy against the GTO, for the pink slips. They head out from California through Santa Fe and up to Little Rock, to Tennessee and North Carolina — by which time the race and these people have changed a little — including the hitch-hiker, who comes in, grabs a ride and messes everybody up. She’s called The Girl (Laurie Bird) and she adds sex or potential sex to the equation.
The picture, of course, is called Two-Lane Blacktop, a real cult movie directed by a real cult director, Monte Hellman (Road to Nowhere), and written by a sort of cult novelist/screenwriter, Rudy Wurlitzer (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid). Back in 1971, when it was first released, this film caught a (brief) lucky break. It was the subject of a big Esquire cover story hailing it as the movie of the year. But the free publicity did it no good. The movie was hated by its studio (Universal) and its executive (the formidable Lew Wassermann) and it was dumped and it flopped. James Taylor, Dennis Wilson and Laurie Bird never really had movie careers (though maybe some of them should have, especially Wilson). And Warren Oates never won an Oscar (though he definitely should have, maybe for this role). And Monte Hellman, who had been kicking around the Roger Corman part of Hollywood since the early ’60s, never made the great leap that his old buddy-writer-star Jack Nicholson did — to the big time and to bright lights and big contracts and big movies.
Hellman never had even the erratic sort of up-and-down career Dennis Hopper had (as a director) after Easy Rider, the movie that Hellman said made Two-Lane Blacktop possible. And Rudy Wurlitzer never became a super-writer like Hellman’s other Corman-era colleague Robert Towne. The assistant cameraman for Two-Lane Blacktop did okay: that was John Bailey, who later shot The Big Chill and Silverado and Groundhog Day. So: great expectations, hopes dashed, same old story. You try, you fail (commercially at least) and Esquire winds up looking silly. Not the first time. Not the last.
So what’s there to get your motor running in this offbeat show 42 years later: Two Lane Blacktop, a movie that got rejected — and now gets the full (and deserved) Criterion Collection masterpiece treatment? Well, Richard Linklater gives us 16 reasons why he loves Two-Lane Blacktop in the Criterion booklet, and only one of them is wrong. He says Dennis Wilson gives the greatest (movie acting) performance ever by a drummer, not knowing perhaps that that Peter Sellers was a pro jazz and pop drummer for a while, and reportedly a good one (though not as good, I‘m sure, as Dennis Wilson), which means the greatest (acting) performance ever in a movie by a drummer is by Sellers in Dr. Strangelove, hands down. (He’s even better than Warren Oates.)
No biggie though, because Linklater also says quite correctly, that Two-Lane Blacktop is pure and honest, and that Oates is “a god that walked the earth,” and that Hellman understands these people and cars and landscape, and that the movie preserves it all with an eerie perfection, like Edward Hopper set loose with his paints on Route 66. And because the last shot (inspired by Bergman’s Persona), is pure cinema, and the film itself is like a drive-in movie shot by a French New Wave director — which is probably exactly what Hellman wanted, though Universal didn’t. (Hellman claims Jacques Rivette’s Paris nous Appartient was a major influence. )
2. ’70 GTO
The movie is about motion and outsiders, winning and losing, and how life, in 1971, could be a void. So the three guys — The Driver, The Mechanic and GTO — meet and make the bet, and drive like Hell to the South. (Hellman actually shot on all the locations mostly in sequence, like Easy Rider.) They pick up the Girl and she bounces between the two cars and they all want her, and nobody gets her (quite).
Along the way, GTO keeps picking up riders and having crazy one-sided conversations with them, sometimes including his life story which keeps changing and is almost certainly a lie. (I was thankful Kent Jones, who wrote the Criterion essay, didn’t compare Hellman to Abbas Kiarostami — or did he?.) GTO has a lot of music tapes designed to appeal to different riders and varied tastes. He also is a drinker; he has a wet bar in the back. He’s ready for action, but not every kind. When one of his riders, in Oklahoma, makes a pass at him (By God, it’s Harry Dean Stanton!), he throws him out of the car.
The Driver and the Mechanic, and, in a way The Girl, have no personalities, or minimal ones. They’ve all been peeled and stripped to their functions. The Driver and the Mechanic are good at driving and fixing, as Linklater points out, they’re a couple of Rio Bravo Hawksian professionals, but without the humor. Conversely, GTO — this scarred, drinking motormouth guy with his grin of anguish and his tapes and his wet bar — has lots of personalities and past histories, though only one voice (unlike Peter Sellers). He’s a mad racer who can’t shut up.
Oates has what Taylor and Wilson don’t: humor, scary humor. Sad humor. Oates’ GTO gives the movie both humanity and absurdity. Wilson gives it professionalism. Taylor gives it charisma — album cover charisma. That’s part of the reason the movie didn’t catch its audience at first: Hellman does have a comic sense, but he keeps it under wraps. The movie tends to be more Beckett than Ben Hecht.
It’s a race, but, much of the time, it doesn’t feel like a race, and whatever prize may be awarded seems a disappointment or worthless. Everything just sort of peters out. No wonder studio executives hated it.
3. The Pink Slips
When I was young, and the movies and my movie friends were younger (the late ‘60s ad early ‘70s), we all loved Two-Lane Blacktop, mostly because of Warren Oates, and we were (mistakenly, I now think) proud that the mass audience didn’t get it. What the hell did they know? A selfish attitude, to be sure. We should have been more generous. But, if you wait long enough, movies and people can get second chances. Hellman was a pet director of the revered French film magazine, Cahiers du Cinema, mostly for his 1966 Jack Nicholson Westerns Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting (which also had Oates). That was his hip credential and it was a good one — even though Cahiers was in the midst of political transition when they fell for him. Pretty soon that magazine would be exploring semiotics and politics and writing collective texts on Henry Fonda‘s castrating stare in John Ford‘s politically suspect Young Mr. Lincoln.
The movie did however hang around. It hovered on the edge of cult-film consciousness, popped up at festivals and got written about by the kind of writers who aren’t shy of trashing movies that are big hits with mainstream critics and writing hosannas for movies that fail commercially and are unloved by studios –and are, for a while, forgotten. Like Two-Lane Blacktop. But if they’re any good and people keep watching them and talking about them, they can always come back through some media window or other and finally get there due, as Two-Lane Blacktop finally has, with this second release (Blu-ray this time) from the Criterion Collection, with a booklet review by Jones that says, among other things, that Two-Lane Blacktop is “a great film….about loneliness. (Imagine it: “Okay, Monte, what have you got for me?” “A great film about loneliness.” ‘Uh. yeah.” ) Climb that mountain. Push that rock. We‘ve already got a treatment on Sisyphus IV.
Movies sometimes become as much what we say about them, as the thing they actually are. Somehow, though, everybody always knew that Two-Lane Blacktop was an art movie about alienation and social breakdown disguised as a kind of Gumball Rally-Vanishing Point car race thriller, with rock ‘n roll stars and a soundtrack. Hellman deliberately avoided all the clichés that might have made the movie more popular, including not having a song onscreen or on the soundtrack, by Taylor or Wilson. I‘m not sure that was an entirely good idea, After all, Hawks had Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson (not to mention Walter Brennan) sing in Rio Bravo and it’s one of the best scenes in the movie.
Anyway, you watch Two-Lane Blacktop, which looks better than it ever did, and you remember the ’60s and the ‘70s, the paranoia and the sweetness, the fear and desire, the bloody Vietnam slaughter on the TV news and the lovemaking and rock ‘n roll in the movies. It is a great memento. Here it is. Nothing really dies in the movies. It just revs up and starts again.
Now Criterion, house of so many wonders, how about an Eclipse set of The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, China 9, Liberty 37 nd The Terror? You could call it Monte Hellman’s Alienated Genres. No scratch that. No sense alienating your audience. Call it Outsider Classics by Monte Hellman. Or maybe Four Lane Blacktop.
Extras: Commentaries by Hellman, Wurlitzer, Allison Anders and David Meyer; Interviews with Hellman, Taylor, Kris Kristofferson and others; Screen test outtakes; Featurettes; Trailers; Booklet with esssay by Jones, apprecitions by Linklater and Tom Waits; Esquire article by Michael Goodwin.