MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Two-Lane Blacktop

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.

One Response to “Wilmington on DVDs: Two-Lane Blacktop”

  1. Michael: Such a rich appreciation of a great film! THANK YOU for writing with such vitality and warmth. The good ones always get away from the masses but they never disappear.

    Which brings me to the tragedy (fixable one, though!) of what I think is Monte’s MOST underrated film, CHINA 9, LIBERTY 37. There is NO print OR DVD/BluRay except the one with an infuriating post-error (sound mix fuckup) that makes it (for Monte at least) UNWATCHABLE. It’s a cheap fix that Warner Bros could rectify for the cost of a catered lunch for Chris Nolan.

    Monte has won the Golden Lion in Venice for Career Achievement in 2010. TWO LANE BLACKTOP was added to the National Film Registry in 2012. He’s been honored by every important festival and cinematheque on the planet. I think the sixth important study of his work is being published this year.

    Couldn’t SOMEONE at Warner Bros figure out that literally a few thousand bucks makes this great film something they can exploit from their library? Can someone help me get this message to someone who can do something? THANKS!!!!

Leave a Reply


tamzap on: Wilmington on DVDs: The Magnificent Seven, Date Night, Little Women, Chicago and more …

rdecker5 on: Wilmington on DVDs: Ivan's Childhood

Ray Pride on: Wilmington on Movies: The Purge: Election Year

Movieman on: Wilmington on Movies: The Purge: Election Year

Johanna Lynch on: Wilmington on DVDs: The File on Thelma Jordon; Adua and her Friends; Bullet to the Head

【14時までのご注文は即日発送】04-0017 03 48サイズ JILL STUART NEW YORK (ジルスチュアート ニュ on: Wilmington on DVDs: House of Wax (1953); After Earth; The Purge

【最安値に挑戦!】 ダイキン SSRN112BD4馬力相当 天井埋込カセット形 マルチフロ on: Wilmington on DVDs: House of Wax (1953); After Earth; The Purge

alain mikli アランミクリ メガネSTARCK EYES (スタルクアイズ) SH0001D カラー0053(正規品)【楽 on: Wilmington on DVDs: House of Wax (1953); After Earth; The Purge

【最安値に挑戦!】 ダイキンSZRN63BT2.5馬力相当 天井埋込カセット形 マルチフロ on: Wilmington on DVDs: House of Wax (1953); After Earth; The Purge

【着後レビューで送料無料】 エアージェイ 充電スタンド ホワイト SJS-2PWH 【RC on: Wilmington on DVDs: House of Wax (1953); After Earth; The Purge

Quote Unquotesee all »

“There was somebody from Creative Screenwriting Magazine who was here earlier, and she said ‘Have you got any advice for writers?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, write standing up’. Because this time around, I bought a cheap little stand off Amazon, and I wrote standing up, because it’s slightly uncomfortable – it’s not so uncomfortable that you can’t do it, it’s slightly uncomfortable. And it means you don’t end up going on the internet, basically, because you’re there to do a fucking job. So I’ll write for 25 minutes… then I’ll go and play on the PlayStation for a bit. And I do this all night. I go nocturnal. And then I go back and I’ll write a bit more, and then I go back to the PlayStation, and then I go back… And hopefully by then, I’ll lose track of time and then I’ll be writing for fucking ages, and then there’s a point where you get excited about it. So my advice for writers is always: write standing up, and get Scrivener, and write in 25 minute bursts, and get a PlayStation.”
~ Charlie Brooker

“People used to love to call me a maverick, because I had a big mouth, and I’d say, ‘That bum!’ or something like that when I was young. Mainly, because I believed it, and I didn’t know there was anybody’s pain connected to the business. I was so young, I didn’t feel any pain. I just thought, ‘Why don’t they do some exciting, venturesome things? Why are they just sitting there, doing these dull pictures that have already been done many, many times, and calling them exciting? That’s a lie — they’re not exciting. Exciting is an experiment… That reputation keeps with you, through the years. Once the press calls you a maverick, it stays in their files. I’ll be dead five years, and they’ll still be saying, ‘That maverick son-of-a-bitch, he’s off in Colorado, making a movie.’ As if they really cared. You know, in this business, it’s all jealousy. I mean, this is the dumbest business I’ve ever seen in my life. If somebody gets married, they say, ‘It’ll never work.’ If somebody gets divorced, they say, ‘Good. I’ll give you my lawyer.’ If somebody loses a job, everyone will call him — to gloat. They’ll discuss it, they’ll be happy, they’ll have parties. I don’t understand how people that can see each other all the time, and be friends, can be so happy about each other’s demise.”
~ John Cassavetes


Z Weekend Report