Two Lane Blacktop is a reticent, near mute of a movie, simultaneously defying and inviting criticism. For many critics, divining the real content of this challenging film has been a daunting task, but author Adam Webb is up to the job. Indeed, his prose penitrates the films opaque surface and offers up insights I have not seen elswhere. After reading this essay, my anticipation of Webb's upcoming book about Dennis Wilson (scheduled for release mid-2001) was significantly augmented. See our links page for more details on that book.
n release in September 1971, Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktophad the ingredients of a sure-fire hit. Trailing the wake of Easy Riderthe factors necessary for a successful road movie were all present. Classic cars duelling across the States. Check. A cult director from the Roger Corman stable. Check. On-the-road nihilism and existentialist plot twists. Check. A journey towards the meaning of America
today…. And on top of this, two spunky rock musicians in James Taylor and Dennis Wilson as its stars. Taylor, following the release of Sweet Baby James,was riding the peak of commercial success and enjoying a high-profile relationship with Joni Mitchell, the Queen of the Folk Singers. Wilson, as drummer for the Beach Boys, had been an icon of Californian sexuality for over a decade. A hyperbolic Rolling Stone article written on location and a full year before it's release date had journalist Michael Goodwin hailing an 'instant classic' - 'a film about road racers and their women, cross-country adventure, the Great God Speed.' Though recognised predominantly in Europe for his Westerns The Shooting and Ride In The Whirlwind(the latter scripted by and starring Jack Nicholson), Hellman was granted $900,000 to break into the lucrative youth market. This was his first fully financed movie. Universal Pictures had expectations here.
But the film bombed. The end result was a major disappointment to the distributors. Far from being an action-packed bonanza Two-Lane was cold-centred and slow moving; a drifting arthouse irony about road racers almost too disinterested to race. Wilson and Taylor looked cool but said little beyond one syllable. There was no human connection with the two leading players, and they remained strangers to the audience. A resulting lack of promotion ensured it played for little more than a few months before being struck off like a failed experiment. To this day it remains unreleased on video - an infrequent occupant of the graveyard shift on BBC2 or Cable. (editor's note: a collector's edition was released on VHS and DVD in 2000). Hellman went on to direct Cockfighter and The Killer Elite before obscurity beckoned, Dennis and James returned to music, while co-stars Warren Oates and Harry Dean Stanton (both Hellman regulars) progressed onwards with their careers.
I guess this begs the question: "What went wrong?". Why was Two-Lane Blacktop so ignored on release and why has it remained such a cinematic rarity? It was released in 1971 after all, when the road movie genre was at its peak - a by-product of the endemic introspection sweeping the remnants of the US counterculture as it limped wearily into the new decade. Collectively Woodstock, Monterey, Free Love and LSD achieved little of what they had promised. Altamont and Manson had exposed the fraudulent Hippy Dream, LBJ's 'War On Poverty' had failed, conflict in Vietnam had escalated, and arch conservative Richard Nixon was secure in the White House. The optimism and hopes so intrinsic to our images of the previous decade had seemingly evaporated, replaced by the traditional values of the Silent Majority. Government power flexed its muscles and ruled supreme at Kent State University and Attica Prison. During that pre-Watergate era the achievements of the 1960s appeared illusionary. The voices that called for change in 1967 were now questioning their very identity.
This was apparent musically with the revival of country and folk music (mellow AOR songs by the Laurel Canyon dwellers who had survived LA burnout) and cinematically with the anti-hero loners portrayed in Easy Rider, Vanishing Point and Badlands- individuals who journeyed through the American heartland on missions of self-discovery. Lost souls for lost times.
And within these strict parameters Two-Lane existed for the same reasons. Rudy Wurlitzer and Will Cory's screenplay was at first glance simplicity: two nameless drifters known to us only as The Driver (Taylor) and The Mechanic (Wilson) roam Nowheresville USA, hustling dollars by racing their powerful but plain grey '55 Chevy. Along the way they pick up The Girl (played by Laurie Bird) and unintentionally start a race against the yellow Pontiac driven by GTO (Warren Oates), a middle-aged wannabe hipster. Straight out of Tom Wolfe's essay The Kandy-Coloured Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby the race is for 'pink slips' - the first car to Washington wins the opposition's automobile - the ultimate racing grudge match. All three male characters compete for the attention of The Girl while GTO provides entertainment along the way by spinning his self-deluding life story to an assortment of hitchhikers. The race itself finally becomes meaningless and the actors drift away as easily as they came together. The film closes when the actual celluloid we are watching catches fire. The construction and setting appear plotless and bleak; the performances realistic to the point of amateurism - as if we have actually invaded the living space of two non-descript humans for the course of a few hours.
It was this pure realism and the failure to conform to Hollywood's cinematic standards that set the film apart. "I like surface polish like in Hitchcock's North By Northwest," admitted Hellman during the film's making. "But I'm not talking about perfection exactly - who would want a perfect movie?" Our archetypal expectations of the genre are let down at every turn and at every possibility. Where were those wide-open spaces captured by wide-angled lenses? Where was the glorious American scenery, the mountains, the deserts and lakes? Where was the Byrds and Steppenwolf soundtrack or the blaxploitation narration of DJ Soul Power? Why did every scene start with potential but never reach fruition? It was if the machinery was in place but tension, reason and excitement were being wilfully denied.
Our view of the road is terminally confined to the front seat of the '55. For long periods shots linger on the expressionless faces of the drivers. Despite opening to the sound of police sirens the action is scarce and the actual races devoid of tension. There are few of Easy Rider's beautiful rolling vistas and the pace is lethargic; the camera work remains resolutely static as characters move in and out of focus. The landscape becomes increasingly peripheral to the journey and is in the main unremarkable - all faceless fields and small towns inhabited by unremarkable people. The atmosphere is predominantly dank and close and it seems to rain permanently. This is an America that is nowhere and could be anywhere; a rural backwater dotted intermittently with diners, garages and motels.
For a film headlining with two rock stars there was little in the way of music and nothing but screaming engines over the opening credits. The Doors playing Moonlight Driveis featured in one small segment, but that aside the music is limited to the radio in the Chevy (which The Driver soon turns off for added concentration) and GTO's tape collection. There was no Born To Be Wild - only The Girl breaking into a spontaneous and off-key version of Satisfaction. In 1971, the Rock industry was celebrating its own self-importance as the affluent survivors of the 60s mythologised the past and sang contentedly, as if their struggles of that era had actually bore achievement. Hellman simply presents the music as a disposable soundtrack: a distraction to which most of the characters are ambivalent. Only The Girl is enamoured with the GTO collection of 'Rock, Soul, Hillbilly and Western'. Everyone else exists in the backwater world outside of LA, San Francisco or New York, where the most popular station plays country, and the rock revolution passed by unnoticed. The hillbilly who spits out, "You ain't Hippies are ya?" as if they are something from another world is typical of the faces they encounter on the road. The majority of the country remained untouched by the boasts of the 60s and, as later decades would testify, remained true to the conservative spirit of the American Dream.
The characters themselves appear one-dimensional. The Driver and Mechanic share no bonds except the car. Conversation revolves around engine performance and the relationship is realised only while hustling at the race meets and dragster derbies. Wilson reels off the vital statistics of opposition motors and selects a likely victim for Taylor to goad into racing. The quest for spare parts is given equal importance to the competition. Even when Laurie Bird appears, climbing without reason or explanation into the back of the Chevy, there is no tension and she is accepted without question. As meaningless as the rest of the characters, The Girl sleeps with The Mechanic (though he does nothing to pursue her) only to brush off the vague advances of The Driver. ("You bore me," she retorts coldly to his small talk about "the freaky bugs"). This is a bleak worldview where communication is non-existent and even portrayed as weakness. When GTO finally resists his boasting to attempt a confession on how his life fell apart The Driver's response is chillingly numb. "I don't wanna hear about it. It's not my problem." In many respects Two-Lane Blacktop was the first modern slacker movie. Welcome to the 70s.
Indeed, it was left to Warren Oates to provide any traces of humanity. An experienced actor compared to the other main players (at this point in his career he had starred in The Wild Bunch and Return Of The Magnificent Seven, as well as Hellman's Western The Shooting), his depiction of the gregarious GTO saves the movie from a total emotional void. He is a tragi-comic figure who exists only through the differing fairy tales of his life story that he regales to each unfortunate hitchhiker. We have no idea who he really is or what he is doing on the road, only of his constant desire to impress or befriend his passengers. A middle-aged loner in a changing array of colourful V-neck sweaters and cravats he is desperate to prove his himself and his virility, though seemingly no one is interested by his spiel. He offers out pills ("I've got other items dependin' on which way you wanna go: up, down or sideways"), flaunts his tape collection and makes cringing attempts to speak hip. The only reaction he garners is the unwanted hand of Harry Dean Stanton's gay cowboy - "I'm not into that. This is competition man. I ain't got no time." To his other passengers he is looking for a new thrill after testing jets, or on a mission to make millions for The Organisation, or on his way to New York after winning the car in Vegas shootin' craps or finally, to the old lady and child on their way to the cemetery, he is going to fix his mother's house in St Petersburg Florida. Spinning people what he believes they want to hear his whole identity is bound to the tales of his imagination.
GTO is a lonely cipher but there are more than enough hints that he is harbouring a secret or that he at least has a soul. His engaging smiles, sense of humour ("Champagne. Caviar. Chicken sandwiches under glass…." he drawls on entering another forsaken diner) and concern for his fellow racers win our sympathy. Of the three male characters he at least actively pursues The Girl, promising her fantasies of a life in Chicago or building a house in Florida or Arizona while she sleeps. A potential situation with some good ol' local boys is diffused when he claims the occupants of the '55 are related and he is their manager - "We're a big family but we know how to keep it together, you know what I mean." He alone drives towards a purpose - even if, irony of ironies, the world he inhabits is pure fantasy and that purpose is never revealed. GTO also gets the best lines in the film and Oates delivers with relish: "All that speed is gonna run over you one of these days. You can't be a nomad forever unless you flow with it like me", "I'll have a hamburger…and an alka seltzer", and best of all, "If I'm not grounded pretty soon I'm gonna go into orbit."
All that Hellman actually achieved with Two-Lane Blacktop was intentional. The film that looked haphazard and meandering was in fact intricately formed, designed to provoke feelings of unsettlement. Surmised perfectly by the promotional slogan that appeared on the poster (No Beginning…. No End…. No Speed Limit!) the whole essence of the movie was it's own meaninglessness. It was the perfect brutal reflection of a smug self-satisfied year when the shit of the peace and love era was really hitting the fan. (After the fanfares of the 60s came this horrifically deathly silence). A whole film constructed like the never-ending layers to an unsolvable puzzle, where everyone is lost and nothing has purpose. The race, the centre point of the whole exercise, became unimportant after ten minutes when the two sides start helping one another. Eventually the audience themselves become unwilling participants in this spectacle - watching a non-story without end was a meaningless experience in itself! In an act of total subversion Hellman had presented Universal, not with the film about nihilism that they so desired, but a film that actually was nihilism.
He took the road movie genre far beyond the failed dreams of Easy Rider. Intelligent and thought provoking, Two-Lane in all its glorious open-ended detail was a perfect allegory to the early 1970s. The one flaw was the alienation of its potential audience. The American public and Universal Pictures preferred a comforting image of the present and found Hellman's vision unpalatable. The disappointments of the 60s left most people wanting stability in their art as opposed to challenge and radicalism. The complexities of the real world demanded soothing simplicity. And this was not a phenomenon intrinsic to film, as Neil Young was to discover. The average punter demanded the unthreatening country rock sound of Harvest or After The Goldrush rather than the dark black melodrama of Tonight's The Night or On The Beach. Much like the Reaganite 80s when bland corporate rock ruled the airwaves, the unthinkable truth in the shape of Watergate or the secret bombing of Cambodia demanded an AOR soundtrack. Maybe only now with hindsight can we make sense of and appreciate this.
America the Superpower, that could put men on the moon and inflict democracy wherever it pleased, was not at peace with itself. Beyond the huge and powerful city centres and the glory of the Stars and Stripes was the timeless vacuum where nothing ever changed. Between the government propaganda of the greatest nation on earth and the liberal ideals of the counter culture was this god-fearing land where it was forever 1954. Two-Lane was the road to this meaningless place with its car races, small-mindedness, and sheer mindnumbing ordinariness that, according to Hellman, was the real America today. The only escape from the cities and the remnants of the previous decade was to this wasteland: bleached-out, numb, lonely and emotionless.
A bleak film then, but not without an absorbing beauty. A strange existentialist journey to nowhere, but given the outstanding performance of Warren Oates, compelling and watchable. For Hellman it had been an abstract departure from the Cormanesque B-movies and Westerns for which he had been renowned and his bravery was rewarded by a marked downturn in his career. Left behind by the likes of Coppola and Scorsese it was in 1987 as Assistant Director of Filmography on Robocop before he next worked on a project of significant proportions.
However, for aficionados his reputation as an original and inspired filmmaker remained intact, and in 1991 he approached the unknown Quentin Tarantino who was hawking a script entitled Reservoir Dogs. After helping secure the funding Hellman ended up as Executive Producer, but the young director has paid homage to the importance of his work on several occasions. In different hands his ideas and techniques - updated and reissued - have found success elsewhere, but unlike other pioneers the original films remain obscure and rarely seen. In Tarantino's own words, "It's a real shame there are no new Monte Hellman pictures showing in our movie houses." And though it is unlikely that Quentin's patronage will lead to a revival of Travolta-like proportions the sentiment is a worthy one. Two-Lane Blacktop was simply too dark for success, but its flawed glory and defiant intent stand testament to a unique and maverick talent that peaked out of time. Considering the sterility of present day Hollywood we film fans can only hope it might return.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON TWO LANE BLACKTOP AND IT'S DIRECTOR MONTE HELLMAN, VISIT THESE LINKS:
The Onion's interview with Monte Hellman.
Director Richard Linklater gives 16 reasons to love Two Lane Blacktop
Greatest Car movie Ever!- The Film Threat review of Two-Lane Blacktop. While there, check out the Film Threat interview with Hellman, and their article on Hellman's brand of existentialism...the links are at the bottom of the review page.
Vincent Canby's positive review in the New York Times.
Good review from filmwritten.org
A very complete review of the new DVD collector's edition
The IMDB's extensive Hellman Filmography. You can also purchase the film at this site.