Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)
So many movies, so little time. When I perused the scope of the Bloomsbury Curzon’s celebratory auteur film festival eyebrows were raised at the possibility of seeing some bona-fide classics on the big screen, until I cross referred the films to screening times where my wilder ambitions were thwarted – some of us do have day jobs ya’know. Still, there are some overlaps with previous efforts such as A Matter Of Life & Death, Tokyo Story, Mulholland Drive and Vertigo, still I’d have loved to have seen The 400 Blows (I can’t believe I haven’t reviewed a single Truffaut picture here yet), The Double Life Of Véronique (ditto with my Kieślowski omissions) and Touch Of Evil to finish off my intended coverage of the corpulent Orson Welles. I did, however, manage to take Two Lane Blacktop for a big-screen spin, as one of the counter cultural classics of its era it has long been on my police scanner radar, it’s a film I’m not incredibly enamored with but I hadn’t seen it for a while, and the timings mechanically melded with my earlier viewing of Wild Tales. With two huge rock stars in the lead roles – Dennis ‘Beach Boys’ Wilson and James ‘James Taylor’ Taylor – and an ethos trailing in the revolutionary slipstream of the immensely profitable Easy Rider the Universal executives must have thought they had a sure-fire hit purring on the starting block. But, like, the film’s opening was a total drag man, and the films cult chassis only got like totally groovy as it acquired its far-out fans over the intervening years, as an early flowering of that whole anxiety sub-genre which P.T. Anderson dredged for Inherent Vice – see also The Long Goodbye, Night Moves, Taxi Driver, The Conversation and others. I don’t wish to go round the circuit on that journey again as one hopes to have traversed that lap with my Vice review, so instead let’s get under the hood and see exactly how this vehicle performs as an amber trapped artefact of acute Americana.
You know you’re perambulating around mythic territory when the main characters in your film don’t even have names but are simply credited as ‘The Driver‘ (Taylor) The Mechanic’ (Wilson) and ‘The Girl’, although cult acting favorite Warren Oates gilds the film with a strong streak of charming characterization, as the walking contradiction known only as GTO – his moniker the make of his car. It’s a discombobulating, almost indifferent film which shrugs away notions of plot just as it turns it back from the ‘man’, what we do get is a genteel rivalry between the two long-haired outcasts racing their charcoal ’55 Chevy against GTO’s canary yellow ’65 Pontiac from the rural south-west to Washington. En route the combatants hustle street races for a few dollars along the way, picking up waifs and strays from the wispy byways and highways of America, trading for the affections of the ariel Laurie Bird (‘The Girl’) who flits in free love fashion between the combatants. There’s also a rather memorable cameo from a certain Harry Dean Stanton as a hustler hitchhiker who takes a shine to GTO’s tall tales, just another side-road on the films throbbing rise to cult classicism.
That’s the thing with certain cult movies isn’t it? What elevates them above their peers of the genre ghettos is that distinct command of tone and aura, that indiscriminate ‘feel’ and temperature of a film which blesses certain projects as gift from the celluloid gods. Two Lane Blacktop has that atmosphere in full 450 horsepower, it’s a fascinating portrait of a lost America that has receded like the decades in the rear view mirror, I could have easily watched another couple of hours of footage just to absorb that delicious muted small town miscellanea, the smell of a cooling cheeseburger, the refreshing bite of a ice-cold coke. I also couldn’t quite believe just how funny the film is, memory is always a sketchy, elusive thing but I always regarded Two Lane Blacktop as a rather cold and mercurial affair, with both leads barely grunting dialogue to each other, turning around a causal plot which revs more with the cars than the characters – we’ll come to Warren Oates shortly. Like it’s 1971 twin The Last Picture Show it’s a model saturated in Americana, from the exhausted diners, decaying $15 rack rate motels and maudlin gas stations perched on the outskirts of town, an atmosphere of lazily drifting tumbleweeds, of twilight ambitions and fading dreams. One hardware store interior immediately alerted me to this scene, the Coens must have been inspired by director Monte Hellman’s keen eye for specific red-state flora and fauna, he is a rather underrated figure whose work has never received the attention it potentially deserves (Cockfighter and China 9, Liberty 37 are also terrific), eclipsed by the other cinema princes of the 1970’s although like Hal Ashby the tide seems to be turning to re-evaluate him as an important figure of the era. We should also mention another footnote of his contribution to the form, he also served as Executive producer to shepherd an ambitious 1990’s director / screenwriter debut picture to the screen – Reservoir Dogs.
Scenes in the film last for about ten seconds longer than perhaps they should with characters pausing and evading each others gaze, evoking a space between scenes of quiet reflection and meditation, a pacing which is languid and, well, just ever so slightly stoned. The giggles are provided by the magnificent Warren Oates whom to deploy a scholarly film critic phrase is just fucking awesome, one of the all time great post war cult movie actors, a veteran of Peckinpah with a stone cold celluloid image of one of the toughest, roughest sonofabitches to ever walk the earth – one day you whiskey swilling bastards I’ll get my teeth into Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia and you’ll understand what it is to be a man in this fucked up world. GTO has more origin stories than all of Arizona’s schizophrenic wards combined, he regaling his hitchhiking acquisitions with tall tales of his business prowess and masculine mastery, until one quiet moment of true reflection is crushed with a heart-breaking ‘I just don’t wanna hear it man’ from his lank haired opponent. It’s a rare moment of genuine pathos in the film, nestled among his pseudo philosophical tracts, including the best line reading in the movie ‘If I’m not grounded pretty soon, I’m gonna go into orbit’. If you’re looking to double bill the movie then you can’t go wrong with Vanishing Point, the aforementioned Easy Rider or maybe Medium Cool among others, before that apprehension and unease moved from the provinces to the cities in the paranoia trilogy. They all share a fascination with the open road and its lure of freedom, agitate a rejection of the system, and all are veiled in the death shroud of the hippy dream, those flowers that soured in the closing evacuation of Vietnam, of Watergate, of Manson and Altamont.
It’s not just the physical trappings of the American geography, the immortalization of the iconography of the Nixon era. No, the film is a classic because it roars with a thundering appreciation of intrinsic American mythic ideals – the anticipation of the open road, those romantic prairies of freedom stretching to the horizon, progress and plunder in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Where once it was a stumbling horse and grime choked wagon trains the car has supplanted the mule as status symbol, and as Sailor states in another road movie it ‘represents a symbol of my individuality, and my belief in personal freedom‘. In Blacktop Henry Ford’s gift to the nation are the only objects approaching true character or purpose in the picture, hell they even quite amusingly both get a place on the final credit crawl, more cinema chutzpah residing in their sleek purring machinery and their fetishized chrome finishes than their disembodied human occupants. Perhaps my favorite moment in the whole picture is the first appearance of the Girl spied through a diner window as she secrets herself in the duo’s vehicle, I just love the utter lack of acknowledgment of this new addition to the team who has just appeared in the back of their vehicle, it’s a perfect encapsulation of the indifferent attitude and freewheeling spirit of the time. Two Lane Blacktop closes with a quintessential image of American cinema of the period, of the gas guzzlers roaring down a sun bleached highway that stretches infinitely away to a shimmering horizon, before that infamous frazzled finale;