The Best Movie Critic + Critic

Two-Lane Blacktop

While Ben is gone, I'll be featuring some friends as guest writers. Our first guest is Ryan Hall, who in addition to being one of my oldest friends runs one of the best music blogs around, Tome to the Weather Machine. Take it away Ryan!
Two-Lane Blacktop1971, Monte Hellman

Fast Cars!
Minimalism!
Existentialism!

Two-Lane Blacktop has been called many things: The ultimate road movie, the ultimate car movie, a post-modern western, a post-modern samurai movie, an existentialist ode to the pre-Interstate America. For all the genres and ideas that movie critics have read into it over the years it would be easy to pass off as either a pretentious cult classic that makes overtures to important themes or a decidedly obtuse movie that movie critics, in their confusion, invent all sorts of ad-hoc explanations, but perhaps there is something more to this film.

Like other existential road movies of its time like Easy Rider and Vanishing Point, Two-Lane Blacktop explores a world of social outcasts and deviants that offer the viewer the voyeuristic sensation of seeing how these people interact with a society that they feel alienated from. James Taylor (that’s right, THAT James Taylor) plays the Driver, Dennis Wilson (that’s right, THAT Dennis Wilson) plays the Mechanic, Laurie Bird plays the girl, and the glorious Warren Oates (THAT Warren Oates) plays the driver of the GTO.

The setting, dialogue, and narrative plot are stark, bare bones, and largely improvised. The Driver, Mechanic, Girl, and GTO do not have names and do not speak to each other about anything other than cars or racing cars. The Driver and Mechanic exist solely by their winnings by drag racing. They have no past, no future, no aim except to drift into the next town in order to win enough money to travel to the next one. Their pattern is interrupted when the Girl (Bird), the ever-present pubescent hippie post adolescent, naturally climbs into their car while they are stopped for lunch. On the road they frequently encounter the slick, pre-yuppie, hitch hike picker upper, driver of the GTO (Oates) who challenges them to a race from wherever they were in America to Washington D.C for ownership of the losers car. As they travel through the country their relationship morphs from a willful competition to a cooperative bewilderment of American Society.

Without the rigid auspices of a plot the film is held together by its grasp on two key concepts: the car as narrative space and the existentialist everyman. These two ideas are nothing new in cinema; however, Hellman puts a uniquely American spin on them and forces us to examine the romanticism of the open road in a whole new way. Two-Lane Blacktop is a minimalist masterpiece. The filmmaking is about as bare bones as it gets. Without any cinematic flares to speak of the viewer is forced the never-ending landscapes of two lane road meeting the horizon in the distance, the stark interior of Taylor and Wilson’s car, to the blank look on Taylor’s face as honest representations of a time period and lifestyle.

The characters' bewilderment at American society are expressed in two ways. Warren Oates is a deeply troubled, insecure man who exudes the kind of oily false pretensions of a used car salesman as he picks up various hitch hikers along the highway and tells them each an either completely true or completely fabricated version of his life story (we never can tell). His life is defined by telling people strictly what he wants them to know about himself, his self constructed reality is a carefully manicured straw man that would crumble with the realization that he has no place in life or society. The Driver and the The Mechanic represent a different type of existentialist alienation with American society, they are the willful outsiders, the triumphant drop outs who gave up trying to figure out the absurdity of mainstream American life years ago. They seem to have entered into a pact to never discuss anything that does not revolve around the life they have built for themselves. All of this can be summed up by Taylor’s blank look at the camera and droll executions of lines like “you can never go fast enough”.

Two-Lane Blacktop may be Hellman’s masterpiece, a true period piece of post hippie malaise in which a generation was in the process of selling out its ideals was facing an unknown future. Two-Lane Blacktop recounts perfectly the lives of the different kinds of responses that the seventies would eventually spawn. The crass consumerism of the eighties followed by the nervous, over-analysis and paranoid-therapist-on-speed-dial angst of the nineties was portrayed by a pitch-perfect role of the unctuous GTO Driver. The Peter Pan romanticism that my generation was lead to believe the sixties embodied may be portrayed by Taylor and Wilson, or maybe not. The Driver and the Mechanic are two men who saw the oncoming tidal pull of a sixties backlash, and instead of trying to fight it just slipped below the waves.

-Ryan

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