Wednesday, December 19, 2007


B-movies and genre pictures are quite often more than they seem. Sure, most of them are exactly what they seem, and I've seen plenty that others have claimed have carried some heavy message only to discover that someone misread nonsense for wisdom. When it's working, though, when the cast and crew understand what kind of Trojan Horse they're loading into the projector, it can be truly magical.

Monte Hellman's 1971 road race movie Two-Lane Blacktop, just released on a double-disc DVD by the Criterion Collection, can be watched as a film about a trio of guys with no roots looking for kicks on the open highway, and on that alone, it's an enjoyable flick. That's the beauty of the stealth genre picture, it has very real pleasures right on the surface. It's up to the individual to find any more in it, and in the case of Two-Lane Blacktop, whatever it is you find is also up to interpretation.

Hellman and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer (Walker) take a Spartan approach to their cast list. The characters have identifiers in place of names. Folk singer James Taylor is "The Driver," while Dennis Wilson, drummer for the Beach Boys and one-time misguided associate of Charles Manson, is "The Mechanic." They roam the country in a tricked-out 1955 Chevy, drag racing for money and thrills. They say very little, and when they do speak, it's usually about the car and the road. On their way through the Southwest, they keep getting buzzed by a 1970 Pontiac GTO (the cars get credits, too). It's driven by Peckinpah-mainstay Warren Oates, named only for the car himself. "GTO" is the opposite of the Chevy duo. He likes to chat up a storm, bending the ears of the hitchhikers he regularly picks up off the side of the road. What he says isn't always the God's honest truth, and his stories will change from one airing to the next. To hear him tell it, it's the Chevy that keeps landing on his tail, not the other way around.

Eventually, these two cars end up on a race to Washington D.C. The loser surrenders his pink slip and the car it represents. Along the way, they change positions in the race about as often as they pass the only other passenger, a nameless "Girl" (Laurie Bird), between their vehicles. Their attention seems to rarely be on the contest, anyway. The Chevy can't resist shorter races (sometimes compelled by financial concerns), whereas GTO's ever-changing ride-alongs trace a nature trail along America's weird underbelly.

Which, arguably, is what Two-Lane Blacktop is really about: the state of the American frontier. With Manifest Destiny all played out, modern day cowboys no longer have any territory left to explore. Instead, they shoot back and forth across the map looking for something to do. No roots, no responsibilities, just keep moving. The Chevy duo has only their thrills to look forward to. The very fact that they have nothing else--no family, no past, at least as far as we know--is probably what put them on the road. GTO, as unreliable a narrator as he is, makes several mentions of a past he is trying to escape. Was he really a TV producer that lost his mind and burned rubber in search of a way to make an outlaw automobile film on his own? If so, one suspects he is a stand-in for Monte Hellman, standing out in the wilderness along Route 66 making a subversive movie about a paved-over pioneer trail.

You can actually see the feeling of wild abandon. Though the film is full of many wonderful compositions, the camera regularly breaks free to shoot what it wants to shoot, either enjoying the unpredictability of a large crowd (was that extra in the Texas Panhandle scene supposed to clip Laurie Bird when she goes running like that?) or in capturing information in untraditional ways, like ambling away from a café table to look out the window at incoming characters, defying convention in such a way to show us what we need to see without having to cut. He also sets up deep frames, taking in the full horizon, and with some semblance of life going on in every corner of it.

At another juncture, however, GTO tells a traveling Texan (Bill Keller) that he used to be a test pilot that flew jets, and he switched to cars because he needed something to ground him. He also tells the Girl that he needs to find the end of the road before he jumps right off it and goes into orbit; contrary to that, the Chevy duo see no end to the highway. The only real threat is the loss or destruction of their vehicle, something they get close to as an unexpected result of their race with GTO. Out of cash, they have to put their tools up as their stake in a wager, and for the first time, the Mechanic and the Driver get testy with one another. The tools keep the engine running, and without them, the machine could fail.

It’s just one of many flip-flops Hellman and Wurlitzer pull in Two-Lane Blacktop. A lot is backwards on their racetrack. It must be significant, for instance, that the old man drives the newer car, trying to make a claim to being part of the present and not a relic of the past. The two younger men, however, drive an older car, placing themselves within a tradition that was over before they even knew what it was. If you consider it that way, it almost seems inevitable that these entities would eventually collide, coming together only to repel one another, two magnetic forces that both attract and repulse.

Where they end up is entirely up to you. They both stick to their original routes, but what they find there is the personal riddle that each viewer brings to the picture. Like the mysterious ending of Easy Rider, this movie's closest cousin, there is no denouement that puts Two-Lane Blacktop into perspective. Unlike Easy Rider, there is no heavy-handed, self-conscious symbolism to sort through, either. The way I see it, the racers continue on, stuck in gear, happy in being doomed to participate in the eternal struggle. Your mileage may vary, though, and that could be Monte Hellman's ultimate statement about the freedom we all seek. Like the open highway, this movie and what it means to you--and life itself--is only limited by the amount of fuel you're willing to expend getting there.

For technical specs and special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.

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