TWO-LANE BLACKTOP A-
USA (101 mi) 1971 ‘Scope d: Monte Hellman
After the Altamont concert disaster in December 1969, when a fan was killed a few feet from the stage where The Rolling Stones were performing, psychedelia lost its middle-class appeal. More unpleasant news followed in 1970 — the Kent State and Jackson State shootings, the Manson Family trials, the deaths by overdose of famous rock stars. And even more quickly than it had sprung up, the media fascination with the counterculture evaporated. But the counterculture, stripped of its idealism and its sexiness, lingered on. If you drove down the main street of any small city in America in the 1970’s, you saw clusters of teenagers standing around, wearing long hair and bell-bottom jeans, listening to Led Zeppelin, furtively getting stoned. This was the massive middle of the baby-boom generation, the remnant of the counterculture — a remnant that was much bigger than the original, but in which the media had lost interest.
—Louis Menand, “Life in the Stone Age,” from The New Republic, 1991
One of the better films reflecting the era in which it was made, as this is a post-60’s existential road odyssey about drifting through moments of life, where the story concerns itself with the general aimlessness of the times. Made outside all commercial avenues, films like this look so much better in retrospect because so few films actually capture the look of the era with this degree of authenticity. Much to the chagrin of his actors, Hellman took his crew on a real cross-country trip—from Los Angeles to Needles, California, to Flagstaff, Arizona, to Santa Fe and Tucumcari, New Mexico, then to Boswell, Oklahoma, Little Rock, Arkansas, Memphis, Tennessee, and finally Maryville, North Carolina. Most of the trip followed U.S. Route ’66, a road that has all but been replaced today by interstate freeways, but this 2500 mile road from Chicago, Illinois to Santa Monica, California, the largest stretch of which is through New Mexico, was a major path of migration, especially during the Dust Bowl era of the 1930’s when the Great Depression forced Midwest Plains state families to move West to California looking for a new start in life. From the mid-19th century American literature of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn traveling down the Mississippi River to mid 1950’s Beat Generation novelist Jack Kerouac’s use of a road journey in a personal quest for meaning in the spontaneous prose of his novel On the Road, the highway has become synonymous with freedom and adventure. Following the suffocation of the conformist 50’s, where the emptiness of suburban discontent were contributing factors of boredom and stagnation, the Baby Boomers of the 60’s were ready to embark upon new roads less traveled. With the advent of an Interstate Highway System in the mid-50’s, it was easier to move from place to place and travel greater distances in less time, all of which created an allure in hitting the open road.
Hellman studied drama as an undergraduate at Stanford and film at UCLA as a grad student, but spent a few years directing summer theater, including his production of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in 1957, the first time the play had ever been staged in Los Angeles, turning it into a western where Pozzo was a Texas rancher and Lucky an American Indian. He got an early job cleaning the film vaults at ABC, which led to work as an apprentice film editor, cutting commercials into 16mm film prints. As one of the investors of his theater productions, he met legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman, who hired him to direct BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE (1959), his first film. In the early 60’s he shot additional scenes for Corman, where he met actor Jack Nicholson, eventually teaming up with him for two of his early pictures shot back-to-back in the Philippines, BACK DOOR TO HELL (1964) and FLIGHT TO FURY (1964), followed up by two existentialist westerns shot in Utah, THE SHOOTING (1966) and RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND (1966), films that were an elegy to the American West and a vanishing frontier, where cars hitting the open road soon took the place of horses. In 1969, Hollywood film studios were scrambling to give young filmmakers money in the hopes that they could emulate the success of Easy Rider (1969), a film that cost $375,000 to produce and grossed over $50,000,000 in ticket sales. Universal Pictures studio head Lew Wasserman quickly assembled a “youth unit” of young directors who were thought to be closer in touch with the counterculture aesthetic, placing producer Ned Tanen in charge of this experimental unit, packaging together a group of highly subversive 1971 release films that included Hellman’s TWO-LANE BLACKTOP, Milos Forman’s TAKING OFF, Dennis Hopper’s THE LAST MOVIE, Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand, and Frank Perry’s DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE, which were so unusual that the studio had no clear idea of how to market them and no audience was prepared for their arrival in theaters. They all ended up as commercial failures. The youth era would last only three years, as by the time Francis Ford Coppola made THE GODFATHER (1972), it ushered in a new era of a return to high-styled, Hollywood filmmaking.
TWO-LANE BLACKTOP originated with a screenplay from television actor Will Corry, who worked briefly on a few westerns, and even wrote an episode of Gunsmoke in 1965. But after taking a road trip in 1968, his script involved a road race between two teenage drivers, one white and the other black, who race across the country followed by a young girl. CBS producer Michael Laughlin paid $100,000 for the rights to Corry's screenplay, but when Hellman was brought in as the director, he was dissatisfied with the script and hired Rudy Wurlitzer to do the rewrite, an underground writer whose first novel written in 1969 was the highly experimental and psychedelic Nog, who would go on to write Peckinpah’s last western Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973). Holed up in a Los Angeles motel room with stacks of car magazines, Wurlitzer wrote the script in four weeks while hanging out with “stoner car freaks” and weirdly obsessive mechanics from the San Fernando Valley to get a better feel for the subject, maintaining the original concept of three characters, the Driver, the Mechanic, and the Girl, inventing a fourth GTO character and the rest of the supporting cast. According to Wurlitzer, he claims he didn’t know much about cars, but did “know something about being lost on the road.” After the initial project was cancelled just weeks before the start of the shoot, the film was then turned down by Columbia, Warner Brothers, and MGM before Universal gave the go ahead with a budget of $900,000, where Hellman’s film, the only movie he’s ever made for a major studio, was eventually made for $850,000. Shooting began August 1970 in Los Angeles, lasting for eight weeks with a crew of 30, with Warren Oates as GTO, singer James Taylor as The Driver, newcomer Laurie Bird as The Girl, and The Beach Boys drummer, singer, and songwriter Dennis Wilson was the last actor cast as The Mechanic just 4 days before the shooting began. Giving his actors no advance script, providing only the dialogue needed for each day, Hellman insisted on shooting the film in sequence while driving across the country, just as the characters do, giving a feeling of authenticity to the experience, “I knew it would affect the actors—and it did, obviously. It affected everybody.” According to Beverly Walker, the film's publicist:
Hellman frequently scheduled filming between sunset and dawn in motel interiors, diners, and gas stations. Daylight sequences were sometimes shot on lonely country roads or against the backgrounds of sleepy hamlets. By the time the company rolled back into Marysville, North Carolina at the foot of the Smoky Mountains for the final day of shooting, Hellman had achieved his purpose of affecting every member of the cast and crew with the feeling of having moved across a vast expanse of the United States.
While the initial cut of the film was three and a half hours long, Hellman was contractually obligated to produce a film no longer than two hours, so he eventually whittled it down by doing his own editing. In their April 1971 cover story months before the film was released, Esquire magazine printed the entire Wurlitzer screenplay, entitling it “Our nomination for the Movie of the Year.” While this generated plenty of advance publicity and expectations were certainly high, but studio head Lew Wasserman saw the film and hated it, refusing to promote it when it opened over the 4th of July, where there were no newspaper ads promoting it. Viewers drawn to the film due to the casting of singers James Taylor and Dennis Wilson were disappointed to learn they don’t contribute any of the music from the film. Unlike the youth oriented musical soundtrack for Easy Rider, which was certainly part of its appeal, this film doesn’t rely heavily upon music, which is only heard in small doses, often marginally playing off on the side, and no soundtrack album was released. TWO-LANE BLACKTOP is not a follow up of Easy Rider, but is nearly the antithesis, as it’s not really about the highway, where there’s no brash rebelliousness, and the open road does not represent some sort of sought-after freedom, instead the road is heartbreakingly lonely with offbeat characters chasing an elusive dream, where there’s a smaller focus on a nearly invisible car culture, with inward looking guys that understand all you need to know about cars but display few social skills when communicating with others, wounded souls whose sense of alienation is profound, all but ignoring the rest of the population, where they don’t fit in and have little to say, hardly the spokespersons of their generation, where there were no posters of James Taylor and Warren Oates plastered on people’s walls. These were not iconic characters that kids wanted to emulate, in fact, this is largely the work of outsiderist filmmaking, where according to Brad Stevens book on the director, Monte Hellman: His Life and Films, “Hellman’s cinema is a cinema of outcasts, of societal rejects who … exist outside the mainstream.” While truly an extraordinary example of an original style of American indie filmmaking and one of the most striking films of its era, yet ironically it was hyped in magazines ahead of time through mainstream commercialism that elevated people’s expectations. The film flopped badly, becoming something of a cult attraction, a remnant of the counterculture, unavailable on video for years, ironically delayed due to litigation over musical rights, where it remained largely unseen until rediscovered in the late 90’s.
Perhaps more than anything else, the 60’s counterculture meant to redefine essential American values, replacing religion, conservative ideas of commercialism and monetary success with a kind of exploratory inner harmony, finding a natural balance, being at peace with yourself and the world around you, where success was more in tune with being true to one’s own set of core principles. In much the same way, artists like Monte Hellman took traditional American formats like westerns and the road movie and transformed them into a bleak existential narratives that reflected the anger and dissatisfaction of the Vietnam generation. In TWO-LANE BLACKTOP, the main characters are perceived as rootless drifters who are so alienated that we never even learn their names or anything about their pasts, following two men, the Driver and the Mechanic, who move from town to town drag racing their souped-up, custom-made ‘55 Chevy against other muscle cars, hoping to fleece the locals of a few hundred bucks, where the overly detached and unemotional James Taylor gets as animated as he does throughout the entire film when he strikes up a deal, “Make it three yards, motherfucker, and we’ll have us an auto-Mo-beel race.” These guys are oblivious to life outside of their car, which they keep especially fine tuned and ready to roar, always stopping to check “the jets” or to let the engine breathe, so when a strange young woman known as the Girl shows up in the backseat of their car at an Arizona diner, no questions are asked and their aimless journey continues just as before, where all they have is their stripped down car and the open road. This defines the spirit of the film, where there’s little conversation between them, yet there’s an unstated trust and understanding that they’re on the same wavelength. The one time music factors into the story is at a gas station, when a middle-aged man with a factory-made bright yellow muscle car, a 1970 Pontiac GTO, shows up after they’ve been running into each other along the road and the GTO always races ahead, but the Driver never goes after him, saving it for when it matters. When the Girl crawls into his car and plays a tape, we hear the bare and desolate sounds of Kris Kristofferson’s original version of “Me and Bobby McGee” Kris Kristofferson~ Me and Bobby Mcgee - YouTube (4:23) playing as these guys agree to a cross-country race, winner takes the losing car and the pink slip. For all intents and purposes, this single event accounts for the story.
While there’s plenty of macho posturing and some daredevil driving, initially GTO senses some kind of youthful trouble from these boys, becoming an authority figure like he has to show them a lesson and teach them who’s boss, but he’s caught off guard when they help him fix a mechanical problem with his car, sticking around the whole time, not taking any advantage, and is completely befuddled to discover they’re not taking the race seriously, where he pulls into a roadside diner where they’re having breakfast and angrily asks “Are we still racing?” Going against the grain, there are no exhilarating car chases and no daring stunts, where car stereos and restaurant jukeboxes provide all of the music heard throughout the film. The characters themselves couldn’t be more low key, where the silent, stoicism of James Taylor’s aloof Driver is met with an even more profoundly unembellished Dennis Wilson as the Mechanic. Laurie Bird’s the Girl is typically inquisitive and openly curious, carrying with her all she has in the world, which she eventually leaves behind, running off with an unnamed motorcyclist in a scene that could just as easily be the final sequence in Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces (1970). But the heart and soul of the film is the adrenaline-challenged Warren Oates, a comic delight with a cocky grin and a wet bar in the trunk, cassette tapes that reflect every mood, seen wearing a different colored V-neck sweater throughout, picking up hitchhikers just to have someone to talk to, and continually changing his story with every new passenger. GTO struggles to find a place in the evershifting void of this new generation, “If I’m not grounded pretty soon, I’m gonna go into orbit,” where he can’t make sense of a world without meaning, where he’s like a throwback to the dying outlaws in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960) who in their last gasp of breath are told their harrowing suicidal mission couldn’t possibly be about saving poor farmers and was always about gold, sack and sacks of it. While continually reinventing himself by weaving a tale of lies, he can’t outrun a life of broken dreams and wounded feelings that he carries with him wherever he goes, becoming the emotional core of the movie. While the cinematic style has the feel of a documentary, with a camera positioned in the back seat looking at the driver, passenger, and the road beyond, a camera position later made famous by Kiarostami, we follow the cars filled with nameless souls as they wind their away around country roads, passing through small towns, service stations, and authentic American diners, where Hellman genuinely captures the loneliness of life on the road.
Ten (sixteen, actually) Reasons I Love Two-Lane Blacktop Richard Linklater, January 08, 2013
01 Because it’s the purest American road movie ever.
02 Because it’s like a drive-in movie directed by a French new wave director.
03 Because the only thing that can get between a boy and his car obsession is a girl, and Laurie Bird perfectly messes up the oneness between the Driver, the Mechanic, and their car.
04 Because Dennis Wilson gives the greatest performance ever . . . by a drummer.
05 Because James Taylor seems like a refugee from a Robert Bresson movie, and has the chiseled looks of Artaud from Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc.
06 Because there was once a god who walked the earth named Warren Oates.
07 Because there’s a continuing controversy over who is the actual lead in this movie. There are different camps. Some say it’s the ’55 Chevy, some say it’s the GTO. But I’m a Goat man, I have a GTO—’68.
08 Because it has the most purely cinematic ending in film history.
09 Because it’s like a western. The guys are like old-time gunfighters, ready to outdraw the quickest gun in town. And they don’t talk about the old flames they’ve had, but rather old cars they’ve had.
10 Because Warren Oates has a different cashmere sweater for every occasion. And of course the wet bar in the trunk.
11 Because unlike other films of the era, with the designer alienation of the drug culture and the war protesters, this movie is about the alienation of everybody else, like Robert Frank’s The Americans come alive.
12 Because Warren Oates, as GTO, orders a hamburger and an Alka-Seltzer and says things like “Everything is going too fast and not fast enough.”
13 Because it’s both the last film of the sixties—even though it came out in ’71—and also the first film of the seventies. You know, that great era of “How the hell did they ever get that film made at a studio?/Hollywood would never do that today” type of films.
14 Because engines have never sounded better in a movie.
15 Because these two young men on their trip to nowhere don’t really know how to talk. The Driver doesn’t really converse when he’s behind the wheel, and the Mechanic doesn’t really talk when he’s working on the car. So this is primarily a visual, atmospheric experience. To watch this movie correctly is to become absorbed into it.
16 And, above all else, because Two-Lane Blacktop goes all the way with its idea. And that’s a rare thing in this world: a completely honest movie.