Two-Lane Blacktop

After college, a friend and I went on a tear, spending our weekends watching everything we could find by Godard, Bergman, Tarkovsky, Kurosawa, others. My friend’s father, a former cinephile who’d seen many of these movies during their initial US releases, occasionally poked his head into the living room, watching a few minutes here and there with us. Then he’d smile and leave, always quietly pronouncing, “It’s good, but it’s no Two-Lane Blacktop.”

I didn’t learn how right he was until grad school, when the Normal Theater screened a print. (The film’s video release was delayed for decades due to a rights argument over a Doors song on the soundtrack.)

Two-Lane Blacktop, briefly put, is an abstractly artistic car race movie directed by Monte Hellman, a friend of Jack Nicholson’s. Like Nicholson, he spent the 1960s working for Roger Corman, making quickie horror, Western, and war films such as The Terror, Flight to Fury, Back Door to Hell, Ride in the Whirlwind, and The Shooting.

After the surprising popularity of Easy Rider, producers were desperate to repeat that film’s success. (The 60s had seen studio films grow increasingly unpopular with younger audiences.) Hellman was given the Two-Lane script by producer Michael Laughlin, and funding and distribution by Lew Wasserman “youth unit” at Universal. He liked the basic concept—two guys drive cross-country, accompanied by a young female hitchhiker—but hated the actual script, so he convinced experimental novelist Rudy Wurlitzer to completely rewrite it:

MH: The script that I was given bears no resemblance to the movie. Rudy Wurlitzer had not yet been involved — it was a Will Corry script that had been bought by, not Universal but by another studio, for producer Michael Laughlin. He asked me to direct it, and I said that I would, because I liked the basic idea of it, but I said I would only do it if I could hire somebody else to do a new screenplay. And he agreed and we found Rudy, and I worked alongside him while he was developing the script. It was exactly the movie that I wanted to make, and I was really excited to be working on it.

The two of them then proceeded to make a movie unlike any other in US film history.

One of the more intriguing aspects of Two-Lane Blacktop is its casting. There are four leads, three of which (the script’s original three youngsters) are played by non-actors:

“The Driver”: James Taylor: Yes, that James Taylor—

—although back then he was more like this James Taylor:

(Well, he was younger, at least—and cuter!)

Two-Lane Blacktop was Taylor’s only feature film appearance; Hellman tested and cast him after seeing him on a billboard. Hellman supposedly originally wanted veteran character actor Bruce Dern for the part, but Dern instead appeared in Jack Nicholson’s adaptation of Drive, He Said. Hellman also asked Kris Kristofferson, who was about to make his film debut in a small role in Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie. Both The Last Movie and Two-Lane use Kristofferson’s then-new self-recording of “Me and Bobby McGee”:

“The Mechanic”: Dennis Wilson: Yes, that Dennis Wilson, also making his only big-screen appearance.

“The Girl”: Laurie Bird: A relatively unknown model at the time, she went on to act in only two more films: Hellman’s 1974 feature Cockfighter, and Annie Hall, where she played the girlfriend of Tony Lacey (Paul Simon). That last role was something of an in-joke; in reality, she was Art Garfunkel’s girlfriend. She killed herself in 1979, while Garfunkel was off making Bad Timing.

To this already offbeat mix, Rudy Wurlitzer added another character, a middle-aged man driving a Pontiac GTO. Hellman cast his friend Warren Oates (who’d been in The Shooting), then probably best-known for his supporting turn in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch.

(That trailer features too little Oates; look for him at 2:13.)

Wurlitzer rewrote the plot, turning it into a race between the three youngsters in a homegrown, souped-up Chevy, and a representative of the older establishment, driving a luxuriously decadent Detroit muscle car. Yet, despite how some critics read the film at the time, neither Wurlitzer nor Hellman were interested in a straightforward metaphorical commentary on late 60s society.

Indeed, what makes the film so indelible—and so unclassifiable—is its synthesis of at least four different approaches to filmmaking:

1. Regionalism

Hellman took the production cross-country, shooting the entire film on location. Many scenes pay focused attention to regional detail, such as the one in which Laurie Bird panhandles in Santa Fe (which plays like a missing shot from Barbara Loden’s Wanda). The soundtrack, while sparse, remains distinctly American, consisting of “rock, soul, hillbilly, [and] Western” tunes like Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” and Arlo Guthrie’s “Stealin.'”

(Neither James Taylor nor Dennis Wilson sing in the film, and none of their music is used. Laurie Bird, anticipating Cat Power, does sing a few mumbly phrases of “Satisfaction.”)

2. Existentialism

Hellman has admitted to the influence of Sartre and Camus. Two-Lane Blacktop also demonstrates a strong awareness of European art cinema of the 60s:

a) the French New Wave—think of the open ending of The 400 Blows, and Godard’s tendency to interrupt his plots with long, digressive scenes:

b) …the metatextual experimentation of Bergman’s Persona:

c) …Michelangelo Antonioni‘s fascination with the immensity of the landscape:

d) …and Robert Bresson‘s asceticism, especially his fondness for working with non-actors, and removing all traces of theatricality from their performances:

And yet Two-Lane Blacktop is not a European art film. Like its contemporary Point Blank, it freely borrows concepts and design elements, but it adapts them to the more goal-oriented structure of a Hollywood film.

3. The Car Race / Road Movie Genre

Two-Lane meanders and digresses, but it remains at its core a road movie. I disagree with those who call it “a film about car-racing that features no real racing segments”: while it isn’t Vanishing Point, it features four races, and opens and closes with them:

(Interestingly, Hellman has said he approached the film not as a car race movie, but as “a gambling movie.”)

That said, Two-Lane also takes care to include many of the things that race movies don’t include, such as getting in and out of cars (repeatedly), sitting in cars but not driving, stopping to go to the bathroom, stopping for the sake of stopping, …. And while I disagree with Roger Ebert‘s reductive, overly metaphorical reading of the film, he’s quite right when he describes the film’s race as:

an odd race in that nobody much seems to want to win. The driver and the mechanic have devoted their lives to racing and winning with their customized and rebuilt Chevy, and G.T.O. identifies intimately with his car, yet they keep stopping to help each other along the road, as if the road would be unbearably lonely if that other car weren’t sometimes in view.

At one point, after a particularly leisurely digression, GTO angrily shouts at the others, “Are we still racing, or what?”

4. Postmodernism

(I’m going to pretend for now that postmodernism exists—or, at least, that such a thing as a postmodernist aesthetic exists.) At its heart, the postmodernist aesthetic is concerned with conflating genre conventions, and with exposing the artifice of the artistic product. Hellman repeatedly collides the scruffy, taciturn non-actors in the  Chevy with the polished, verbose Warren Oates. (That these actors are able to function together so wonderfully is a testament to the skill of everyone involved.)

Because of these conflicting interactions (both between characters and types of scenes), Two-Lane, in addition to whatever else it is, it is a meditation on identity—both its fluidity and its absence. The Driver drives; the Mechanic is a mechanic. GTO drives a GTO. In another possible nod to Persona, Oates’s character’s origin story changes (just like the color of his cashmere sweater) with every hitchhiker he picks up:

As he himself puts it, in a moment of unwitting candor: “You ought to see what I’ve been picking up off the road. One fantasy after another.”

By the film’s end, GTO  has adopted the composite fantasy of the Driver and the Mechanic, leading to one the picture’s most beguiling passages:

GTO [describing his car]: I won it flat out. I was driving a ’55 stock Chevy across the country and got into a race with this GTO for pink slips. I beat the GTO by three hours. Of course the guys in the GTO couldn’t drive worth a damn. But I’ll tell ya, there’s nothin’ like building up an old automobile from scratch and wiping out one of these Detroit machines. That gives you a set of emotions that stay with you. You know what I mean? Those satisfactions are permanent.

Transcendence

GTO is right, after a fashion: Two-Lane Blacktop is a very satisfying film. While not wholly a car race movie or an existential European art film, Two-Lane satisfies. Ultimately, Hellman and Wurlitzer and company found points of intersection between all of these genres of filmmaking, and their different styles and approaches, crafting a work that is simultaneously a realist film, an artificial genre film, an experimental film, an American film, and a European film.

Which is precisely what makes it so great. Rather than be beholden to any one approach, Two-Lane takes what it wants and needs from its four founts of inspiration—but only what it wants and needs at any given moment.

Ultimately, Two-Lane Blacktop is wholly itself.

18 thoughts on “Two-Lane Blacktop

  1. Now that we’re talking about car movies, I’ll say, “Can I inject?”

    Cannonball Run has the same car noises going off over the Universal spinning globe, so I present the bloopers at the end of that historic film:

    • That opening revving engine is a great example of a genre convention. Indeed, the first few minutes of Two-Lane Blacktop don’t do anything to distinguish it from any other car movie. You have the revving engine sounds, the illegal nighttime race, the cops arriving, the racers scattering. It’s entirely conventional. Not until Taylor and Wilson head to the neighborhood and start working on their car does the viewer begin suspecting that this film won’t be the same as other car films.

      Perhaps part of what you and Michael objected to in my (and many other critics) calling Antichrist torture-porn is the fact that the first hour or so of that film is nothing like the torture-porn genre? It’s instead a European art film example of a “grieving family” drama (a mainstay of American independent films ever since Ordinary People, if not longer)—entirely much more like Persona than Hostel. And I don’t remember there being much conventional indication of where things are heading. It’s spooky, but so too is Bergman. If you turned off Antichrist before the last 30 minutes or so, you really wouldn’t know what you were missing.

      Two-Lane Blacktop wavers back and forth about being a car race film; it begins and ends as one, and there is racing throughout. Antichrist is more disruptive: it suddenly veers wildly afield, into torture porn territory, at the end. (That isn’t to say that it doesn’t stop being a European art film then. Indeed, the actual ending is very EAF.)

      Salo would be an example of a European art film that’s proto-TP throughout. You know from a few scenes in that very bad things are going to happen to the youngsters in that film (because very bad things are already happening!).

      Salo also draws on a very small subgenre of the European art film we no longer seem to have: the decadent orgy film (1967–1979?). Think Week End (1967), Fellini Satyricon (1969), Vampiros Lesbos (1971) and other Franco, The Night Porter (1974), Sweet Movie (1974), Caligula (1979). (Perhaps Caligula‘s very high profile critical and commercial failure sounded the death knell for that subgenre? Although Kubrick certainly had the genre in mind when he made Eyes Wide Shut (1999)—and von Trier, arguably, when he made Idioterne in 1998.

      • The end of Antichrist is very Fritz Lang, huh?

        “It’s good, but it’s no Two-Lane Blacktop.” That’s such a great phrase to drop. I’m going to check out the movie and perhaps start dropping the phrase myself.

        Speaking of existentialism and the road:

        As I sd to my
        friend, because I am
        always talking, — John, I

        sd, which was not his
        name, the darkness sur-
        rounds us, what

        can we do against
        it, or else, shall we &
        why not, buy a goddamn big car,

        drive, he sd, for
        christ’s sake, look
        out where yr going.

  2. I like the post Adam. Especially the backgrounds of all the actors. Don’t forget ‘Five Easy Pieces’ talking about road movies, well it’s half a road movie. And another underappreciated film around the same time is Michael Ritchie’s (he also directed ‘Bad News Bears’) ‘Downhill Racer’ with a screenplay by James Salter (novelist and short story writer). Perhaps the Redford-ness overwhelms it, but the script and the dialogue are dazzling.

    And while we are on the topic of Salter. Can you get me a copy of ‘Three?’ http://thepassionatemoviegoer.blogspot.com/2010/04/cinema-obscura-james-salters-three-1969.html

    http://30.media.tumblr.com/l9tDR5PyCq7qwovn1WsDdMbgo1_500.jpg

    • I think there’s at least some small difference between the road movie and the car race movie, although they intersect a lot. Easy Rider is a hybrid of the two that emerges from the “Hell Angels on Wheels” motorcycle B-movie so popular throughout the 1960s. Once it became a hit, producers wanted anything motor vehicle-related: motorcycle movies, car race movies, road movies. There are simply thousands of them throughout the 1970s. …Five Easy Pieces, meanwhile, veers off in another direction, becoming pure road movie. It’s one of those absolutely essential, utterly seminal films. When I saw it, I understood where 37% of US independent cinema comes from. (The pity is that today’s “indy” films don’t do it as well as 5EP.)

      I don’t know where to find a copy of Three, although I’d love to. In the meantime, there’s certainly no shortage of Rampling, ahem, looking pretty 1965–1974 (and well beyond). She wasn’t shy.

      A very worthwhile side note: Rampling’s first feature film appearance (uncredited) was in the utterly divine The Knack… and How to Get It (1965). Rampling and Rita Tushingham in the same 85 minutes! What the heck is all the fuss!

      While on the subject of CR: I didn’t think much of François Ozon’s Swimming Pool (2003), but I did appreciate how the better one knows Rampling’s early filmography, the more it informs her character. …But it was still no The Swimming Pool (1969).

    • It’s no Two-Lane Blacktop.

      …I think I found it overcooked, if anything. I liked it a whole lot, but would have liked it even more if it had been even more abstract, a bit less literal, more willing to stray from its central concept. I didn’t mean to suggest that it’s a great film—rather a very notable one that I think is worth checking out, and that signals a director to be on the lookout for. It’s a pretty accomplished third feature!

      • Yeah, I think so, Adam. For me, Dogtooth dragged a bit since it was so bent on presenting the absurdity of the central concept and seeing how far it could go. Probably you could have edited it for the better.

        But, all in all, an interesting play with D. Delillo’s concept that “[t]he family is the cradle of the world’s misinformation.”

        I liked the conceit of the tape cassette in the beginning a lot and the children’s “allegorical” way of speaking, their speaking other because of their forced exclusion from the agora. But I found the ending very disappointing.

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