Saturday, June 15, 2013

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

Director: Monte Hellman                              Writers: Rudy Wurlitzer & Will Cory
Film Score: Billy James                              Cinematography: Jack Deerson
Starring: James Taylor, Dennis Wilson, Warren Oates and Laurie Bird

This is an odd little road picture. When I first saw the opening of Two-Lane Blacktop I thought the driver was Lance Kerwin, but he would have been too young. He looked like he could have been James Taylor, and the mechanic looked just like Dennis Wilson from The Beach Boys and, of course, they were. I’m not sure that they did much acting in the film, but I’m also not sure that that wasn’t the point. Director Monte Hellman, it seems, was going for verisimilitude above all. Warren Oates is the only real actor in the bunch and his role is the better for it. A lonely man driving east across the Southwest, he picks up nearly every hitchhiker he comes across and tells them each a completely different story about what he's doing there, depending on who they are.

Taylor and Wilson, after winning a street race in L.A., head out east as well, picking up Laurie Bird along the way. Bird, eighteen years old at the time, plays a free spirited woman who tags along with the two for no particular reason. Along the way she attempts to leave several times, but continues to wind up back in the car. Bird had a troubled few years after that, appearing in only two more films, one of them Annie Hall as Paul Simon's girlfriend. In reality she was Art Garfunkel's girlfriend, and killed herself in his apartment in 1979. She was only twenty five. Taylor, Wilson and Bird wind up passing Oates, and vice versa, several times along the road and Taylor eventually makes a bet with him for the pink slips. The first one to Washington D.C., from their starting point in Texas, wins the other’s car.

I purchased the Criterion Collection version of the disc, which contains a complete script for the film. It’s a little strange, however, seeing as how there isn’t much of a script at all, just guys talking about cars, and Oates talking about anything that comes into his mind. It’s a mildly interesting look at a particular sub-culture of society, road racers, but other than that it doesn’t have a lot going for it . . . unless you’re a car person. It’s probably pretty interesting then, seeing the vintage cars. The period setting is fairly interesting as well. Other than that, I’m not sure I really get the point. I much prefer a film like the original Gone in 60 Seconds for its spirit of recklessness rather than the introspection of this film.

The B List essay by Sam Adams does as good a job as possible for making the case that this is a classic film. He talks about the film’s relationship to French avant-garde, minimalism, the bleak symbolism of a generation . . . and still is not convincing. All of the things that made Universal dump the film when it was initially released--the amateur actors, the lack of a real script, the lack of any serious racing, the lack of any conflict whatsoever--are still flaws today. The only time there is any real tension, and not even between the two competing drivers, is when Taylor falls for Bird, but she winds up leaving anyway. Two-Lane Blacktop is certainly a curiosity of a film but, for my taste, little else.

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