Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

FILM, Film Society
Previously at the Wellington Film Society: Monte Hellman’s road to nowhere.

Given more than a decade has passed since I last saw Two-Lane Blacktop, Monday night’s Film Society screening was something of a revelation. Never mind the fact that revisiting the film after all these years was like experiencing it for the first time; more striking is the discovery of a movie from the past that refuses to age or be anchored by social and political context, and unlike its more illustrious contemporaries, was clearly ahead of its time. Lined up against the counter-cultural milestone Easy Rider—a major critical and commercial success Two-Lane Blacktop was supposed to emulate—Monte Hellman’s film appears practically foreign, its visual language and cultural orientation vastly different and very much of independent thought. Dennis Hopper’s iconic film managed to capture the zeitgeist and change the landscape for American moviemakers, but in doing so became a relic, a creaky anti-authoritarian fantasy whose LSD freak-out was what passed for ‘avant-garde’ at the time. (Hopper’s next two features as director, The Last Movie [1971] and Out of the Blue [1980], were more audacious and deserve greater recognition.) Hellman, on the other hand, was a filmmaker genuinely striving to “open up the form”—famous words from Martin Scorsese, whose violent and fluid studies of anti-heroism are widely regarded as the ‘radical’ artforms of the New Hollywood.

An injustice, since Two-Lane Blacktop arguably prefigured the 21st century movement towards a slower, more contemplative mode of moviemaking. Naturally, the seeds for ‘slow cinema’ weren’t planted by Hellman alone—far from it, with the likes of Antonioni, Bresson, and Tarvovsky already accomplishing great things in Europe, a part of the world where Hellman would’ve thrived as a filmmaker—but particularly with Two-Lane Blacktop, the aesthetic hallmarks are plain to see. Hellman’s cult westerns, Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting (both 1966), were bold experiments within the framework of a genre fading fast and therefore open to reinterpretation, and in conceiving Two-Lane Blacktop, he seemed to already understand how the road movie could be something other than a blunt metaphor or a figurative journey. If Two-Lane Blacktop is described as an existential classic, it is essentially because, on the face of it, it is a film about ‘nothing’; certainly, not about the establishment, the state of the nation, or the myth of the American Dream, lofty themes Easy Rider went for broke on. Formally, Hellman’s film is especially clear-sighted in the way it alienates itself from the defining spirit of the era, and retroactively, aligns itself with current trends in art cinema: shots are held much longer than usual, dialogue is thinned out and replaced with silence, plot is non-existent, the passing of time is at once tangible and enigmatic (“It must be Saturday,” one of the characters unconsciously remarks), and special attention is paid to incidental moments and breaks in narrative momentum—not that Two-Lane Blacktop has much of it to begin with.

Two-Lane Blacktop is memorable for its neutral space, indifferent tone, and interest in the unmoored state of characters who end up trying (and failing) to connect with one another. They are meant to be racing across the Southwest to Washington D.C. with their ‘pink slips’ at stake, except they don’t do much racing at all. Instead, they make regular stops for gas and repairs, drink and eat together, pick up hitchhikers, and challenge other muscle car owners to impromptu drag races. For a film supposedly about speed—not to mention, one released in the company of such visceral, vehicular classics as Duel, Bullit, and The French ConnectionTwo-Lane Blacktop is improbably slow-paced, and all the more arresting for it. Apart from the scenes of quarter mile drag racing, there are no actual chase sequences, and yet the film is intensely auto fixated. When the owners of the eponymous Backtop Chevy, the Driver (James Taylor) and the Mechanic (Dennis Wilson), communicate with each other (which is seldom), they speak in an inscrutable dialect neither we (or at least, the auto illiterate), nor their flighty passenger (Laurie Bird), can make any sense of. And then there’s their competition, the blowhard GTO (played by the brilliant Warren Oates, also staggeringly good as another wounded masculine soul in Hellman’s next—and possibly, best—film, Cockfighter [1974]), whose self-made image as a posturing road warrior is really just a front for a series of fictitious stories and false dreams with no end in sight.

Whatever the open road means to these characters, what’s implicit is that they share an impulse to drive. And drive they do. Two-Lane Blacktop is one of the great movies about driving, or specifically, what takes place when you drive. In terms of recent cinema, Hellman’s influence is strongly felt in the films of Kelly Reichardt, whose own road movie, Old Joy, also commits its characters to the interior of a car, and observes, without distraction, their stasis in motion. Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (also a road movie!) is similarly indebted to Hellman’s westerns, which says a lot about the prematurity of his emergence as a filmmaker. Although undervalued throughout the seventies, and in truth only properly reinstated as a maverick after Two-Lane Blacktop was rescued from obscurity in the nineties, the reverence in which Hellman is held today goes someway to remedying this oversight. The problem, of course, is that his brand of artistic antithesis generated few filmmaking opportunities. Hellman in fact directed a new movie in 2010 entitled Road to Nowhere—an epitaph for his body of work if ever there was one. And yet approaching the ending of Two-Lane Blacktop, one could be forgiven for thinking that it was the last movie Hellman ever made. The harsh beauty of its final frames, which recall the bizarre, stuttered climax of The Shooting, dissipate the image of the Driver’s acceleration into oblivion, as if he’s disintegrating at the point of terminal velocity. This existential denouement is perhaps the only dated aspect of its legacy, but even as the picture flares up and the celluloid begins to burn—a now wildly overused motif—the impact is lasting, doubly so when projected in 35mm, which I was extremely grateful for.

Film Societies in sixteen centres run an annual programme of weekly/monthly film screenings. Membership entitles the holder free admission to screenings for a 12-month period. Full details at filmsocietywellington.net.nz, or for information about a film society closest to you, visit the NZ Federation of Film Societies.
Filed under: FILM, Film Society

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Tim Wong is the founding editor of The Lumière Reader. He specialises in film and visual arts criticism, has covered film festivals in Europe and North America, and was the only New Zealand-based critic invited to vote on Sight and Sound’s decennial “Ten Greatest Films of All Time” poll in 2012. He is also a freelance web and graphic designer. In 2015 he wrote and directed Out of the Mist.