Blog Directory CineVerse: A road trip that takes a few detours

A road trip that takes a few detours

Thursday, May 30, 2019

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the flood gates were open and many American filmmakers were unencumbered by the conventions and censorship of the past. This gave rise to an exciting but short-lived era of greater experimentation with film narrative and form, ambiguous endings, enigmatic characters, and non-traditional dialogue. Case in point: Monte Hellman's 1971 anticlimactic and nonconformist cult classic "Two-Lane Blacktop," which serves as a somewhat puzzling counterpoint to Dennis Hopper's "Easy Rider," released two years earlier. We jumped in the back seat and took a ride with James Taylor and Dennis Wilson last night at CineVerse. Here's what we came up with:

What caught you by surprise here? 

  • The lack of a strong and cohesive narrative. We are led to believe that the movie is ultimately about winning a race, a possible romance with a girl, and reaching a destination. But the truth is that none of these narrative threads are resolved. In fact, the film is quite anticlimactic.
  • The slow pacing of the film, which is surprising considering it’s a road movie that builds up to a race.
  • It has a documentary-like feel and realism.
  • James Taylor and Dennis Wilson are surprisingly non-emotive. Instead of overacting (from two non-professional first-time actors), we get underplaying and stone-faced portrayals, which speaks volumes about the state of mind these characters are in. Here are two skilled professionals driven by a mission to drive, race, and keep moving (DVD Savant reviewer Glenn Erickson posited: “The Driver and The Mechanic are the evolutionary culmination of the 'professional' Howard Hawks- kind of movie characters, who define themselves by their skills”). We get virtually no back story, no context for what motivates them. Despite the fact that the film cast two musicians in lead roles, Taylor and Wilson don’t disappoint.
  • The girl doesn’t serve as eye candy, sexy currency, or a romantic love interest. Instead, she’s fickle and fleeting and not emotionally tethered to any one man.
  • Arguably, the film is most focused on GTO’s character—he serves as the heart of the movie. And what a strange and somewhat pathetic character he is.
  • There is no proper score or soundtrack; all the music we hear (and there isn’t that much of it) is diegetic and in the background. That’s quite a departure from films like “Easy Rider,” which rely more heavily on a well-curated pop music soundtrack to help tell their story.
  • Aside from indulging in alcohol, we see no drug use or references to drugs—also unconventional for a film that appeals to the counterculture and youth crowd in this era.
Themes imbued in Two-Lane Blacktop:
  • Existential crises: This is a film geared toward young adults and the counterculture, who were left disillusioned and somewhat aimless after their 1960s ideals were shattered. Consider how the Driver and Mechanic are so emotionless, almost numb, in contrast to GTO, who represents the older generation—a man who won’t shut up and is living a self-delusional life and suffering a mid-life crisis of sorts.
  • Criterion Collection essayist Kent Jones wrote: “It is a movie about loneliness, and the attempts made by people to connect with one another and maintain their solitude at the same time—an impossible task, an elusive dream… The characters think they’re in a race, but they’re really players in a theater of life, the stage of which stretches from sea to shining sea.”
  • The need for speed as well as for direction in life. Director Monte Hellman said in an interview: “I thought it was a movie about speed, and I wanted to bring the audience back out of the movie and into the theater, and to relate them to the experience of watching a film. I also wanted to relate them to, not consciously but unconsciously, the idea of film going through a camera, which is related to speed as well. I think it came to me out of a similar kind of thing that Bergman did with Persona.”
  • Burned-out dreams and desires. Consider the last shot, which depicts that the actual film in the projector that’s projecting “Two-Lane Blacktop” has burned up, “suggesting both the corrosion of the characters’ counter-cultural nobility (a la Easy Rider) and contradictorily the sense in which the characters ‘live on’ outside of the flammable finiteness of the film itself,” according to film reviewer Joseph Jon Lanthier.
  • Lack of communication.
  • Mass commercialism and mainstream values versus customization and nonconformist counterculture values. This is evidenced by the mass-produced GTO going up against the hybridized and recycled gearhead vehicle put together by the Driver and Mechanic.
Films similar to Two-Lane Blacktop include:
  • Easy Rider
  • Vanishing Point
  • Aloha, Bobby and Rose
  • American Graffiti
  • Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry
  • Electra Glide in Blue
  • Kings of the Road
Other films directed by Monte Hellman
  • Ride in the Whirlwind
  • The Shooting
  • Cockfighter

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