Why I Love… #31: Two-Lane Blacktop

Year: 1971

Director: Monte Hellman

Stars: James Taylor (The Driver), Dennis Wilson (The Mechanic), Warren Oates (GTO), Laurie Bird (The Girl)

Genre: Road Movie

Beginning at night with an illegal drag race, Two-Lane Blacktop initially gives the impression it’s going to be a different movie to the one it transpires to be. From the setting and the edgy (street) lighting, one would be forgiven for thinking this was going to be a scuzzy, thrilling little B-movie ala Vanishing Point, maybe even a half-decent grindhouse picture. But no, Two-Lane Blacktop aspires to loftier heights. Like Vanishing Point it plays as a requiem for the 60s, but ends up as a requiem for America as a whole. A poetic vision of loneliness and dislocation. Imagine if Terrence Malick had directed Easy Rider.

It plays doggedly against general expectations. Chiefly, director Monte Hellman avoids dramatic encounters, instead settling into a monosyllabic, plain-spoken quietude. The film’s heroes (though they’d balk at such a bold title) aren’t even played by actors. James Taylor and Dennis Wilson, famed musicians both, play The Driver and The Mechanic, silent partners drifting from place to place in their suped-up ’55 Chevrolet. The Mechanic seems permanently dazed, whilst The Driver is happiest when he has nothing to say and an open road before him. When The Girl (Laurie Bird) appears in the back of their car at a gas station, they accept her presence and just drive on.

The Driver and The Mechanic exchange functional dialogue about the car and their competitors, matter-of-fact, slight. The Girl – a runaway – sits in back asking questions, speaking her mind. It is only Warren Oates’ GTO that puts any fire under a ‘story’ when a race to Washington DC is proposed. But even then, this is the most laidback chase you’ll ever see. Players arbitrarily wait for one another, The Girl swaps cars, they all have lunch together. Oates adds some much-needed colour to proceedings, spinning yarns for hitchhikers, chewing up twice as much dialogue as everyone else put together.

And so it goes, these four characters, misfits all, wind their way east across the states, playing for the pink slips to each other’s automobiles, stopping at motels and gas stations, living on empty freeways. Most of the time there’s no music, only the constant trilling of engines. Hellman lets the film breathe, in doing so he presents us an America that is as sad as it is beautiful. More evocative than Easy Rider, Two-Lane Blacktop suggests a country that is simply exhausted and used up. Stunning countryside rolls by, but no one has anywhere left to go anymore.

A normal film would jump at trite conflicts. When The Driver comes back from a bar only to hear The Mechanic and The Girl having sex in their shared motel room, you’d expect some protracted love triangle to pan out, maybe some arguments, yelling, tears. Instead, The Driver simply sits on the step, waiting for them to be done. Not a word is spoken about it.

So much non-drama might sound like an exhausting experience in itself. Why watch a film in which nobody really cares, or speaks, or emotes? What is the point in such transience? Surely it feels endless? However, Two-Lane Blacktop is simply a pleasure. I love long car journeys. Open fields rolling by. The freedom. The freedom. Two-Lane Blacktop evokes a wistful nomadic existence, and by stripping it back to the quiet beauty of the open road, where possibilities seem endless, it romanticises these roads and nowhere-places. There is something limbo-like about a service station or a backwater town. These places are strung together by tarmac and telephone wires, knitting miniature desolate worlds together.

These characters are lost in this network, unable to function in the society that surrounds them. This is at once portrayed as sad and wonderful. The Driver, The Mechanic, The Girl and GTO all know they’re lost. This knowing is written in their silences, in their plain acceptance of things. Only GTO fights it. It’s telling that the older character of these four takes things the most seriously, whilst the younger generation are more prone to letting things slide. Are they jaded, or just inherently less tied to the world? Where has this detachment come from? Were they born with it?

As a viewer we envy them their freedom. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to just cut loose and travel as you please, living like a drifter, struggling to find the finances to keep going? In reality, probably not. But in Two-Lane Blacktop it looks like the only dream left in an America that’s tired of itself. At the time of writing a movie adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road is soon to be released. If it evokes even half of the potency of Two-Lane Blacktop it’ll be a success. One suspects that right here we have that book’s true film counterpart.

I was initially disappointed about the lack of resolution in Hellman’s film, but quite quickly I realised that it is entirely fitting. This ‘story’ and these characters are endless. They have no complete version. Two-Lane Blacktop captures a portion of their lives for us to see them. They don’t finish. They are owned by the road.

“Here’s to your destruction,” GTO toasts.

“Same to you,” The Driver responds. They both smile. The wind in their hair and a tank full of gas is all they’ll ever need.

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