Two-Lane Blacktop (1971): Monte Hellman’s Road Movie

two lane blacktop.png

There’s always a certain relish in seeing non-actors given a stake in a film, but whether it’s mere fallacy or not, there’s this sense that they are more like us — there aren’t as many techniques to get in the way of our joint experience. In other words, what they are giving us has a chance of being utterly authentic.

Monte Hellman is a modest maverick of a certain era and because of his content and his approach to it, there’s little question why he has become a cult icon. The Shooting reimagined the West for a Hippie-infused generation that had a bleaker outlook on post-war American. Exceptionalism, as it were, had come and gone leaving a disillusioned remnant behind in the progeny of the WWII or “Greatest” Generation.

These are the young men and women who listened to 93 KHJ on the airwaves in Los Angeles and not only forged Easy Rider but had their very experience catalyzed by the film. It is the same movement that Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop captures so seamlessly. It exhibits the gritty, no-frills portraiture of American highways and byways.

Admittedly, the soundtrack of Easy Rider is one for the ages and supremely difficult to even consider surpassing. However, this subsequent road picture might fill in for a fine companion piece, although, for a film featuring two prominent musicians at its center — it is not devoted to its songs.

In other words, it does not function as a soundtrack movie nor a hit parade for a generation. Still, one could argue its images are just as relevant and the malaise captured here pervades many analogous explorations from the era like Easy Rider or even Model Shop.

Two-Lane Blacktop also carries some of the same mythos of an American Graffiti, albeit set up against a contemporary rather than a nostalgic backdrop. Likewise, this is a sprawling road movie, as opposed to a contained small-town vignette.

With it, the characters — the aforementioned non-actors — James Taylor and Dennis Wilson, head East in the never-ending search for a race and some dough to keep them going until they find their next competition.

To his credit, Hellman doesn’t make much of a knowing nod to his stars as world-renowned musicians. They’re just car guys pure and simple, and he leaves it at that. It’s simultaneously blessed by the on-location, sequential shooting and the lack of makeup or other thrills. It maintains this illusion of pure authenticity even as it drifts further and further toward the outskirts of reality.

I didn’t think of it immediately but while this film starts in California, it definitely functions to go other places. Two-lane roads are nothing if not a sign of the vast rolling expanses of Middle America. They crop up a long way away from the 405 freeway.

It’s in spaces where you can really make a nuisance of yourself by either dawdling and holding up everyone behind you or being so revved up you just about blow everyone off the road.

However, it’s also on such adventures you interact not only with all sorts of people but unique places as well that are imbued with a character you cannot fabricate. Gas stations out in the boonies and hitchhikers on the side of the road — when such a custom was still in vogue.

In the case of the driver (James Taylor) and his buddy, the mechanic (Dennis Wilson), they end up toting along a Girl (Laurie Bird) on Route 66, who all but stows away in their car after they make a pit stop at a diner.

Her presence would have been a shock to other more apprehensive characters. They take the minor revelation with nary a blink, much less a long-winded altercation. Because they are the definition of laconic. Casually taking life as it comes and maintaining their greatest passions, which seem to be cars and living life on the road.

They know nothing else. They care about little else. Their life is being lived in the here and now without outside responsibilities or ambitions that reach beyond their current reality. There are hints of the implicit loneliness of the lifestyle, tensions, all the human emotions, but they are never fully realized. They are not necessarily meant to be. Still, it becomes obvious enough a girl can get between men and their passions.

On multiple occasions, the movie is filmed with the backseat camera setups reminiscent of the famed heist scene from Gun Crazy. Of course, this film has little to do with small-time crime but there is a similar intimacy to the space and our relation to these characters. I would stop short of saying we get to know them well, all their inner workings remain obscured, but we do get to spend a lot of time in close proximity. You cannot help but appreciate someone in such circumstances.

Furthermore, while I’m by no means an automobile authority, Two-Lane Blacktop just might be one of the preeminent car movies of all-time with a select company. There is a certain chivalry projected on the art of racing even when it all comes down to burned rubber and who has the most dexterity and guts on the road. There’s also this constant tension between longevity and the inevitable. Things break down and fall apart. Both those things of steel and those of flesh and bone.

two lane blacktop 2.png

The shaggy-haired driver eventually goads an affluent out-of-towner in a shiny GTO (Warren Oates as an impeccable foil) into a little cross country competition, and he’s prepared to blow these punks out of the water in their souped-up 1955 Chevrolet 150.

What forms is this oddly symbiotic relationship, initially antagonistic, and then somehow morphing into a laid-back camaraderie. Soon they’re helping their adversary along even after momentarily hitching him up with the police.

Some of the best films are capable of literally transporting the viewer to a time or place. There is almost a tactile, visceral quality that puts us right in the moment on the cusp of a new decade and simultaneously still riding the tailpipes of the 60s counterculture.

Haircuts, music, gas stations, Coca-Cola, even the actors do it for us, and the beauty of it all is how unintentional it feels. Hellman may or may not have had the prescience to know people would be watching his film decades later. Regardless, his stripped-down aesthetic is perfectly paired with the era he came to prominence in. It doesn’t feel like there’s so much artifice or smokescreens getting in the way — only exhaust.

Such an experience might take getting used to for some. Although Two-Lane Blacktop has a central driving force, it’s a road movie about cars after all; in commonly attributed cinematic terms it feels lax, observational, and loose in its progressions.

To this day, it’s this very quality helping to solidify it as one of the great road pictures. The trick is allowing for the verisimilitude and space for things to happen. We feel the nomadic yearnings and the deep-seated restlessness present in every frame.

It gives glimpses of something with the hint of reality and yet without pretentiousness or an attempt at verbose commentary. It simply exists and unfurls a story and a world for us to imbibe as an audience. Consequently, it also makes me want to dust off some Beach Boy and James Taylor records. They are the sounds of a generation just as this is a film for a generation.

4/5 Stars

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s