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

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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.

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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

Duel (1971): The Stirring Success of a Young Spielberg

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Duel stands as a stirring reminder that this is the same Steven Spielberg who brazenly got himself on the Universal lot because he needed to be in as close proximity to movies by any means possible. There was no other alternative.

Here is a young, brash filmmaker, part Hitchcock, part Truffaut, and all American humanist. Is it wrong to say he is dearly missed? Because this is not to imply films like Bridge of Spies or The Post do not have merit or are not worthy of acclaim. However, it does feel expected of them. If ever a gigantic cinematic undertaking could be termed safe, they are, at least in terms of comparison.

Duel is full of the electrifying exuberance of youth with a director out on the prowl to prove himself. He most certainly does. He cannot help but shape our perceptions along the entire adventure through impetuous moves and constant manipulation. But that is what the directors and the magicians behind films are capable of at their highest potential.

What sets it apart instantly is the point of view. As an audience, we are flying down the streets of what can only be L.A. and the world is being relayed to us from the cab of the car as the radio whirs with the typical chatter.

Baseball scores. The latest exploits of Lee Trevino. A man calling in proclaiming himself a member of the silent majority and simultaneously afraid folks will get the wrong idea if it gets out he’s not his family’s primary breadwinner. His masculinity is in danger of being under attack. Blah blah blah.

It is not a film saturated in dialogue so whatever you hear serves a key purpose either thematically (like in this case) or to define character conflict. This is the first instance where it becomes especially apparent.

The movie, originally a television movie, also fits nicely into TV’s cultural moment with Dennis Weaver of later McCloud fame and Spielberg himself having directed an early episode of Columbo for Sunday Mystery Movie Night.

Our hero is a Vietnam war vet still trying to exorcize demons while grappling with his own faulty sense of masculinity that has his own marriage going down the tubes. What follows is a laughably simple premise executed exquisitely to a fever’s pitch.

Because David Mann (Weaver) is currently being delayed from getting home to his wife and kid due to a business trip. It can’t be helped and seen in this light, Duel might easily be a suburban family drama about the daily monotonies of life as a member of the aforementioned silent majority.

And yet Duel slowly unfurls a more menacing and blatantly overt conceit. Real, tangible opposition is created in the arrival of a flammable tanker and rolling pollution factory belching exhaust. The story as originally conceived by the prolific Richard Matheson preys on the anxieties about L.A. smog and the uninhibited road rage brought to a simmer by the daily commute.

Because soon enough Mann, for some inexplicable reason, finds himself being pursued and bullied off the road by the massive truck. It’s the personification of a destructive vendetta out on the road. It’s vindictive. It feels personal. But we never understand why.

As they begin to make their way across more secluded desert highways and byways, what starts out feeling like a practical joke continually escalates. It follows him to a diner, waits for him menacingly, and comes upon him as he tries to service a broken down school bus. The kids seem to jeer him, a jarring image, given the fact this ominous big rig comes to their aid. Could it be they are in cahoots? The fears begin to proliferate.

However, from a narrative perspective, the true masterstroke is how Spielberg never tips us off to who the phantom pursuer is. He is more a creature of diesel propelled by exorbitant amounts of fury rather than a human being — a cinematic creation more than a real-world entity.  It sounds eerily familiar to a mechanical shark just hopped up on gasoline and plowing down the roadways instead of the deep blue.

Thus, the parallel to Jaws are all too obvious. This is a low budget, compact, and even punchier rendition. However, everything goes back to Spielberg’s fearless inventiveness, whether it’s in the elementary way in which to frame shots or to build up this ever heightening sense of paranoia as the world begins to collapse around our protagonist.

Dennis Weaver embodies this brand of All-American, nevertheless, plagued by demons, and his spells of voiceover, particularly in a roadside diner, lend an added depth to his anxiety.

It is one way we are given license to get inside of his head as he tries to guess which old boy sitting at the counter is the one out to get him. His nerves are all about shot by the end of it and if he’s our surrogate, as an audience we do not fare much better.

Obviously, there are these moments of dialogue, but the sparse moments full of near-wordless action recall Hitchcock quite vividly. A film can be won and lost in how it utilizes these moments, and Spielberg rides them out to great effect.

When the radiator hose breaks, and it feels like sheer desperation time the camera is literally peering up through the steering wheel on the most severe angle on Dennis Weaver yet. Because we have hit the most crucial moment in the picture.

Mann is broaching a precipice of mad despair as he wills his vehicle to not completely fall to pieces around him. He’s physically incapable of running any longer because his wheels have betrayed him. His only hope is making it to the top of an incline so he can coast his way to freedom.

Whether he conquerors the beast or not, the struggle is not without consequence on both our hero and the audience. You would assume Duel is a movie that would feel stagnant and yet even with rhythms that repeat, it somehow manages to maintain a level of tension that must be accredited not only to Spielberg and his cameraman but Weaver’s anchoring performance as he goes through a hellish battle against the steely-beast. TV movies often get a bad rap but Duel is at least one shining example in their favor.

4/5 Stars

Baby Driver (2017)

Baby_Driver_poster.jpgEdgar Wright has a reverence for movies, he knows his movies, and when he makes his own movies there’s always an inherent understanding of the cinematic landscape–taking what’s already been done and proceeding to add his own affectionate spin on it.

There are aspects of his filmography from Shaun of the Dead (2004), to Hot Fuzz (2007), and Scott Pilgrim (2010) that are familiar but you can never accuse him of being derivative because he seems fairly incapable of that mode of filmmaking. Coming from such a tradition of off-kilter modern classics, it’s no surprise that Baby Driver is far from your typical heist film though it boasts both cars and crime in equal measures.

Part of what sets it apart is a soundtrack, something that has been put back in vogue recently by films such as Guardians of the Galaxy. It reflects how popular music can replace a score by tying itself so closely to the plot and the most important elements of its characters so much so that it becomes vital even to the narrative arc.

In this case, it involves Baby (Ansel Elgort) a young getaway driver plagued by the memory of a life-shattering car crash, one of the many traumas being tinnitus, a ringing in the ears that he helps to alleviate by constantly blocking it out with music. Thus, he can be found with a ubiquitous pair of earbuds tucked into his auditory canals ready with an iPod Classic full of tunes for every occasion (He even has a pink one with sparkles).

Of course, his driving songs prove to be the most important and he uses music to keep himself in the zone when he’s making the getaway. What helps him concentrate proves to be an equally thrilling experience for the audience, immersing us in the action in the most utterly electrifying and crowd-pleasing way possible. Cars swerving this way and that down the busy urban jungle of Atlanta with retro tunes blasting in surround sound. If that doesn’t epitomize a summer blockbuster than little does.

Criminal types including a psycho killer named Bats (Jamie Foxx) and an armed and dangerous couple Buddy & Darling (Jon Hamm and Eliza Gonzalez respectively) are only a few of the colorful figures Baby falls into company with. Doc (Kevin Spacey) is their contact who runs all their operations with a plethora of inside contacts and a dry no-nonsense precision. He trusts Baby because he’s never steered him wrong. But it does beg the question how did this young man get himself into this life?

Because when he’s off “work” he spends time caring for his deaf foster father (CJ Jones), mixes audio cassette tapes out of his bedroom and frequents the local cafe that his mother used to work at. There’s also a waitress (Lily James) in said diner who intrigues him and brings him out of his shell with genial vivacity.  They share music as much as they share aspirations and mundane conversations.

But the danger is that the soundtrack becomes a gimmick and it’s true that Wright does a couple of no-nos including having his characters meet and subsequently fall in love over music, namely Carla Thomas’s 1966 hit “BABY” and Beck’s “Debora.” That’s an unforgivable cliche and yet we still want it and in his very best sequences he builds around the cadence and rhythms of the complementary songs that fit immaculately with the editing too. Whether a jaunt to grab coffee, the mundane creation of a peanut butter sandwich or a car chase, each becomes like a musical dance that’s surprisingly fresh.

If the genres of musicals and chase films ever had a point of intersection it would be Baby Driver. These opening moments have the energy of a Gene Kelly musical or even this past year’s La La Land pulsing through them. But it’s equally indebted to the heritage of The Driver (1978), Drive (2011), and of course the king of the heap, Bullitt (1968). The bottom line is that there is a care to deliver the goods as expected and have fun while doing it. There’s something refreshing about practical stunts that don’t utilize CGI and nevertheless manage to feel all the more exhilarating and real. There’s no question that this is an action film. But an action film set to the beat of the music.

Unfortunately, after setting such a fascinating groundwork for a film and delivering on a concept that seems admittedly absurd at times, it does feel that Baby Driver descends into utter chaos–action film hell if we want to coin a term–full of profane violence. No longer does it fully utilize the concept that it was built around or the engaging methods it initially used to draw the audience into yet another colorful creation of genre fiend Edgar Wright.

It’s as if the final act of the film doesn’t quite know where to go. The characters start to deviate from the axes that they have been moving on thus far. Not unsurprisingly Buddy is bent on getting revenge on Baby but Baby also shows a darker side without much provocation and Doc suddenly becomes a romantic sticking his neck out for the young lovebirds. There’s a certain amount of confusion on what direction to go next.

However, you could easily make the case that these developments are simply mirroring reality for a getaway driver, especially one as young as Baby. This is partially a tale of maturation. Losing innocence and trying to find it again without completely blocking out the world around you. In the end, the film settles down just enough into a conclusion that fits the parameters set up in the beginning. It’s lifted from the bloody wreckage and actually slows down long enough to ground itself in its characters once more as stylish and satisfying as ever.

4/5 Stars

Review: American Graffiti (1973)

e38f5-americang3 The year was 1962. Cars were cool, the music was hopping, and teens were young and in love. It’s a simpler world, but it is not a world without your typical worries, especially since high school is over and college is just around the corner for some.

Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) is destined for college with a big scholarship under his belt, but he is still not convinced it’s the right fit for him.

Steve (Ron Howard) is also college bound, but he finds himself spending his last night patching things up with his girlfriend, Curt’s sister Laurie (Cindy Williams).

Their friend Toad (Charles Martin Smith) has the night of his life with Debbie (Candy Clark), leaving his puny Vespa behind after Steve’s loans his ride to the lovable geek.

Cool king of the strip John Milner (Paul Le Mat) gains an annoying co-passenger and winds up having an unorthodox but memorable night all the same.

It would be a pleasure to dive further and further into each arc, but it seems wholly unnecessary. The joy of American Graffiti is the ride it takes you on. The differing perspectives, varying experiences, and ultimately, a full realization of a certain time and place. True, I was never around in 1962, but it feels like I was. Some of Buddy Holly’s thunder has been stolen by the Beach Boys. JD (James Dean) is boss and Ozzie and Harriet can be seen on the picture tube. It goes without saying that the hottest pastimes are cruising and necking.

Understandably, George Lucas pulled from his own past love of cars and music to transport us back in time. That would have been impossible without the music that acts as the ultimate jukebox and it is pervasive wherever the night takes us. With that nostalgia comes Wolfman Jack who highlights the lightness of the age while also making a more somber cameo which contrasts with the image that he created on the radio waves.

This is a story about young adolescents, and it certainly is a comedy as life is often a comedy. There are memorable moments, fights, and times where we just need to puke. Through it all we learn a little about ourselves and those around us. Dreams can be made and re-imagined as they were for Steve and Curt. However, when it all comes down to it, each one of us has our own path we must carve an existence out of. For each individual it looked a little different. However, one of the reasons I always come back to American Graffiti is the timelessness or rather the way it so wonderfully freezes time. I feel like I’m there in the moment with these characters. I laugh, cheer, and empathize with them. Perhaps the time and place of their world differs from mine, but their worries and aspirations are universal.

No one wants to fade into the past and we all are looking for our girl in the white T-Bird. Only time will tell what actually happens. We just have to live life and see what kind of ride we get taken for.

5/5 Stars

American Graffiti (1973)

Starring Ron Howard and Richard Dreyfuss with a host of others, this George Lucas directed film follows the lives of young people in California during the early 60s. It is the night before Curt and Steve are going off to college. They both want to make the most of the time left. However, Steve spends all his time trying to strengthen his relationship with his girlfriend (Cindy Williams). Curt, on the other hand, finds himself out in the town talking with girls and proving himself to a group of thugs. The rest of the film consists of the hot rodding antics of two other characters. A tough speedster (Paul Le Mat) finds himself driving around a 12-year-old girl. “Toad” the nerdy one (Charles Martin Smith), finds himself spending a wild night with a nice but peculiar girl.

With its classic music accompanied by Wolfman Jack and the vintage cars, American Graffiti is a blast of nostalgia that allows us to remember simpler times. It takes this important day in the life of these young individuals and it allows us to be a part of it. Each character has his own experiences that cause them to grow. Toad matures, Curt realizes he must experience college, Steve learns the importance of his girlfriend, and Milner realizes he really does not want to be “The King” anymore.

This film may have slower parts but that just makes it more enjoyable because then the night kicks into high gear when Toad loses the car, Milner beats up the thugs, or Curt has visions of a blonde in a T-Bird. Fittingly as he flies away to his unknown future he sees her white car cruising down the road. It was something that I had wanted to see the first time around but I had seemingly missed it. It made the ending even better.

5/5 Stars