“Now everyone wants to leave the two-lane blacktops and get to the interstate.”—Two-Lane Blacktop screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer, 2008
As the late Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop turns 50, Wurlitzer’s assessment feels correctly cynical if not completely accurate. While the mainstream, especially in film, has pumped the brakes on the heady reflections that helped define 1971’s countercultural cool, that particularly kinetic American ennui has never gone away. Sure, life might move a little faster. Media certainly does. We may spin our wheels a little differently now, but that doesn’t mean that the dreams, lies and the dreadful potential of the open road showcased in Hellman’s mesmerizing masterpiece are any less relevant today.
Following up Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting, a pair of Jack Nicholson-led acid Westerns, Two-Lane Blacktop is a modernized amalgamation of thoughtful cowboys and their quietly posturing conflicts in what passes for an automotive frontier story. Two non-actors play the central Men with No Names in their only film roles: Dennis Wilson (of The Beach Boys) plays The Mechanic and James Taylor (of James Taylor) plays The Driver. The duo’s 1955 Chevrolet 150 picks up Laurie Bird’s hitchhiker and butts heads with Warren Oates’ GTO-flaunting bag of hot air. A contest of wills is determined. A cross-country race east for the only thing that matters: Each other’s cars. “Pinks” or nothin’ when they get to the nation’s capital.
The results are a pile-up of raw aesthetics: The blue-collar denim, chambray and white T-shirts of the Chevy boys; the ascots, cashmere sweaters and flop sweat of Mr. High-Falutin’ GTO; the equalizing and indifferent series of faceless diners, drive-ins and dives encountered along the endless stretch of American asphalt. It all amounts to a contemplative, pseudo-competitive, viciously anticlimactic tour around the biggest racetrack in the U.S.
It’s no wonder that Hellman, who died in April at age 91, got his start driving a truck and directing the first Los Angeles production of Waiting for Godot. Samuel Beckett’s a constant invisible passenger throughout the relatively plotless meanderings of the movie’s trip. In fact, it could’ve easily shared a title with Hellman’s final film, Road to Nowhere. There’s a feeling of treading water that’s ironically ever-present in fast-car movies and fast-car realities: Even the best NASCAR driver’s still going in circles. On an even more basic level, to quote The New Yorker’s Richard Brody on the film’s road-weary Zen, “driving, after all, is moving very fast while sitting and doing nothing.”
This visualized, heightened but not romanticized theme of journey-over-destination—of motion and stagnation—keeps Wurlitzer and Hellman’s ‘70s-flecked ideology squarely in the headlights. There’s a quiet fear of death, as the GTO picks up an old lady and a young girl on the way to the cemetery. A quiet rebuke of all the things we do to distract ourselves from it, as an afroed hippie quickly flees GTO’s stream of pomposity. A nod to base, natural survival with the buzzing of the cicadas. By capturing this exhaust-fumed existentialism so plainly, Two-Lane Blacktop strips away the specificities of Easy Rider’s bikers, or of Kerouac’s Beats. “Turn that shit off,” The Driver says of the radio. “It gets in the way.” It’s an elemental road movie that accepts whatever you get from it, thanks especially to its relative lack of music and excellent, near-silent leads.
“James Taylor was fascinating, such a natural,” Hellman told Paste in 2014. “I don’t think he even knows where it comes from. Some of the scenes…you can’t believe it. No experience at all. He was just so perfect.” That went for the angry-eyed string bean’s companion too: “Dennis Wilson was unconscious. He was totally unaware that there was a camera going. He would just be in a scene, and he would forget he was doing a movie. I’ve never seen that kind of unself-consciousness in anybody.”
Then you have the supporting Oates, whom Hellman compared to his latter-day muse Shannyn Sossamon. “They have this something. The camera is turned on them and they give up light. At the same time, they hide something,” he said. “You feel there are secrets there. You keep trying to get into those secrets. To get inside and find what’s really going on.”
Those alluring secrets permeate the film, always seeming to slip away from its few lines of dialogue (or, in Oates’ case, lurking behind an impenetrable wall of self-mythologizing B.S.) and perpetually dance on the horizon. Behind the practical conversations and defensive incuriosity lies endless potential…that might be some burning, fulfillable desire or a need that’ll just burn them out and never result in anything, much like the characters’ endless road trip. Paving the way for films like Drive, Inside Llewyn Davis and even Sossamon’s Wristcutters: A Love Story, that inviting semi-surreal stoicism generates an air of interiority that encourages interpretation even if it’s all for naught. There’s still a hunger for meaning, and a hunger for the ability to wring meaning out of something, that often coincides with a journey. Rolling down the pavement is still just about as American as you can make your soul-searching, even if the interstate’s replaced and deromanticized Route 66. To Hellman, it wasn’t all that romantic to begin with.
Two-Lane offers equal nudges towards absurd levity (the racers switch cars in a display of communal sportsmanship) and depressing nihilism (the vehicular obsessions that dominate these lives quite literally melt away at the end in a showcase of physical fragility). Its existential divide is a continual conversation, and one that has an ultimate, tangible, inescapable end—as surely as all our motors will one day stop running. Even if languid abstraction has moved more and more to the arthouse in modern media, that desire to find meaning by projecting onto Tony Soprano’s Gary Cooper-esque masculine ideal—the strong, silent type—has never gone away, and it’s never stopped moving.
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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