Two writers keep the Two-Lane Blacktop conversation going...
Scott: From the opening, Two-Lane Blacktop is defined as much by what it doesn’t do as what it does. Here’s a film about a cross-country race in which the question “Are we still racing or what?” comes up in conversation right in the middle of the country. It’s about a rivalry between drivers over cars and over a woman that more or less peters out. And it’s about pit stops and detours more than the straight lines of Arizona. Given that American cinema’s only access to the gearhead movie now is by way of the gaudy, huge-budgeted, CGI-assisted Fast And The Furious series, it’s particularly striking to see Monte Hellman’s vision of underground racing so utterly devoid of flash—or even light, for that matter. The racers and onlookers operate in near-total darkness—which makes sense, since drag racing is illegal, and the participants don’t necessarily want to draw public attention—and right away, there’s no sense of the winners and losers. There’s just two cars peeling off into the darkness. And with that, Hellman established an existential tone that has more in common with Michelangelo Antonioni than with Roger Corman.
Two-Lane Blacktop has a deliberately stripped-down quality, but not in the way of a later work like Walter Hill’s The Driver, which uses minimalism to focus and intensify the action. Both movies offer no character names—in Blacktop, James Taylor is “The Driver,” Dennis Wilson is “The Mechanic,” Warren Oates is “GTO,” and Laurie Bird is “The Girl”—but Hellman is shooting for an act of deconstruction rather than a purebred genre piece. I can’t even imagine how audiences must have reacted to Two-Lane Blacktop in 1971, presuming they expected souped-up muscle cars embarking on a road race from Flagstaff to Washington D.C. Even knowing the film’s reputation, I recall being astonished by how defiantly it broke down any narrative expectations heaped upon it. What’s your experience with this movie, Sam? And how do you measure its significance to that period in American filmmaking?
Sam: “Subversive” is one of the most abused words in criticism, but here’s a case where it genuinely applies. It must have sounded like Easy Rider on four wheels: Take a Roger Corman veteran who knows how to make genre art for a price, add a script conceived by a Gunsmoke actor and revamped by an underground novelist, cast James Taylor and a goddamn Beach Boy, throw in some Doors songs, then wait for the money to come rolling in. But despite being famously called “movie of the year” by Esquire, which published Rudy Wurlizter’s script in full, the movie was dumped into a single theater on a holiday weekend, and all but vanished into myth. It’s clear why: Instead of a carefree ode to easy riding and fast living, Hellman’s movie was more like a European art film, with brooding silences and long stretches of empty road. The protagonists are sullen, uncommunicative loners, hardly suited for the role of counterculture icons. And for a car-race movie, it’s notably short on tire-burning bravado; the few head-to-head contests are over in seconds, sometime dispensed with in a single shot. This wasn’t what the studio signed on for.
And yet, 40 years on, it continues to capture the imagination: When I asked critics to name their favorite car movies, Blacktop won by—well, what’s the auto-racing equivalent of a landslide? The film isn’t preoccupied with literal nuts and bolts, but when The Mechanic tells The Driver, “She don’t seem to be breathing right,” it feels authentic, even for those of us who don’t know what that means. Their taciturn relationship feels just right for two men who’ve accompanied each other on endless long-haul trips, who know the parts of the country they can speed right through, and the ones where they need to keep to country roads and steal in-state plates so they can pass for locals. You might accuse it of caricaturing unfriendly rednecks who greet these grease-smeared longhairs with, “You all wouldn’t be hippies, would you?” But that’s rhymed with the eerie moment in which an old woman hitches a ride to the cemetery to visit people killed by a “city car”: Both sides have reason to be suspicious.
Two-Lane Blacktop goes about as far toward subverting the purpose of a road-race movie as you can go; if you walked in 20 minutes late, you’d be hard-pressed to divine that there’s a race going on at all. The drivers are racing out of habit, almost instinct, like the cicadas the Driver tells the Girl about, who live underground almost their whole lives, then come up just long enough to reproduce and die. (The Girl cuts him off: “We’ve got a better life, haven’t we?” One of the movie’s best tricks is to deploy these overwrought metaphors, then immediately undercut them.) And yet, the more I watch it, the more I’ve sat with it, the movie—and especially its ending—doesn’t seem like the brilliant nose-thumb I once took it for. I don’t think its purpose is to lure in gearheads, then treat them to existential musing on the nature of man; that’s more Vanishing Point’s bag. The road-weary loneliness at its core feels truer to its subject than I understood at first, the characters more organic. Am I grasping at straws here, or does Blacktop embrace the race as well as subverting it?
Scott: It’s hard to say. The word “organic” isn’t the first one I’d use to describe characters whom we can’t reference by name. But they are real characters, not archetypes Hellman and screenwriters Rudy Wurlitzer and Will Corry have created for the sole purpose of turning the genre on its head. Taylor’s performance as the Driver is exceptionally difficult to pin down, because it holds viewers at such a distance. Some may feel that’s a consequence of a folk singer revealing his limitations as an actor, but it strikes me as more strategic and compelling. You call it “road-weary loneliness,” but there are times when Taylor shifts from laconic to almost chillingly engaged, somewhere on the line between confident and sociopathic. Maybe that’s the trick in casting a popular musician in a movie: There’s a presence to Taylor that’s more self-assured than an actor with insecurities, and more than once, I’ve heard him described as a “zombie,” or something synonymous for this performance. But those eyes of his are a road to oblivion in and of themselves.
Contrast that with Warren Oates, whose rangier performance as GTO meets Taylor’s serene confidence with dorky braggadocio. Driver and Mechanic size up GTO as an impostor pretty quickly, looking over his racing gloves and brand-new muscle car, which sharply contrasts with the old hunk of metal they’ve transformed, part by part, into an authentically customized racing machine. But who is GTO? What does he want? What is he trying to prove? There’s an element of generational resentment in the way he engages these younger men and challenges them for pink slips, as if to put them into their place. But Two-Lane Blacktop isn’t quite the hippies-vs.-squares showdown it might appear to be, if only because Hellman doesn’t seem that interested in that front of the culture wars. What’s more consistent is the idea that GTO is using the road as an opportunity to reinvent himself as someone different than he was before the film begins. He’s driving a new car—a car a middle-aged guy wouldn’t be expected to buy—and giving his identity a spin, which is why we’re treated to different stories for every new person he meets. That’s a feature of the road movie: When characters are away from home—or if they have no home at all—they can separate more easily from the person they were or were expected to be.
So what do you make of The Girl, Sam? She’s even harder to me to understand than any of the men, and that seems entirely by design: Her hitchhiker passivity allows her to get bumped around from one driver to the next, until she becomes a prize on par with the pink slips these guys are ostensibly racing to get. There’s a craftiness to her that I might be missing, but I’m having trouble thinking about her independently of the men who are separately vying for her affection. Is she a character of deeper motivations than I assume her to be? Just as neither Taylor nor Oates fit perfectly into the “hippie” and “square” roles we might be inclined to assign them, The Girl isn’t categorizable, but doesn’t strike me as an independently conceived character by any stretch. What am I missing?
Sam: Since I’ve already invoked the dreaded “subversive,” allow me to haul out another notoriously imprecise term and and allow that The Girl is more than a little problematic. Laurie Bird had no acting experience before Two-Lane Blacktop, and unlike Taylor and Wilson, she wasn’t even a performer, more a “private research project” (to borrow an especially creepy term from a contemporary profile) of Hellman’s who ended up being cast as the movie’s most nakedly symbolic character. She’s enigmatic and unknowable, freedom embodied, yet strangely dehumanized. Where does she come from? What does she want? She sleeps with The Mechanic, makes out with The Driver, and flirts with GTO, leaving them bamboozled and blue-balled. The men in those two cars can’t figure it out, and neither can we.
At the same time, Bird, whose only other significant role was in Hellman’s great Cockfighter, brings Blacktop something you couldn’t get from a professional actor, a kind of opacity to the camera that’s both fascinating and frustrating, in more ways than one. One of the things that’s so distinctive about the movie is the way Hellman mixes acting styles, from Oates’ self-aware theatricality to Taylor and Wilson’s rough-hewn emotion to Bird’s unschooled mannerisms all the way down to the numerous non-professional actors they meet along the way. It would be a stretch to call Two-Lane Blacktop a documentary in any sense, but there are times when the fabric of the story wears thin, and we can see the real world peeking through.
While we’re talking performances, let’s pull over for a spell and savor Oates’, which is one of the finest in a glorious, too-brief career. GTO, as you mention, first comes off as a figure of generational (and class) antagonism, an older, wealthier man who’s bought his way onto the racing circuit rather than earning his way there. (It’s fitting that his character is named for what he owns, where The Driver and The Mechanic are named for what they do.) GTO can recite his car’s specs, but a recitation is all it is; we see him repeat the same spiel to a hitchhiker word for word, just one of the lies and half-truths he pulls from a store as apparently bottomless as his briefcase full of booze and pills.
As the GTO and the Chevy race eastward, though, we see that their occupants are in some ways more alike than they realize. The Driver and The Mechanic have been reduced to their essence; GTO has obliterated his, recreating himself anew with each passenger he picks up. At one point, it seems as if he might be about to tell The Driver his real story—something about a wife and kids—and Driver brusquely shuts him down: “It’s not my problem.” (Taylor may not prove himself an especially versatile actor in Blacktop, but the flash of white-hot anger in that moment says so much about his character.) The Driver disdains such personal attachments, at least once it’s clear things aren’t going to work out with The Girl, but GTO knows this life on the road can’t last forever: “If I’m not grounded pretty soon, I’m going to go into orbit.” And he finally pays tribute to The Driver and The Mechanic by stealing their story: “There’s nothing like building up an old automobile from scratch and wiping out one of those Detroit machines. That'll give you a set of emotions that'll stay with you, you know what I mean? Those satisfactions are permanent.”
Closing thoughts? Or did we pass the finish line without even noticing?
Scott: “Those satisfactions are permanent” is head-to-head with “Make it three yards, motherfucker, and we’ll have us an automobile race” for my favorite utterance in the film. And your point about Oates’ persona being so fluid and up-for-grabs that he assumes The Driver and The Mechanic’s identity in the end speaks to the conceptual dynamic of these four lead characters: The Driver and The Mechanic are stable, fixed units, though the flashes of hostility in Taylor’s eyes suggest the terrifying depths of his psyche. The Girl, as you point out, represents freedom, and seems to exist mainly as an unknowable creature who bounces between the men. And GTO is a slippery, amorphous character who’s as uncertain about who he is as his rivals are completely set. The trick of Wurlitzer’s script—and Oates’ performance especially— is that it doesn’t feel mapped out so squarely. There’s a real pulse to it.
That said, maybe we should close by talking about Two-Lane Blacktop’s place in American cinema history, because it’s become such a touchstone for the renaissance of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The level of self-awareness Hellman brings to the film—along with an interest in landscapes, themes of loneliness and alienation, a dismantling of genre expectations, and that self-immolating closing shot—builds a bridge between American movies and their European counterparts, particularly Michelangelo Antonioni. In fact, Two-Lane Blacktop would make a great double-feature with Antonioni’s American movie, Zabriskie Point, from one year earlier, which also dawdled through arid landscapes en route to a spectacularly explosive finish. Just as the flowering of European cinema in the 1960s owed something to the reconsidered auteur qualities of American studio productions, movies like Two-Lane Blacktop engaged in the conversation from the other side of the Atlantic, reinventing national cinema in the process.
Two-Lane Blacktop was a flop at the time, which is a prime example of how time—and the caretakers of critics, historians, and cinephiles—can put movies in the proper perspective. (Ditto Zabriskie Point, come to think of it.) Audiences usually aren’t prepared to have cinema redefined before their eyes, and Hellman’s film must have felt like a slap in the face to those who came to see a movie about a thrilling cross-country road race. We often credit viewers at that time for being more open-minded and sophisticated than viewers today, but this seems to be a case where Hellman was out in front of everyone, and a cult following trailed behind it for a while before catching up. My last question to you, Sam, is how much of Two-Lane Blacktop do you see in films today? I’ve already mentioned how little it resembles the high-octane garishness of the Fast And The Furious series. And a gearhead movie like Death Proof has Vanishing Point explicitly on the brain, but perhaps Hellman’s legacy is evident elsewhere.
Sam: Ah, the dreaded influence question. Hellman came close to directing Reservoir Dogs, and while Death Proof may explicitly tip its hat to Vanishing Point, you can see traces of Hellman elsewhere in Tarantino’s oeuvre, perhaps especially Jackie Brown. You can find traces of Two-Lane Blacktop’s DNA in all manner of eccentric auto-focused movies, like Alex Cox’s Repo Man, and Kelly Reichardt’s movies owe a great deal to Hellman’s love of vagabonds, his reliance on nonverbal performances, and his use of nonprofessional actors. And while Blacktop’s styles are fairly far from David Lynch’s Lost Highway, he probably got some of his ideas here, about the open road’s power to warp the rules of cinema.
Don’t miss Keith’s Keynote on the origins and stars of Two-Lane Blacktop, and Sam’s secondary essay linking it to the masculinity and shifting era of Mad Men. Next week, stay tuned for some basketball jonesing with Ron Shelton’s White Men Can’t Jump.