Director: Monte Hellman
Screenplay: Rudy Wurlitzer, Will Corry & Floyd Mutrux (uncredited)
Starring: James Taylor, Warren Oates, Laurie Bird, Dennis Wilson
Producer: Michael Laughlin
Running Time: 103 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
Two-Lane Blacktop is a film I’ve been keen to watch for a long time. Being a big fan of 70’s cinema and road movies (well, car chase movies more so) I’ve had this on my radar for years, but it keeps passing me by for whatever reason. Well with Eureka releasing a finely polished Blu-Ray of the film under their prestigious Masters of Cinema banner, I leapt at the chance of firing it up. Now that I’ve finally watched the film I’m pleased to say I thought it was very good and it stood up to the hype for the most part, but I’m finding it difficult to articulate why.
Two-Lane Blacktop follows The Driver (James Taylor) and The Mechanic (Dennis Wilson) as they drive aimlessly across America in their lovingly suped-up ’55 Chevy, challenging other petrol-heads to drag races to fund their travels. Along the way they pick up The Girl (Laurie Bird), an irritable youngster who seems to be drifting around just looking for kicks. Following the same route across the nation is GTO (Warren Oates), a middle-aged city-slicker driving a bright yellow 1970 Pontiac GTO, straight out of the lot. The two cars eventually meet up and set a race across the rest of the country, meant to end in Washington DC with the winner taking the pink slips of the other car.
The main reason for my befuddlement (yes, it’s a word) over my feelings on the film is that Two-Lane Blacktop is purposefully elusive. There is very little going on in terms of narrative, the main protagonist says very little and the more talkative characters rarely do so to drive the film forward (no pun intended). As the director Monte Hellman puts it, “the dialogue is a music track… the story is told through the subtext” (paraphrased). Yet somehow, this all works and not just in a chin-stroking pretentious sort of way. Yes, it is possible to gain a lot of meaning from the events on screen, but this is thankfully achieved in a largely natural way. In using non-actors in several of the key roles (singer-songwriter Taylor and Beach Boys member Wilson had never acted before and never did since), their performances can seem a bit hollow at times, but retain a naturalism that most professional actors struggle to exhibit. Surprisingly enough, these raw and flawed performances are set against seasoned character actor Warren Oates and still hold their own, largely because their characters are supposed to be so contrasting. Oates is magnificent, revelling in the bullshit stories he tells to the various hitch-hikers he picks up along the way and off-setting that with some subtle, more suggestive problems bubbling under the surface. Taylor on the other hand delivers lines a little woodenly, but has an enigmatic quality that makes him always fascinating to watch. Wilson doesn’t fare quite so well, but the focus on his character is minimal.
Speaking of enigmatic qualities though, that is really how the film works most of the time. The whole thing is an enigma, emphasised by its strange and almost surreal conclusion. The whole race aspect fizzles out, The Girl, after toying with all the men, loses interest and ditches them all and in a final coda as The Driver goes back to the drag strip the film itself just burns up, literally. The final moments spent with GTO suggest that it’s all the stuff of legend as he turns the race into another story to tell his hitch-hikers. This helps the whole thing play out like a mythological telling of the death of the sixties and the aimless disillusionment of its byproducts, with the subtly sombre tone accentuating this. Maybe it’s more about the fruitless longing for continuous youth or innocence though as none of the characters have any ties or goals, but they never seem happy. As GTO puts it towards the end as he dreams of settling down, “if I’m not grounded soon I’m going to go into orbit”.
But I don’t know – I’ll leave the philosophising to the chin-strokers, reading some of my last paragraph makes me want to slap myself. I think I just fell in love with the mood of the film – its picturesque view of the open road, the character in the sounds of the two muscle-cars (possibly the real protagonists) and its free-wheeling nature. The fact that it’s hard to pin down probably makes me like it more anyway – I get bored of being force fed stories and messages. Do we really need them when we can make our own from what we’re given or simply let the experience wash over us. And thats how I felt ultimately as I watched the film, I just enjoyed being along for the ride. It’s not perfect, I could have done with a little more to latch onto at times in terms of emotional depth, but it’s undeniably an original and beautifully made film that is intoxicating to watch.
Two-Lane Blacktop is out now on Blu-Ray as part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series. As ever with the films in this series the picture and sound has been meticulously restored, looking and sounding as good as new, but retaining the analogue quality you get from shooting on celluloid. The colours especially are naturally rich without looking ‘boosted’. Soundtrack-wise you have an option between the original mono track or a remastered 5.1 mix too, which is a bonus for audiophiles.
The Blu-Ray is packed to the gills with features too. Top of the heap is a 43 minute documentary, On The Road Again in which Hellman, some of his students and his daughter go on a road trip to the film’s original locations whilst he waxes lyrical about his memories and thoughts on the film today. It’s a fresh approach that works, despite a rather rough and ready presentation, and is aided by Hellman’s friendly and talkative manner. Equally as interesting, if a little meandering, is a commentary featuring Hellman and associate producer Gary Kurtz. A roundtable discussion of the film with producer Michael Laughlin, production manager Walter Coblenz and the director’s son Jared Hellman, helmed by the man himself is full of anecdotes too. Less interesting is an odd choice of interview with Hellman questioning Kris Kristofferson, who had very little input into the film other than allowing one of his songs to be used on the soundtrack. You can also see screen-test footage of James Taylor and Laurie Bird which is a nice addition but not something I was desperate to sit through in its entirety.
On top of all this Eureka throw in another fascinating 30-odd page booklet full of essays and interviews surrounding the film. This all adds together to make an amazing package that is well worth parting with your hard earned for.