Directed by: Monte Hellman
Screenplay by: Rudolph Wurlitzer & Will Corry
Cast: James Taylor, Dennis Wilson, Warren Oates & Laurie Bird
Run Time: 1 Hour and 42 Minutes
Availability: Not Streaming Online. On DVD & Blu-Ray from The Criterion Collection
When I say the phrase “car movie,” what film or films come to your mind? If you are around my age, then it’s probably one of the “Fast & The Furious” movies. However I want you to take that image and delete it from your mind. This weeks featured film, “Two-Lane Blacktop,” is a car film, but it’s a very different and highly original car film. It may seem weird to have this counterculture cult favorite from the early ’70’s on a list of the greatest films of all time. However with its unique storytelling and creative style, Monte Hellman’s film earns its place as one of the greatest car films of all time as well as one of the greatest films of all tine.
Singer-Songwriter James Taylor and the late Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson play two characters known only as The Driver and The Mechanic. They travel across the States in their 1955 Chevrolet 150, entering street races in order to make money. On their journey they meet a young hitchhiking girl known only as The Girl (Laurie Bird) who joins them on their journey. They also come across a guy driving a 1970 Pontiac GTO who is known only as GTO (Warren Oates). The two challenge GTO to a race to Washington D.C., and the winner gets the loser’s car. While the plot sounds like a typical race film, it is not at all. In fact, the race becomes an after thought.
“Two-Lane Blacktop” came out in the wake of “Easy Rider,” which ushered in the New Hollywood movement of the late 60’s-70’s. This was a brand new period of creativity in Hollywood and is where filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola became the star directors we know them today. “Two-Lane Blacktop” is a film that only could have been made during that time. It has such a unique style and is unlike any contemporary car movie. Today no studio would ever take a chance on a film like this.
It’s a film with no real sense of narrative. There is not a typical 3-act structure. However, Blacktop is not a film you watch for the story. It’s what I like to call an “experience film.” These are films that may not have a proper narrative or well-developed characters but have a very compelling quality about them and you just need to sit back and let the viewing experience take you over. To compare it to a road trip, watching Blacktop is at that point in the road trip where you are just crusin’ down the highway, looking out the window and enjoying the view. You are not concerned about when you are going to get there, you are just kicking back and enjoying the ride. That is the attitude you need to go into with this film.
Another stylistic difference is the apparently underdeveloped characters. However, these are intentionally designed that way. In fact, it would not be inaccurate to say the automobiles and the road itself are our main characters. According to a review I read, the screenplay has very little description of our characters but details upon details describing the Chevy. Even looking at the names, its obvious these characters are just meant to serve minor characters to the road. These are not just their names, the essentially describe their entire existence. The Driver drives, The Mechanic fixes the car and GTO drives his GTO. In addition the lack of back story to these characters adds to this idea of them being of secondary importance. Wilson and Taylor and almost mute characters and when they do speak it is entirely about the car. GTO is more talkative but it is unknown if what he is saying is true. Throughout the film he picks up a series of hitchhikers and for everyone he has a brand new backstory. We don’t get a sense of who these people are and that is OK. Why do they do what they do? The film doesn’t provide us with any real sense of answer.
Not everyone will be able to appreciate the different approach to storytelling but those who can are in for a treat. It’s just a cool film to watch and experience. In addition it is also a very layered and nuanced film. You can interpret the film in many different ways. Perhaps it is simply a story about two gear-heads and a man with a midlife crisis. Maybe it is meant to represent the conflict between generations. I’ve also heard one critic describe the film as a metaphor for life. Either way, there is a level of complexity and depth to the film that only could have arisen from that New Hollywood era.
Upon initial release “Two-Lane Blacktop” was a box office bomb. While it received some very positive pre-release press, Esquire magazine named it their film of the year and published the screenplay in its entirety, audiences just didn’t take it. However over the years the film developed a very strong cult following. Richard Linklater is a fan of the film and recently paid homage to it in his film “Boyhood” by having Ethan Hawke’s character drive a GTO.
I know absolutely nothing about cars, which is kind of a sad statement coming from a California boy. However I love a good car movie and I loved “Two-Lane Blacktop.” It’s the kind of film that only could have come out from the 1970’s. Very highly recommended by me!
What are your thoughts on the film? Leave a comment, send an e-mail to email@example.com or hit up the social media pages. Thanks for reading . Until next week.What are your thoughts on the film? Leave a comment, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or hit up the social media pages. Thanks for reading. Until next week.
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