thanksgiving day turned out to be kind of a peculiar, solitary affair this year. i was a little under the weather and, as a result, only ventured out of the house for food. the rest of the day i spent with mystery science theater 3000 weirdly bookending the movie i wanted to talk about here today, monte hellman's two-lane blacktop (1971).
i ran this on a loop all afternoon and, in retrospect, it seems the perfect way to see this film, as it left me with that distinct hum in my head that you only get when you've been on the road for a long time, like i was still in motion but no longer had a destination. it is beautiful and confounding that way.
it was the only major studio full-length feature that hellman ever made (i love the universal logo with nothing but engine sounds over it) after about a decade and a half in roger corman's boot camp. it remains one of my favorite efforts of the last golden age of american filmmaking. there is no love lost between me and easy rider (1969), i think it's silly and ham-handed, but i owe it a debt of gratitude, nonetheless, because without its success we never would have had this movie or others like it. a seismic shift happened in the wake of easy rider that resulted in a cultural climate where something like two-lane blacktop could be the single most anticipated film of the year. no less than esquire magazine touted it to be to the movie of the year while it was still in post-production. they even went as far as to print the entire screenplay in the magazine.
unheard of. try this at any mainstream magazine with a circulation like esquire's today and it would be considered downright commercial suicide. this golden age couldn't last forever, obviously, but there was a glorious window of about five years where a guy like monte hellman could get a major studio budget and final cut to make an austere road movie with a cast of almost exclusively non-actors. throw in the attendant publicity from esquire and the like and it must have seemed like the possibilities were nearly limitless.
the film relates the story of four people whose lives intersect as they traverse the nation's highways. identified in the credits simply as the driver, the mechanic, the girl and GTO, they move through the middle american landscape like ghosts, rootless and grim. the driver and the mechanic (james taylor and dennis wilson in their only film roles) move from town to town racing their '55 chevy against local talent to pick up enough cash just to get to the next place. the girl (laurie bird) sneaks into their car while they are in a diner and they continue to move down the road as if she's been there all along. GTO (vitagraph favorite, warren oates) is identified solely by the car he drives because, as the stories he tells to a series of hitchhikers demonstrate, he has no identity of his own that he cares to keep. these four ciphers convene at a gas station eventually and a race across the country, with pink slips as the prize, is proposed. racing enthusiasts, turn it off now. if you came to see nitro burning dragstrip action, you are in the wrong place. that's not what it's about.
in fact, i can't tell you what it's about and that's the beauty of it. it is, in every way, a vessel. it is going to be about something completely different for you when you watch it, and i hope you do. the best i can do is tell you what it made me think about.
it made me think about the irreconcilable and the inextricable. you have the grim, mostly silent driver and mechanic and their machine. their '55 chevy is cruelly efficient, lovingly maintained, primer gray, nothing unnecessary, nothing to weigh it down come race time. it exists solely to perform its function. it is beautiful in its purity. at one critical juncture, the mechanic has the driver pull over to deliver some news, as if he doesn't want to interrupt the constant conversation they are implicitly having with the car. GTO's namesake car is flash, conspicuous consumption, delivered from an assembly line. he can cite reams of statistics and specifications, all gleaned from sales brochures and owner's manuals. he never stops talking long enough to listen to it. each serves to illustrate the defining characteristics in the other in high relief. GTO's incessant insecure blather highlights the gravely meditative interplay between driver and mechanic. the joyless, almost ascetic way the driver and mechanic approach racing, and what little else they do, underscores GTO's understanding that there is more to be had from this life, whether he knows how to achieve it or not. the girl is on a different trajectory altogether and cannot/doesn't care to, ultimately, move any of the three from their respective orbits. we only truly understand these characters in relation to their opposite number. they wouldn't fully exist without each other as foils. at least, we wouldn't have as full a grasp of them. they do have one thing in common. they are all points on a spectrum of yearning, of loneliness, but their brief interaction does nothing to alleviate it. it only exacerbates it, each pushing off of the other, moving faster and farther away in reaction to their brief contact. they are more real for the encounter, but no less alone.
it made me think about my dad's america, the things he was able to see and do. i was born just before this was made but he was a young man, living this moment. he was a quiet guy but there was an active mind behind that. there had to be a restlessness, as a result. i'm pretty sure it's where i get it from. so, it's easy to picture him out there, always moving. he traveled back and forth across this country a good deal as a young man and it makes me wonder what he thought about while he watched it go by his window, if it seemed to him like the last gasp of a certain type of american dream. it makes me wonder if it is ever possible to know these things as they are happening or if they are only available to you in retrospect. it makes me wonder if he's why i like to drive so much. the car will always be best refuge for people like us. as the frontier disappears, we always have the lure of horizon, even if it's just the dashboard. we take our frontier with us.
and it made me think of the tragedy in wisdom that brings no profit to the wise. at the end of the film, GTO is relating his final story to the last set of hitchhikers he has picked up. he tells them about winning his car from a couple of street racing punks, claiming he defeated them in a cross-country race by three hours in his '55 chevy. he has appropriated the story of the driver and mechanic for his own, extolling the virtues of their monastery on wheels versus one of these detroit machines. the recognition of just what he is and how far it is from what he wants is palpable when he tells the soldiers he picked up that "those satisfactions are permanent". it's one of the most devastatingly sad lines i have ever heard uttered onscreen.
i highly recommend it, obviously. hellman's frame compositions are painterly. the landscape is open but not void and the colors are beautiful. the amateurs in the cast are awkwardly real. oates is brilliant, as always. it's a glimpse of something we'll never see again, so take full advantage of it. if you do see it, let me know what you think. i'd like to hear what you found in it.