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[Article] – The Best American Road Movie is French…Not Really, But Sort Of…


Posted June 25, 2016 by

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Two- Lane Blacktop is as enigmatic as it is obscure. It is a movie that stars two musicians (singer/ songwriter James Taylor and Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys) and yet the soundtrack is almost entirely devoid of music. It is a movie about the American highway, made with a distinctly European sensibility. It is a movie that is at once completely of its time, and completely timeless. It is quite possibly the greatest road movie ever made.

The obscurity of the film is due in no small part to its enigmatic nature. After the success of films like The Graduate and Easy Rider put “youth culture” on the big screen for the first time, Universal saw dollar signs and wrote director Monte Hellman (a Roger Corman prodigy) a check for $900,000 to make Two- Lane Blacktop. They marketed the film as a fun adventure set on the American roadway, complete with rock star sex symbols playing the leads. Rolling Stone even published an article on the movie more than a year before it was released, chronicling the writer’s experiences on and off the set with the famous musician-turned-actors. Esquire published the entire script and called it “The Best Movie of the Year” on the cover months before the movie came out. But a fun, free-spirited successor to Easy Rider is not what Universal, or audiences, saw when the film premiered. Hellman was given final cut of the movie, only contractually obligated to hand over a movie no longer than two hours (the original cut was three and a half hours). What he gave them was a film that subdued or defied expectations at every junction, a film that consciously avoided the grandiose flair of normal Hollywood fare, and instead focused on the close examination of its four characters, some of whom refused to be examined, and all of whom remain nameless throughout the movie and the credits. They are only ever identified as The Driver, The Mechanic, The Girl, and G.T.O. The film bombed at the box office and was shoveled away into a dark back office corner and forgotten until more than two decades later, when it was released on video, and has since risen to become a cult classic.

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The film follows Taylor and Wilson, The Driver and The Mechanic respectively, as they drift aimlessly across the country, drag racing their souped- up ’55 Chevy to win money for parts. They race to buy parts and they buy parts to race, and sometimes there is money left for food, but not always. American Graffiti, this is not. They exist only to race, and when they talk, it is only of the car – the car’s performance, the car’s needs, the car’s prospects against other cars. The stony faced leads talk only in affectless, monosyllabic spurts, with long swathes of silence in between. The silence is punctuated only by the roar of the car’s engine. Richard Linklater did not exaggerate when he said “car engines have never sounded better on film”.

Eventually, the pair picks up a wandering hitchhiker- The Girl- without a word, or even much of an acknowledgement. She proves to be the only spark that can ignite any emotion in the pair, and the only thing that either of them care about more than the car. She sleeps with each of them on separate occasions, which makes for a tense drive across the country, with feelings of jealousy running rampant between the two, though never on the surface. The surface emotion of the film is as smooth and straight as the Arizona highways G.T.O longs for, never any more or less excitable than the faces of The Driver and The Mechanic, which rarely do any emoting. The acting in the film is realism taken to an extreme, more reminiscent of the French New Wave or amateur films than Nicholson or Hoffman.

The trio eventually runs into G.T.O at a gas station, played memorably by Warren Oates and named after the stock Pontiac he drives. Oates’s G.T.O is a highlight of the film, an engaging tragicomic figure that represents the only outward sign of humanity in the movie. His true origins remain a mystery to the audience, as he continually puts on whatever masks he believes the various hitchhikers he picks up would approve of. To one young man, he is a former test pilot who got sick of flying jets. To an old lady and her son, he is on his way to fix up the house he bought his mother in Florida. Whatever his backstory, one thing is clear to the audience- he desperately wants to fit in with the youth movement, to be hip, but everything about him reeks of inauthenticity, from his right-off-the-lot G.T.O (which The Driver immediately notes and scoffs at) to the collection of music he carries in his car (complete with wet bar in the trunk) to the rainbow of corny V neck sweaters he wears with his driving gloves. G.T.O is what the older generations, and likely those at Universal, imagined the younger generation to be like. The character was mandated by the studio, in fact, as a way to get Oates in the movie. Though he is brash and cocky, it soon becomes clear that G.T.O is a lonely, emotionally damaged man, and he quickly becomes the only source of sympathy that the audience has to latch on to.

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The Driver and Mechanic challenge Oates to a race across the country, to Washington, D.C, for “pink slips”, or ownership of the other’s car. Oates agrees, and here one expects the film to edge into a more traditional narrative, wrapped around the framework of the race, but the film continually defies any urge to slip into sentimentalism or predictability. Almost as quickly as it begins, the race becomes utterly meaningless. The Driver and Mechanic stop to help G.T.O fix his car, they eat together, and they even switch cars for a while.

G.T.O is clearly searching for something, but it equally clear that he is never going to find it. He is doomed to wander the roads of America forever, growing older and more out of touch but never closer to a goal which even he cannot see. The Driver and The Mechanic win every race that they compete in, but there never seems to be any joy in winning or even in racing. It is an almost Sisyphean task, driving and racing. Whereas the road is an easy metaphor for freedom in Easy Rider, in Two- Lane Blacktop, The Driver and The Mechanic seem to be prisoners of the road, trapped in a purgatory like state and forced to wander aimlessly for eternity, trapped between the political activism and idealism of the sixties and the reactionary social conservatism of the seventies, heralded by Nixon and the escalation of the war in Vietnam, that represented a disappointing end to the promise of the previous decade. They are trapped in amber, in a world that can neither progress nor go back in time, a world between the big cities, a world of disappointment and despair and nihilism. Universal ordered a movie about the youth culture of existentialism and nihilism, and instead got a movie that was in itself existential and nihilistic. The world traveled by The Driver and Mechanic is locked forever in 1955, the year their grey Chevy rolled off the line- a world where ornery teens in diners interrogate the pair to ensure that they’re not hippies. Hellman’s middle America is a world of dreary diners and run down gas stations. The cinematography of Two- Lane Blacktop resists the gorgeous, sweeping wide angle vistas that usually characterize road films. The sparkling lights of Los Angeles are gone, as is the Grand Canyon. This is a world in between, and Hellman locks us in the back seat of the car for a majority of the film, forcing us to view the dusty roads and barren deserts of this world through the windshield until we have become one with the car, just as The Driver and Mechanic are one with the car, and are nothing without the car. The car is their existence, and it is a bleak existence, but not one without a stilted, alluring beauty. Something about the strange, almost alien landscape is impossible to shake after getting absorbed into the movie. The road is lonely, but it is mesmerizing, and to truly experience the film is to get lost in the blacktop and the roar of the engine and the meaninglessness of the journey.

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The film puts us in a car with three outsiders and one wannabe outsider across the country and in doing so makes strangers out of the mainstream culture- the confrontational kid in the diner, the men in suits on the street that The Girl begs for change. In retrospect, it should come as no surprise that the movie did not fare well with mainstream audiences. In fact, today it seems like a miracle that the movie was made with a major studio backing at all. It was a magical period of about five years- a period after The Graduate and Easy Rider turned studios on to the youth market, but before The Godfather elevated the standard of cinema with its formal elegance and sleek, stolid aesthetic- that the French New Wave leaked into American cinema and gave us films like Bonnie and Clyde and Two- Lane Blacktop. Blacktop is unromantic and slow and dirty but it is real, and it really is one of the best road movies ever made.


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