THE EM­PIRE MAS­TER­PIECE

TWO-LANE BL ACKTOP

Empire (UK) - - RE.VIEW - 1971 / CERT 15 WORDS ADAM SMITH

A road movie that goes the full Monte

DI­REC­TOR MONTE HELLMAN has al­ways felt like a foot­note in the grand story of Hol­ly­wood’s last Golden Age: an out­sider amongst out­siders, rarely men­tioned in the same breath as the likes of Cop­pola, Lu­cas and Scors­ese. But his brief fil­mog­ra­phy, in Ride In The Whirl­wind and The Shoot­ing, a brace of ‘acid Westerns’ he shot for Roger Cor­man back-to-back and for un­der $80,000, con­tains two of the decade’s most dis­tinc­tive films. And in Two-lane Black­top he cre­ated ar­guably the best, pos­si­bly the strangest, and cer­tainly the purest, road movie ever made.

If Hellman’s mi­nor-key mas­ter­piece never re­ally got the ku­dos of the other clas­sics of the pe­riod, it was cut from the same cloth of its bet­ter-known sta­ble­mates. In late 1969, af­ter the shock­ing suc­cess of Easy Rider, be­wil­dered ex­ec­u­tives at Uni­ver­sal un­packed the an­cient cul­tural ear-trum­pet, de­tected some­thing of a youthquake in progress, and promptly pan­icked. “It was fright­en­ing,” stu­dio big­wig Ned Ta­nen later re­mem­bered. “These were age­ing gen­tle­men who did not re­motely un­der­stand where their au­di­ence had gone. Sud­denly we were look­ing at these movies where ev­ery­body was drop­ping acid, and fuck­ing in the park.”

Their so­lu­tion was to throw money, al­beit small amounts, at the prob­lem. A new unit, headed up by Ta­nen, was tasked with find­ing projects that might res­onate with the hip, new au­di­ence. Ta­nen rushed low-bud­get projects into pro­duc­tion, in­clud­ing Dou­glas Trum­bull’s eco sci-fi, Silent Run­ning, and The Hired Hand, an anti-west­ern by Peter Fonda, who Ta­nen hoped

might re­peat the magic he had wrought with

Easy Rider, and later Ge­orge Lu­cas’ Amer­i­can Graf­fiti. But among these hail Mary pro­duc­tions,

Two-lane Black­top at least had the trap­pings of con­ven­tional com­mer­cial suc­cess in its au­to­mo­tive theme. What’s more, it had two gen­uine pop icons at­tached in the form of Beach Boys drum­mer Den­nis Wilson and singer-song­writer James Tay­lor.

Monte Hellman had been sent the orig­i­nal screen­play while in Italy prep­ping an adap­ta­tion of Pa­tri­cia High­smith’s The Two Faces Of

Jan­uary, which would ul­ti­mately never be shot. Hat­ing it, he had nev­er­the­less seen prom­ise in the cen­tral idea, and hav­ing read cult novel Nog, ap­pointed its au­thor Rudy Wurl­itzer to come up with a screen­play. Wurl­itzer dumped al­most ev­ery­thing in the way of con­ven­tional story, in­stead fo­cussing on the mostly silent char­ac­ters and their strange, com­pul­sive race. In his script, the wide-open spa­ces of the Amer­i­can land­scape are matched, and oc­ca­sion­ally dwarfed, by the fas­ci­nat­ing empti­nesses where con­ven­tional plot should be. If An­to­nioni had been a petrol­head Beach Boys fan, he might have come up with some­thing like Two-lane Black­top.

The film that emerged af­ter an eight-week shoot on a fi­nal bud­get just shy of $900,000 is, then, a qui­etly mag­nif­i­cent ex­plo­ration of four char­ac­ters, all desperate in their own ways, in search of some kind of mean­ing, set against the some­times ragged, some­times spec­tac­u­lar back­drop of Amer­ica’s South­west. The Driver (Tay­lor) and The Me­chanic (Wilson) are lankhaired hip­sters, who make their liv­ing rac­ing their souped-up 1955 Chevy. By chance, they meet an in­ex­pli­ca­bly com­pet­i­tive older man (the in­es­timable War­ren Oates, who had worked with Hellman pre­vi­ously on The Shoot­ing), whose state-of-the-art, banana-yel­low Pon­tiac GTO may (or may not) be a metaphor for the flashy in­au­then­tic­i­ties of the rat race. Mostly at GTO’S be­hest, they agree to race to Wash­ing­ton DC, the win­ners to take the loser’s car.

Dur­ing the rest-stops and ran­dom hitch­hik­ers picked up along the way (look out for a young H.D. Stan­ton, later to be Harry Dean, as a gay pas­sen­ger) that func­tion as brief op­por­tu­ni­ties for un­re­li­able ex­po­si­tion, GTO var­i­ously claims to be a test pi­lot and a TV lo­ca­tion scout. A fourth ci­pher ar­rives with The Girl, played by Lau­rie Bird, a New York model who later com­mit­ted sui­cide in Art Gar­funkel’s apart­ment. A blank-faced in­génue who at­tracts the at­ten­tion both of The Driver and GTO, she has more than a lit­tle of the mes­meris­ing, nat­u­ral air of her con­tem­po­rary, Sissy Spacek.

The most ob­vi­ous point of com­par­i­son is, of course, Fonda’s counter-cul­tural car­ni­val Easy

Rider, but Hellman’s film is qui­eter, sad­der and more deeply felt. And at its heart is a tow­er­ing per­for­mance by Oates. The only pro­fes­sional ac­tor amongst the cast, he ra­di­ates a bruised, ner­vous van­ity. His var­i­ous dreams — to go to New York, or Florida, or fi­nally Mex­ico — come and go as quickly as his fan­tasies about his past. He’s a man ob­sessed with rac­ing who was long ago left be­hind. Iron­i­cally enough, it’s his per­for­mance as the se­nior man in this youthori­ented film that lends Two-lane Black­top its heart­break­ing, oc­ca­sion­ally funny time­less­ness.

Seven­ties au­di­ences didn’t dig Hellman’s film and his ca­reer would never re­ally re­cover. Sub­se­quently, he em­barked on his own eclec­tic odyssey, per­form­ing se­cond-unit du­ties on Paul Ver­ho­even’s Robo­cop and ex­ec­u­tive-pro­duc­ing

Reser­voir Dogs among other de­tours. (Now aged 85, he still teaches film in Cal­i­for­nia.) But though

Two-lane Black­top may, in all sorts of ways, be a road to nowhere, boy, is it worth the trip.

On the road: The Girl (Lau­rie Bird), The Driver (James Tay­lor) and The Me­chanic (Den­nis Wilson).

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