Saturday, November 19, 2022

The Roads Are Straight

Thinking about movement right now. What I’m doing. How much has happened and what hasn’t and what causes me to feel like I’m still in the same place. I’m thinking about a lot of things these days, there just haven’t been any realizations, at least none I want to share here. Because things have changed. Maybe they’ve changed too fast. And, whether you like it or not, feelings fade away but there’s a lot I don’t want to get into right now. Even the thought of going to the movies doesn’t do very much for me these days which may be my inner snob waiting for the Arclight or Vista to come back. At least there’s still the New Beverly, a place that I’ve been going to long enough by now that I’ll even see things I’ve already seen there for the sheer pleasure of the experience. My first ever viewing of Monte Hellman’s TWO-LANE BLACKTOP happened there long ago, paired with CISCO PIKE which at a certain point became another one of my obsessions. Soon after the place reopened in 2021 post-lockdown there was another viewing of TWO-LANE BLACKTOP, this time paired with COCKFIGHTER which also was directed by Monte Hellman and starred Warren Oates. But deep down I was there to see TWO-LANE BLACKTOP again. It’s a film I still think about and seeing it after a year of being stuck at home was a reminder of what it can be like to get lost in such a movie when it’s there in front of you, to dream of being that free along with the limitations of that freedom which eventually become clear as they always do. Hitting the road without a care of where I’m going still sounds nice but it’s not going to happen right now. Maybe watching this film late at night, because this is a perfect film to put on late at night, helps me do it in my dreams. But where do I go next? Is there an answer? Maybe I’m searching for that too. Searching for why I still do certain things.
Monte Hellman directed TWO-LANE BLACKTOP which has long been famous, or infamous, as the movie Esquire put on the cover not long before it was released in July 1971, nominating it as ‘the movie of the year’ as if trying to will it into becoming the next big thing and even published the entire screenplay inside. None of this helped the film when it opened and didn’t do much business—several good reviews are excerpted on Wikipedia so it wasn’t a total rejection—but interest grew through the years and by the time the belated video release came along in 1999, apparently delayed due to pesky music rights, the cult was there waiting. This is a film that feels like it was made for people who are willing to wait. Even though this emerged during the post-EASY RIDER period the film still manages to feel outside of the time it was likely meant to capitalize on while still fully a part of that, more about people drifting away from the mainstream than heading towards the counterculture who may have been attracted to it. And even though I wasn’t around at the time to speak to how all this might have felt, right now when TWO-LANE BLACKTOP plays the reaction I always have feels like the real deal as I drift along like these people in my own form of isolation. Only, like I already said, I’m not going anywhere right now.
The Driver (James Taylor) and The Mechanic (Dennis Wilson) are driving through the country east from California in a modified ’55 Chevy, picking up money from street racing. At a certain point they pick up The Girl (Laurie Bird) who is allegedly hitchhiking but just settles down in their car with her duffel bag not saying a word. After passing by the talkative G.T.O. (Warren Oates) a few times in his own fast car which is of course a G.T.O., they agree to a bet: race to Washington DC for pink slips to see who’s faster with The Girl still along for the ride and the two in the Chevy even willingly stop when G.T.O. needs to have some work done on his own car. But as the race goes on and signs of darkness begin to appear, it becomes less clear just what the prize of their race really is.
Driving can be about getting lost in what’s in front of you while staying focused on the road, the horizon. Getting away from somewhere, even if you’re going nowhere. When I think about driving long distances it’s never the music heard in all those montages that comes to mind. It’s the wind, the silence, the sound of the engine and the hope for what may come around the next turn. TWO-LANE BLACKTOP has this feeling, caught somewhere between semi-documentary realism and some vague memory of a dream I had long ago, somehow finding just the right way to take its visuals and turn them into a new kind of poetry. The shots, the moments, the glances, even the non-actor awkwardness of some of the line readings so if you get into the rhythm of the piece, willing to sit back and just listen, the right effect can hit, helped by a script (screenplay by Rudolph Wurlitzer and Will Corry, story by Will Corry) which is sparse yet tight in its look at the days when so much out there still felt empty.
The two leads in that ’55 Chevy, known to us only as The Driver and The Mechanic, barely speak unless it’s about the car, The Driver not even bothering to answer questions unless they’re being asked by somebody who knows what they’re talking about. The Mechanic is maybe a little more friendly and forthcoming with The Girl left wondering why nobody answers her questions. When she mentions how she wishes they were still back in Santa Fe nobody says anything at all but it makes perfect sense since these guys never want to be back anywhere. G.T.O., along with his stylish sweaters that seem to change supernaturally, talks and talks over and over again, looking for someone who will listen to all the stories he tells about a past he’s creating in his own head. Somehow I suspect there might even be some truth in all these crazy lies he spins out that might lead to the secret of where he really comes from but we never find out.
At times it all feels as blank as the characters whose names we never know, letting us fill in all those blanks however we want. Names would tell us too much about them anyway. All we need to know is what we know, all we need to know is who they are inside those cars. Even while James Taylor and Dennis Wilson stare straight ahead barely exchanging a word the personalities of The Driver and The Mechanic still bubble up a little letting us see signs of some hostility that might be coming between them, the more easygoing nature of The Mechanic sometimes making itself known when The Driver isn’t around to cool things off, only a few words about how the car sounds as a reminder that they’re practically in the middle of one long test drive across the country. But placed up against them Warren Oates as G.T.O. feels like the opposite of that blank even if we never learn a single thing about him that we can believe. There’s nothing like Warren Oates on the screen, there’s nothing like the sight of his smile, letting us get sucked into that charm while still tempted to keep our distance. And there are few sights ever seen in a film as serene as Oates just standing at a gas station, drinking a Coke, in no rush to get anywhere in the world and the calm that comes from the film as it pauses for this, just like it pauses for all sorts of things around these people to let us sit still and take in that quiet. It’s perfect for a film about the things you do and you know why you do them, you just can’t put it into words. If you could, you’d have to stop.
Maybe as far as Universal goes this was an attempt to make a road movie of the moment, with famous musicians helping aim it at the youth market and, who knows, maybe they thought Monte Hellman just might be the next big thing but what it becomes both reflects back on certain films of the past—maybe by Antonioni, maybe by Bresson, it doesn’t matter—while still very much a part of what the future to come in ‘70s cinema. But what all this becomes really is its own thing, as individual as any of these characters. The way Hellman and cinematographer Jack Deerson view the four leads through the Techniscope frame makes them look like immortals forever moving through the Zen state the film achieves, even if they never quite do it for themselves. They stick to the country roads as if they have no choice, the cities out there always talked about in the abstract as someplace they might go, they could go, as if crossing those borders would be an end to all this. Instead they stay out there, passing through Santa Fe which appears to be bustling during the day but is hardly a big place and, like I imagine about many of the stops in the film, still looks pretty much the same after all these years, a reminder how during some of my visits I’ve even seen the occasional girl on the street there asking for change who looks like she could be out of this film. Thinking about that, I give them some change. Ironically for a film with a delayed video release due to music rights, so much of it is quiet and wants to be quiet, James Taylor insisting the radio be turned off because “it gets in the way”, Laurie Bird quietly singing something like “Satisfaction” to herself and the tape deck of relaxing tunes Warren Oates has ready for whatever any passenger wants to hear.
G.T.O. himself suggests Washington DC when asked where they should race to—he even says the name unlike anyone ever has—and one of my favorite moments of performance is the pause Oates makes after making that suggestion as if he needs to think about what he just said for a second. The feeling of the road out there becomes a necessary part of the texture and there’s no sign of Route 66 neon kitsch, it all has a natural feel as if the celluloid itself is somehow connected with all those earth colors, all those places that have blended in with the land. As for the actual races, they’re barely brushed past and the only thing I get from them is how The Driver always wins and that’s it. The cockiness they display feels like they’re pulling a scam on whoever they’re racing but maybe The Driver really is just the best there is. The only opponent who gets any attention is played by screenwriter Rudolph Wurlitzer, last seen in a bar getting chewed out by his girlfriend but if the fight is because he just lost all his money or something else, we never know. Taylor’s driver gives him a look at least acknowledging something but there’s no camaraderie. By the end, The Driver is taking bigger risks with what he’s betting which would have to lead to a bad end at some point. Or maybe it never ends.
The people on the road play as a reminder of a time when hitchhiking was much more of a thing, or at least so I’m told. The Girl is barely even seen trying to thumb any rides, she just gets into her various modes of transportation as if her presence in them is pre-ordained. G.T.O.’s statement that he’s been picking up ‘one fantasy after another’ is one of those pieces of enigmatic dialogue that really sticks with me, maybe because I’m not quite sure what he’s getting at with that guy who may be freshly escaped from the mental facility or Harry Dean Stanton’s cowboy who’s looking to be a little too friendly. Maybe G.T.O. is just looking for the right real person to tell his stories to, just the right one to make a connection with. The residents of the small towns they pass are just as suspicious of them not because they’re hippies but likely because they’re from somewhere else, presumably any of the big cities. That small, desolate Oklahoma town which seemingly contains nothing but empty buildings with windows to stare through is just something to escape from especially when the people there start to wake up, almost like a reverse horror movie.
But that town is just a brief stopover. It’s the movement that makes TWO-LANE BLACKTOP what it is and it’s not always an easy movie to find your way into but the way falling into those rhythms becomes so hypnotic makes it one of those films that make me always trying to figure out what it is, knowing that I’m connecting with it somehow. There’s no point in spending much time on EASY RIDER comparisons since they have such different goals, although it interests me that the characters in both films travel west to east, going the opposite you’d expect a cross-country movie to go. What we think of as the world of the time isn’t much of a factor and the reminders we get of that are never very positive with The Girl’s brief mention of the Zodiac Killer and the closest to an appearance by an actual hippie, not counting how the guys are mistaken for them, is the one guy G.T.O. picks up who turns out to be the most nihilistic presence in the film, seeing no point to anything since we’ve only got 30 to 40 years. The scene cuts out fast, one of a few points when it’s like the film has decided to just get to the next scene, but it not only makes me think about the reality of the people in this movie who didn’t make it anywhere near that long but how the clock is running out faster than G.T.O. realizes. Giving a ride to an old woman and silent little girl heading to a cemetery is one more reminder of the dead end he refuses to acknowledge. The hippie says he believes his story but couldn’t care less. The old woman doesn’t hear a single word he says, even if it’s the one thing he tells a passenger that tries to make himself seem like a swell guy. Self-mythologizing only gets you so far.
All this raises the question of how much actual meaning there is in dialogue we know is a lie but the cryptic nature of so much of the dialogue means that every line feels like it could be enigmatic even if it isn’t anyway. Maybe it’s G.T.O. trying to tell himself something to avoid saying the truth. And so much is also found in those silences, coming from two guys who know each other and don’t talk as opposed to the one guy who’s by himself and only wants to talk. No matter who she’s with The Girl seems like the girl she is but the few times she smiles she seems like a different person. By a certain point she seems older and more knowing, or maybe that’s when she just decides she doesn’t want to be caught between the guys in these cars, between anyone. She doesn’t want to go somewhere, she just wants to keep going. When she’s alone with The Mechanic they can actually laugh, play music and talk, maybe even take some pleasure in the coming dawn when the sun rises. The vibe gets more intense when The Driver gets her for a few minutes, their scenes veering between chemistry and veiled hostility that they’re not clicking the way each of them want to. Attempting to show her how to drive of course becomes a love scene as if he doesn’t know how to make it anything else and when he decides not to bother it can’t help but recall how John Wayne quickly gives up on showing James Caan how to shoot in EL DORADO, that late Howard Hawks display of his code of professionalism turning into the way The Driver and Mechanic live by their own code which isn’t quite Hawksian, their energy not quite always the same even as they are clearly always determined to get the job done. It’s just the job is one of never stopping. And The Girl doesn’t get to be part of that.
They never really become a threesome which means the addition of G.T.O. doesn’t turn them into a foursome either. For a few minutes in almost total darkness somewhere in the middle of nowhere they seem to gel but even that sense of camaraderie is brief, never going past tentative. “Here we are out here on the road,” G.T.O. says as if he’s looking for a bonding session and The Driver seems to humor him for a few seconds. It would be nice to think they speak the same language but they really don’t at all, not the way Driver barely talks and definitely the way he doesn’t want to listen, never speaking the same language except when they talk to The Girl about the places they could go. They at least agree on how they want to avoid the people in those small towns, G.T.O. the one who calms down the situation with one local while waiting for his hamburger and Alka-Seltzer and for a brief moment he not only talks his way out of trouble for them, that tale he spins for the local becoming his own fantasy of what he probably wishes they could be. It only makes sense for them out there on the road until it doesn’t, until the reminders of the world start to become impossible to ignore and as it goes on those signs of hostility and death seem to get darker each time I rewatch the film. Maybe this prefigures an end they’re going to face long after the credits have rolled. They each want to possess The Girl in their own way but in the end she doesn’t even want that bag she’s been spending the movie lugging from one car to the next, finally shedding it like an unwanted skin as if realizing her true self will be possessing nothing at all and having no one possess her. She doesn’t want to be defined by anything or any of them, she just wants to be somewhere else entirely away from any of them, the only place she can be herself. Whatever her name is.
The way they are, sticking to themselves, is the only way it can be. And The Driver, who maybe could try being a little less of a prick, can’t keep on brooding that way forever just as The Mechanic isn’t always going to hold back his own true feelings, the way Dennis Wilson plays certain moments as slightly wounded sticking out more and more. G.T.O. is never more truthful (probably) then when he’s talking to The Girl while she’s sleeping, speculating about the life they could have in Arizona that would keep him from going “into orbit”, for once spinning a lie out of a possible future that won’t happen, not a past we can only wonder about. That light cocktail music in the early morning hour, maybe this is what G.T.O. really wants to listen to and maybe it’s still playing in his head as he quietly jokes about “champagne, caviar, chicken sandwiches under glass” before settling on his eggs over light. They’re all trying to convince themselves of something right up until the final shot, as close as the film will ever get to an end but, come to think of it, there wasn’t really a beginning either. They were all just there and the ending is one the film itself eventually forces literally since these characters will never allow it themselves. “Those satisfactions are permanent,” G.T.O. says in his last scene to the soldier he picks up, to himself, to no one, after spinning one more story and he knows he’s going to be out there a while longer.
That meeting point of the arthouse and the grindhouse is a reminder of how Monte Hellman’s involvement with the start of Quentin Tarantino’s career, serving as executive producer on RESERVOIR DOGS, makes perfect sense. But there is so much confidence found in each shot that categorization doesn’t matter. The film is whatever you want it to be. Speaking of which, even more than EASY RIDER one comparison that comes to mind is VANISHING POINT which opened earlier the same year then much later on was eventually more or less deified in DEATH PROOF. I’ve watched that film several times over the years and, yes, the car chase stuff is impressive and, yes, I like Barry Newman but each rewatch makes it feel like a movie that’s trying too hard to say something while saying nothing at all. TWO-LANE BLACKTOP in every ounce of the texture found in every moment always seems pure. “You can never go fast enough,” says The Driver, one of the few things he seems to say willingly, and maybe there once was a time when I would say that you can never see enough films but all this makes me ask why I’m still writing since there are days lately when I honestly can’t find the answer. Maybe some of it is about realizing what you’ve lost, or never got, as if trying to drive further away from that feeling. After many viewings I still don’t know why they keep driving, just like I still don’t know why I’m writing about all these movies. Maybe because I haven’t gotten to the last one yet and maybe I could say you can never see enough films. Then there are the days when I think about what I’ve lost and maybe the writing is my own way of driving further away from that feeling. Or maybe I’m just trying to find it again. After many viewings of TWO-LANE BLACKTOP, not to mention countless other films, I still don’t know why I do this, I still don’t know why I’m writing about them. Maybe the answer is always the same. Maybe what The Driver really means is that you can never go far enough. And maybe you can never go back to where you were. But that doesn’t mean there’s going to be anywhere else either.
The performances may not always matter but their faces do, along with the way they interact with each other or even just by themselves so what we get from them is ingrained in the rawness of it all. And the performances do matter even if so much of the time they stay in their own heads anyway, which means the few times James Taylor actually seems to look at Dennis Wilson it causes a jolt to the senses. The very nature of the way Taylor plays The Driver as Taylor gives next to nothing to anyone else he interacts with except for maybe when he talks with Wurlitzer putting on an act and changing his demeanor in an instant. Against this Dennis Wilson plays everything with an affable nature as someone who mostly seems interested in nothing but getting under the hood to check out what sort of condition his car, anyone’s car is in, his small chuckles shared with no one and even talking about straining his neck the same way he talks about problems with the car. When the mood starts to turn you can sense in his movement how much The Mechanic is holding back on what he’s thinking, getting even quieter than he already was. Inhabiting The Girl with an impenetrable quality that fascinates on every viewing, Laurie Bird can’t really be called a natural actor since she’s not an actor at all (she was also in Hellman’s COCKFIGHTER and, more surprisingly, played Paul Simon’s girlfriend in ANNIE HALL and that’s it for film credits) but there is something in how she carries herself and often just focuses her eyes on someone, never quite seeming like the same person from scene to scene. Which is the way people sometimes are which makes her that much more real and never just The Girl of their dreams each of these guys might want her to be. It helps us remember all the little things she does as we realize in the end that maybe we never understood anything about her at all. Reflected against the three of them, it’s Warren Oates who provides the real sense of personality, star power and, especially, humanity that exists here, making you want to just listen to his stories about where he's been, never mind how true any of it is or how much we ever know about him. The more he talks, the more of an enigma he becomes, more than any of the others maybe because we’re still searching for whatever truth can be found in there. It’s an unforgettable performance that is tough to shake, haunting in the pain you suspect is behind the glory of that smile, wondering just how far he’s gone to try to get away from wherever he once was.
A lot has happened, nothing much has happened at all. Some people are gone. Monte Hellman died in 2021. Several of the people in front of the camera already passed away some years back--Laurie Bird took her own life in 1979, Warren Oates had a heart attack in 1982, Dennis Wilson drowned in 1983. Of course, James Taylor is still going strong. One other interesting name in the credits is associate producer Gary Kurtz who died back in 2018 and his involvement interests me since he went on to be co-producer of AMERICAN GRAFFITI, a film not only also largely about driving in a way that reflects off each other but one that used the very same ’55 Chevy, that time driven by Harrison Ford’s Bob Falfa. Which means there’s some DNA of TWO-LANE BLACKTOP passed down to AMERICAN GRAFFITI, which means that some passed down to STAR WARS, possibly most strongly felt in the sense of movement brought to it by George Lucas and maybe Kurtz as well, that sense of going forward, of an unmistakable aesthetic where every single shot and cut builds up into that feeling of forward motion that irrevocably leads you somewhere far away from the starting point and you couldn’t go back even if you wanted to. Only one of these movies turned out to be the beginning of a future we still have to deal with but up against all of that TWO-LANE BLACKTOP is a film I always want to get lost in, get lost with, especially on those late nights. That feeling is one reminder of why I still want to go to the movies and get lost in those images in front of me, hoping for images that I want to get lost in. It’s a high I’m forever chasing, looking for the next film that I can’t shake, even while I still wonder what I’m trying to say with all this. It’s like a feeling of forever searching for the names of the people we never got to know because of the lives we chose to lead. And then on to the next film, the next race. There’s no choice. Everything else is far away.


Peteski said...

A great movie and a great read, thanks. There's pretty terrific commentary and interview DVD extras out there if you haven't seen them - worth a looksee.

Barry Newman seems like a TV movie version of a car guy, I never bought in. (Vanishing Point)

ps. keep posting/searching

Anonymous said...

Keep looking for that reason, but I'm selfishly glad you keep writing. Thank you for this.