Two-Lane Blacktop (Monte Hellman, 1971)

“It is a movie about loneliness, and the attempts made by people to connect with one another and maintain their solitude at the same time – an impossible task, an elusive dream.”
                                                           – Kent Jones, “Slow Ride”

That just about sums it up.  Or to put it another way, “Two-Lane Blacktop” is Food, Sex and Cars, the Movie.  On one hand, its depiction of life on the road for a pair of car junkies, a young hitchhiker and a roadster wannabe is slow, deliberate, and brutally honest, and at the same time, almost purely allegorical of what makes such a nomadic lifestyle so mythic: almost pure metaphor (the characters are never referred to as more than The Driver, the Mechanic, the Girl, and GTO, after all).  It’s a portrait, both realistic and metaphorical, of machismo, feigned machismo, and finding purpose in the seemingly purposeless existence that includes drag racing for money, and an America that includes only asphalt, painted lines, gas stations, and shitty roadside diners and motels.  Is it the same caliber of deep, superb gender study as, say, “Rebel Without a Cause?”  No, “Two-Lane Blacktop” could never dream of depicting gender roles and conflicting norms like that, but it’s still a hell of a character study, and when the characters being studied are (other than the insanely complex GTO) this un-emotive and silent, so dead-set in their ways that they don’t even need words to get their point across to each other, and that study works, you’ve got a hell of a movie.

The so-called story, or at least the device that you’d think moves the plot forward, pits the team of the Driver (James Taylor – yes, that James Taylor), the Mechanic (Dennis Wilson – yes, that Beach Boys Dennis Wilson) and The Girl (Laurie Bird) against GTO (Warren Oates) in a cross-country race to Washington, D.C., winner taking the pink slip of the other’s car – the Driver and Mechanic’s souped-up ’55 Chevy and GTO’s, well, GTO.  But the movie isn’t about the race, or some arbitrary destination, because the way these people lead their lives, there is no arbitrary destination.  They go wherever the painted lines on the road point, where the wind blows, where they can score an easy $300 in a quarter-mile drag race.  Sure, the prospect of a race gives them something to think about, but in the end all that matters is the lifestyle, the day-by-day grind in the small little suburb of America known as the road, and the part-rivalry, part-camaraderie between those who share that road.  That’s where what Kent Jones said comes in, how these so-called rivals in a cross-country race are so different from one another, and allegedly want to out-do the other, to embrace solitude, and yet at the same time “connect with one another” and even help each other out.  That’s why the Mechanic helpfully points out to GTO that his car’s gonna break down sooner rather than later and even escorts him to a station, or how the four meet up and stop to enjoy a drink from GTO’s trunk minibar or sit down to lunch and plan out where to challenge others to drag races to boost their funds, going so far as agreeing when and where to meet up and start up their race again.  For so-called fierce competitors whose cars, their very livelihoods, are on the line, they seem awfully helpful to one another.  It’s that unspoken bond between the roadsters on that long road (just one of many things in the movie that’s unspoken), where all that matters is maintaining your car like it’s your baby.  So what if they’re in a so-called race?  There’s still the grind of money-making drag races and meals and repairs.  Same shit, different day.

The most fascinating thing about “Two-Lane Blacktop” is the balancing act between realism and metaphor.  From beginning to end the pace is slow and quiet and the dialogue even slower and even quieter, but it wouldn’t be fair to call that more “realistic” than a more genre-based road movie, or more existential, metaphorical, and symbolic.  It just…is what it is.  This movie is a time capsule, the very definition of a hyper-masculine mindset and culture, to the point that the Driver and the Mechanic need not say a word to each other – they just know what to do, what they’re supposed to do.  When they meet up with the Girl, for instance, she simply gets into their beloved car while they eat in the diner.  They get in, cooly regard her, and simply drive…no questions are asked, no confused glances, it just is what it is – a scruffy-looking young girl is hitchhiking and the two men oblige her, have no time to bother with the details as they make forward progress to nowhere in particular.  They accept the situation, and in turn, so do we.  Instantaneously, we know that one or both of the men are going to sleep with The Girl.  We don’t need to be told this, we just know, because society’s gender roles, and the hyper-masculinized car culture of “Two-Lane Blacktop”, have clued us in on this from the dawn of time, which is why it comes as no surprise whatsoever when The Driver returns to the hotel room one night after some barhopping and we simply hear the Girl’s moans from the other side of the door.  Not long after, there’s no awkward conversations, no plot-driving dialogue, no hint of a developing clichéd love triangle, just the Driver and the Girl sitting on a fence, muttering a few words about the mating cycle of cicadas.  And lather, rinse, and repeat.  Really, the lack of dialogue throughout the movie is startling, and fascinating.  So many times, we just watch as the Driver and the Mechanic stare ahead at the infinite road before them, and the Girl lays in back, bored (and later beside GTO, bored).  The Driver and Mechanic don’t say a word to each other, but one glance will tell the other that something needs doing…the engine doesn’t feel right, they need to gas up, one of them is hungry, whatever.  Nothing about this lifestyle is overtly pointed out to us through dialogue…quite simply, it’s the purest portrayal of this kind of uber-masculine way of life as you could hope for – all behavior and running through the motions, and words only when absolutely necessary.  You’d think that such a thing would completely dehumanize these three characters, but somehow such a cold and rock-solid devotion to road life makes them into something utterly unique – an everyman and an mythic archetype, all at once.  Showy, attention-grabbing acting jobs wouldn’t do here, which is why casting a singer, a drummer, and an unknown who wowed in the screen test was an inspired call by Monte Hellman.  Unfortunately, James Taylor ain’t exactly a natural when it comes to acting, which is probably why he never acted again.  His dialogue delivery, for one, is hesitant and awkward (although his speaking voice does sound remarkably similar to his singing voice 😛 )…but this isn’t a movie about dialogue, is it?  No, it’s not, which is why James Taylor and Dennis Wilson are most unexpectedly perfect for their roles.  This movie has some of the most repetitive use of shots you’ll ever see, as so many times you’ll simply see Driver and Mechanic sitting side-by-side in the Chevy, driving along…but boy, their long hair and grungy clothes, James Taylor’s scowl and angular, oddly-shaped face, say everything that some scant lines of dialogue don’t.  No words are needed, they’re just going through the motions with the two objects they care most about maintaining – the Chevy and the Girl (quite a shame that the Girl doesn’t exactly have a say in the matter, but she knows the score just as well as they do).  They’re kings of the road.

And then we come to GTO.  Of the four leads, Warren Oates was the only professional actor, and that makes sense considering how much more convoluted and complex and just plain out-there his character is than the more stone-faced Driver, Mechanic and Girl.  GTO is just as difficult to get a read on as the other characters, but for completely different reasons.  This strange, strange man’s quirks, neuroses and eccentricities just have to be seen to be believed, right down to how he’s wearing a different-colored sweater in practically every scene.  The movie’s running “gag”, if you can call it that, is how GTO picks up a wide, wide range of hitchhikers during his journey, from the gay cowboy (played by Harry Dean Stanton back when he was just H.D. Stanton) to the uptight suit-wearer to the senile grandma to the army boys – all different types of people, all from different walks of life.  It’s as if GTO’s car and the passengers it takes on is a window into the immense, wild world outside the safe ‘n predictable world of the road, the only world that the Driver, the Mechanic, the Girl, and GTO know (or at least GTO thinks he knows…).  There is a world beyond the endless highway, but that’s not what “Two-Lane Blacktop” is interested in, which is why we only get hints of that world in the form of GTO’s passengers.  And why does GTO always tell differing stories about his own history to each hitchhiker he picks up (and you wonder whether Christopher Nolan could possibly have been influenced by GTO when his Joker had that same habit in “The Dark Knight”)?  GTO is just as hard to read as his competitors in the race, but the difference is that the Driver and Mechanic are comfortable in their own quasi-dehumanized skin, while GTO doesn’t know who the hell he’s trying to be.  He tries acting all tough, leaning against the gas station sipping his coke or sweet-talking the cops or gruffly ordering a hamburger and Alka-Seltzer at the diner, but behind that is a deeply vulnerable man.  Just as his wide array of cashmere sweaters stands in stark contrast to the sleek car and tough words, his outward image of a battle-hardened roadster is trumped by his loneliness – his need to connect, even with his competitors who oblige him as if it were some rule of the road.  His final, wistful description to the Girl of their ideal life in Florida gives him away just as much as his ever-changing origin stories do.  He’s not a roadster, he’s a dreamer, still caught up in the romantic idealization of the road that the Driver and the Mechanic undoubtedly moved past a long time ago.  Just as he did in “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia,” Warren Oates perfects the image of an outward tough guy with the intimidating voice and even more intimidating smirk/smile, who deep down just wants to love and be loved – quite simply, GTO’s one of the most vulnerable characters you can imagine.  But in choosing America’s highway to drift and try to find that acceptance, he chose an arena where that’s out of the question.

“Two-Lane Blacktop” has good cinematography, but nothing really eye-grabbing.  There’s little by way of non-diegetic music, and the most attention-grabbing sound you’ll hear is the lion-like roar of the cars.  In the world of “Two-Lane Blacktop”, the possibilities only stretch as far as the interstate, career opportunities end at how much you can get out of some poor sucker hoping to win a drag race, and aspirations of a mansion and lobsters boil down to a hotel room with a bed and that hamburger and Alka-Seltzer.  The sign of one’s manhood comes down to how fast your car will go and how adept you are at supplementing its engine.  Sure, the Girl can choose who to go with on her own free will (and over the course of the journey she’ll be passed around like a sorority girl at a frat party, mostly on her own accord), but in this world she’ll aspire to nothing more than a fuck and a ride in the back seat – just as much a part of this male-oriented system as anything, the most disturbing part being just how apathetic she is to everything around her.  Just like the Driver and Mechanic’s stripped-down but unfathomably fast Chevy, this movie is a no-frills, bare-bones, no-nonsense look at a culture and a mindset.  If the hopelessly romantic dreamer GTO seems awkward in trying to be the epitome of cool, it’s because he’s the surrogate for we the audience – we see and interpret things through his eyes.  He’s a fraud, but deep down he, like any man at some point in his life, just wants to have a little bit of that effortless, no-nonsense machismo embodied by the Driver and the Mechanic.  But in the end, the most elaborate and detailed characters in the whole show are a ’55 Chevy 150 and a’70 Pontiac GTO, their elaborate engines and custom paint jobs and removable trunk and awe-inspiring vroom of the engine giving these cars more individuality and uniqueness, than anybody in this movie who’s made of flesh and blood.  Forgive my way-too-deep reading, that’s the English major in me, but is it not obvious that these cars, these inanimate objects and means of transport, are, like, the ultimate signifiers of phallus-like gender, of material objects running you rather than the other way around, a physical manifestation of what gives these peoples’ life purpose?  On this road, the cars are what live and breathe.  The people are just along for the ride.



2 comments so far

  1. Allison on

    Is this where I’m supposed to say “Glad you liked it”?

  2. Simon M. on

    We both know that would be a lie, so you might as well not even bother 😕

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