Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Cult Movie Project #8 (of 200) :: The Asphalt's Lament on the Road to Nowhere: Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) is a film that requires a lot of patience that can be read (and reward you) on many different levels, metaphorically speaking. I don't think I've ever seen a film so obsessed with speed and movement that felt so inert. And apathetic. And alienated. But fluidly so. And yes, I know, that doesn't make any sense. At all. But it's true. And I freely admit my patience was stretched pretty thin, thanks to a third act that kinda slips the clutch and grinds itself up in its own existential gearbox; and I cannot settle on what, exactly, director Monte Hellman was trying to say as all those metaphors kept piling up on the side of the road. (See what I did there?) And then, there's that ending; a film within a film and a faulty projector based, Hellman later recollected, on a dream he'd had, where our hero realizes he has no room in his movie for anybody or anything.

The film's origins can be traced back to an autobiographical tale by Will Corry, which documented a 1968 cross-country road trip by two men and a woman who tagged along. Producer Michael Laughlin optioned the story and tagged Monte Hellman, another Roger Corman protege, to direct it. Hellman liked the bones of Corry's journey and Floyd Mutrux's adapted screenplay but felt it hadn't reached its full potential and recommended noted counter-culture scribe Rudolph Wurlitzer to flesh it out. But Wurlitzer barely got five pages into Corry's version before the decision was made to basically junk it -- except for the four main characters: the Car, the Driver (Taylor), the Mechanic (Wilson) and the Girl (Bird). 

Immersing himself in hot-rod mags and the stoner car culture of the San Fernando Valley, Wurlitzer added GTO (Oates) to the mix and plugged them all into a race that was less about the finish line and more about the journey and what was breached along the way. But all of this effort was almost for naught when the original production company pulled the plug. Fortunately, Ned Tanen, a young turk at Universal, not only agreed to take over and finance the film, but gave Hellman free rein on casting and guaranteed the director final cut. 

Still thinking outside the box, Hellman cast two musicians and a model with no acting experience for the leads. He also insisted that the film be shot on location as the journey progressed. Thus and so, the director led his cast and crew on an eight-week odyssey along the fabled Route 66 that would eventually land them in Memphis, Tennessee, shooting the whole way in sequence. And the film is beautifully shot as it immerses you into this auto-culture and the decay around the backwater byways as these once thriving arteries wither and dry up. You can honestly feel the heat and vibration of the engines and smell the gas, oil, and vulcanized rubber. And as filming progressed, the director only doled out the day's script pages as they went, never letting his cast read the whole thing and know where the story was going, causing some consternation with his players.  

Once filming wrapped, the editing process began, which netted a film nearly three and a half hours long. This, was a problem. For, even though he had final cut, a clause in the fine print obligated Hellman to edit the film however he wanted -- as long as the end result was under two hours. And while Hellman whittled the film down to 105 minutes, basically excising half of it, Esquire magazine featured the film on the front page of the April, 1971, issue, which proclaimed Two-Lane Blacktop the movie of the year -- even though no one had seen it yet. (The magazine based their opinion entirely on the screenplay, which it reprinted in its entirety.) Expectations were high, but, alas, proved too high.

Things began to fall apart when Lew Wasserman, the head honcho at Universal, screened the film and hated it so much he refused to promote it. Upon its release, the critics were fairly kind, despite the blow of heightened expectations, and felt the production had true grit but it utterly failed to find an audience. And by the time these favorable reviews came in, the film was already gone.

Honestly, it's easy to see why the film was initially rejected. It could almost be considered a foreign import for, aside from the thunder of revving engines and peeling of rubber, silence rules this film and the (perfunctory) language engaged by the Driver and the Mechanic is mostly shop talk. (Myself, I only know enough Gear-Head to get myself into trouble when I take my car for an oil change.) Taylor and Wilson do just fine in their symbiotic roles, searching for something. Perhaps perfection, perhaps not. If this was ever achieved, What would they do then? The sole purpose of their existence is to make enough money to keep the car going, their own sustenance be damned. The car is the top priority. Throwing a monkey-wrench into all of this is the Girl, played brilliantly by Laurie Bird, a hitch-hiker, whose presence does not compute and leads to some *ahem* 'well-entrenched systems' breaking down.

I was more intrigued by Warren Oates' GTO, the compulsive liar, who challenges our two mechanized-zombies to a cross country race for "pinks." A race no one seemed interested in winning let alone finishing. And I was most intrigued by the juxtaposition of the challenged, the '55 Chevy, a relic from the past, rebuilt and maintained by people who have grease on their hands from the ground up, and the spiritual connection this creates, going against the challenger, the '70 Pontiac GTO, a mass-produced muscle-car driven by a "weekend warrior" with no true identity.

It's also easy to read these cars as a substitute for masculinity and the loser of the race must lose theirs to the other; all part of a emasculating de-evolution process of American men being builders turned into mindless consumers. And it's kind of amazing with all that open country how isolated everything feels. It also feels more honest about the malaise of the late 1960s and early '70s as the counter-culture movement flamed out than Easy Rider (1969) ever did.

This was my third viewing of Two-Lane Blacktop and each time my initial less-than-positive reaction to it erodes a little more. Who knows, a couple more viewings and this film might really be something. Right now, definitely worth a spin. Just keep your expectations below 55mph. 

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"All these characters are not heroes to admire -- they are miserable case studies. The sad aspect of Blacktop is that while these two young men take their endless trip to nowhere in their cubicle on wheels, they pass stationary cubicles -- houses owned by all economic classes -- where lights go on to signal that there are people inside who are just as withdrawn and isolated from the problems / horrors of the world. Roland Gelart of The Saturday Review recognized the film's strength: '[It] manages to speak compellingly of contemporary alienation without ever tumbling into the visual clichés of sex, drugs and violence.' We already knew about the alienation of the drug culture and war protesters -- this is about the alienation of everyone else."

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The Fine Print: Two-Lane Blacktop was watched via Anchor Bay's Widescreen VHS cassette tape (-- because when he bought it some idiot thought DVDs weren't gonna stick). Watched as a High-Octane double-feature with George Miller's Mad Max (1979). What's the Cult Movie ProjectThat's eight down, with 192 to go.

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) Michael Laughlin Enterprises :: Universal Pictures / P: Michael Laughlin / AP: Gary Kurtz / D: Monte Hellman / W: Rudy Wurlitzer, Will Corry, Floyd Mutrux / C: Jack Deerson / E: Monte Hellman / M: Billy James / S: James Taylor, Dennis Wilson, Warren Oates, Laurie Bird, Harry Dean Stanton


Paul S said...

I first watched Two-Lane Blacktop on the BBC's Moviedrome back on the late 80s and it stayed with me long after my VHS recording was worn to destruction.
I enjoyed your review, I do find it very hard to articulate the things I love about this one. They'd seem banal if I described them, but for me they thrum on the screen.

W.B. Kelso said...

I understand. Like I said, the film requires a lot of patience. And if you can manage that, its rewards are many. Thanks for commenting.

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