Monday, June 28, 2010

Two-Lane Blacktop

Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop is the king of the existential road movies, though it stands apart from its brethren. Unlike such cultural staples as Easy Rider and Vanishing Point, Hellman's film does not rely upon music, yet several of its characters, including the protagonist (played by James Taylor, singer/songwriter and target for assassination by Lester Bangs), are played by rock musicians. That's just one of many twists that makes Two-Lane Blacktop distinct from its kin.

For Two-Lane Blacktop is the most existential of all the post-Easy Rider road movies, to the point that its characters are named only by their role (The Driver, The Girl), yet it is also the most scathingly unsentimental, unromantic road film ever made. Originally shooting Rudolph Wurlitzer's script nearly word-for-word, Hellman produced a rough cut of Two-Lane Blacktop 3-1/2 hours long, filled with in-depth talk of the drag racing world. Cut down for contractual obligations, the 100-minute final version loses the precision and realism of the script, leaving behind only a skeleton of ethereally repeated ritual of the four characters driving cross-country in a race that doesn't seem to matter to anyone.

Thus, Two-Lane Blacktop becomes the ultimate examination of the masculine obsession with cars. The Driver (James Taylor) and The Mechanic (Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson) drive a boxy '55 Chevy, hand-built from an unimpressive stock model into a monster, use words sparingly. Today, these guys would be enthusiastic gear heads, crowing over their modifications to ogling men and women. But these guys care nothing for the attention; they tweak the car's engine to build the perfect machine to make them one with The Road, that stretch of veins pumping people around the country.

Set before the full integration of the Interstate system, Two-Lane Blacktop may as well be an elegy for Route 66 as much as it is any investigation of these characters. But because Route 66, that most famous symbol of America's roadway and a path that led through all sorts of terrains and towns, informs the spirit of the picture, the film breaks from Easy Rider in that its characters are not drugged-out refugees of the counterculture looking for their place in the world. Rather, The Driver, The Mechanic, The Girl (Laurie Bird) who hitchhikes with them and GTO (Warren Oates), the driver whom the other challenge to a race from Arizona to Washington D.C., are grander embodiments of Americans of all walks. Yes, the two musicians have their hippie hair, and The Girl's transience clearly owes more to Deadheads than she does of the more "proper" ladies of the previous decade. However, as much as nearly every character and object in the film is symbolic, these people are not molded into facile placeholders for the zonked-out masses.

As if visualizing the central thread of Bruce Springsteen's oeuvre before The Boss even cut his first album, Hellman paints the road as a place of possibility, a transport to take one away from a dull life to search for one with meaning. Oates' character, spinning one of many bullshit tales about his life, mentions that he's bounced all around the country looking for a place to shoot a road movie of his own (one of several self-reflexive moments), but that now he only does so for the drive. The characters in Springsteen's songs never found a place either, but the road became a sort of therapy for them, a calming force representing the hope of finding one's true home even though we won't find it there. In a sense, the road's promise of a new home comes to represent the Stoic idea of the preferred indifferent, something we shouldn't care about getting but should do all we can to try to get, and the Zen calm of The Driver and The Mechanic suggests that they understand this better than anyone.

That's not to say that they've reached enlightenment, mind you, because that would suggest a certain satisfaction. When The Girl naturally (and hilariously) shatters the unification between the two men and their car through her sexual presence and her ignorance of automotive matters, the audience can see the two guys slowly growing discomforted, as if waking up to a gap in their lives for the first time. The whole point of the road is to vent one's frustrations before returning to find someone to make a new life with, and these men have carved a decidedly lonely existence for themselves by focusing on a place rather than people.

Perhaps that's why The Driver and The Mechanic challenge GTO to that race, hoping that a frenzied trek across the nation will allow them to outpace their sudden, nagging self-doubt. If that's the case, however, they picked exactly the wrong man to aid them. GTO may be Oates' finest hour, no mean feat in the career one of the most criminally underrated actors to come out of the early New Hollywood experimentation of the late-'60s. Oates' GTO is a terrible vision of the future of the young men, a fella who stayed on the road so long that it took away his soul. Sporting leather gloves, a different cashmere sweater for all occasions and a wet bar in his car's trunk, GTO like to be ready for any situation. He covers his emptiness with masks, adapting instantly to whatever passenger he picks up along the way. When a portly good ol' boy hops in near the start, GTO plays country for him even though the man expresses no preference for it and spins a tale of humble beginnings. But the man is not so dumb as we may think, and he asks a question that unravels GTO's entire fabrication, and all Oates can do is fight back the hurt.

He does that for most of the film, forced to contend with passengers who don't want to hear whatever story he thinks will impress them. Everyone from a gay cowboy (Harry Dean Stanton!) to an old woman taking her granddaughter to the grave of the child's parents (killed in a car crash no less) to The Girl herself rides with GTO, and all of them shut the poor man down, making his lies even more hollow. All Oates can do is smile with that massive grin of his as if trying to dam up the pain, but the eyes give it all away. Even The Driver cuts GTO off when the man briefly rides in the Chevy, cutting off the old man's sob story with such open disregard that even GTO, by now used to this sort of thing, is taken aback. He finally gets his chance to speak when The Girl hops in the car with him near the end, but Oates is reduced to giving his speech uninterrupted only because the Girl lolls sleepily as she prepares to pass out, too tired to ward off GTO's speechifying. There may be no moment in that fascinating run of experimental counterculture features put out in America in the late '60s/early '70s pre-Godfather days as tragic yet brutally unromantic as Oates speaking loftily of plans to move out to Arizona or some other warm place and "let the scars heal" while the object of his desire tunes him out to catch some shut-eye.

That unrepentant harshness fashions Two-Lane Blacktop into perhaps the most honest of the counterculture movies. Rather than provide deceptively complex characterizations of late-'60s dissatisfaction made just intelligent enough to stroke the egos of young intellectuals (à la The Graduate) or engage in drug escapism (Easy Rider), Two-Lane Blacktop uses its poetic looseness to simply present its characters, never to pander with them. All Hellman wants with the film is to show how people value their independence yet need companionship to make something of life. The four main characters all want to find freedom on the road, yet they all converge rapidly, and none of the men cares about the actual result of the race because the act of driving against someone allows them to strike the balance between living free and connecting with others.

Hellman makes this clear through the characterization of the two rivals: the flashy, exothermic GTO and the insular, brooding Driver are simply flip sides of the same coin. The Driver taunts GTO for his gaudy car, ribbing his perceived coolness by noting that he sees bright muscle cars on the road all the time. To be sure, the Chevy has the real charisma, which makes the appropriation of Oates' style for nearly all contemporary racing movies, filled from top to bottom with cold, neon-styled cars that have no personality to them. Yet they're both just as hollow, and when The Driver cuts off GTO's life story, he may do so because he knows the truth behind GTO's facade and does not want to face it lest he look in a mirror. When GTO tells a couple of soldiers at the end that he won his sleek car in a race where he took it off its original owners by out-driving them in a custom-built Chevrolet, he seals the circular nature of the two characters, binding them together in a horrifyingly bleak epiphany.

And at the center of them both is the road, and The Girl, its avatar. She follows her fancy, riding with whatever lonely soul needs her most, providing momentary comfort before leaving to tend to someone else. Her departure at the end appears to finally shake GTO out of his lifelong funk, and for the first time he looks as if he really will go make an existence rather than keep making one up. But poor Driver, his Zen calm broken, heads to the nearest drag strip to rekindle the spark the road gave to him. As he peels down the asphalt, objects stretching in the periphery as they pass by the Chevy's windshield, Hellman viciously undercuts the protagonist's desire to become one with the road and our desire to see it happen when he arranges for the film to slow to a crawl as if catching in the projector. At last, it freezes and catches fire, shoving the audience back into reality in the most horrifying manner since Ingmar Bergman tore a hole through the dimension with Persona. This is a film about people who cannot find their way, so Hellman completely denies us such a pat resolution as watching The Driver achieve his dream. His dream is a foolish one, and its attainment will only turn him into GTO, a haunted specter hanging over future generations of the disenfranchised. To be perfectly frank, I can think of no better way to end one of the greatest films to ever chart stunted masculine desire than with the cinematic equivalent of blue-balls.

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