Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Two-Lane Blacktop
Dir: Monte Hellman
Cult 70s road movie Two-Lane Blacktop raises many questions, none of which particularly need answering, apart from maybe which car would you rather drive, a 455ci Orbit Orange Pontiac GTO with red eyebrow stripes and spoiler or a highly modified, primer-grey, 1955 Chevrolet 150 two-door sedan drag? I still can't decide personally. The Chevrolet is driven by 'The Driver' who is accompanied by 'The Mechanic'. They don't talk, they drive. The film is steeped in metaphor with both Driver and Mechanic and their hitch-hiker, known only as 'The Girl', representing many different aspects of American life, some clear, some ambiguous. It's not representative of an era as much as it is a representation of life between eras. Progress, for want of a better word, had happened fast, the 1950s was only just a decade ago but life in America was remarkably different, as it was around the world. Where Easy Rider, made two years earlier had something of a more positive outlook of the future, Two-Lane Blacktop was more cautious, apprehensive and quietly discontented. The two cars in the film couldn't be more different, but there is only thirteen years difference between them. In many respects, The Driver and The Mechanic belong more to Jack Kerouac and the Chevrolet's mid-50s. Filmed on Route 66 just as the superhighways we're being completed, Two-Lane Blacktop also represents the death of a certain type of Americana. Already the small towns were looking derelict and the road-side diners empty of customers. The Driver and Mechanic stop everywhere, always with a different final destination, looking for a race to make a fast buck. The fact that they coax drivers of more modern cars to race their rather simple-looking classic car is perhaps the saddest metaphor within the film (although there isn't much happiness anywhere in the film to be fair). The secretly suped-up car can out-run most modern cars, giving the idea that the old ways are still fighting fit and able but as the film develops, the audience become less and less convinced. Equally as tragic is the driver of the GTO, known only as 'GTO', played wonderfully by Warren Oats, in the film's only performance that one could attach to a real person. GTO has the flash car, the leather driving gloves and neck scarf but he doesn't have the soul of a driver. The Driver and The Mechanic (played by musicians James Taylor and Dennis Wilson) will remain on the road and will most likely die there but GTO will never be able to live the way they do, although it is what he wants more than anything. He picks up hitch-hikers and talks a good talk but essentially what he desires is out of reach for someone like him. All three men are lost in their own unique way, with each of them thinking the other has got it made. Perhaps the most lost person of the film is The Girl (played by Laurie Bird) as throughout the film she travels between the two cars, aloof but attracting the attention of the three men. When she finally leaves them on the back of a stranger's Harley, leaving her belongings behind on the road as there is no room, we realize that maybe she is truly the spirit of the road traveller, with nothing to tie her down and no possessions, she's adaptable and free. Of course the more cynical of viewer could say she was a mosquito but I would still argue a mosquito is still free, either way, there is a sadness, an impending uncertainty and a feeling of regret by the end of the film that is beautifully melancholy and emotionally effective. It doesn't at all surprise me that it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being culturally, historically and aesthetically significant, as it is the perfect metaphor for American life in the early 70s. The direction is stunning, quite how Monte Hellman has produced some of the most visually rich images in cinema, from the back of a car, is beyond me, but he has. James Taylor and Dennis Wilson were perfectly cast, they might have been musicians with no acting experience between them but they knew the roles and played them authentically. In many respects it was only Warren Oats who really gave a classical performance and it is as clear but crazed as it needed to be. It's one of those films that works for no other reason than because it just does. It feels right, 100% authentic and beautifully haunting.

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