Much like a vehicle barreling past a hopeful hitchhiker, the crackpot plotline of Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop appears warped by the Doppler Effect. Intimately interspersed incidents comprise the film’s first “oncoming” half, which establishes the thin story and its hyper-archetypal characters without pausing much to worry about dramatic plausibility or motivation. But eventually a narrative shift occurs and the movie’s figures begin to reveal more of their tortured nature even as, paradoxically, they slow their pace and slip away from us.
The narrative’s quasi-heroes are two “small-town car freaks” (James Taylor drives, Dennis Wilson repairs) who ride around Route 66 in a souped-up, bruise-colored ‘55 Chevy, seeking like-minded others to race while seducing/not seducing a jejune stowaway (Laurie Bird) they garner in Flagstaff. The trio eventually crosses paths with an alcoholic, ascot-wearing ex-professional (Warren Oates) who’s undergoing a piacular pilgrimage of sorts in a canary yellow Pontiac GTO, and whose insecurity is such that he adjusts the particulars of his life story for every new face he meets on the road. Out of either obligation or desperation, a cross-country race is planned between the GTO and the Chevy, but after a few days of breakdowns and sexual rejections everyone forgets about the whole thing. The movie then doesn’t so much end as dissipate; the last shot literally dissolves into burnt celluloid, suggesting both the corrosion of the characters’ counter-cultural nobility (a la Easy Rider) and contradictorily the sense in which the characters “live on” outside of the flammable finiteness of the film itself.
The characters’ aimless, gear-head addictions define the joyless but dutiful—almost Catholic—tone throughout. In one sense, the movie is a series of interruptions along what should be a straight trajectory, as though Hellman were slyly recreating the jump cuts of Godard and Cassavetes without committing actual film splices. (He instead halts the plot with wholly unnecessary yet ingratiatingly uncanny sequences—like a brief skit wherein a quiet, obese hitcher in a cowboy hat gets caught using a women’s restroom at a gas station.) The dialogue is also chiefly incidental, and often drowned out by engine hum that suggests a mingling of Alan Splet’s industrial macabre and Brian Eno’s abstract expressionist soundscapes. But most curiously, Hellman’s direction rarely lavishes the vehicles with visual attention, focusing instead on window-framed faces (all of them white, strangely enough), colorful truck-stop signs, and painterly panoramas. The cars themselves are never eroticized, and the races in which they compete have no periphery of human energy. (The Driver and the Mechanic make a habit out of exploiting the cockiness of regional drag racers for pocket money, but the two are so monotone that we rely on small clues to determine the outcome of these gambles.)
These stylistic choices allow the film to avoid being explicitly “about” the material allure or priapic potential of cars; what emerges instead is a slight allegory that you could just choose to ignore. (No one would blame you for looking out the window instead, given the stark, sensual colors of the landscape photography.) This metaphoric pattern, which concerns cultural inheritance, is typical of the most male and brooding of New Hollywood artifacts, especially Five Easy Pieces: Since the race between the Chevy and the GTO is planned to end in the nation’s capitol, with the winner taking both vehicles’ pink slips, we can safely assume that the premise has something to say about America’s future in mid-handoff between two equally hedonistic and self-obsessed generations.
Still, a few extra layers of scenario confuse this stale parable: For instance, it’s the younger participants in what we might call the “Race for the Nation” who have more respect for their country’s heritage, as evidenced by their choice of conveyance, while the elder, more classically consumerist GTO driver has been seduced by spanking new flashiness. (His boozing and equivocating is presumably what the Greatest Generation’s midlife crises looked like.) And then there’s Laurie Bird’s character, simply known as the Girl, whom all three males fail to inveigle into romance, or even a long-term sexual relationship. Both Taylor’s and Oates’s alpha wanna-bes continually offer her places (New York, Columbus, Florida) as though the winner of the race will reign over North America. But the Girl, as finicky as she’s precocious, doesn’t want a place; she wants a person. And she’s the only one who ever comments on the beauty of the locales through which the two male-helmed cars speed, a naïve tendency that ennobles the simplicity of appreciation and makes attempted domination appear foolhardy.
The Girl, in fact, saves both herself and the movie by Two-Lane Blacktop‘s end, because only she teases out the singularities in the types around her. An abortive seduction scene between her and Taylor’s Driver, staged on a fence, might be the movie’s most graceful and least subtextually significant. He tries to ennoble the sex lives of human beings by comparing them to that of the short-lived cicada, but she winds up brushing off what sentences of his she doesn’t finish for him. That the driver’s adolescent metaphor involves beetles, which bombinate with the same alacrity as his car’s guts, is fitting; the Chevy is his one-of-a-kind chrysalis, though it’s left up to our imaginations whether he’ll ever break out of it.
An honest question: Is Two-Lane Blacktop the only Hollywood film from the 1970s to credit a "Photographic Advisor" rather than a cinematographer? (Gregory Sandor's in good company; UB Iwerks received similar billing on Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds.) Either way, the title evinces the seriousness with which Monte Hellman was concerned with image, and sure enough there are few shots in the movie that don't appear to have been "advised" on. In particular, the manner in which the camera appears to be mimicking the moving cars, rather than indexing them, turns the audience into passengers, and practically begs us to appreciate shifts in the (always vibrant) terrain as the story moves across the country. Criterion's 1080p transfer gets all of these exterior textures right, especially the delicate gradations of color in sky, mountain, and road sign; yet there's something awry in many of the indoor scenes, wherein faces hunched over a tin luncheon table appear softer, splotchier, and redder than they should. I could interpret these apparent telecine tics as part and parcel of the movie's outdoor ethos, but they look like film-grain glitches. If you're lucky enough to have the proper equipment with which to enjoy the 5.1 surround mix, the film will improve immeasurably; the source music creeping through all the ambient hum plays like a soundtrack for secular monasticism.
Happily, most of the artists that brought Two-Lane Blacktop to life are still alive, working, and willing to give their hippocampi a workout; as such, Criterion's extras provide nothing less than the entire production story of the film, spread across several interviews. All of these, it must be said, have been ported over from the standard-def DVD without any uptick in quality, but Hellman's comments about the movie's behind-the-scene formation and visual language are engaging at any resolution. Of the two commentaries included, his is the most worth diving into, given his transparency not only regarding the studio gaffes that slowed the film's creation, but also with respect to the thematic intentions of the movie's most memorable moments. The rest of the interviews suffer from over-length and distractingly poor videographic quality, though Kris Kristofferson—who's only related to the film tangentially—provides a humorously "everyman" inter-textual take on the story's significance and lack of initial popularity. All in all, these are highly valuable supplements for aspiring filmmakers, while Kent Jones's booklet essay provides a welcome theoretical glance at the film's depiction of imploding youth culture.
America exploded in the '60s; Two-Lane Blacktop is the post-apocalyptic road trip, now rendered with epic clarity on Criterion's Blu-ray.