Home Video Hovel- Two-Lane Blacktop, by David Bax
Earlier this year, Walter Salles’ film adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road regrettably failed to capture the feeling of drift and freedom hinted at by the title. If you saw the film and are seeking that atmosphere still, you should pick up a copy of Criterion’s new Blu-ray release of Monte Hellman’s 1971 cult favorite, Two-Lane Blacktop. Though light on plot and dialogue, the film is dense with the air of being lost and at home all at once. It’s a portrait of people removed from society, with all the romanticism and the hollowness that comes with it.
James Taylor plays the driver and Dennis Wilson plays the mechanic. They travel around, making money by winning races with their ’55 Chevy. First, they find themselves joined by a young girl, played by Laurie Bird. Then, they meet a guy driving a GTO, played by Warren Oates, and they challenge him to a cross-country race. The winner gets the other’s car.
There’s about all there is to the story but there’s much more to the movie. Two-Lane Blacktop is the rare film that you can drop in on at any time. You can disappear into it the way the characters have. It’s hard to imagine the driver or the mechanic having a life other than the one we see here. It’s as if the road is a parallel dimension where they live contentedly in a loop with their singular and perfect identities.
Of course, Hellman couldn’t just have identities roaming his film, bouncing off one another. He needed actors. Like a rock and roll Robert Bresson, he cast two non-professional thespians as his leads, opting instead for professional musicians. While Bird is mostly up to her role and Oates is in top, vivaciously sleazy form as the smarmy antagonist, Taylor and Wilson mostly compete in a contest for the most unaffected line delivery. The tactic works. While the cars may go quite fast, these two remain largely in an existentially inert state.
Despite the front and center role of Taylor and Beach Boy Wilson, none of their music appears in the film. Nonetheless, I was surprised on revisiting the film that songs are even employed. In my memory, the soundtrack consisted mostly of the sounds of cars and wind. But the songs are good ones, by Kris Kristofferson, Chuck Berry and Arlo Guthrie.
Still, it’s not the music that sticks. Two-Lane Blacktop tells its story through the revving, the breaking and the sailing on the titular concrete. Existing always on the verge of something catastrophic or cathartic taking place, it’s a post-hippie Waiting for Godot with words replaced by the whining and roaring of engines.
Extras include commentaries, interviews, screen tests and look at a 2007 restoration of the film’s iconic ’55 Chevy.