Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971 Project)

The trailer makes the film seem a lot more action-packed than it is

I'd like to start off the 1971 Project with a cultural artifact that is highly emblematic of that year, Monte Hellman's film Two-Lane Blacktop. It came in that truly glorious early 1970s period when Hollywood, desperate to cash in on the success of Easy Rider and to appeal to the younger generation, gave a bunch of aspiring filmmakers money to make low-budget movies that did not fit the norm. It was something that hasn't really happened before or since, and for my money 1971 is among the most fertile years in cinema history.

The film's story is barebones. The Driver and the The Mechanic take their souped-up and stripped down 1955 Chevy across the country engaging in drag races, with very little to be said between them. Along the way they meet The Girl, a young woman who seems similarly lost and looking for meaning, trying to carry on conversation with men who only seem interested in their mission. They also encounter GTO, a middle-aged man driver the car of the same name, who engages them in a race across the country, each betting their car on the outcome. The Driver and The Mechanic were played by neophytes James Taylor (the folksinger) and Dennis Wilson (of the Beach Boys), and their acting, as wooden as the HMS Bounty, somehow works in this understated film. Laurie Bird, who would die tragically young, has a real naturalism about her. Warren Oates, a great character actor of the 1960s and 1970s, plays GTO with a cocky bravado that barely masks his deep well of sadness.

It is a deeply introspective film. As someone who has driven 800 miles at a time, I feel it captures that Zen-like feeling of relaxed concentration that one gets behind the wheel on long road trips. In Two-Lane Blacktop, that feeling of concentration also feels a lot like ennui, and ennui embedded in the world of 1971.

As I mentioned in the post kicking off this series, 1971 to me feels like the true sunset of the 60s counterculture. In this film The Driver and The Mechanic are still devoted to living outside of society, but they seem tired, and a little broken. The Girl has an air of desperation about her. None of these characters seems like they will last too long in the harsh reality of 1970s America. While they represent the counterculture, with their single-minded dedication to outfitting their own car and living outside of society, GTO is the avatar of American consumer society. He seems affluent, though we don't learn where the money comes from. Instead of putting his soul into outfitting a car of his own, he has merely bought the GTO, a mass-produced status symbol. While the trio of youngsters seems spent or lost, GTO seems spiritually adrift, and aware of the emptiness of his lifestyle but without a clue about what else to do.

Hellman seems to imply (at least to me) that America's soul in the early 1970s is empty. The old consumer values are rubbish, but those that oppose them seem headed for a dead end. Appropriately, the movie ends abruptly during a drag race, suddenly cutting out while the last frames of the film appear to burn up. The road goes on forever, as The Allman Brothers once said. Befitting a time of transition and confusion, there's no resolution in Two-Lane Blacktop, and it would feel completely false if there was.

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