Like many of the movers-and-shakers in 1970s Hollywood, Monte Hellman started his career working for the king of American exploitation films Roger Corman.
Like many of the movers-and-shakers in 1970s Hollywood, Monte Hellman
started his career working for the king of American exploitation films Roger
Corman. Shot simultaneously in the deserts of Utah, The Shooting (1966) and Ride in the Whirlwind (1966) took the
traditional Western and transformed it into a bleak existentialist parable
filled with aloof camerawork and bitingly cold visual stylings. This desire to
take traditional stories of American empowerment and use them to articulate the
fear and anger of the Vietnam generation followed him into Two-Lane Blacktop, a countercultural road movie that makes Easy Rider (1969) look like a John Wayne movie.
The film revolves around two young
men who make their way in the world by moving from town to town, gulling the
locals into racing against their customised muscle car. We never learn very
much about these young men as they never mention their names or their place of
origin. Rootless and directionless, they aspire to nothing other than simply
existing. In fact, the pair are so oblivious to life outside of their car that
it barely registers when a strange young woman shows up on the backseat of
their car. We never learn her name either.
After a few days drifting from town
to town, the trio encounter a cravat-wearing middle-aged man driving a
factory-made muscle car. This man is just as mysterious as the youngsters in so
far as we never learn his real name or his place of origin. However, unlike the
youngsters who remain silent on these topics, the older man feels the need to
fill every gap in conversation with pointless lies about himself, his
destination and how he wound up owning such an impressive piece of engineering.
Sensing some kind of threat from
the affect-less youngsters, the middle-aged man challenges them to a race but
despite lots of macho posturing on both sides, the two cars never actually wind
up racing as the youngsters keep wanting to help out the older man with his
mechanical problems. At one point the middle-aged man is driving along and
spots the youngsters having breakfast in a diner. Annoyed that they seem to be
taking his challenge so lightly, the old man pulls over and confronts them,
angrily asking “Are we still racing?” but no answer is forthcoming.
Increasingly ill at ease with this strange relationship, the older man
convinces the young girl to travel with him and he takes off while the other
two are racing a local. With steel in their eyes, the pair take off after the
older man but rather than confront him about cheating or stealing their girl,
their annoyance seems to come from the fact that he moved the relationship from
one of mutual cooperation to one of competition. As the older man drives off
alone, he begins to weave lies about how he won the car from the younger men
using his customised muscle car.
Like most of Hillman’s films, Two-Lane Blacktop is all the more
gorgeous for the seeming effortlessness of the cinematography. Devoid of flashy
camera-work or obviously ‘artistic’ composition, Hillman’s camera seems to
constantly stumble upon images of America that yell their broken loneliness at
the unending sky. The connection to the great revisionist Westerns of the 60s
and 70s is also present in the script by Rudy
Wurlitzer, an experimental novelist who went on to write the script for Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). This screenplay, though
extraordinarily minimalist, contains just enough oddness and just enough
substance to hint at a tale of inter-generational conflict. Indeed, the older
man looks upon the youngsters as a threat and so challenges them to a race.
However, the boys are not interested in racing and so the older man begins to
struggle. He struggles because he cannot live in the world devoid of meaning
that these young people seem to inhabit. Trapped on the move and disconnected
from any sense of place or purpose, the older man fills in the gaps with lies.
Lies that allow him to make sense of the world but which remain totally alien
to the younger men. The role of the young woman is also vital to this
interpretation as the older man quite clearly sees himself as being in
competition with the young men but the young men are completely uninterested in
the possibility of bedding the young girl. As she herself puts it at one point,
there’s nobody to take care of her back end.
This Masters of Cinema Blu-ray
edition comes with a booklet of essays and a number of fascinating
documentaries about the making of the film. As ever, Masters of Cinema have
done a great service to cinephiles everywhere by re-releasing a much
under-appreciated classic of 1970s countercultural cinema in a style that
befits both its quality and intelligence.