Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Quintessential American Road Movie

Two-Lane Blacktop (Monte Hellman, 1971)

Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop, from a screenplay by Rudolph Wurlitzer and Will Corry, is a existential-muscle car-road movie about two friends, The Driver (James Taylor) and The Mechanic (Dennis Wilson), who pick up The Girl (Laurie Bird), fall in and out of love with her, both physically and spiritually, drive down, the pre-Interstate Highway, U.S. Route 66, where in New Mexico, they meet and challenge G.T.O (Warren Oates) to a cross-country drag race to Washington, D.C.. Most of the film consists of picaresque diversions including racing, sleeping, eating, visiting and waiting.

With a penchant for long takes, dead-pan Zen state performances and a minimalist use of dialogue, the film has a spellbinding effect that immerses the viewer into the trip. With the cameras placed in the passenger, or back, seat of the car, we are allowed to see what the driver is seeing through the windshield, while the exposition shots provide a magnificent look at the 1970’s nonindustrial American countryside landscape.

It is similar to Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) in its stark, cheerless and desolate depiction of rural communities and inhabitants. The Girl channels Marie (Anne Wiazemsky) as she wordlessly joins the guys in their 1955 Chevy 150, and then becomes first a motivating source and then one of frustration. Even the editing becomes ambivalent, similar to Bresson’s, as the Girl walks into a gas station women washroom, occupied by a bumbling male hitchhiker, and then, the film, cuts away from the action without giving any resolution.

The depiction of each city is dark and pitiless. In one city a drag racer after losing a race is screamed at publicly by his girlfriend, before she leaves him, there are wrinkled elderly, a mother with children selling wares by a bus terminal, and the police have a dominating presence throughout each state. As hard as G.T.O. tries to reach out to people, though one suspects his dishonesty as his back-story is consecutively changing on how he got his Orange 1970 Pontiac GTO, people always seem to leave him. Leaving him alone to keep on traversing the Main Street of America. One hitchhiker he picks up, Oklahoma Hitchhiker (the great Harry Dean Stanton), is a lonely homosexual. The Oklahoma Hitchhiker puts his hand on G.T.O.'s right leg who then immediately refuses the non-heterosexual invitation, and when the hitchhiker went, assumedly, too far and is asked to get out of the car on the side of the highway, in the rain, he begs for compassion and G.T.O. gives him the humanist benefit of dropping him off in the next city.

Two recent road movies influenced by Two-Lane Blacktop are Wong Kar Wai’s My Blueberry Nights (2007) and Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny (2004). My Blueberry Nights is about Elizabeth (Norah Jones), Norah Jones singing profession parallels James Taylor and Dennis Wilson own music careers before Two-Lane Blacktop, going across the United States meeting many hardened individuals until returning home optimistically as ever. My problem with the film, not only as a road movie but as a Wong Kar Wai film, his first English language feature, is its audience-pleasing familiarities and conventionalism. The Brown Bunny originality tides it over. It takes the notion of; perception as a form of redemption, and the road as an escape, a means to forget, in this case, and in most, a girl, to new heights. In Two–Lane Blacktop when The Girl first gets into the drag racers car, while their eating in a diner, you can hear on the radio Hit the Road Jack by the Stampeders, a song about a women and the open road. The use of music in The Brown Bunny is also used to add depth, and accentuate feelings of alienation, regret, and the romance of the open road.

Experience becomes a source of redemption for the counter-culture duo. When The Driver and The Mechanic realize they have no place to go, their endless search for authenticity and “another” race, along with their memories of The Girl who left them for a boy on a motorcycle come to a close, so does the film, as it reaches a point of disinclination, the sound vanishes, and then finaly the film stock itself starts to disintegrates.-David Davidson

(The Mayfair Theatre, 1074 Bank Street, 22/07 & 23/07)

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