Friday, June 03, 2005

Two-Lane Blacktop d. Monte Hellman, 1971

What strikes me about many films of the late 60's/early 70's is how they capture a specific time so well while simultaneously remaining timeless. In and of itself, the hippie generation became a laughable self-parody; peace, love, and dope quickly waxed ironic. But the emotions it exposed - deep-seated pathos, apathy, disgust - are right at the core of what it means to be human. I'm not quite sure the majority of the people subscribing to this emotional set were entirely certain of what they were buying into. Conversely, I am quite sure Monte Hellman was.

All characters in Two-Lane Blacktop are known by broad, impersonal nouns - girl, mechanic, driver, GTO. Wilson and Taylor's (Mechanic & Driver, respectively) acting is amateur, but note-perfect for this film. Their impersonal, dehumanized actions fit the model of men with one thing on their minds, but a good deal more in their hearts. Taylor, in particular, is pretty much magnetic, exuding the kind of cool only lanky folks musicians can. Seen as character types used only to convey the director's ideas, these characters are flat and increasingly irritating. But they're more than vehicles for the director. The Driver and The Mechanic speak, almost exclusively, gearhead. They practically breathe their auto-tuned '55 Chevy; carbs, jets, pistons, valves - what is mechanical supersedes the organic.

A digression, but with a point: the road movie is often about escape. Something - responsibility, Johnny Law, a girl, etc. - is bringing you down, so you get out on the open road and live. Driver & Mechanic's laser-focus on all things engine is their form of escape. When GTO (Warren Oates) attempts to tell Driver about his own struggles and whatnot, Driver cuts him short. He doesn't want to hear about trouble. Now: what would one be escaping from in the early 70's, something so troublesome that to hear of trouble of any other kind would be too much to deal with? Of course, Vietnam and the shifting nature of the government at the time. Driver & Mechanic are archetypes of sorts, representing an entire bewildered generation, but they also work as believable people, driving away - quickly - from what ails.

If Driver and Mechanic are the aging youth of the sixties, then GTO is The Man. The ethos, Don't Trust Anyone Over Thirty, is often a divider in films of the 60's & 70's. The youth are good, the old are bad; the youth "get it," the old do not. Oates' GTO doesn't "get it" per se, but he's not a mono-dimensional bad guy either. Instead he represents the entire gamut of the over thirty crowd: he wants desperately to be hip, he scolds the youth when he's not accepted as one of their own, and - in a brilliant piece of writing - his story is constantly changing. GTO never tells the truth; depending on the passenger he has picked up, his car is stolen, won, or bought. He sizes up the person and tells them what they want to hear. It is an indictment of the lying, veiled government, but also an endearing portrait of the older set. GTO's intentions are kind enough - it is clear that he intends no harm - but his methods are out of touch, outmoded in this new progressive era. Frankly, Oates deserved an Oscar. Playing the schizophrenic catchall for a loathed generation - while straddling the line between parody and sincerity - took nerve and skill both.

All metaphor aside, Two-Lane Blacktop is a portrait of the road and the eternal itinerants that call it home. It's a simple story of life - beautifully photographed, elegantly Spartan.

(Aside: so it seems that the general consensus is to see this as an existentialist road film. And it is that, but I also think there's merit to the social milieu of the thing. Whether intended or not, Two-Lane Blacktop is very much an overview of its social clime. Or maybe I'm wrong again.)


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