So I’m field testing a new title for the series previously known as “Movies You Should Watch.” I have grown tired with that name! Or, more accurately, I’ve decided to take the series in a new direction and the old title felt a little crude comparatively. Not that I’m particularly pleased with this one, but it’ll do. Feel free to leave your superior ideas in the comments. What I’m hoping to do is build a personal list of essential recommendations. Now I’m not exactly tattooing these titles onto my chest, so I reserve the right to welch and reconsider any of these entries. But I think that’s the joy of this sort of list: it’s a continual work in progress.
The idea is to cultivate a unique list of excellent films for film fans. Films that are instructional and inspirational and generally excellent or interesting.
So this entry is something I only watched recently, which makes it a slightly risky addition. Normally nothing reveals what should climb the ranks of my personal favourites better than time and multiple viewings. For reasons that should be obvious. In a lot of ways the long-lasting impression a movie leaves you with is even more important than the immediate response. However in this case the movie has a reputation and historical significance that justifies my initial reaction. I don’t want this list to be completely impersonal and based around what other people consider great, but in some cases people are right. Just don’t tell them that, it’ll give em an ego.
Which brings us to the film in question, Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop. This is one of those films inexorably linked to a particular place and time. Two-Lane Blacktop came out in 1971 and the whole film is just steeped in this elegiac quality. The film is burnt out and dejected, filled with quiet scenes and barely audible songs. It’s entirely tonally indebted to the end of the sixties, and the end of what the sixties represented. (Not unlike this year’s Inherent Vice.) When an unimportant character in the film asks if the protagonists are hippies he does it with an audible sneer on his breath. GTO is quick to leap in and explain that they’re no such things.
The film is simple and minimalistic. It starts with The Driver and The Mechanic, two men who drive their custom grey Chevrolet 150. It’s a piece of brutalism on four wheels, all industrial colours and uncompromising angles. All they do is drive, purposefully, wherever they feel like going. When they run out of cash they race, either at a proper event, or by baiting someone into racing for money. During their travels they come across a girl. The Girl, according to the credits. She climbs into their car without warning or comment. It’s a while before The Girl and The Driver and The Mechanic even speak to one another. She’s willing to go wherever they’re going, and the two don’t seem particularly perturbed or interested in their newest addition.
Meanwhile the older GTO drives his Pontiac GTO along a similar path, occasionally passing The Driver and The Mechanic and trying to race them. He entertains himself by picking up any hitchhikers he passes and talking with them to wile away the time. Eventually he pulls into a gas station across from the Chevy 150 and confronts The Driver. He challenges them to a race. The Driver and The Mechanic pretty much look at him as an easy mark and swiftly agree. They let GTO pick the destination and he decides they should race cross-country to Washington. Then they have to establish what they’ll race for. The Driver suggests pink slips. They’ll mail their pink slips to Washington and the first car to pick them up wins.
Then they start racing. At first there’s a lot of animosity between the cars. When the police pull over GTO for speeding, The Driver pulls over and walks over to the cops and says GTO’s a menace who almost drove him off the road and terrified his wife. However the further along the trip the two cars get, the more they start to respect one another. They pull over on the side of the road at one point and GTO unveils his Hunter S. Thompson-esque trunk of drugs. They just drink from a flask. The Mechanic recognizes a problem with the GTO’s engine, and at the next town the two cars get to know each other even better as they steal license plates and try to get the GTO fixed. It’s here that The Driver and The Girl wander off and sleep with each other. They keep driving, passing car wrecks, racing for money, picking up mysterious hitchhikers, and avoiding the police. Eventually they start to turn against one another again, less competing than fighting over The Girl, who truly doesn’t care about any of them.
The script of the film went through a few drafts. The first version was written early in 1970 by Will Corry, who had driven across the US in 1968 and based the script on his experiences. The script was rewritten by Rudolph Wurlitzer in the summer of the same year. He found the first script almost unreadable and added new characters and stories including GTO and the race, but keeping the cross-country trip and some of the tone.
In 1968 America saw the disturbing continuation of the Vietnam War, the Zodiac Killer, the shooting of Andy Warhol, the death of Martin Luther King Jr, tensions rising between the Black Panthers and the police, and a whole host of natural disasters and misplaced weapons testing.
In 1969, the year before the film’s production started, the American landscape was changing. In December the first draft lottery since WWII was run for the Vietnam War. The months leading up to this lottery were filled with disturbing news stories filled with images of the dead piling up in Vietnam. Months before, a hippie commune gone wrong killed several people. By December they had become icons, and the world was covering the trial of the Manson family. It was the year Led Zeppelin started releasing albums, and the year of the Beatles’ last public performance. In the months leading up to the final version of the script in 1970, this trend continued. Black Sabbath released their first album, often considered the first true metal album. Four days later, Jeffrey MacDonald killed his wife and kids and blamed it on drugged out hippies. In April, Paul McCartney left the Beatles. Four students were shot at a political protest in May, a month filled with political protests like the Hard Hat Riot.
It was the last gasps of the sixties counterculture movement, and this funereal tone blankets Two-Lane Blacktop like a shroud. The whole film might as well be the video equivalent of Taps playing on the graves of the sixties. The film doesn’t fill its runtime with too many concrete crystallizations of this theme, instead it bubbles up in lines here and there. It’s clearly writ in the way characters mention hippies, and the brief reference to serial murder. More than any one line of dialogue, the film conveys this concern through tone and atmosphere. Fundamentally it’s conveyed by the depressing light the film casts the wandering, free-loving lifestyles of the protagonists in. The Driver and The Mechanic live up to their declarative titles, simply racing their car to survive. It’s a free-spirited, independent, thrill-seeking lifestyle and yet The Driver and The Mechanic don’t seen to enjoy the life at all. It all feels like ash on the tongue. Ditto The Girl, a wandering figure who seems to be searching for someone fulfilling to attach herself to. She walks from car to car and person to person examining and spending time with them before ultimately rejecting them. Her free-loving exploratory life is presented with a grim nihilism. Most indicative of the movie’s quietly scathing take on the ultimate free American way is GTO. He’s much older than the rest of the characters, and it’s not clear what’s led him to this life, although it rather seems like he’s always been driving the roads picking up hitchhikers for companionship. GTO’s past is mysterious because he’s a liar who tries on a new version of his life’s story every time he tells it. He lies with a psychopathic ease, and clearly uses it as almost desperate justification of his ultimately empty actions.
This grim ashy tone is built right into the path the characters in the film race along. The race starts in Needles, California and their destination is Washington (which they never reach). It’s the path of Manifest Destiny inverted. Instead of gloriously expanding the American empire The Driver, The Mechanic, GTO, and The Girl are working backwards, closing the curtains on the United States. Perhaps the four are multipurpose psychopomps, ushering the sixties counter-culture and the country it was born in to the underworld.