Two Lane Blacktop

Monte Hellman, 1971

It’s 1971, a year or so after Easy Rider was released and a turning point in American history.  A new decade, in which the youth of America were becoming more and more disillusioned. The hippie dream was collapsing, the Nixon years were ahead, and Two-Lane Blacktop was dropped into theaters.  Originally meant to capitalize on the success of Easy Rider, the two films do share similarities.  Both follow two men on the road through America, and both are very bleak in their portrayal of that America.

Easy Rider was, however, more overtly political, with its allegorical allusions to ‘Nam and was born, to some extent, out of the sensationalist Roger Corman AIP biker movies,  which were exploitative flicks to pull the youth audience in.  Although Blacktop was marketed in that same excessive style, the trailer exclaiming “The far-out world of the high speed scene!” it seems more limited in its appeal, with its lack of violence and sex.  The film certainly begins like this, kick starting with a high speed drag race at night, broken up by police sirens and within the first 5 minutes, a disregard for society & the law is established.

While this disregard for authority is common in the exploitation genre, it was a general feeling with the counterculture of the sixties, but the seventies replaced the activism with an antipathy, a sense of futility, people had burnt-out, culminating in the events at Altamont freeway and captured in the books by Hunter S. Thompson (notably Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas).  Blacktop is very much a product of this era, in terms of capturing the zeitgeist, but also as a historical document.  The film transports the viewer to that specific time and place, the roads of America before the inter-state highway was built, the snippets of background music, the out of the way roadside cafes and bars and the cars.  But it also has a timelessness, which is part of what makes it a cult classic.

In terms of style, the film draws upon the New Hollywood, as well as a European influence, with stark cinematography and lack of conventional narrative.  In fact, there is a distinct lack of anything in the film and events feel totally arbitrary, for example, after fleeing the aforementioned scene, the two men, known only as the Driver & the Mechanic - played by singer-songwriter James Taylor and Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson (in his only acting role), respectively - drift across the highways and route 66.  After stopping off a bar, the two men return to find a girl (again known only as the Girl, played by waif-like Laurie Bird) in their car.  They drive off without asking any questions.  The film doesn’t offer any explanations either for why the girl gets in the car or where the two men are from, they are just there. They just exist, and for no real purpose.  This nihilistic attitude could be seen as reflective of the times, or a deeper existential crisis inherent in the road movie.  The road represents freedom from the restrictions of society, a place for outsiders to roam or to search for something, but it is also a trapping as what happens when the end of the road is reached?  It is probably fitting (although tragic) that Laurie Bird, who appeared in only 3 films, committed suicide at the age of 25.

All the characters in Blacktop are outsiders, perpetually journeying and driving, running on empty with no real goal. The film drifts as the characters do, with its lack of narrative, structure and unresolved events.  All this futility and meaningless is best seen in James Taylor’s constant stony expression and cold eyes as well as the final scene, which again is reminiscent of Easy Rider.  The last frame is definitely iconic and telling enough that it sticks in the mind and draws this nihilistic feeling together, without resolving anything.

Another character the two men come across is known as G.T.O. due to the car he drives.  Played by Warren Oates, he is by far the most entertaining character in the film, picking up hitchhikers - such as Harry Dean Stanton in an early appearance as a gay cowboy - in his flashy yellow car. He is talkative, constantly telling amusing, fabricated stories about himself and is definitely a contrast with the other two men, who barely talk to one another.  They can only communicate through the car, the 55 Chevy. There is an obsession with cars, the talking about cars, almost a fetishization of cars, or to coin a term, ‘motorsploitation’ and where the film lacks dialogue, it is usually replaced with the sound of roaring car engines.  There is also a homosocial bonding over cars, especially between the Driver and the Mechanic.  This is until the Girl comes between this, but the only way the Driver can express his feelings toward her is through the car (not so much in the penis substitute way, but rather, he and car are linked, are one).  The 55 Chevy is a muscle car, built for one purpose and as is often in the road movie, the male has a bond with his car, the car can be a personification of himself and they both have one purpose and that is to race.  But that purpose is inevitably meaningless and as the film draws to a close, it becomes evident - like Easy Rider before it and Vanishing Point after it - that for the Driver, there is nothing at the end of the road.
words by josh shaw.

The Last Detail

Hal Ashby, 1973

Hal Ashby has always remained a polarizing figure, with a catalogue of films that divide audiences, from Harold and Maude, to The Slugger's Wife. At the culmination of his career, he directed The Last Detail, a comedy/drama, starring Jack Nicholson, with a screenplay written by Robert Towne (Bonnie and Clyde, Chinatown). It follows two swabbies, as they escort a young Randy Quaid to Portsmouth naval prison N.H. Any comparison to previous naval movies (Anchors Aweigh, On The Town), have to be dismissed, as the film, with a backdrop against the Vietnam War, features strong existentialist, and almost nihilistic themes, with characters struggling to come to terms with their assigned roles, and ultimately, life in general.

Nicholson's "Badass" Buddusky, surpasses a strong cast, as a charismatic maximalist, whose objective, above and beyond his assignment, is to provide a no holds barred bon-voyage for Quiads character, 'Meadows'. Otis Young supports, as Nicholson's stony-faced shore-patrol partner "Mule" Mulhall, and remains the voice of reason between the uncontrollable, hurricane "Badass", and the vulnerable 'Meadows'. The movie plays out like a coming-of-age/road movie, with Buddusky and Mulhall taking meadows on a crash-course of manhood, exposing him to drinking, fighting and fucking, and showing him the freedom he’s shortly going to lose.

There's a definite hard edge to the movie, and it walks a fine line between comedy, and becoming a full-blown drama. Michael Chapman's cinematography expertly drains the life out of each frame, abandoning the contrast of gloss and grittiness that is apparent in his other work (Raging Bull, Invasion of the Body Snatchers), and stripping the movie down to a harsh, grim aesthetic, that more than lends itself to the photography of Arthur Fellig's pseudonym ‘Weegee’, and the dark lighting techniques of Gordon Willis. The Last Detail is arguably the definitive Jack Nicholson performance, with him throwing as much magnetism and charm into 'badass', as he does 'Randle Patrick McMurphy' or 'J.J. Gittes'. In fact all performances are perfect, and show Nicholson and Quaid in their prime, before they became typecast and subsided into self-caricature.

The movie itself could be seen as a left-wing metaphor for the Vietnam War: a group of men working for the armed services, being assigned a pointless objective, with no positive outcome. This is unsurprising, considering Hal Ashby's filmography (Coming Home, Harold and Maude) and his outspoken views on the Vietnam conflict. Ultimately this movie remains of it's time, and is a window into the life of desultory blue-collar workers during the cold war, showing the harsh, grim reality of working class life. Ashby was a Hollywood outsider, a rebel against the mainstream, and held a sheer refrain from being pigeonholed into a certain style or genre.’ The Last Detail was him at the pinnacle of his career, with his directorial work gradually declining into obscure films and TV work.
words by danny walker.

Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion

Shunya Itō, 1972

As the last decade has progressed, comic book adaptations have been coming at moviegoers thick and fast. These have been rather inconsistent in quality with various graphic novels such as Ghost World and the fact based Persepolis proving to be the successes of the medium, with most films, including the large majority of the 21 films Marvel has contributed (with the notable exception of those directed by Sam Raimi and Bryan Singer) being wholly average in quality. However it may seem though, comic book adaptations and the numerous spin-offs and sequels they produce are not a recent development and it’s worth casting a look at one of the lesser known earlier franchises, Japan’s Female Prisoner #701 series.

Based on the Sasori manga comics of ru Shinohara the first of these is titled Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion and tells the story of Nami ‘Matsu’ Matsushima (played by Meiko Kaji, who would later take the title role in the similarly revenge themed Lady Snowblood series) who is sent to jail after attempting to stab the police officer who first seduced her, before using her to implement a sting that resulted in her being raped. The film follows Matsu as she attempts to escape from prison in order to enact her revenge on those who betrayed her whilst at the same time surviving altercations with fellow prisoners and guards alike.

This series was funded by the Toei Company, notorious for their own particular brand of ‘Pinky Films’ known as ‘Pinky Violence Films’. These contained all the nudity and soft-core sex synonymous with the Pinky films but as the title would suggest, with lashings of violence complementing the nudity. Just at the films of the New Hollywood were a response to the advent of television, attempting to get viewers back to the movie houses via increasingly experimental and exploitative films so too were these and Female Prisoner can be seen as one of the best example of this genre.

First time director Shunya Ito (who would later earn himself an Oscar nomination for his 1985 film Gray Sunset) brings a great deal of stylistic flair to his debut, there are sets where the walls revolve as in theatre to reveal new surroundings, certain scenes are shot through a glass floor so we can see Matsu’s face as she lies face down on the ground following her abuse, and all the while there is the expressive use of lighting with bright greens and reds dictating the tone of the scene. In one sequence another inmate attempts to stab Matsu whilst in the showers. As the fight progresses and the assailant becomes more enraged suddenly her hair begins to stand on end, the lighting turns blue and her makeup turns to one of the face masks seen in traditional Japanese Kabuki theatre. Jump cuts are also evident throughout, a technique the Nouvelle Vague had only unveiled in the previous decade, and directors such as Scorsese were beginning to make their trademark at the same time. With all this experimentation the film works well as an art house alternative to the women in prison films people such as Roger Corman were producing in America, with Kaji proving herself to be every bit the equal of Pam Grier.

Indeed it is Kaji’s performance that carries the film. Despite her literary counterpart being extremely vocal and foul mouthed, Kanji convinced Ito to break away from this and allow her to give a primarily silent performance at Matsu, with the her cold stare conveying more hatred for her enemies than the shouting of obscenities ever could. The most play Kaji’s vocals get for the films duration is in the film’s title song ‘Urami Bushi’ also known as ‘My Grudge Blues’ a haunting number sang by Kaji herself. Ever desperate to shoehorn in as many references and allusions as possible, Tarantino would later feature the song on the soundtrack to Kill Bill(during the Lady Snowblood styled fight scene no less).

Ito and Kaji would work together on a further two films in this series, Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1972) and Female Prisoner 701: Beast Stable (1973) both of which maintain the original’s acute sense of style whilst remarkably managing to increase the amount of violence and nudity, every bit the equal to the original they never feel forced as many sequels do and are a worthy continuation of Matsu’s search for vengeance. As evidenced in many of the other great films of the decade such as Taxi Driver and Suspiria- when art house aesthetics are combined with exploitation narratives, the result is something extraordinary in its own right. Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion is one such film, far greater than the slew of comic adaptations around today and definitely worthy of greater attention that it receives.
words by pete bond.