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  Blacktop is very much a product of this era, in terms of capturing the zeitgeist, but also as a historical document.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.