Critics Celebrate Two-Lane Blacktop, the 1971 Existential Road-Movie Masterpiece by Monte Hellman (RIP), Starring James Taylor & Dennis Wilson

The road movie has long since proven itself as one of the great Amer­i­can cul­tur­al forms, not least by cap­tur­ing the imag­i­na­tion of oth­er soci­eties, no mat­ter how dis­tant or dif­fer­ent. As New York Times crit­ic A.O. Scott declares in the video above, “one of the finest road movies, and per­haps the purest of them all, is Monte Hell­man’s Two-Lane Black­top.” In his orig­i­nal 1971 review of the film, a Roger Ebert described Hell­man as “an Amer­i­can direc­tor whose work is much prized by the French, who have a knack for find­ing exis­ten­tial truths in movies we thought were West­erns.” In some sense Two-Lane Black­top is indeed a West­ern, but Hell­man’s death ear­li­er this week will prompt many to revis­it the film and see that it’s also much more — as well as much less.

Two-Lane Black­top osten­si­bly tells the sto­ry of a cross-coun­try race from New Mex­i­co to Wash­ing­ton, D.C. In one car, a cus­tomized 1955 Chevro­let 150, are qua­si-hip­pie gear­heads known only as the Dri­ver and the Mechan­ic (joined for a stretch by a hitch­hik­ing Girl). In the oth­er, a brand-new GTO, is a mid­dle-aged man known only as GTO. “The mys­ti­cism of this movie is in its absence of mys­ti­cism,” says Scott. “It’s so lit­er­al-mind­ed, so bare-bones, so absurd, and it expos­es not only the romance of the open road and the car cul­ture, but the empti­ness, the nihilism.” Hell­man, as the New York­er’s Richard Brody puts it in his own video essay, “shears this com­po­si­tion down to its exis­ten­tial bare bones,” leav­ing not much more in its real­i­ty than what Ebert calls “mis­cel­la­neous estab­lish­ments thrown up along the sides of the road to sup­port life: motels, gas sta­tions, ham­burg­er stands.”

As stripped-down as its ’55 Chevy, Two-Lane Black­top rolled up in the wake of Den­nis Hop­per’s Easy Rid­er, whose suc­cess con­vinced more than a few stu­dios that cheap­ly pro­duced, counter-cul­tur­al­ly themed road movies could hit the box-office jack­pot. Though unsuc­cess­ful upon its ini­tial release just shy of 50 years ago, the film has only con­sol­i­dat­ed its pow­er since. Some of that pow­er comes from unex­pect­ed sources, such as the cast­ing of singer-song­writer James Tay­lor and the Beach Boys’ Den­nis Wil­son as the Dri­ver and the Mechan­ic. These musi­cians, to Brody’s mind, “exert a neg­a­tive charis­ma: their pres­ence is both pow­er­ful and blank, deeply expres­sive in its neu­tral­i­ty.” Scott sees Tay­lor’s turn in par­tic­u­lar as occu­py­ing “a realm beyond act­ing, in a kind of dead­pan, stoned, zen state of non-per­for­mance.”

As GTO, War­ren Oates brings all the tra­di­tion­al act­ing chops Two-Lane Black­top requires, shift­ing between brag­gado­cio, pathos, and a kind of post­mod­ern pos­tur­ing as often as he changes his bold­ly col­ored V‑neck sweaters. “This name­less dri­ver has bought the James Bond ide­al of the well-round­ed man,” writes Kent Jones in his essay on the film for the Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion, “but he pre­fig­ures Woody Allen’s Zelig in the des­per­ate speed with which he adapts him­self to every new sit­u­a­tion and pas­sen­ger.” These ten­den­cies can’t save him on the entrop­ic open road, only empha­siz­ing as it does what Brody calls “the impos­si­bil­i­ty of soli­tude, the ten­dril-like encroach­ment of the out­side world.” But then, nei­ther can the mechan­i­cal sin­gle-mind­ed­ness of the Dri­ver and Mechan­ic. This is the Amer­i­can con­di­tion, but only in that it’s a high-octane dis­til­la­tion of the human one.

Relat­ed con­tent:

A Brief His­to­ry of the Great Amer­i­can Road Trip

178,000 Images Doc­u­ment­ing the His­to­ry of the Car Now Avail­able on a New Stan­ford Web Site

James Tay­lor Gives Gui­tar Lessons, Teach­ing You How to Play Clas­sic Songs Like “Fire and Rain,” “Coun­try Road” & “Car­oli­na in My Mind”

Rock Stars Who Died Before They Got Old: What They Would Look Like Today

Tom Waits Names 14 of His Favorite Art Films

A Hulk­ing 1959 Chevy Bel Air Gets Oblit­er­at­ed by a Mid-Size 2009 Chevy Mal­ibu in a Crash Test

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • WW says:

    Went to a back-to-back-to-back grind-house show­ing of this movie, Van­ish­ing Point, and Bul­litt back in the late-70’s. Pop­corn, mar­i­jua­na, beer and hot-dates were involved…a mem­o­rable-night!

  • Paul Tatara says:

    “Exis­ten­tial” mean­ing “noth­ing hap­pens.” It’s like watch­ing a rock star rev up an engine for two hours.

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