Racing into alienation with James Taylor and Dennis Wilson

by Ben Wener

The Orange County Register (MCT)

2 June 2008


After spending Friday moving virtually every CD I own down to the garage I decided to spend the rest of the holiday weekend being fairly lazy. Memorial Day itself, in fact, was a movie-filled lounger like I haven’t had in months.

Finally saw Alfonso Cuaron’s apocalyptic nightmare “Children of Men” (terrifying, riveting), followed that up with HBO’s (and director Jay Roach’s) hanging-chad nightmare “Recount” (terrifying, riveting) ... and, once I was snug in bed with the missus and the pooch, I finally took in Monte Hellman’s “Two-Lane Blacktop,” a much-touted cult classic from 1971 that I bought when the year began on the sole basis of seeing James Taylor and Dennis Wilson in their only acting roles.

Why, apart from shrinking time factors, had I put it off for so long? Because something told me that such an elegiac anti-“American Graffiti” would require a contemplative mood and an alert mind - both in short supply lately. “To watch this movie correctly,” explains director and Hellman fan Richard Linklater in the liner notes to the typically exemplary Criterion double-DVD, “is to become absorbed into it.”

And sure enough, here I am, a deadline for an Iron Maiden feature pressing, a five-in-five run of shows about to start ... and I can’t shake “Blacktop” ... still find my mind drifting and darting down the same straight roads that enigmatic Taylor (the Driver) and the equally stoic Wilson (the Mechanic) cruise down in their cross-country race deep into the heart of alienation.

That duo drives and maintains a primer-gray, souped-up ‘55 Chevy. Their opponent, one-a-kind Peckinpah favorite Warren Oates (“The Wild Bunch,” “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia”) in another expertly crafted characterization, steers with gloved hands a store-bought ‘70 Pontiac GTO, an array of cassettes in the passenger seat, a wet bar in the trunk.

What sounds like the setup for a generic, predictable generation-gap Gumball Rally, however, is actually a profound and timeless meditation on the slippery line between loners at different stages in life. One moment Taylor and Wilson, restless post-hippies relentlessly focused on getting to the next drag-race dead-end on their beautiful road to nowhere, and Oates, the complex, shattered Establishment totem suffering some kind of identity crisis, can seem like psychically connected father and sons. A scene later, they can appear oceans apart.

Linklater again: “Unlike other films of the era, with the designer alienation of the drug culture and the war protesters, this movie is about the alienation of everybody else.”

Which, I think, is why “Two-Lane Blacktop,” like “Five Easy Pieces” from around the same time, holds up so well - while “Easy Rider,” for all its appeal and historic importance, tends to look more anachronistic as time goes by. The setting of “Blacktop” may be trapped in time, but the feeling it evokes lurks everywhere, behind quiet facades hiding overly busy brains.

So, agreed, it’s justifiably celebrated, albeit only by those who discover it. (If you embrace the offbeat, rent it pronto. If you consider yourself a ‘70s cinephile and haven’t seen this, your education is obviously incomplete.) But, if you’ll pardon my momentary man-crushes, I wonder if part of its lasting magnetism has as much to do with having both James Taylor at his most “Sweet Baby James” striking and Dennis Wilson at his most stoner sexy. It sure helps to mask inner rage and confusion in such classic looks - like an outwardly cherry Chevy hiding the chaos of piston blasting going on under its hood.

(Incidentally, Wilson’s lone solo album, 1977’s buried treasure “Pacific Ocean Blue” - which AllMusic.com declared “a classic, blissed-out, coked-up slice of ‘70s rock and pop that is as essential as Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” - arrives in a bonus-stuffed, double-CD Legacy edition on June 17.)

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