James Taylor and Dennis Wilson Travel Across America
It seems that during a specific stretch of time, young American filmmakers became obsessed with the idea of exploring their own country, of taking in its expansive lands and going on processes similar to walkabouts on the paved highways of the United States. It was during this period that movies such as Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde injected audiences with a new sense of adventure, one meant to allow them to find themselves, to find meaning in their humdrum lives.
After the unexpected success of Easy Rider, studios went crazy for the genre which had been labelled “road movie” and started demanding more of them from their writers and directors. One of them was Two-Lane Blacktop, a screenplay written by Michael Laughlin, which drew from his real life experiences and told the story of two young men who travel across the country in their car. When the screenplay was presented to director Monte Hellman, he felt that it lacked something. He hired another writer, cult author Rudolph Wurlitzer, to help him polish the material, and then came up with the final version of the story.
The movie focuses on two nameless young men, simply known as the Driver (James Taylor) and the Mechanic (Dennis Wilson), who are obsessed with the racing world and compete in California with no reason other than because they can. The two men, whose relationship is never established, live in their car, a modified 1955 Chevy One Fifty, which also serves as their workplace, given that they only make money out of racing. As the two men travel on the iconic Route 66, they meet a young girl (played by Laurie Bird) who joins them—again, with no apparent reason other than because she can—and becomes involved with both of them.
Their apparently aimless trip achieves some purpose when they encounter an older driver simply known as GTO (played by Warren Oates) who dares them to a race all the way to Washington D.C. with the winner taking the other’s car. The film then follows them as they go from town to town, DP Jack Deerson’s camera capturing engrossing vistas, as well as smaller scale scenes which seem to be as aimless as the characters. The camera work flows beautifully, but unlike films of the era it never focuses on anything, it never intends to show us something specific.
What could the screenwriters and directors be trying to say about America with the ambiguous nature of this movie? Perhaps the secret behind the magic exerted by Two-Lane Blacktop is precisely that it seems as enigmatic as the trips taken by real life people. That it doesn’t have anything “important” or “poignant” to say about its time and setting makes it even more poignant than movies that preach or explore subjects with morbidness. Its effortlessness makes it seem much smarter than it actually is.
There are times when we are led to believe that the film might be an exercise in seeing how far Hellman can push the hype that accompanied the movie’s production, into actually delivering a brilliant work of art. There are elements about its production that seem too planned to be accidental; for example, the fact that both Taylor and Wilson (a founding member and drummer of The Beach Boys) are musicians and yet the movie doesn’t feature a single song by them, in fact, unlike other road movies of the era, this one is mostly remembered for not using music as a defining factor.
By the time the movie arrives to its strange conclusion, which seems to be extracted from both Rebel Without a Cause and Persona, we are forced to wonder if in fact this is one of those movies that is entirely about the way in which film reflects life. Had we been in the presence of a metaphysical account of how films work, as opposed to a youth-liberating piece of post-hippie artistic production?
Decades after its release, the beauty of Two-Lane Blacktop is how its history became so tied to the way in which each generation perceives it. The movie changes meaning from decade to decade and, unlike many other movies that inspired it, it has managed to remain somewhat timeless, it still doesn’t show its age.
The Blu-ray edition presented by the brilliant folks of the Criterion Collection might be the best release to date. Considering how the movie remained out of print for ages and it took two decades to get it released for home media in the United States, this might be the ultimate edition. The transfer supervised by Hellman himself is breathtaking, even if the movie never tries to be beautiful intentionally. There’s also a commentary with Hellman, who is much more eloquent than his characters (this could’ve been a silent movie and still worked).
Other extras include interviews with Taylor, Kris Kristofferson and the producers (Wilson died quite young and only outtakes remain of his experience during the shooting). Also included are publicity stills and pictures from the production, as well as a booklet with an essay by Ken Jones, the screenplay and an appreciation by the great Richard Linklater.