For an American movie director whose work lies far outside the Hollywood mainstream, and whose films have been seen by relatively few people and made little money, Monte Hellman has quite a reputation.
He’s often discussed with the other young directors and actors — such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich and Jack Nicholson — who received their early training from low-budget producer Roger Corman and emerged on the scene in the late ’60s and early `70s.
Hellman is included in the new book, 501 Movie Directors: A Comprehensive Guide to the Greatest Filmmakers, edited by Steven Jay Schneider, and receives praise from Ephraim Katz in The Film Encyclopedia for his “keen visual sense and original ideas.” And David Thomson, in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, refers to Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop, from 1971, as a “transformation of contemporary America into existential parable.”
That “existential” label has been a tough one for Hellman to escape, as it’s been applied to the Corman-produced Westerns he made in the mid-`60s with Nicholson, Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting, and especially Two-Lane Blacktop.
“I hate to acknowledge the existential stigma the movie has had attached to it,” Hellman says to James Taylor, co-star of Two-Lane Blacktop, in a 2007 interview that accompanies the excellent new DVD of the film. But the director recognizes that his film, which has achieved cult status despite being hard to see, was very different from other contemporary movies.
“It didn’t really have a story; it really became about day-to-day life,” Hellman admits in another interview on the DVD, this one featuring his daughter Melissa (who had a small part in the film as a child), four of his film students at Cal Arts and Hellman himself, all crammed into a van — like the film’s characters were crammed into their car — as they return to some of the settings of the film.
Two-Lane Blacktop begins and ends with The Driver (Taylor) engaged in a street race in his souped-up 1955 Chevrolet, which is maintained by his partner, The Mechanic (Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys). While stopping at a diner on the road from California (the actual Route 66), an underage young woman, The Girl (Laurie Bird), jumps out of a hippie van and climbs into the back seat of their car, and they drive off without a word exchanged.
Further down the road in New Mexico they encounter an older man (Warren Oates) driving a new GTO, and some mutual bad-mouthing results in a race and a bet for “pinks”: whoever gets to Washington, D.C., first wins the pink slip to the other car.
But as they drive through Texas, Arkansas and parts east, the four protagonists become friendlier, with The Mechanic even repairing the GTO at one point. The race isn’t important anymore, to either the characters or the filmmaker. What Hellman is interested in are these four people, though he leaves much of their back stories and inner thoughts to the viewer’s imagination.
Two-Lane Blacktop succeeds, despite its lack of a real plot or any significant thematic tension, for several reasons. It has a fresh, free look as Hellman fills the wide screen with lovely views of the Southwest. The contrast between the low-key, taciturn performances of its two musician stars (who make no music in the film) and the tense, highly verbal Oates is fascinating. And the film serves as a time-capsule showing both young American men and their love of cars and the search for new types of friendships and relationships in the tumultuous early ’70s.
Despite the presence of two genuine rock stars — Taylor’s breakthrough album, “Sweet Baby James” had just been released and was an instant success when filming started in 1970, and the Beach Boys were still very popular — and big, pre-release stories hyping the movie in Rolling Stone and Esquire magazines, Two-Lane Blacktop flopped at the box office. It ended up being the only movie Taylor or Wilson ever made, and it derailed Hellman’s career.
As Hellman explains in a DVD interview and critic Kent Jones points out in a printed essay accompanying the DVD, Two-Lane Blacktop was one of five films financed by Universal in the studio’s attempt to reach the youth market in the wake of the huge and unexpected success of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider. (The other movies were The Hired Hand, Taking Off, Diary of a Mad Housewife, and The Last Movie.)
But Universal head Lou Wasserman never liked either the idea in general or Two-Lane Blacktop in particular, and ended up cutting out all advertising for the film. When it opened in New York, Hellman says, not a single ad ran in any newspaper or on radio or TV.
Yet the legacy of Two-Lane Blacktop has survived all these years, and this superb new DVD, with a restored high-definition digital transfer supervised by Hellman, a reprint of Rudy Wurlitzer’s screenplay, and many additional bonus features, will assure that the film will not be forgotten.