PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Reviews

Two-Lane Blacktop

Bruce Dancis
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

The legacy of Two-Lane Blacktop has survived all these years, and this superb new DVD will assure that the film will not be forgotten.


Two-Lane Blacktop

Director: Monte Hellman
Cast: James Taylor, Warren Oates, Laurie Bird and Dennis Wilson
MPAA rating: N/A
Subtitle: Criterion Collection
First date: 1971
US DVD Release Date: 2007-12-11

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.

7

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.

Books

Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon
Music

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.

Music

'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.

Music

ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.

Music

The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.

Books

Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.

Film

Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.

Music

Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".

Music

John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.

Music

The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.

Music

Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.

Music

In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.

Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.