Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

Repeat | May 9, 2016 | Carlos Castillo

Reviews of “Blacktop” often use words such as "existential" and "metaphorical" to describe the film, terms often associated with the intellectual high ground. And, indeed, “Blacktop” can work on this level.

On the other hand, you could probably watch it with your local grease monkey with little regard for film semiotics and he’d probably get a kick out of it, too. One of my favorite utterances in film history is when the driver (played perfectly by James Taylor, he of “Whenever I see your smiling face” fame) is negotiating a race with a local yokel. I won’t give away the line, but it’s electric. Having said that, “Blacktop” is definitely not a “Make my day,” “I’ll be back” kind of film.

If you’re idea of a great film is witty repartee, quick cuts, postmodern cleverness and other enabling techniques for our distracted, attention-constrained populace, you’ll probably bitch and moan that “Two-Lane Blacktop” is boring and too slow. If that’s the case, go stream the latest installment of “The Fast and the Furious” and be off with you.

Director Monte Hellman did a terrific job because he balanced out what is essentially a traditional narrative (two guys on a road trip) and sprinkled in some nicely obtuse moments that keep you guessing, but in a good way. Hellman could have easily veered too far afield and lost the viewer with the off-kilter stuff. Instead, these questions and contradictions lend a cinematic seasoning that just works.

Taylor as The Driver and his sidekick, The Mechanic (played by former Beach Boy Dennis Wilson) are perfectly paired. They’re like an old married couple that communicates without talking much. Playing off these two ciphers is the great Warren Oates as a serial bullshitter whose world is coming a bit undone. His scene with the equally great Harry Dean Stanton is classic. Again, the restraint registered by Director Hellman is awe-inspiring. How many directors with a Hollywood ticket would have made these gutsy calls?

The roadside locations of “Two-Lane Blacktop” are the dirty bare feet of a beautiful blonde America. Again, nothing overtly black and white here. Hellman eschews obviousness and refrains from putting things too much on the nose. Instead he uses the landscape as tool to convey what’s not being said.

To keep with my approach to discussing this movie, I’ll refrain from saying too much about the narrative and my takeaway from specific scenes. You’ll come to your own conclusions and that’s what’s beautiful about this movie.

I think so much of “Blacktop” that if I had to pick between it and “Easy Rider,” I’d choose the former. Both movies have similarities and originated around the same time, but “Easy Rider” made a ton of money while “Blacktop” and its director faded into obscurity.

However, “Blacktop” has accrued it adherents, including me, over the years. To be honest, I don’t know if I’d have appreciated the subtlety in my earlier days, so maybe it’s best watched with more than a few decades under your belt.

“Blacktop” is a haunting movie in another way, too. You see a young James Taylor, his demons still percolating beneath the surface; Dennis Wilson would battle addiction for much of his short life; Laurie Bird, who played the aimless hitchhiker with a quiet desperation, killed herself in the late 1970s; and Warren Oates burned out way to soon, dying at 53.

Turn off your Smartphone, put the computer to sleep, draw the shades, take a long piss and watch this movie in the dark with no distractions. It represents a high-water mark for a type of cinema that no longer exists.


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