Two Lane Blacktop (1971), Dir: Monte Hellman, Criterion Collection
Is there anything left unsaid about the greatness of Two Lane Blacktop? Note to the uninitiated: Two Lane is the epitome of that modern American art form, the road movie. Easy Rider established the genre (For The Mainstream) with its counter-culture quest for the self unraveling along the American highway.
Two Lane took this concept to another level, breaking all the tropes down to a bare minimum until all that remains are characters named ‘Driver’ and ‘Mechanic.’ Even more telling is that the cars (a ’55 Chevy and a ’70 Pontiac GTO) are characters themselves, who rival the humans for prominence as they fly through our languid landscape. While Easy Rider overtly referenced that other great American genre, the Western (protagonists named Wyatt and Billy), Two Lane thematically and stylistically bears the trait that defines the greatest heroes of the West: restraint. Two Lane replaces both the horse and the gun with the cars; the drag races that move the narrative are metonymical gunfights. Curiously, the journey has been inverted—our protagonists travel west to east, and their path seems to have neither goal, nor an end in sight. The quest has been reduced to nothingness: these characters go just to go.
Director Monte Hellman’s vision leaves exposition by the wayside, allowing the visuals to elicit devastating emotions from the weight of simply being; framing often removes the audience from the usual role of spectator, putting us inside the existence-defining action (or non-action). In the film’s opening, a figure glows in the darkness as he switches the red-green light signal that starts a street race. The figure—isolated in that one tiny but momentous moment—is removed from any cultural assumptions as the illumination of Hellman’s mesmerizing frame grants him transcendence from any identifiable existence. Hellman’s elliptical style recalls European auteurs such as that other non-actor-employing existentialist Bresson or that former painter Antonioni. But the American tradition is also strongly felt. Working for Roger Corman trained Hellman in the fast buck, no-budget school of filmmaking. Corman’s first film was The Fast and Furious, a racing picture. Car and highway culture are, after all, vital elements of Americana. Mesh that with counterculture fallout and youthful ennui and you arrive at the makings of a road movie.
Hellman’s mastery of efficient, minimal storytelling is evident in the power and beauty of Two Lane’s simple, stripped down visuals. Those seeking a story-driven plot and tangible character motivations will find Two Lane challenging. What makes Two Lane rewarding is the dream-like state it evokes from seemingly mundane moments. The Brooklyn Rail’s very own film editor David N. Meyer is featured on one of the two commentary tracks on this deluxe edition, in which he had the honor of interviewing Two Lane screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer. Meyer and Wurlitzer pose the question “What is a road movie?” On a basic level they posit a simple aspect of a multi-layered definition: it is so American to be able to use so called low-culture, such as that of gear heads and drag racing, as a lens through which to examine some seriously heavy metaphysical shit. Ultimately it doesn’t matter if anyone wins the race—the drive exists forever in a dreamscape.
When it comes to heavy metaphysical shit, David Wilentz knows whereof he speaks.
David Wilentz dreams in color.