Saturday, 17 March 2012

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

Four people coming from nowhere, drifting, heading nowhere but rich in stories to tell, even if there are no words to describe them as their life is embodied solely in their racing vehicles or their never ending journey. This fiery classic by Monte Hellman has all the ingredients of a great cult movie: brilliant screenplay with extremely weird characters, passion, dark underbelly, fantastic photography and music. It's one of these late 60's & early 70's artifacts, which made to the silver screen only due to the fall of Old Hollywood, using created gap. Financed by Universal, Hellman's film flopped at the time of it's release against high expectations and very favorable press reviews, which dubbed it "the best movie of 1971". A blame in this case has been definitely on the studio executives, who folded the marketing machine promptly after the premiere and then tossed the picture down from big theatres to the drive-in circuit, where it played with exploitation goodies of freshly founded New World Pictures.

Nevertheless, the film eventually found it's public by becoming an obscure night player on American TV. This was fortunate and helped a lot to shelter Hellman's vision in fandom, which slowly has put it up to a cult status. By 2000 it was finally released on DVD after members of The Doors agreed to pass on the royalties to Moonlight Drive, one of many classic songs featured on the soundtrack. Since then "Two-Lane Blacktop" has begun it's second, glorious run, discovered by next generation of movie geeks and die-hard diggers of auteur cinema. Justice has been definitely reclaimed as next to "Easy Rider" and "Vanishing Point", this ravishing road flick is the shit, which shouldn't be missed by any serious cinema fanatic... and it's viewing is highly rewarding, bringing you these uncanny emotions of embracing the acid vision or a dream – both important levels of the epoch's speech. "Two-Lane Blacktop" is indeed an unique piece of creative lunacy.

Monte Hellman was initially another chap, stepping up the ladder of Roger Corman's "shoot today & edit tomorrow" film school in the 60's, which served as a catapult for such personalities as: Francis Ford Coppola, Dennis Hopper, Martin Scorsese or Peter Bogdanovich. He was actually one of this legendary crowd, who glued together "The Terror" (1963) when Corman left it after shooting few nonsense scenes on leftover props from "The Raven" (1962). In 1965 Hellman managed to get $150,000 from Corman to direct two westerns almost simultaneously. They were "The Shooting" and "Ride in the Whirlwind", both starring Jack Nicholson, released in 1968 and considered first "acid westerns" in history – today explained as a bizarre cross of revisionist western and hippiesploitation movies. Although these pictures never made a huge blast leaping high over exploitation pot boilers with their enigmatic plot structure, they are fascinating works, which have lead directly to Hellman's early 70's cult classics like "Two-Lane Blacktop" or "Cockfighter" (1974).

By the time Universal agreed to finance the production of "Two-Lane Blacktop" and forked $850,000, Monte Hellman has been already loking into a firm script by William Corry, but felt it's essence was kind of subpar and should have been reworked to match his ideas. This was assigned to Rudolph Wurlitzer – a fresh writer who just published his experimental novel, Nog (1969) – and Floyd Mutrux, who never got the credit by losing his case in Writer's Guild. Wurlitzer rewrote the screenplay completely, coming up with a copy of a more sophisticated nature, leaving a lot of symbolic space to play around for Hellman. Almost all shots were taken on Route 66, before it was transformed into a transcontinental highway and lost it's mythical allure, and then... the main actors were actual cars: heavily tuned up Chevy '55 and a brand new Pontiac G.T.O. '70 – both machines representing diverse values of car culture.

The film hits as an experimental theatre on the road featuring two hot rodders without a name: The Driver (James Taylor – a cult singer) & The Mechanic (Dennis Wilson – The Beach Boys drummer) going after any fluke in their Chevy '55. They're not really into money when dragging, they're just simply looking for means to make next part of two-lane blacktop... always ahead in their machine, which seems undoubtedly a centre of the world due to Hellman's witty frames, catching it as purely alienating space. Director seems to say with his camera: "That's it, man. There's nothing else" as dialogues are scarce and usually involve running a car or it's technical problems (very nerdy stuff, understandable only for club members). Even when guys meet a young hippie girl – another Summer Of Love dropout – who sneaks into their car to get a lift, they are not destined to end in some place with her. It's just another part of the game.

Action gets raised when they meet Mr. G.T.O. (fantastic role by Warren Oates) - a Pontiac driver, a guy who takes the road challenge and a compulsive liar, who keeps fabricating exploits about his life, passing them to hitchhickers... all for sake of going further down the road as if he'd like someone to cover his lack of purpose. The only moment when he starts to unveil his identity happens during the race, at front of The Driver, who squashes him immediately... as nobody really cares on the road, especially if they're racing for the wheels and the only thing that matters is the moment – very 60's psychedelic, hot rod ZEN message indeed. As they travel across America, the emptiness of their lives becomes strikingly apparent, but it's the only thing left after countercultural dreams went under... a freedom to ride.

This bitterswitness, soaked in post-revolutionary depression is a crucial undercurrent here, making "Two-Lane Blacktop" such a great picture. Even if we desperately try to grasp the meaning, it sneaks away as soon as the characters make another 100 miles. We basically run in the passenger's seat for this whole time just to get, that there are no simple answers, light always comes with a shadow and life will keep carrying on, no matter if you've already moved on or you're still hanging in there... the ending of the movie stands out as one of the greates scenes of American auteur cinema movement being correspondingly bold and confusing.

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