Long out of circulation because of disputes over music rights, Two-Lane Blacktop, now available on DVD, is one of the most original and compelling American movies of the twentieth century. It is a road movie, a film about cars, and a search for meaning in American life that could easily be called "Zen and the Art of Drag Racing". Shot from the inside of a car, it is an authentic vision of what it is like to be driving across America at a specific historical moment. Promoted by Universal Studios in 1971 as an answer to Columbia's Easy Rider, the film was originally released to less than enthusiastic audiences but has since taken on the status of cult classic and it is richly deserved. Unlike Easy Rider, it is a film that simply observes and what it sees is pure Americana: its people, gas stations, diners, and drag strips. We feel the claustrophobia, the spaces, the speed, and the loneliness. The film stars singers James Taylor (Fire and Rain) and Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys as taciturn drag races who drive their souped-up 1955 Chevy across the country challenging locals to a drag race. The main characters are drifters. They come from nowhere and are headed east, toward a destination that is murky at best. They are people whose reality begins and ends with their machines. Everyone talks about how good life can be -- somewhere else -- in New York, Chicago, the beaches of Florida, and the coast of Mexico, somewhere up the road apiece. Warren Oates, a Monte Hellman regular, turns in a truly outstanding performance as the driver of a Pontiac GTO who challenges Taylor and Wilson to a cross-country race, the prize being the ownership of the cars. GTO is a talkative fellow who concocts tall tales about his background to impress every hitchhiker he picks up (one is a gay cowboy played by Harry Dean Stanton). He is a sad and perhaps self-destructive individual but he is human and you can reach out to him and feel his pathos. First time actors Taylor and Wilson express little emotion and there is scant dialogue but they also seem right for their roles. Their total focus is on their car. Though the Chevy looks old and ugly, it is as powerful as any car on the road and the driver and the mechanic treat it like their own flesh and blood, constantly fine tuning to maintain its impeccable performance. They go from town to town, just trying to survive by racing. In the words of author John Banville, they "have no past, no foreseeable future, only the steady pulse of a changeless present". Along the way they pick up a cherubic young roadie (Laurie Bird) who is willing to go wherever the ride takes her. After each of the boys has sex with her in motel rooms and in the car, she becomes moody and resentful and fears that she is being used but has nowhere else to go. Though the main thrust of the plot is the race to Washington, DC, the focus seems to get lost along the way, and the film becomes more of a character study of the lack of human connection than about racing. The film looks for the soul of America in the early 1970s and comes up empty. It was released in 1971 at a time when the hopes and dreams of the '60s counter culture had given way to the disillusion of Kent State and Altamonte, the bombing of Cambodia, and the media's cynical preemption of the Hippie movement. The movie is about everything and nothing. Everyone is biding their time waiting for life to turn out rather than creating the possibility. Though they live for the moment there is no joy, only the gnawing reality of something missing. They are like many of us, skimming along on the surface of life, reminiscing about a goal that once seemed real but is now just out of reach. They look ahead to a blank future, while ignoring the life around them, what is in the present moment. Two-Lane Blacktop is an exceptionally beautiful film, a poetic description of a world without possibilities. It may also be the definitive statement of the anguish of the materialist paradigm that has begun to crumble and fall apart.
2 men drag-racing across the U.S., in a '55 Chevy. Dennis Wilson's the mechanic, James Taylor's the driver.
December 12, 2020