Thursday, February 14, 2013

Goin' Down the Road, Feelin' Numb: Two-Lane Blacktop

Laurie Bird, James Taylor, and Dennis Wilson in Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

    After the Altamont concert disaster in December 1969, when a fan was killed a few feet from the stage where The Rolling Stones were performing, psychedelia lost its middle-class appeal. More unpleasant news followed in 1970 the Kent State and Jackson State shootings, the Manson Family trials, the deaths by overdose of famous rock stars. And even more quickly than it had sprung up, the media fascination with the counterculture evaporated. 
    But the counterculture, stripped of its idealism and its sexiness, lingered on. If you drove down the main street of any small city in America in the 1970s, you saw clusters of teenagers standing around, wearing long hair and bell-bottom jeans, listening to Led Zeppelin, furtively getting stoned. This was the massive middle of the baby-boom generation, the remnant of the counterculture a remnant that was much bigger than the original, but in which the media had lost interest.
 Louis Menand, “Life in the Stone Age” (The New Republic, 1991)

A few years ago, the Criterion Collection came out with a box set devoted to the movies produced by Bert Schneider, Bob Rafelson, and Steve Blauner’s BBC productions in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, including Easy Rider, Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces, The King of Marvin Gardens, the Monkees vehicle Head, and Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show. The set established that the ‘70s renaissance in American movies resulted in a fair amount of unwatchable slop both Henry Jaglom’s debut film A Safe Place and, for anyone not enjoying an acid flashback, most of Easy Rider qualify but, taken as a whole, those movies represent a thrilling moment in popular culture, a time when a group of people who’d been excited by the French New Wave and other breakthrough European films in the ‘60s tried to bring something new to American movies, while keeping one foot in the studio system.

There might be another box set waiting to be assembled from the product of Universal’s “youth division,” which was set up in direct response to the success of Easy Rider and other counterculture hits that the studio bosses of the time simply found bewildering. Under the supervision of youthful studio executive Ned Tannen, a motley assortment of filmmakers, including two heavy hitters from Easy Rider, were basically given about a million dollars apiece and instructed to go nuts. The results including Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie, Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand, Milos Forman’s Taking Off, Frank Perry’s The Diary of a Mad Housewife, John Cassavettes’s Minnie and Moskowitz were, again, a mixed bag, but they add up to a snapshot of a fascinating time in American history and movie culture.

Laurie Bird and Warren Oates
The experiment also yielded one strange, near-masterpiece: Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop, which Criterion brought out in a gorgeous two-DVD set in 2007, which has now been upgraded to Blu-ray. The movie looks great. That said, I discovered Two-Lane Blacktop in the ‘80s, when the local CBS affiliate in New Orleans, which started showing all-night late movies back when round-the-clock TV broadcasting was still a novelty, used to run it in the late-late night, early-morning hours, its final moments leading directly into Sunrise Semester. I was living in Mississippi then, and the movie, snippets of which were jammed in between commercials for Al Scramuzza’s Seafood City and PSAs for animal adoption and those little informative booklets from the U.S. government, used to get fuzzier and fuzzier as dawn approached and the signal began to die. A part of me will probably always feel that this was the ideal way to see Two-Lane Blacktop, and not just because the movie ends with the film appearing to catch fire in the projector, so that it ends by literally burning itself out.

I have no idea what it was like to see Two-Lane Blacktop in a theater when it was brand new, but that’s something I have in common with the rest of humanity. The movie did no business, and there are grounds for suspicion that the studio’s real plan all along was to fund these pictures only to let them die on the vine, with minimal promotion, just to prove that the youth hits were flukes and the people responsible for them had no better idea what the public really wanted than the makers of Paint Your Wagon. Actually, it’s not true that Two-Lane Blacktop entirely bypassed the radar screens of the media barons and shapers of opinion of 1971. Esquire put its leading lady, Laurie Bird, on its cover, and published the entirety of Rudolph Wurlitzer’s screenplay inside. But the magazine’s attempt to anoint Two-Lane Blacktop as the “movie of the year” had so little effect on the box-office and public opinion that it ruefully alluded to the cover in their annual “Dubious Achievement Awards.”

Like Wurlitzer’s first novel, Nog, Blacktop is conceived as a sort of anti-road road story, with the spare, “existentialist” feel of The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, the low-budget Westerns that Hellman had made for Roger Corman. (However much Hellman got into it, and built a style out of it, their existential sparseness grew out of the fact that he didn’t have enough money to show much of anything except a few actors with horses and prop guns in a desert landscape.) The heroes are a nameless young driver (James Taylor, then in the first full flush of his music stardom) and his mechanic (Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson) who aimlessly roam around the country, getting into drag races for pick-up money. They cross paths with another nomad, a middle-aged man played by Warren Oates, who is identified only by the name of his car, GTO. Bird plays a hitchhiker who ends up being passed back and forth between the men, but sexual jealousy is the least of the motivations for the animosity that develops between Oates and the two younger men. He envies them their cool and their “freedom,” qualities that ought to make them ideal fantasy identification figures for the Easy Rider audience. Oates is too self-involved to see what the camera picks up immediately: that what looks like cool from a distance looks anomic, miserable, and pointless up close.

There’s no way of knowing how much Two-Lane Blacktop’s subversion of the cinema of counterculture cool was intentional on Wurlitzer’s part. The movie has similarities with the books he was writing at the time Nog was followed by Flats and Quake which are largely unreadable, partly because they’re emotionally inaccessible in a way that feels smug and arrogant. Smugness and arrogance aren’t exactly unknown in the iconography of James Taylor, who Hellman cast (in his only acting role) after seeing him practicing his intense, romantically pissed-off glare on a billboard in Los Angeles. None of the three young leads has any presence or acting technique; Taylor and Wilson are pop stars on paid vacation, and Bird is in the tradition of unskilled, untalented young women starring in movies because the director couldn’t think of a more cost-efficient way of asking her out. (Bird, who died in 1979 at the age of 25, also appeared in Hellman’s 1974 Cockfighter. After she and Hellman parted ways, she took up with Art Garfunkel, and had a bit part in Annie Hall, hanging on Paul Simon’s arm. That was her movie career.)

The movie belongs to Warren Oates, who had the chops and the rapport with the camera that the other performers didn’t have, and who was also the only one of them who was given a full copy of the script to peruse, which added considerably to the visible misery of James Taylor, who is reportedly a bit of a control freak. But Hellman who also worked with Oates on The Shooting, Cockfighter, and China 9, Liberty 37 understood that Oates, the real actor, had a reason for having the movie’s full game plan in his head, while the nonprofessionals might be best forced to keep things in the moment.

James Taylor in Two-Lane Blacktop
Even more so than Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, the vehicle Sam Peckinpah concocted for him as thanks for his years of loyal service, this is probably the closest Oates, a demi-god among character actors of his generation, came to carrying a movie. GTO is pathetic, a dreamer and bullshit artist who picks up hitchhikers and subjects them to different invented versions of his past, trying to convince himself that he’s interesting. But compared to the drab kids who make him burn with envy and frustration, he’s also a complicated, passionate man; the fact that his passions are misfiring, misdirected, and self-lacerating doesn’t make him less the hero of the piece. And the fact that Taylor’s and Wilson’s appeal here, as iconic figures of sexy, detached cool, is as palpable as it is inexplicable also serve to make GTO relatable. That appeal has only deepened with the years, as Two-Lane Blacktop, with its classic highway imagery and side-of-the-road diners and gas stations, has taken on a timeless quality, one that Taylor, with his lanky shoulder-length hair and blue-collar casual wardrobe, embodies. He doesn’t look any different that he does on the cover of Sweet Baby James, the album that sealed him in amber as the poster boy for the sensitive singer-songwriter movement, but here, in motion, he looks like the mysteriously angry guy at the thrift store that every ‘90s grunge band was trying to imitate.

Two-Lane Blacktop had the mixed fortune to be a movie about warring countercultures GTO is like a guy who read On the Road when he was younger and waited too long to try acting it out that managed to record the exact moment that the ‘60s morphed into the ‘70s, and solipsism replaced social engagement and the streets were taken over by young people who retained the styles and social mores of a few years earlier but abandoned the idealism and utopian hopes that were meant to lend those fashions revolutionary force. That, and the open question of just which of these characters is really meant to be the hero the sad old dude whose self-delusions have some magic to them, or the sexy, bland guys whose self-chosen loser status will only seem glamorous for as long as their hairlines hold out gives the movie a tension that’s mostly missing from Hellman’s work. After his next couple of films with Oates, he drifted away, and his 2010 comeback film Road to Nowhere, his first feature in more than 20 years is a 121-minute torture test. (The commercial failure of Two-Lane Blacktop cost him the chance to direct Wurlitzer’s script for Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, which went to Peckinpah. More than fifteen years later, Wurlitzer wrote and, with Robert Frank, co-directed his own anti-road movie, Candy Mountain, a thin-but-entertaining string of vignettes enacted by an amusing collection of hip character actors Kevin O’Connor, Harris Yulin, Roberts Blossom, Rockets Redglare and cult musicians.) Road to Nowhere is a title that could fit on any of Hellman’s movies, but Two-Lane Blacktop is the one that makes it look like a ride worth taking.

Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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