Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) Directed by Monte Hellman

A big part of the appeal of this movie are the names James Taylor and Dennis Wilson. Think sentimental and druggie musician hippies from Laurel Canyon who almost in their sleep end up making a cult classic about cars. That's where sentimentality and music end though. This film is only about driving in a race car across the US, stopping at gas stations and at races, then driving a lot more.

I don't care for cars and I don't know anything about engine talk, but I have grown to love traveling long-distance in a car. In the monotony of rhythm, the scenery, the gas stations and most importantly the road, there is something romantic that begins to take form the longer you go on. That's what this film captures.

The Driver and the Mechanic look like hippies, but we never learn anything much about them through dialogue. At one of their early gas station stops a young hippie Girl (Laurie Bird) gets into the back seat and there she stays from then on. Her presence brings a second element to the car. Through their infatuation with her, the men reveal something of themselves. But still, no dialogue, really. Just events and actions.

The GTO (Warren Oates) drives a ridiculous looking yellow sports car. He is a sleeze. He does a lot of talking in his vehicle picking up hitch-hikers (sign of the times) and telling a different life story every time. From passing on the road, the GTO and the driver decide to race each other all the way to Washington. The Girl flirts with the GTO, she teases him and very quickly he thinks he is in love with her. But really, this is a side story while the cars are even credited as actors in the end credits.

The early 1970's seemed to be a time when movies depicted certain kinds of unsettled characters through their relationship to traveling in the US and the endless roads. Think of Five Easy Pieces (1970) with Jack Nicholson for example. These may have also been the last innocent years of romanticizing cars and the freedom they offer without dealing with the consciousness caused by pollution.

The Girl was wonderful. I wanted to be her.

I've never totally got the Beach Boys. I really enjoy a few of their albums and I appreciate their influence (hello Animal Collective) but have never understood the critics' infatuation with the band. They must be the most written about band who have released the biggest number of crappy albums. Even the Stones have a better good to bad ratio. A couple of years ago the late wild boy of the Beach Boys, Dennis Wilson, had a solo album (Pacific Ocean Blue) re-issued which everyone claimed was the second coming. To me it sounded like Joe Cocker doing late period Phil Collins. In your wildest nightmares can you imagine that combination? Not good.

So we come to Two-Lane Blacktop, a movie I'd not seen before but read a lot about. "Cult classic!" "The best performances by rock stars in a movie ever!" Yes, you got it, Dennis Wilson is in it. But this time they were right, Two- Lane Blacktop is great. There is no plot really, no emotion, no great script. Just realism and lots of car talk.
The Driver, played by James Taylor (better and cooler in this than any song he ever sung) and The Mechanic (Wilson) travel around America in a Primer Grey 55 Chevy entering Drag Races for money. Every word Wilson's character spews is related to the spark plugs, converters, tires etc. Taylor just drives. They pick up a girl (The Girl, played by Laurie Bird) and she just listens to more car talk. What gives the film extra gravitas for me is Peckinpah regular, the great Warren Oates, who plays G.T.O. (he drives a Pontiac GTO).

Oates' character is a man who tells lots of lies and drives his Pontiac around and picks up sundry hitch-hikers. He challenges the two main protagonists to a race. That's all that happens really, apart from a lot of driving. It's worth noting that Tarrantino's awful film Death Proof borrowed heavily from this and Vanishing Point without coming anywhere near the depth and style of either film. Two-Lane Blacktop is a Zen road movie about cars. It's in love with the roar of the engine and burning rubber. No film has explored the relationship between man and car better than this one. This could be one of the best films I've ever seen. Or not. It's certainly strange and original. I don't even drive a car and enjoyed this.


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