“It’s not some metaphorical struggle between two mighty kings of the road. It’s more like a self-deceiving ritual carried out by two of its prisoners.”
In their April 1971 issue, the editors of Esquire boldly declared an as-yet unreleased film from Universal Pictures entitled Two-Lane Blacktop “Our nomination for the Movie of the Year.” They didn’t bury this pronouncement in the text of an accompanying article. No. They put it right on the cover, where anybody walking by a newsstand or glancing at a coffee table or waiting patiently for an appointment with their shrink could see it. Then, almost as a way of insuring that raised eyebrows would ensue, they kicked everything up a notch by publishing, in its entirety, the film’s screenplay.
By magazine standards of the day, this was a strange and audacious commitment. Screenplays have rarely been known for their readability, and mass-market publications simply didn’t go out of their way to reproduce their contents; or, for that matter, gush so extravagantly and with such bald certainty over films that were technically still in production at press time (it is, of course, a far more common occurrence here in the age of Ain’t It Cool News). What was going on? This wasn’t the overheated enthusiasm of an undisciplined fan magazine like Film Culture, after all — such presumptive fanfare had been de rigeur in that quarter since about 1957 — this was Esquire, for pity’s sake. The same Esquire Launched by the Hearst corporation in 1933 as a kind of periodical devotion to the sensibilities of literate, chest-beating Hemingway manqués; serving up everything from cheesecake Calendar Girl pinups to works of fiction and nonfiction by many of the day’s finest authors (even Papa himself). By the Spring of 1971, thanks to its having incubated the New Journalism revolution, Esquire was arguably one of the ten most respected publications in America, maintaining an astonishingly high level of literary excellence with apparently little effort. Yet here they were, throwing the full weight of their credibility behind what looked to be yet another Youth Culture cash-in out of Hollywood.
Only at this many years’ remove does the rationale for this decision appear, well, rational. Cinema — or rather, the formal appreciation of cinema — was an approved cultural fashion in many areas of American life, owing no small debt to the advance in the preceding decade of various so-called New Waves in Great Britain, France, Italy, Japan, and South America. Attending this had been a gradual absorption into the bloodstream of this country’s filmmaking of what can only be described as the drive-in aesthetic pioneered by marginal outfits like American-International Pictures in the late 1950s. There was, at all levels, a greater interest in fast and tawdry expression, generally, though not always, aimed at a younger audience. Along with the collective crashing of New Waves, it had the effect of flooding sensibilities so completely that film genres heretofore ignored by mainstream culture as no more than oatmeal for the feeble-minded or cheap diversion for the Clearasil set were regarded with a more discerning, somewhat more appreciative eye. American Cinema, at least its industrialized sector in Hollywood, seemed to have been revitalized overnight, and it soon dawned on a once-passive segment of the movie-going public that a much broader spectrum of film artistry — a true American New Wave, if you will — was within reach. No one who still had the sense they were born with could witness the rise of a New & Improved motorcycle picture like Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, and the fall of bellowing cinematic mastodons such as Hello, Dolly and delude themselves any longer into thinking that this was all some kind of coincidence.
For many it was the herald of a new time, a precise time; a time when, say, knowing the difference between Satyajit Ray and Nicholas Ray ceased to be what it always seemed to have been: the preoccupation of fanatics and geeks. Now it was socially acceptable, in some circles even desirable. Who could have believed such a moment, brief as it ultimately was, would come to pass? For others — those who took their new-found “passion” for film (a favored construct of white, forward-moving members of the American middle class; a key Esquire demographic after WWII) and wore it stylishly, like a suit hand-tailored in Milan — it was a chance to look a bit more worldly, a bit more tuned-in to the currents of a vital culture than they had been in 1965. Just as today (for this rancid posture continues to infest what we still, without cracking a smile, call our film culture), these audiences were unshakable in the conviction that their treks to the art houses and revival houses were qualitatively different from all that low, indiscriminate, mere movie-going which other, more limited palettes — the slobs who piled into drive-ins and grindhouses; who didn’t give tuppence for which Ray was which and never would — always settled for.
But even if Esquire‘s Two-Lane Blacktop cover is reasonable in this climate, it still made them look like the biggest trend whores on the planet after the movie tanked that July; a circumstance they acknowledged rather shamefacedly three decades later. The changes wrought in Hollywood filmmaking — so elemental and enduring that this period currently stands as the single most romanticized epoch in the history of American cinema — were well-enough established that a backlash had an almost biological inevitability to it. It was also, to some degree, a well-deserved backlash; for while much critical rapture has been righteously squirted upon the so-called New Hollywood of the early ’70s, there came with the wheat a vast quantity of irredeemably modish chaff which, save for a handful of titles, has thankfully faded into the deepest obscurity. The minute self-styled maverick studio executives of the day like James Aubrey over at MGM caught wind of the unhinged social consciousness (and cachet) of the youth market — a segment of the audience now pursued with greater abandon than ever before — it seemed like every other film coming out of Hollywood was purporting to embody some sort of comprehensive distillation of the Now; to the point where the whole gaudy enterprise had become one of the more tiresome manifestations of pre-fab counterculture ever concocted.
While no amount of pseudo-contemporary swill such as The Sporting Club or The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart could make anyone long for the return of Thoroughly Modern Millie (maybe), there was an unnerving, almost militant wrongness about these movies nevertheless. Their desperation to catch up with the times was too leaden, too naked; the perspiration stains they left on those who had transit with them were bound to get annoying. This was that hour.
More than any film of the period, Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop fell victim to Hollywood’s piggy-back on an already overtaxed zeitgeist. It barely registered with audiences; and even the mass-market critics who found in it cause for admiration all tended to linger on the elliptical, ghost-like plot, the nameless characters, the bare minimum of dialogue and explication, the wisp of a denoument; most of them choosing to write about the film as another entry in the Now ledger that somehow succeeded in spite of itself. “Existential,” the all-weather white flag of rhetorical surrender, was hauled out repeatedly that summer. But this also was inevitable. Confronted by a strange, aphoristic movie about a society built around gas stations, AM radio squawks, hamburger joints, cheap motels and lounges — whose very identity had become inextricably bound to the empty symbology of the automobile — anyone could have predicted that film critics would either dismiss it outright as a failed, pretentious hot rod picture or fall back to the safe house of standardized critical terminology.
Far from a land bursting with rude vitality, the American Southwest of Two-Lane Blacktop is the most disillusioned place on earth. Not physically blighted as it had been in the 1930s, or as ruggedly depersonalized as our dense, logo-rotten vistas today, but pretty darn bleak. It’s there in the inert, benumbed, interchangeable towns; all half-lit electric signs, peeling paint, tired Coca-Cola machines. It’s there in the people we see on the margins, their general isolation from the larger world, their collective and total absorption in cars — slick cars, badass cars, chopped-down, tuned-up, beaten, dead, and rusted-out cars; cars left to rot, cars that barely move, and cars that never seem to stop. They’re everywhere you look. As the only tangible forms with any life in them, automobiles hold an easy dominion in the mise-en-scene of Hellman’s film without once crowding the expanse of the Techniscope frame; almost as a tacit form of mockery toward the empty spaces they and their drivers pass through en route to wherever something might be happening.
You would think no one had an interest in anything else. Like refugees from a Nathanael West novel, they gather of an evening beneath the blackened, starless heavens to watch two of those dream machines race up (or down) a tiny ribbon of highway; they stand awestruck in a loose circle around a tricked-out 1955 Chevrolet piloted by two automaton drag race hustlers (Dennis Wilson and James Taylor), speaking of its wonders with muted reverence as though such chariots represented the glue that holds their universe together; the more restless among them take to the road as hitch-hikers, moving from car to car in search of a deeper connection with everything they represent, whatever that might be. But there’s no connection to be had; not for them, not even for the motorists behind the wheel. As that obsessed, weirdly upbeat character (Warren Oates) in the driver’s seat of a shiny new Pontiac G.T.O. could tell you (if he were only aware of it), you can live on these highways, forever bounce like a red rubber ball from one end of the country to the next, and never really move an inch.
Which is not to say that his is a dreary voyage, however aimless it might appear. Hell no. Compared to those two jokers in the Chevy — a grim duo by all measure — this guy exists in an invariant state of exaltation; loaded up with everything a man could need to make him the best-heeled desert nomad this side of Howard Hughes: a dapper wardrobe (wool slacks, white shirts, ascot; a panoply of Sy Devore cashmere sweaters, each a different color), enough stimulants squirreled away in the trunk to keep his synapses running at Mach 3 for a decade, an unending stream of hitch-hikers to share his ride (he’s always going where they’re going). The car makes this life possible, you see. He lives for it, and it’s all he ever talks about; tirelessly reciting its unseen gifts to his passengers as though the vehicle stats sitting in the glove box were a rare and beautiful swell of prose set down by an unknown hand in an office somewhere in Detroit. Zero to 60 in 8.4 seconds; quarter-mile in 13.4. 390 horsepower, 500 foot pounds torque. Who knows what any of it means, and who cares? Like Homer’s Catalogue of Ships or the recorded succession of generations in the Old Testament, these are just the maddening, mind-numbing details without which the wild poetry of the whole would rest uncompleted. It’s a 1970 Pontiac (need any more be said?), and it’s the most real thing he’s ever laid his hands on.
Reality, we discover, is a highly tenuous thing to him. For example, his favorite topic of discussion (apart from the enduring majesty of the G.T.O.) is how he got that fine canary yellow baby in the first place. No two versions are ever the same — he bought the car in Bakersfield, he won it in Vegas, he’s test-driving it for Detroit; take your pick — each account part of a tale of life-altering triumph (or tragedy) that somehow put him on the road and kept him there. What’s remarkable is that, despite his shape-shifting history, he never fails to disclose himself with anything less than unwavering candor. Implicit is the notion that every story he unfurls could be true. And that’s all that matters. In his telling, each story becomes an individual thread in a communal narrative that, like any true mythology, is totally impregnable to the depredations of reason. He’s not a schizophrenic (not yet), nor is he a middle-aged fantasy merchant deep in flight from the real world. Through the light cast by Warren Oates’ justly celebrated performance, he’s the proxy for every imagination that ever bought into the cruel, delusive mythos spun around the internal combustion engine; a kind of spiritual cousin to Flannery O’Connor’s most touching creation, the lost, half-maddened Bible student Enoch Emory of her 1952 novel Wise Blood, abjectly searching the darker corners of someone else’s lies for a moment of ultimate transcendence that cannot be his.
The centerpiece of Two-Lane Blacktop Is a race; an Arizona to D.C. contest between the G.T.O. and the ’55 Chevy, with the winner receiving full title to the loser’s vehicle, pink slip and all. In the film’s longest, most complex sequence, a gavotte of circling intentions where the race is proposed and its terms agreed upon, the driver of the G.T.O. stares at this adversary vehicle. “I can take him,” he says quietly, his eyes and voice betraying a sudden, forbidding intensity, “I know I can take that antique.” Well, he has his work cut out for him. That antique is a monster in every respect: a soulless, primer gray, no-frills behemoth; built, rebuilt, customized, and fine-tuned to the performance standard of a cut-price spaceship; tended to with monk-like devotion by two long-haired zombies who’ve made for themselves a totally joyless existence driving from one hick burg to another, challenging everyone who thinks they have the fastest set of wheels in town. “They’re not for you,” the G.T.O.’s pilot says to a post-pubescent hitch-hiker (Laurie Bird) who manages to attach herself to the three of them, “All they think about is cars.” Which is absolutely true. No one in Two-Lane Blacktop has a life or a presence that isn’t tied in one way or another to the automobile, no one has a past (except for the guy in the G.T.O.; and he’s got so many they all cancel each other out), no one has a name.
Where any other film would have devoted the balance of its narrative to the ensuing race, drawing what suspense could be gotten from this time-worn storytelling model, Hellman and his principal screenwriter, Rudolph Wurlitzer, utterly refuse to have truck with such weather-beaten material. It’s not some metaphorical struggle between two mighty kings of the road. It’s more like a self-deceiving ritual carried out by two of its prisoners. The race is at best a listless affair — virtually a pretext for its principals to move in and out of each other’s space — with all the competitory spirit that might have been its motor rapidly falling to the lethargy everything else dwells in. It begins . . . and then it drifts away.
Little wonder then that critics still reach for the word “existential” when writing about Two-Lane Blacktop; though, in fairness, Monte Hellman’s career to that point does make the reach somewhat easy. As one of several directors of note to labor for Roger Corman’s cinema packing plant of the 1960s, Hellman’s career pursued a common trajectory (work, both credited and uncredited, on orthodox drive-in fare such as The Beast of the Haunted Cave and Corman’s anybody-can-direct opus, The Terror) to an uncommon failure. He had latched onto Hellman in 1959, the story goes, after investing in a production of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot Hellman staged in Los Angeles. Despite the good luck charm of Corman’s overextended guidance, Hellman failed to vault himself to the mainstream glory directors like Francis Ford Coppola or (later) Jonathan Demme achieved (Two-Lane Blacktop is the only film Hellman has directed for a major studio); establishing instead a remarkable facility for imbuing low-budget commercial subjects with a sensibility more akin to a Japanese New Wave stalwart than, say, Jack Hill. It was the incredible austerity of Hellman’s revisionist genre films — Flight to Fury (1964); his Western diptych, Ride in the Whirlwind (1965) and The Shooting (1967) — that gave anyone all the indication they would ever need that this was not a director the mainstream could comfortably assimilate. By the time he made Two-Lane Blacktop, the manner of Hellman’s work was so much like that of the so-called Art Cinema that it fairly begged to be hit with the most debased critical nomenclature going; linguistic shortcuts like “existential” that Hollywood product was burdened with only rarely.
And this would have been no more than another fine joke on the institution of film criticism, were it not for the fact that Two-Lane Blacktop is anything but existential (whatever definition you choose for that vacant term). It’s not a Youth Culture cash-in. It isn’t satirical or even vaguely ironic. With a single-minded focus on the automobile and all its accumulated symbolic stature in American life, Hellman and Wurlitzer afforded themselves a closely observed vision of such chastity that one would think the two had resolved from the first to gather up all the bright white expectations of the 20th century and, with embittered intent, deliver them to their absolute terminus; using the talisman of an age, in other words, to chart the putrefaction of a moribund ideal.
When Senator John F. Kennedy pledged to get this country moving again in 1960, after all, he was talking about an unbridled, insurgent America; not the one Woody Guthrie said was made for you and me. It was a time in history when America’s benign self-image went on an open rampage. We’d already stomped Fascism into jelly, hadn’t we? Now the world would reap the benefits. It was literally that simple. In the aggregate, Kennedy’s pledge was the liberal-internationalist ethos of the 1950s reaching its fullest articulation. Our leaders dreamed in their slumber of a New Frontier the way cinephiles dream of New Waves. And such was this country’s idealism as that decade closed that nobody — except perhaps a handful of septuagenarian anarchists in public library reading rooms — would ever dare despoil the grandeur of everything that lay ahead of us with a lot of cynical, retrograde questions about where America would be moving to when all was said and done.
Back in those days (before the whole thing hit a speed-bump in Southeast Asia) you had public intellectuals on the left-liberal end of the spectrum like John Kenneth Galbraith writing books calling us — in celebration muted but no less affirmative — an affluent society. That was bad enough. What made it worse, everyone seemed to be nodding their heads in a terrible unison. Imperialism? Class warfare? Be serious. That kind of hand-wringing was so 1930s; as quaint as a WPA mural in a Midwestern Post Office, as useful as a flickering broadcast of The Crowd Roars on KTLA at three in the morning. In the gleaming palace of the post-WWII era we lived and thrived on one big middle-class pasture of plenty, unencumbered by the outmoded whining of that Great Depression now so safely in the distance.
If this was true, and ours was indeed the ultimate triumph of the industrial age and the fulfillment of its heartfelt promise to make this country and the lives of all her citizens richer, fuller, more meaningful — a process said to have been set in motion by mass production of the automobile several decades earlier — then what better evidence could be cited, we were told, than the easy-to-afford gadgets that were supposedly a fact of life for everyone who wasn’t living in a refrigerator box outside the Hollywood Ranch Market? It was no accident, was it, that one of the great symbolic confrontations of the Cold War — the so-called “Kitchen Debate” between Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1959 — took place in the presence of a roomful of sparkling household appliances furnished by the Amana Corporation. Like Nixon on that occasion, we drew strength and succor from our machines, and in them we saw an awesome reflection of ourselves. Writers like Vance Packard and Sloan Wilson could sit back with their Götterdämmerungresignation and sneer at the status seekers and the men in the gray flannel suits all they wanted; fact was, every Pontiac, every color television set, every three-speed blender in America stood as proud testament to a hard-won supremacy. And now we were ready to hurl it at everyone.
Not everybody around the globe was quite so captivated by the spirit of the adventure as we were. Atavists in the Third World (some of whom probably never saw a toaster-oven in their lives) would soon be dragging their dusky heels as they were wont to do, calling it Pax Americana or something (the ungrateful wretches); all six syllables dripping with seven different kinds of scorn. To them our touring military/industrial fantasia was just a new and improved, whiter-than-white colonial con-game — the old feudalist racket, only this time sporting a trim waistline and a world-class haircut. Nobody, save for the crypto-fascist murderers we installed to lead our client states, wanted any part of it. But being the planet’s first superpower (the comic book implications of that term have never been coincidental), we owed it to the rest of the world to remake its so-called underdeveloped regions in our image before the feared (and usually imaginary) Soviet proxies got there first. Spreading what it pleased us to call our way of life was a missionary enterprise we accepted soberly, but also with great enthusiasm. It represented the drawn desire of our hearts. Everyone said so.
Of course, the last thing leaders who talked about getting America moving again had in mind was anybody stuck riding a gas pump or slinging hamburgers in Taos, New Mexico or some other dried-out husk of a place (the only advantage they could claim was that it was safer than harvesting rice in the Mekong Delta). Oh sure, the American people thought they had a stake in the great postwar global adventure — much of our popular culture told us nothing else — but they weren’t going anywhere, not unless it was in a uniform. They weren’t supposed to.
“You can never go too fast,” the driver of the Chevrolet says at one point; giving cheap voice to a principle as ultimately hollow as the adrenaline-rush allure of speed itself. Informed by a sense of sheer, unutterable melancholy and disillusionment, Two-Lane Blacktop — a film that, not so ironically, is everything the editors of Esquire claimed it to be and more — is, in the end, an unhappy record of that hollowness in all of its corroding purity; a visible inventory, from its first frame to its last, of everything that was left behind when America got moving again.