“What is this anyway? Some kind of masculine power trip? I’m shoved in the back with all the goddamn tools. Screwdrivers and wrenches don’t really do it for me, you know.”
Inside a grey-blue ’55 Chevy purportedly heading for Washington D.C., a hitchhiker, known to us only as the Girl (Laurie Bird), voices her displeasure in being relegated to the backseat of the car. Sitting up in the front are the Driver (James Taylor) and the Mechanic (Dennis Wilson), handsome, longhaired auto-fiends and perennial drag racers who are neither any more nor any less than what their names suggest them to be, disciples of the cruiser and the endless American road. The requirements to enter into this hermetic subculture are clear: keys to a slick car and a pair of balls. Without either, you don’t really belong, unless you can offer a quick lay and a neck massage.
The film’s key praxis can be best described in terms of a regime of delay and elision, effectively introduced in the first scene in which a group of police patrol cars break up the start to a compelling makeshift drag race (in fact, it’s a principle feature of the film that we never figure out the winner of any race). If the beginning of a film often provides the groundwork for the development of certain themes and concerns, Two-Lane Blacktop puts out the makings for a spectacular series of dragster contests only to depict subsequent races with the disinterested eye of a safari expedition, which is to say, from afar, with none of the extreme close-ups and exaggerated stunts we are accustomed to seeing in such sequences. It’s in these moments that the camera’s sterilizing gaze hints at what’s to become very apparent in the end, that the Driver and the Mechanic hardly care about racing any more than the Girl does. For the Driver and the Mechanic, racing is just a convenient way to earn the bucks to sustain their endless sojourn..
When the duo runs into the charismatic (if goofy) and garrulous man in a Pontiac GTO (Warren Oates) at a roadside gas station, a bogus plot is set into place that offers some semblance of narrative direction: a race to the nation’s capital; winner gets the other’s car. Two or three scenes later, it becomes clear that neither the Driver nor GTO is very much interested in seeing this competition played out to its conclusion. Instead, what occurs — and hence constitutes the body of the film — is a run-through of the whole gamut of American roadside heritage: pit stops at motels, gas stations, body shops, small towns and diners, with few words exchanged along the way between the characters. Entering and exiting these places become the prime markers of temporal passage. Two-Lane Blacktop is as much about driving on the road as it is about what it takes to sustain such a venture, hence, the Mechanic’s constant tinkering with the engine of the Chevy, his very presence, in fact, a sobering reminder of a paradoxical truth that accompanies the spirit of any youth cooperative: nothing lasts forever. And the film’s chosen mode of découpage reflects this grim certainty: through the briskly employed cuts and the static shots that capture the boundless space stretching beyond the characters and the perpetual sound of cars slicing the air. Tonally, the film is listless, which dovetails nicely with the characters’ nomadic agenda; but also ironic, given the kinds of masculine posturing they’re prone to displaying. Lacking conviction and a sense of vulnerability aren’t novel qualities to youth, but lacking vitality is. So apparent is this shortage that what’s suggested is that these characters are unwittingly the progenitors of their own mortality. They’re fed up, in a way, with life and all its offerings. The film’s listlessness (going back to the editing, the mise-en-scène, etc.) is responsible for setting up this antinomy, especially in the way in which it presents time as a sluggishly dissipating ordeal. These black lanes become a circle — a circle of hell, if you will — where there is no true repose, where one is continually just “passing by.” For characters whose raison d’être and gamesmanship are predicated on the cachet of speed, this is a terribly languorous film.
In line with the pace of the film are the muted facial expressions. The Driver’s is serious and existential, the Mechanic’s laid back and wry, both of which at once conjure up the blurred ethos of the romantic and the cynical (it helps that as famous musicians, James Taylor and Brian Wilson knew a thing or two about playing — and looking — cool). When the Girl asks the Driver if this is all a game, he replies, aptly, that he doesn’t know. Maybe that’s the best way to describe their faces, planes of uncertainty, or at any rate, faces that withhold judgment, hold it in abeyance. At first glance, it seems director Monte Hellman has taken a page from Robert Bresson. But whereas the latter famously discouraged the depiction of transparent emotion in the faces of his “models,” the former presents actors whose similarly condensed expressions are nonetheless thoroughly tinged with a restless pathos that belies their otherwise consistent gazes. Hellman works with subtle, pessimistic emotions: angst, apathy, boredom, and weariness. So understandably there is a dearth of affective fanfare. What results is sympathy (when done right, always a quiet affair), however, and not detachment. Not so Bressonian, on second thought, not when you have Bird and Oates smiling.
And as strange and new as the film seems on first viewing, there’s a sense that the images of these denim-clad men are all too familiar, that they’ve been culturally inscribed in our minds for a while now. I’m reminded of John Ford’s sprawling, long-distant shots of the American desert and his lead, John Wayne, leaning against a porch column, arms crossed, teeth clenching a cigarette. If Two-Lane Blacktop plays distant cousin to the Western, it’s only in a revisionary sense, as leftovers from the myth, the romantic gleam of the new frontier neatly erased and substituted by another as equally as romantic (and destructive). For these children of cowboys, the Californian desert is fool’s gold, so they venture off to the East, Florida for the Driver, New York for the GTO, not because they know that something is out there (namely, stability) but because, most probably, they truly hope that there is. At least in the older GTO’s case, he hopes to find in Florida (the marquee destination for retirees) the kinds of bourgeois comforts that he’s long been denied. Love, maybe, in the Driver’s case. Like Hollywood screwball and noir of the ’40s, whatever it is that men want, it always seems to start with a girl on whom their fantasies of settling down are constructed. And yet like Petrarch’s Laura, the Girl remains resolutely independent, unwavering in her commitment to being uncommitted to any one guy. In this way, her discontentedness is the key difference between her and the rest of the group. She’s dissatisfied, admits as much, and does something about it; she simply leaves, hopping onto the back of young man’s motorcycle without even saying goodbye. She may be fickle, but she’s assertive in a way that the men that surround her aren’t. The ease with which the Girl is able to shift from car to car, one man to the next, insists that in this Dantean circle of fire, she may eventually find a way out, something I can’t say for the Driver or GTO.
To be sure, Two-Lane Blacktop has elegiac overtones, only it’s less death per se that is being rued than its spectre, its looming presence that inheres in the film, particularly through the surfeit of memento mori the characters come across on the road. None is more illuminating than when the trio, on the road in another speed contest, nearly crashes into a bloody accident that has left one man dead and two cars toppled over (with a deliberateness reminiscent of the penultimate scene in Godard’s Contempt). Having safely swerved onto a thicket of grass, the Driver gets out and walks over to the mess on the road, while the Mechanic checks the car and consoles the Girl. “He was trying to pass this other car . . . the goddamn fool,” says the survivor, an old man, but before he can finish recounting the incident, another car pulls up (presumably the dead man’s wife and children) and the Driver swiftly (violently, even) exits to the left of the frame, leaving us to wonder if the irony will ever hit; I suspect, at least, that it never will. That’s why the film ends the way that it does, on a conceit: a burning hole appears in the middle of the frame, as if the projector were on fire and spreads out, completely effacing the final image of the Driver in the front seat of his Chevy, as if nothing less than the physical disintegration of the film reel itself could put an end to his limbo.