Appellate Judge Tom Becker can never go fast enough.
Our review of Two-Lane Blacktop (Blu-ray) (Region B), published December 15th, 2011, is also available.
"You ought to see what I've been picking up off the road. One fantasy
Much as I love Criterion's work with "classics"—films like 8½ and The Seventh Seal—it's their releases of cult and obscure films that really gets my blood pumping. The outstanding Carnival of Souls set seemed like a labor of love, and we'd have been lucky to get a bargain-basement rendition of The Honeymoon Killers if someone at Criterion hadn't deemed it worthy of "the treatment."
Two-Lane Blacktop premiered in the summer of 1971, in the wake of Easy Rider and all those "youth movies" it engendered. Director Monte Hellman had worked with Roger Corman and his protégé, Jack Nicholson, before embarking on this tale of men and their cars.
The film received a few positive reviews and did middling business at the box office; however, its reputation grew, and it developed a cult following, like some of Hellman's other films (The Shooting, Ride in the Whirlwind, and Cockfighter). Anchor Bay released Two-Lane Blacktop on DVD in 1999, then offered a gimmicky 2000 re-release.
Now, with Criterion in the driver's seat, Two-Lane Blacktop gets not only a great new release, but a re-examination.
Facts of the Case
The Driver (singer James Taylor) and The Mechanic (Beach Boys drummer/singer Dennis Wilson) tool around in their '55 Chevy, out west, picking up cash at the occasional drag race. When they stop for a quick bite at a diner, The Girl (Laurie Bird, Cockfighter) climbs into their car and plants herself in the backseat.
On the highway, they cross paths with a guy in a brand new (circa '70) GTO (Warren Oates, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia). Each time they see him, he has a different passenger, some new hitchhiker he's picked up. Mr. G.T.O. claims (to one of his passengers) that these guys are following him.
When they finally meet up at a gas station, it's decided they should race—to Washington D.C. The winner will get the pink slip of the loser's car.
But in this race, there can be no losers—and no winners, either.
Two-Lane Blacktop is a relic with relevance, a road movie for people who don't have to travel, hipster art that doesn't try to be cool, but just is. While it owes its existence to the success of Easy Rider and shares the road motif with that film, Two-Lane Blacktop is a completely different animal.
Hellman cast James Taylor and Dennis Wilson in the only "acting" roles of their careers. It might seem like stunt casting, coming at a time when musicians were being thrown into projects like Zachariah or Ned Kelly, but Hellman's intent was to cast non-actors. He liked what he saw in Taylor and Wilson, and they are memorable as the men whose lives are all about this '55 Chevy. As Hellman notes in his commentary, even though they were in their early twenties when they made the film, Taylor and Wilson were men, not boys (compared to current films, where boyhood seems to end at retirement age). Neither gets the chance to sing or play music; in fact, the film has little in the way of an original soundtrack. There's lots of music—songs like "Maybelline" and "Hit the Road Jack"—but it's all from radios, tape decks, and jukeboxes. The songs never feel random; in particular, "Stealin'" and "Me and Bobby McGee" take on lives of their own, and it's impossible to imagine the movie without them.
Laurie Bird had no experience as an actress when Hellman cast her as The Girl. As with Taylor and Wilson, Hellman saw things in Bird that he could connect to the role. Bird gives a natural and somewhat sad performance as the rootless teenager who becomes the non-mechanical, sorta-love-interest for the men.
For G.T.O.—in some weird way, the soul of the film—Hellman cast the great character actor Warren Oates. G.T.O. is a fraud and a cipher, dishonest and neurotic, and thanks to Oates, completely engrossing and sympathetic. While The Driver and The Mechanic seem to have no lives beyond their car, G.T.O. uses his car to make human connections, tailoring his stories to suit the people he meets, and deciding—or creating a fantasy, we're never sure which—that The Girl and he could find some salvation together.
Oates is simply phenomenal here, irritating, comical, and heartbreaking. While Wilson, Taylor, and Bird are no match for him as actors, he does get a great series of scenes with another legendary character actor: Harry Dean Stanton.
While the race between the GTO and the Chevy gives us something to pinpoint as a plot, Two-Lane Blacktop really isn't a movie about racing. The long-haul match isn't presented with the usual spinouts, squeals, and stunts. The racers hang out and chat, have a few drinks (the GTO has a wet bar in the trunk). They stop for meals. The GTO gets a new carburetor. The Chevy races some local boys. D.C. is far away.
What draws us in is not this race-to-nowhere, but what's happening on the peripheries. Besides Oates, the richest characters are the ones who have just a few moments of screen time: the various hitchhikers, a guy setting up a quick-money race, a couple having an argument in a bar. It's these small scenes, snippets of conversation, snapshots of life—and there are many of them—that make Two-Lane Blacktop such an authentically American film (which is probably why it was more popular in France than in the United States).
The transfer, supervised by Hellman, looks great overall, though there is a fair amount of grain in some of the low-light scenes. This sometimes changes from shot to shot, and I suspect that it was part of the source material. I actually came to appreciate it, since this low-budget film was not enhanced with an artificial sheen. The gorgeous exterior footage has probably never looked better. Audio options are the original Mono and a 5.1 track that kicks nicely any time an engine revs or tires shriek.
Criterion gives us a trunk load of supplemental material spread out over two discs. Nothing here is filler. This is about as good a collection of extras as I've seen in a long time, enriching the experience and expanding on the mythology that's built up around this film. These supplements help put the film in context as an iconic work of the late '60s/early '70s, one that is essential for any consideration of American culture of that time.
What an absolutely great idea it was getting outsider filmmaker Allison Anders (Border Radio) to sit down with outsider filmmaker Monte Hellman for a commentary. These two don't dissect the film—as a matter-of-fact, at one point, Hellman laughs and balks when Anders tries to go too deep about meaning—but they share stories and talk a lot about the era. It's as interesting to hear about Taylor's relationship with Joni Mitchell as it is to be reminded of Wilson's relationship with Charles Manson. Anders is an intelligent, informed fan, and she clearly relates to the film on a number of levels. This is just a terrific track, entertaining, informative, and a fun listen.
Author David Meyer and Screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer provide a second commentary, one that is poetically enthusiastic and delves into the themes of the film as well its history (Wurlitzer knew nothing about cars until he worked on Two-Lane Blacktop). Completely different from the Anders-Hellman commentary, this is also a fascinating track, with Meyer asking just the right insightful questions and Wurlitzer refraining from giving pat, simplistic answers.
In "On the Road Again: Two-Lane Blacktop Revisited," Hellman takes a road trip back to Needles, California, to revisit one of the original locations. With him are his daughter and some students from his film class. This is a lovely little memory/road movie.
It's charming to see Hellman and Taylor meet up for the first time in 35 years to talk about the movie and just generally catch up. More interesting is Hellman's talk with Kris Kristofferson, whose song "Me and Bobby McGee" was used to such good effect (Hellman considered it a character in the film). Ironically, Hellman actually wanted to use Janis Joplin's version of the song, but when he talked to Kristofferson, the singer was so excited about having his rendition used in a film starring James Taylor that the director didn't have the heart to correct his misconception. This might be one of the happiest accidents in film history. Kristofferson—who was considered for one of the leads here but instead ended up starring in Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid—is witty, articulate, and philosophical. This is a wonderful conversation.
What's especially interesting is that Hellman himself seems to be on a journey. Two-Lane Blacktop was given a shoddy initial release; Universal pretty much abandoned it before it premiered. While Hellman relates the story a number of times, he can't seem to pinpoint what it was about the film that caused studio head Lew Wasserman to so thoroughly dislike it. Even though the film has achieved masterwork status through the years, this is obviously still a sore point to the director, and he seems to be trying to reconcile it here.
Interviews with Producer Michael Laughlin, Production Manager Walter Coblenz, and Hellman's son Jared (who played a small part in the film as a child) are a bit more nuts-and-bolts, but still insightful and anecdote-filled. As wonderful as the Hellman material is, it's interesting to hear other perspectives.
We get outtakes, screen tests, and vintage interviews with Taylor and Laurie Bird, who appeared in only two other films (Cockfighter and Annie Hall) and committed suicide in 1975; stills and promotional materials; and a look at the restoration of a '55 Chevy that was used in the film.
This is a fairly text-heavy release, with an essay by Kent Jones of Film Comment that gives background on the film, filming, and release, and a reprint of a typically romantic-cool Rolling Stone article from 1970 reporting on the shoot. Director Richard Linklater (Slacker) gives us "Ten (Sixteen, Actually) Reasons I Love Two-Lane Blacktop" (number 6: "Because there was once a god who walked the earth named Warren Oates"). The best text extra is Rudy Wurlitzer's original screenplay. The initial cut of the film ran over three hours, which meant that it had to be edited almost in half. Here's your chance to read what was left on the cutting-room floor.
Criterion has given us some exceptional releases. Two-Lane Blacktop might be their most fun. This is an outstanding set that stands with the best. It feels good. You can take it all the way.
Those satisfactions are permanent.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Monte Hellman and Allison Anders
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