When Two Lane Black Top came out in 1971 it flopped. Director Monte Hellman had come up through the Roger Corman school of B movie film making in the early 60's, and this was a fairly large budget picture for him. However, the head of the studio where it was produced, Lou Wasserman, hated the film when he saw it and refused to promote it. It made no money, and lapsed into obscurity. Since then, the film has achieved a cult status. And, like many cult films, you either love it or hate it. I loved this film when I first saw it in the 70's. My friends and I watched for it on late night TV. I recently viewed a newly released and restored version of the film from Criterion. It's probably the first time I've ever seen it without TV commercials. Now sometimes, when one revisits a film from the past it just doesn't hold up. Happily this was not the case here. I think Two Lane Black Top is a film of incredible beauty. A visual and atmospheric experience. The film takes on a unique life of its own and achieves a kind of microcosmic Zen perfection.
Stylistically Two Lane Black Top comes across as an American version of French New Wave cinema. Classical cinematic forms and structure are rejected and the result is a kind of poetic Zen film, that on one hand, is about nothing, yet at the same time could be about everything.
Basically the film is about a pair of street racers on a cross-country road trip looking for racing action in the towns they pass through. The two have some kind of oneness with their car, a 1955 Chevy. The Chevy is a character in the film too. It's old, modified, painted with only primer, stripped down, souped up and very fast. Along the way a young hippie girl hitches a ride with them. They eventually cross paths with an older dude driving a new Pontiac GTO. This leads to a cross country race to Washington DC for their pink slips (the winner gets the loser's car).
The four main characters are introduced as simply: the Driver, the Mechanic, the Girl and GTO. I don't don't think their actual names are ever mentioned. The Driver is played by singer and songwriter James Taylor and the Mechanic is Dennis Wilson from the Beach Boys. This is the only film that either has appeared in. GTO is played by veteran western actor Warren Oates. Oates is a Sam Peckinpah regular, and has appeared in films like Ride the High Country, Major Dundee and The Wild Bunch. Unknown actress Laurie Bird plays the Girl.
The film has a very understated tone. The use of music is minimal considering the time period, when rock music was becoming a significant part of films like Easy Rider. There is music but it is seamlessly integrated. There is not much talking in the film and the acting is very low key ... except for Oates' GTO character. Oates is the only charter who seems to be acting. GTO is a man on the verge of some kind of meltdown. He's tense and seems like he could flip-out ant any time. He's also on some kind of road trip and picks up numerous hitchhikers along the way, only to talk their ears off with bizarre and ever changing stories of his life and what he's up too. Quite funny. It's a great performance and very different from the iconic western characters he often plays. The other three main charters seem to use a very natural style of acting. Almost neorealistic. I liked that about the film. Very unHollywood.
Like I said earlier, the film is about nothing. There is no big story. It's just day to day life. Even the cross country race becomes irrelevant, and in another zen way, the journey and little diversions along the way are what's important....not the end goal.
The film has been labeled as existential. I'm never sure exactly what that means. It does have some of the themes associated with existentialism, like: dread, boredom, alienation, absurdness, freedom, nothingness, detachment, (I did a little research). And if "existentialism is the search and journey for true self and true personal meaning in life", then perhaps the film qualifies....but then there are lots of films that have similar qualities. When I was doing a little reading on this I came across a quote that might explain the existential thing.(see below ******)
The film is richly detailed with car culture and the subculture of street racing is explored. At these points the movie has an almost documentary feel to it. One scene I identified with was when the Mechanic uses a timing light to set the ignition timing on the Chevy before a race. I can remember my father using a timing light to tune his cars and I was fascinated by the stroboscopic process, and watching the little mark on the crank shaft flywheel shift during adjustment.
The cinematography throughout is excellent and it dynamically seems to place the viewer within the movie. There's some great night photography and inside-the-car camera angles.
And lastly, of course, the film has a very French New Wave ending. It's the type of ending where you suddenly sense it....moments before....that the end is about to happen.....and you are in the middle of no where in your head.....and you think if this ends here I'm lost. I love those endings. You sit stunned for a while and sometimes shake your head and think "what just happened?"
There is something very pure about the movie. It feels stripped down just like the Chevy. In a Zen sense, it goes all the way with the subject matter but in the end goes nowhere. It ends right where it started.
From Play it Again Sam, by Woody Allen.
WOODY ALLEN: That's quite a lovely Jackson Pollock, isn't it?
GIRL IN MUSEUM: Yes it is.
WOODY ALLEN: What does it say to you?
GIRL IN MUSEUM: It restates the negativeness of the universe, the hideous lonely emptiness of existence, nothingness, the predicament of man forced to live in a barren, godless eternity, like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void, with nothing but waste, horror, and degradation, forming a useless bleak straightjacket in a black absurd cosmos.
WOODY ALLEN: What are you doing Saturday night?
GIRL IN MUSEUM: Committing suicide.
WOODY ALLEN: What about Friday night?
GIRL IN MUSEUM: [leaves silently]