Lane Blacktop is the spawn of Easy Rider
in more ways than one. Not only is it a part of the wave of indie
(or at least pseudo-indie) road films that appeared in the wake
of that movie (others include Vanishing Point,
Five Easy Pieces and Electra Glide in
Blue), but it owes its whole existence to an experiment
by Universal to copy the style of successful indies of the late
Sixties by shooting a series of low budget – by studio standards
– films that gave the director final cut. The series also
included Silent Running.
Monte Hellman’s resulting film is a textbook example of
the sort of movie that could only be made at the time –
it might sound on paper vaguely like a 1970s version of The
Fast and the Furious, but in reality, it's an existential,
pretty much plotless tale with four characters who seem to only
exist in this moment, un-named and without pasts or futures -
but who are still more real, more authentic and more well-drawn
than anyone in most recent high-actane, low brain cell count road
Taylor and Dennis Wilson are the driver and mechanic of a battered,
but souped-up ’55 Chevy who travel the country making money
through races, legal or otherwise; Warren Oates is the middle-aged
GTO driver who tells a different life story to every hitchhiker
he picks up, and who winds up in a cross country race through
Route 66 with the pair; and Laurie Bird is the hippy drifter who
moves from car to car, playing – unintentionally - with
the minds and emotions of the men she meets.
And story-wise, that’s pretty much it. The characters don’t
have any sense of self-discovery on their road trip, scenes that
look as if they will lead to a dramatic event – the long-haired
heroes being accosted at a redneck drive-in, for instance –
simply end without incident, and the race itself becomes increasingly
irrelevant as both cars stop to help each other out, take part
in more formal races and share lunch. There’s scant dialogue,
and long drawn out moments of stillness, where nothing really
happens at all. In the end, the film simply finishes, with nothing
all that is why this is such a magnificent film. Because in Two
Lane Blacktop, it’s the journey that matters, not
the destination, and that journey is a fascinating, visually stunning
study of lives in flux… one that doesn’t need to provide
any answers, or even ask any questions. It’s simply a cultural
snapshot of people who are on the outside of mainstream society,
whether its Oates’ lonely, ageing man, Bird’s little
girl lost or the two blank-slate road racers.
Casting two musicians in the leads was a masterstroke by Hellman.
While Taylor in particular has come in for a lot of criticism
for his one-dimensional, emotionless performance, it’s exactly
right for this role – a more experienced actor might have
tried to bring some depth to the character, and would’ve
killed it. Instead, Taylor and Wilson both project an internal
sadness and emptiness without having to give their characters
‘motivation’ or back-story.
There are those who won't get it, certainly; pity them, for they
don't know what they are missing. For the more clued-in, Two
Lane Blacktop proves to be a fascinating, absorbing,
and essential slice of Seventies Americana - a masterful study
of ennui and unidentified longing that is unlike anything else.
A cinematic masterpiece, in fact.
The new Masters of Cinema Blu-ray is, as you might expect, exemplary.
That the film looks great should be a given; it also has the option
of the original mono or a new 5.1 audio mix (plus a music and
effects track), almost two hours of documentary material and fascinating,
if cringe-worthy screentests for Taylor and Bird, as well as a
commentary from Hellman and producer Gary Kurtz, and the usual
lavish booklet. A deservedly impressive selection of supplements
for an important film.
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