“We’re goin’ to the grave.
Ten mile on.
Goin’ to the graveyard.
Her [pointing to granddaughter] folks buried there.
Both of ‘em kilt on Saturday night
[stares at the dashboard of the Pontiac GTO].
City car’s what kilt ‘em.”
[stares some more at dashboard.]
–from the scene in Two-Lane Blacktop, where Warren Oates once again picks up the wrong hitchhiker—this time a fragile old lady who turns out to be the embodiment of every Carter Family/Louvin Brothers Appalachian hill tune about Death and Little Black Trains
With Joni Mitchell, Elton John, and Steely Dan featured prominently at this year’s Grammy Awards, and the latest Beatles compilation still riding high on the charts, this seems like the ideal time to write about a classic Sixties film just out on video & DVD for the first time in thirty years. It’s also an excuse to review a movie with some really cool cars and engine sounds.
Made in 1971, but with its heart in the Sixties, Two-Lane Blacktop was supposed to be the movie that made people forget about Easy Rider. At least that’s what the pre-release publicity said. Esquire and Rolling Stone touted it. Then it tanked in the theatres. Small consolation to director Monte Hellman that Two-Lane Blacktop later became a cult film and is remembered fondly by geezers such as myself.
Like Easy Rider, Two-Lane Blacktop is a road film where the final destination doesn’t matter. We’re just interested in the people we meet along the way. Unlike Fonda and Hopper in Easy Rider, two of the main characters in Blacktop make Buster Keaton look like a talkaholic. A new benchmark for laconic stoicism and stunning self-absorption. Sixties icons James Taylor and Dennis Wilson are The Driver and The Mechanic. They’re taking a primer-grey ’55 hand-built Chevrolet across America’s Southwest, racing it on backroads, raceways, and airport runways against anything the locals have to offer. If Carly Simon wrote “You’re so Vain” after Blacktop came out, it would explain a lot. Taylor and Wilson have a vocabulary that’s more hermetic than that of Medieval monks debating Albigensian heresies.
It says something about a film when none of the people in it have names. As The Driver, James Taylor does a great job of looking brooding and intense. That look goes a long way. You can almost fool people into believing your life has a point. Almost. The young girl (Laurie Bird) who decides to hitch a ride with Taylor and Wilson (“That girl, Higgins, or whatever her name is,” Taylor tells someone after they’ve been together for days, and establishing a record new low for bonding) doesn’t take long to see behind the façade. She jumps ship pretty fast. The giveaway for her was probably the moment Taylor tried to talk about something other than cars. They’re sitting on a fence out on a road to nowhere, and James Taylor explores the profound metaphor of cicadas living underground for seven years, then emerging only to copulate and procreate. It’s probably one of the most hilarious failures to be profound in cinema history, and a sure cure for most forms of depression. No matter how tough your life gets, you’ll likely never be forced to open your heart with a speech about copulating cicadas. Should this happen, however, no one will be able to save you.
The girl realizes that the moment she got into Taylor and Wilson’s Chevy she’d entered a man’s world. This means going very fast with no destination, lying on wrenches and screwdrivers in the back seat of a car with no heater (a heater would slow it down), getting out to pee at the occasional gas station on stretches of rural America that look like they were already old when the Roman Empire was at its prime, watching Wilson fine-tune a four-barrel carburetor every twenty miles or so, and knowing that those cicadas are just about it for flights of poetic fancy. Taylor and Wilson and the girl travel through endless vistas of American landscape, and yet their contact with people in those landscapes is as glancing as a stone’s skipped across an empty lake. One critic described it as “the perfect note of one-dimensional nothingness.”
The girl bails, but it’s hard to know how director Hellman himself feels about Taylor’s and Wilson’s self-contained universe. Does he admire it for its monastic fidelity to a beatified 454 four-on-the-floor? Are these guys blue-jeaned versions of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, tilting at drag-strip crosstrees instead of windmills? Or is this No Exit on wheels, an existentialist dead end where perpetual motion tries to pass off as meaning? The film’s final frame (which I won’t give away) lends itself to the latter reading. It indicates what can happen if the wheels suddenly stop turning.
The first time I watched Two-Lane Blacktop, some twenty-five years ago, it was James Taylor’s performance that stayed with me. This was no folkie Sweet Baby James. Looking at the movie again for this review, I’d have to say that the highlight was a performance I haven’t even mentioned yet. It’s what makes Two-Lane Blacktop more than a French New Wave drive-in movie. I’m talking about Warren Oates’s G.T.O., a middle-aged man who’s somehow gotten his hands on a brand-new 1970 mustard yellow Pontiac GTO with a factory 455.
Oates’ character is fascinating. He’s got a new identity and a new cashmere sweater for every scene. He’s a pathological liar. Unlike Taylor and Wilson, he’s talking constantly, yet we end up knowing less about him than we do about the two young men. I see him as a kind of slightly mad incarnation of the American Dream. That’s the Horatio Alger dream that says that when you grow up in America you can become whoever it is you wish to be. G.T.O. takes Alger’s dream one step further: with every new hitchhiker he picks up, both he and his car pick up a new identity. Truth is obliterated by fantasy. It’s an exhilarating ride. Is there anyone out there who hasn’t at some point in her or his life just wanted to make it all up? “What do you do for a living? –Well, I used to be a mechanic for the Grateful Dead until I sold my first story to Amazing Science Fiction and wound up in a Writer’s Commune in the Sierra Nevada mountains….” How many readers out there have actually had the chutzpah to pull this off? Warren Oates’s character starts off as a test pilot for jets who says he wanted more action on the ground, and as riders get in and out of his car he becomes a movie producer scouting locations, a high-rolling craps shooter driving his latest win, a dutiful son heading out to Florida to help set up the new home he’s bought for his mum. In the end, he’s Taylor and Wilson, twenty years younger, and neatly turning Two-Lane Blacktop’s central conflict (middle-aged man with factory hot rod versus young punks with street machine, both sides vying for the attentions of a young girl who’s too smart for them) into his personal triumph.
Not that I’m advocating lying about yourself to hitchhikers and casual strangers (mainly because it seems that karma must inevitably bring back one of those lies to haunt you at the most embarrassing possible moment). In all likelihood, G.T.O. is a failure who drinks too much and is stupidly trying to reclaim a lost youth. But there is a genuine exhilaration about being even momentarily freed from the constraints of reality by an act of the imagination. G.T.O rides off into his own sunset; James Taylor broods harder and shifts harder. They’re supposed to be in a race to see whose vehicle can make it across the country the fastest. Don’t wait around for a winner. Some people just aren’t goal-oriented.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
“You’all wouldn’t be hippies, would ya?”
Having spent so much time with the cast of Big Bang Theory over the past few years, I feel that I’ve come to a new understanding of Two-Lane Blacktop. It’s not a film about a couple of loners on an endless muscle-car highway; it’s a film about two nerds on an endless muscle-car highway. Whether the nerds speak Klingon and haunt comic stores, or drive 1955 Chevrolets and haunt improvised drag strips, they’re still nerds whose worlds are circumscribed by their passions and exclude the uninitiated—especially when they’re female. I don’t think even Big Bang Theory had a bigger, more absurd relationship failure than when James Taylor, in full broody-funk mode over The Girl, catches up with her in a roadside restaurant and tempts her with his best shot at a romantic proposal: “Let’s head out to Columbus, Ohio, I hear a guy there is selling parts real cheap.”
Puts Romeo and Cyrano de Bergerac to shame, don’t it? The Girl replies “No good!” and rides out his life forever. Let’s face it, even Sheldon Cooper would have found that attempt at a proposal embarrassing. And don’t get me started on the “cicada” speech, improvised or not. It’s possible that Monte Hellman never quite recovered from directing Waiting for Godot on stage before he moved into filmmaking….
My nerd revelation aside, Two-Lane Blacktop is still worth the road trip. It’s no On the Road or Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test or Paris, Texas—more of a Zennish Easy Rider, I’d say—but I still love the omnipresent hungry growl of the Chevy’s souped-up 454, the ribbons of long empty highway, the anonymous motels & gas stations, and even the dialogue that’s as stripped down as the cars. Conversation in this world is as pointless as the Chevy’s missing heater.
Which makes Warren Oates’ G.T.O. the perfect foil. He’s a fantasist whose true obsession is not his car but the words he spins into endless lies. He’s far and away my favorite character in the film; I still haven’t a clue who the hell he really is or how he ended up on the road. In the end, though, The Girl walks out on him as well. His verbal fantasies are no more satisfying than Taylor’s conversational constipation.
For the ultimate bad-but-not-homicidal hitchhiker story, nothing beats the black humor of the scene where Oates, who manages to pick up a string of hitchhikers that could have been scripted by David Lynch, gives a ride to a backwoods grandmother and her granddaughter. They’re on their way to the cemetery to visit the grave of the girl’s parents—recently killed by an out-of-state driver in a car just like the one Oates is driving. “Goin’ to Pine Grove,” grandma declares in a voice as doom-laden as the deepest pit of hell, “ten miles on. Goin’ to the graveyard.” Then she tells him who was responsible for the accident. Repeatedly. Had she laid the guilt on any thicker, Oates would’ve turned to stone right there behind the wheel.
I had to re-watch Two-Lane Blacktop on an ancient, copied VHS tape with image quality just short of abysmal. I see there’s a $50 Criterion Blu-ray for sale on Amazon, but it’s not currently being streamed on the Criterion Channel. Bummer. I’d love to see a quality print on a big screen, with the soundtrack cranked up to maximize the engine rumble and voices of Kris Kristofferson, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and The Doors.
Apropos of nothing, I’ll add that some of us old farts still miss the days when you could buy a carburetor kit for a GTO Pontiac for $6.95, plus tax. Seems like a dream.
Director Monte Hellman worked on only a handful of feature films between his debut in 1959 with Beast from Haunted Cave and his last feature, Road to Nowhere in 2010. James Taylor acted in only one other feature film, but worked on almost 100 soundtracks. Warren Oates, who died of a heart attack at age 53 in 1982, was one of those veteran character actors who probably never got the full recognition he deserved. He had 124 acting credits on Imdb, and would have likely hit 200 had fate been kinder. Dennis Wilson never acted in another film, but had a hand in 60 soundtracks. Wilson accidentally drowned in 1983; he was 39. Laurie Bird had a chance to work on only three pictures in her short life. She died by her own hand in 1979, at age 25—the same age at which her mother had committed suicide when Laurie was three years old. Blacktop was one of Harry Dean Stanton’s first pictures; he was still in the profession when he died in 2017 at age 91, with 206 acting credits. Director of Photography Jack Deerson worked on only a half dozen films between 1970 and 1979.
Some favorite lines:
The Mechanic: You’d have yourself a real street-sweeper here if you put a little work into it.
G.T.O.: I go fast enough.
The Driver: You can never go fast enough.
The Girl: You guys aren’t like the Zodiac killers or anything, right?
The Mechanic: Nope. Just passin’ through.
G.T.O.: If I’m not grounded pretty soon, I’m gonna go into orbit.
G.T.O.: Well, here we are on the road.
The Driver: Yup, that’s where we are all right.
The Girl: Say, which way we going?
The Mechanic: East.
The Girl: That’s cool. I never been East.
Available on YouTube? No