Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

“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

Movie Information

Genre: Road Movie | Drama
Director: Monte Hellman
Actors: James Taylor, Dennis Wilson, Warren Oates, Laurie Bird, Harry Dean Stanton
Year: 1971
Original Review: March 2001


Animator Dormitory Channel.  Episode 16.  My income in 2019

This 12-minute episode, showing the hard work and rather meager financial rewards of professional Japanese animators early in their careers, is a crowdfunded project.  Nothing fancy here, but a revealing glimpse behind the scenes of the anime industry, away from the high-profile work of artists such as Hayao Miyazaki and Makoto Shinkai.  You can follow the series from its first episode on YouTube.  This episode is in Japanese with English subtitles; others are dubbed in English.  I discovered these videos through Otaku USA Magazine’s online site,


Get a Grip: Celebrating Those Overworked, Underpaid, Practically Invisible Technicians Who Help Make the Movies

This in-depth report by Graham Daseler for the Bright Lights Film Journal should be must-reading for any film fan.  Daseler provides plenty of examples of why grips, whose roles most of us can’t pin down when we see the names in the credits, sometimes deserve their own Oscars.  They are the ones who make a director or cinematographer’s vision possible by the physical handling of cameras and lighting.  Here’s just one example:

It was largely thanks to key grip Gaylin Schultz that the famous chase sequence in Bullitt (1968) became famous at all. Before Bullitt, car chases were composed almost entirely of process photography and second-unit shots: process photography to get close-ups of the star at the wheel, “driving” in front of a rear projection, and second-unit shots to show the car tearing through the city. The problem was vibration. Place a camera on a car going more than fifty miles an hour – particularly one rollercoastering up and down the streets of San Francisco – and it would shake so much that the guy behind the wheel would look as if he was sitting on a jackhammer. Steve McQueen, however, didn’t want to pretend to drive. He wanted to drive. And so Gaylin Schultz designed his own custom car mount for the film. Made from speed rail tubes bolted to the frame of the car, and dampened with thick rubber gaskets, it looked like a giant erector set sticking off the side of McQueen’s Mustang. But it worked. The camera was so steady that, in test dailies, the odometer was legible even at a hundred miles an hour. When, in the finished film, McQueen jerks through a hard left turn, you can see how much the chassis is shaking by how much his hands are vibrating on the steering wheel. The camera, though, hardly quivers. Not one process shot ended up in the nine-minute-long scene. “The standing joke among grips,” says Michael G. Uva, career grip and author of The Grip Book, the profession’s unofficial bible, “is ‘We fix other people’s problems.’”


Yes, Wes Anderson’s ‘Isle of Dogs’ Is Problematic—But It’s Also About Dogs!

Another superb, thought-provoking, and — review from one of my favorite critics, Dorothy Woodend.  This is film criticism in its very best light.  A couple of excerpts:

But before we get to the sticky stuff, it’s important to note what is good and great about the film, which is considerable. This is a generous, overflowing beast of a movie, brimming with luscious beauty. One is tempted to simply lap it up, to sniff every crotch corner of the frame for particularly delicious morsels. And, they are everywhere, crammed into the edges, sidling in for attention, butting your hand to make you pay attention and give them some love….

Even, as I was watching Isle of Dogs, registering where things were a bit troubling, I was still smitten with the beauty of the thing. As a filmmaker, Anderson has built his brand on an ornate, almost baroque attention to the visual pleasures of detail, precision and symmetry. There is so much to be loved here, artistry, craft and vision.

Beauty, itself, is a seductive thing, and part of you wants to capitulate, to let your senses be ravished, to drown in the gorgeously constructed, artfully assembled glory of it all. Isle of Dogs, it must also be stated, is a film about dogs, and anyone who has ever spent much time with these creatures knows that a set of beseeching eyes inside a furry face has a way of a circumventing all rationality. Still, any audience with a degree of maturity can hold multiple feelings and reactions to a film inside their head, with only a little gentle juggling. But can you really extricate that which is good from that which is problematic? Certainly! And, perhaps, it was ever thus. But it involves some discomfiting conversations, occasional awkwardness and embarrassment, as well as being called out on your own privilege.

For further exploration of the controversial line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation, check out this review by David Fear for Rolling Stone:

How Do You Solve a Problem Like ‘Isle of Dogs’?

Films Worth Talking About:

The Choice (Al Ikhtiyar), The Decameron, The Devils, Clockwork Orange, Performance, A New Leaf, Taking Off, Summer of ’42, The Go-Between, Death in Venice, Willard, Shaft, Klute, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Carnal Knowledge, Sunday Bloody Sunday, The Last Picture Show, The French Connection, Murmur of the Heart, Play Misty for Me, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Harold and Maude, Dirty Harry, The Boyfriend, Plein Soleil (Purple Noon), The Hospital, 10 Rillington Place, King Lear, Bananas, Fellini’s Roma, Fiddler on the Roof, Macbeth, The Abominable Dr. Phibes.

The Bigger Picture

Films:  Easy Rider (1969); Paris, Texas (1984); Vanishing Point (1971)


Music:  Kris Kristofferson, “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Sunday Mornin’ Coming Down”


Books:  William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways; Jack Kerouac, On the Road; Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test; Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

The Word on the Street

[NOTE:  Several of Imdb’s User Reviews do a fine job of exploring the roots of Two-Lane Blacktop’s poignancy and melancholy—qualities I’ve chosen to downplay in the revised review below.]

The film looks for the soul of America in the early 1970s and comes up empty. It was released in 1971 at a time when the hopes and dreams of the ’60s counter culture had given way to the disillusion of Kent State and Altamonte, the bombing of Cambodia, and the media’s cynical preemption of the Hippie movement.
The movie is about everything and nothing. Everyone is biding their time waiting for life to turn out rather than creating the possibility. Though they live for the moment there is no joy, only the gnawing reality of something missing. They are like many of us, skimming along on the surface of life, reminiscing about a goal that once seemed real but is now just out of reach. They look ahead to a blank future, while ignoring the life around them, what is in the present moment. Two-Lane Blacktop is an exceptionally beautiful film, a poetic description of a world without possibilities. It may also be the definitive statement of the anguish of the materialist paradigm that has begun to crumble and fall apart.   [howard.schumann]

The movie is one big Kenneth Anger-like fetishistic male fantasy about cars, their power and speed, and the sense of identity one derives from possessing and controlling them.
This makes the movie seem like a bummer, but trust me when I say that it’s not. It’s an unconventional movie to be sure, but it still provides some conventional B-movie amusement along the way – primarily in the form of Warren Oates, who gives a vivid, fully-realized performance as a mid-life-crisis sufferer with a rather loose sense of the truth. This pathological liar in a banana-yellow GTO is a marvelous caricature of the classic American jerk. Oates, a brilliant sketcher of masculine bluster, creates one of his most memorable sleazy/sympathetic characters, a pitiful braggart who can’t even fix his own carburetor when it springs a leak – the character’s impotence being expressed in terms of automotive know-how, which is fitting given the film’s gear-head ethic. Yet Hellman doesn’t just laugh at Oates – he’s broad-minded enough to see what the impotent nit-wit in the muscle-car has in common with his super-ethical heroes, namely this inexpressible yearning. These are not John Cassavettes heroes spraying their masculine angst all over the screen like palsy victims though. They’re monosyllabic highway cave-men, half-civilized car-fetishists for whom women are inexplicable, unconquerable creatures, and for whom life is one big escape from something they can’t even put into words. This non-verbal, semi-poetic quality of the characters is sometimes a little hard to swallow, but it’s often funny too. It’s like Kerouac if Kerouac had had a sense of humor.
In Easy Rider the motorcycles were symbolic of rebellion, the spirit of independence supposedly embodied by bikers, but there’s nothing especially rebellious about the characters in Two-Lane Blacktop….

Kerouac seemed totally committed to the idea of irresponsibility as freedom, but Hellman isn’t quite so convinced. Taylor and Wilson, as Kerouacian as they are, are not blissful libertines but thoughtful sober people, and Hellman suggests some awareness on their part of what a dead-end their lives really are. As wrapped up in car-culture as the movie may be, it never quite buys into the myths of the open road. There’s always this grain of doubt, and it’s this lack of certainty, this touch of ambivalence, that makes Two-Lane Blacktop more than just some loud, grease-spattered B-movie highway extravaganza.   [aliasanythingyouwant]

Director Monte Hellman designed “Two-Lane Blacktop” as if it were a docudrama. Dialogue is minimal and not canned, camera work is unobtrusive with very long camera “takes”, none of the actors wear makeup, non-actors play bit parts, there are minimal plot contrivances, and so far as I could determine there are no indoor movie sets.   [Lechuguilla]

Two Lane Blacktop is, together with Red Line 7000, perhaps the best film about car racing ever made.
The absence of plot and the minimal characterization reminds of another american film of the 70’s, Walter Hill’s `The Driver. What that film was for the noir genre this one is for the road-movie, a type of picture that was reaching its height around the time.
Monte Hellman, a crafted director that got his apprentice under the wings of Roger Corman, presents an empty world of wasted landscapes, forgotten towns and sleepy gas stations populated by ghostly and vanishing archetypes. They appear whenever they are needed, perform their actions and disappear immediately, as those hitchhikers picked up by G.T.O. that work as samples of possibilities of America.
Car racing is reputed to be a passion, but the people over here is deprived of feelings. They drive continually, there where the wind blows or whenever there’s a chance to make money to keep-on going. They hardly talk with each other, and when they do it seems that they are not listening….

This is an exercise of form, a raw vision of a country falling into pieces with nowhere to go, lost in cyclical repetition and in the eve of self-destruction, as the outstanding last frame of the film burning the screen poetically concludes.  [TheFerryman]

As director Monte Hellman suggests on the Criterion DVD release, “Two Lane Blacktop,” despite its official release date, is the last movie of the 1960s…  

The film shares much else with the French New Wave as well, especially its rejection of big budget studio formulas for structuring stories. The film was shot on location in sequence as the actors were actually making the cross country journey that the film was fictionalizing. There was a deliberate use of spontaneous and accidental event (e.g. a rainstorm that wasn’t scripted). To keep the actors in the “present,” only the most experienced one of them, Warren Oates, was allowed to see the script. No use was made of make-up, set design, special effects or other accoutrements of the Hollywood system. The actors were youthful and inexperienced (other than Oates) and the plot, such as it is, is riddled with deliberate aimlessness and disproportion, ending anti-climactically and with little or nothing resolved.
In most ways “Two Lane Blacktop” is really an anti-road movie and those who watch it thinking they will be rewarded by exciting car races and sexual adventure are in for a big disappointment. Ultimately the film isn’t about car racing at all, but about defining one’s self in an existential void. It’s about living absolutely in the present, in the here and now – with the past irrelevant and the future unknown. More than anything, this extreme and unapologetic romantic bent is what makes “Two Lane Blacktop” such a pure and unforgettable expression of the 1960s.   [EThompsonUMD]

Like their cars, the nomadic main characters have stripped their lives of anything that might slow them down – relationships, non-automotive possessions, permanent homes, even names and identities beyond their automotive roles. Unconcerned with external appearances, they travel hundreds of miles slowly to drive a quarter-mile quickly, to make just enough money to continue the cycle. “How much bread we got?” from Driver elicits the reply “300 racing bread, 20 to spend” from Mechanic, which sums up their priorities. Their talk is similarly minimal, and what little they say concerns cars and racing. When Mechanic needs to communicate a single, complete sentence, he asks Driver to stop the car because “it’s gonna take a long time”. The only variance in their conversation topics (when Driver tells Girl of the even more minimal lifestyle of cicadas) is revealed by Hellman in his commentary to be an improvisation, prompted by excessive cicada noise during filming. No future, no past, on a road to nowhere, going nowhere fast – all clichés, but the boys live them out literally….

Much as Joseph Conrad said of sailors, through their perpetual motion and dynamic impermanence the characters lives never change. Every road, drag strip, motel, conversation, gas station and roadside café is essentially the same. The film’s final dialogue ends with GTO’s biggest lie, closing with: “Those satisfactions are permanent”. Nothing, least of all satisfaction, is permanent for these characters. The film’s celebrated finale is perfect – burnout is the only possible exit from their locked-groove lifestyles.   [gut-6]

Funny – when I heard the Doors song playing, I mused – “Probably why the film was in the can for so long. In my thoughts blamed Manzerak. But it was Morrison’s estate that kept it unavailable until 2007. Figures…   [Slow-code]

…Hellman made a 102 minute movie that has about 15 minutes of dialogue. But you know what, it doesn’t need any more.   [bensonmum2]

“The girl” is the only character not identified by something car related. Neither of the men say a word when she hops in their Chevy uninvited. She breaks the silence for them. Her character’s role as an object of desire might feel like “sexism or somethin’”, but it’s not. She’s the satisfaction she sings about. The rich, middle aged liar with the expensive car can’t buy her. The good looking quiet types with the homegrown street-sweeper can’t win her or win her over. She’s temporary: here one minute and gone the next. “She’s gonna burn you, man” Riding off on a motorcycle, the hippie girl ends up where she belongs: with an Easy Rider headed back to the ’60s.   [Lancaster_Dodd]