Friday, 2 March 2012

Two-Lane Blacktop

Warren Oates as GTO.

A road movie is a film genre in which the main character or characters travel from place to place. The classic road movie is probably American and would normally involve an automobile or other form of transport. Awareness of this as a separate genre came only in the 1960’s with Easy Rider (1969) and Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Other notable American road movies that I have enjoyed are Thelma and Louise (1991), True Romance (1993), The Blues Brothers (1999), Paris Texas (1984) and The Straight Story (1999), which incidentally involved a sit-upon lawn mower! But then even Apocalypse Now (1979) could be classed as a road movie albeit by boat on a river and not the traditional car on tarmac. This not with standing the US is not the only country that makes this type of movie: Our Day Will Come (France 2010), Baise-moi (France 2000), Y Tu Mama Tambien (Mexico 2001), Familia Rodante (Argentina 2004) Butterfly Kiss (UK 1995) and Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Australia 1994) to name but a few. Even Tarkovsky’s Russian masterpiece Stalker (1978) is a road movie, agreed mostly on foot, but a road movie all the same, describes by its director as ‘a literal journey into cinematic space’[1].

Dennis Wilson as The Mechanic.

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) fits into the genre perfectly. It’s a story of drag-racing drifters, the drivers of a Pontiac GTO and a '55 Chevy’s battle across the back roads of America to Washington DC for possession of each other's pink slips (which would give the ownership of the cars to the winner) and the affections of a mysterious young hitchhiker. To earn money to finance this laid back lifestyle the 55 Chevy has to take on all-comers in quarter mile road races.

James Taylor is The Driver.
A really interesting element of this movie is its cast. In the 55 Chevy we have The Driver and The Mechanic. Singer songwriter and guitarist James Taylor play’s the Driver, a moody sullen character that does not have an awful lot to say, Taylor had a number one hit ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ and an album that went platinum the same year that the film was released. Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, who it was alleged was the only member of that group that could surf, is The Mechanic a character that seems happier tinkering with cars than he does speaking. Dennis’s eventful private life included Charlie Manson and The Family staying at his home for some considerable time, but they had left before the Tate/LaBianca murders. It was also Dennis Wilson that introduced Manson to Terry Melcher, Doris Days son, the owner of the house were the murders took place. Dennis died in 1983 shortly after his 39th birthday, drowning after an all day drinking bout and diving into the sea to retrieve items he had previously thrown in. Laurie Bird plays the mysterious young hitchhiker whose known as The Girl. Its her character that moves between the two cars involved, never quite making up her mind who she prefers to travel with. Two-Lane Blacktop was her debut film; she appeared in two other movies, Cockfighter (1974) and a small part in Woody Allan’s Annie Hall (1977) before her untimely suicide at the age of 25 in 1979. Bird’s life mirrored her role as The Girl, being originally hired as a researcher for the film but took a screen test when they could not find another actress suitable for the part. She was described as an innocent looking Hayley Mills by Dick Kleiner in an article he wrote that was published in the Milwaukee Journal on August 16th 1971.The second car, the Pontiac GTO is driven by the cult actor Warren Oates whose character is known as GTO, a middle aged cruiser! Oates is the most talkative character in the film always spinning a different tale to the each of the many hitchhikers he picks up and sets down on the journey, one of which is a gay hippie played by an actor credited as H D Stanton!

Laurie Bird as The Girl.

New Yorker Monte Hellman directed a handful of intriguing cult movies the best of which is certainly Two-Lane Blacktop a beautifully moody period piece with Taylor and Wilson both brilliantly underplaying their roles. On its original release the film was not a commercial success but has since become a cult classic, now at long last released on Blu-ray. Later Hellman was an executive producer on Tarrantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) having previously made two westerns in the 60’s with Jack Nicholson which flopped except in France were they played in Paris for months.   

[1] Geoff Dyer Zona.

No comments:

Post a Comment