Sunday 12 June 2016

1,001 Films: "Two-Lane Blacktop" (1971)

Its reputation inflated like a tyre with every year it spent out of circulation, Monte Hellman's road movie Two-Lane Blacktop reemerges as something between Easy Rider on four wheels and The Cannonball Run with pretensions. Musicians James Taylor ("The Driver") and Dennis Wilson ("The Mechanic"), along with hitchhiker Laurie Bird ("The Girl") pile into a Chevy for a drive across a drab, depopulated America, en route encountering - and enraging - the yellow GTO of Warren Oates, a burnt-out executive in the grip of a midlife crisis. A gauntlet is soon thrown down: first party to Washington wins, a motorised march on the nation's capital that will demonstrate that the madness that struck America in the late 1960/early 70s wasn't just limited to its foreign policy (Taylor insists that a radio reporting the news be switched off on the grounds it "gets in the way") or its inner cities (Bird refers to the Zodiac killer) but to the highways and backroads connecting the latter. And that's about all it has to say before the film stock burns up, a supposedly radical ending that speaks less of the feature's intensity than it does of its maker's inability to come up with a more constructive conclusion.

For a movie centering on a road race, the one element Two-Lane Blacktop is conspicuously lacking in is speed: it seeks to dramatise a country heading nowhere and a directionless populace, through long, uneventful, frankly trying sequences in gas stations where the service - on the part of the attendants and Hellman alike - is either slow or non-existent. When the rival cars do go head-to-head, it's in the dead of night, so there's no sense of the scenery flying past; there's also far too much time spent fiddling around in lay-bys or other locations off the beaten track, where Bird repeatedly hops rides and the boys indulge in extended carburetor talk. (If you were to remake it today, at least 85% of it would have to be shot in a Welcome Break car park.) Petrolheads will doubtless adore any film with a soundtrack composed entirely of revving engines and gear changes. The rest of us can only spend this downtime pondering what an empty exercise this is, especially in comparison with the funny, angry points Godard had to make about a society fuelled by an obsession with cars in Week-End; how even 1950s hotrod B-pics had more oomph about them; and that it's no real surprise that Taylor (sullen) and Wilson (vapid), only ever convincing as stock counterculture longhairs, went on to pursue alternative careers. A bit of a non-starter.

Two-Lane Blacktop is available on DVD through Universal, and on Blu-Ray through Masters of Cinema.

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