Monday, November 23, 2015

Reeling Backward: "Two-Lane Blacktop" (1971)

There is a purity to "Two-Lane Blacktop" that grabs you like fat tires gripping a hot asphalt road.

On the surface it is seemingly the barest of trifles, a drag-racing movie in which the two main characters literally have no existential identity beyond their roles as Driver and Mechanic -- the only names ever given them, and only then in the end credits.

Like slavering wolves with but one or two primordial imperatives constituting their entire behavioral makeup, they tool from town to town in a souped-up 1955 Chevy 150, searching for chumps to fleece in wagered side-by-side sprints. That's the whole movie.

Yet the film, a cult classic that barely made a ripple in the box office or pop culture of its day, often gets spoken about in tones bordering on reverential. Back in 1971 Esquire magazine named it the "film of the year" -- without even bothering to wait for the bloom of spring, at that.

Many people consider the movie the unsung triad of great counter-culture road pictures of the time, along with "Easy Rider" and "Vanishing Point." It is talked about frequently, and has received a handsome Criterion Collection restoration and video release.

(Though I'm aware such treatment from Criterion is not considered as ostentatious as it once was.)

Directed by B-movie denizen and Roger Corman mentee Monte Hellman, "Two-Lane Blacktop" was written by Rudy Wulitzer over a frenetic four-week period. He was an underground nobody at the time, but went on to pen notable films like "Pat Garrett and & Billy the Kid"  and "Little Buddha," and even contributed to the Oscar-winning script for "Coming Home," though he did not get a screen credit or a statuette.

Wurlitzer, who admitted he knew little about cars, threw out almost everything from a first draft by Will Corry, diving into motoring magazines and hanging out with gearheads to soak up the culture. He kept the simplicity of Corry's three main characters: Driver, Mechanic and The Girl (Laurie Bird) and added to them G.T.O., an older man played by Warren Oates who starts out as an adversary and becomes their companion.

There is very little dialogue, and most of what is spoken is by G.T.O., a born liar cruising cross-country in a brand-new flaming yellow Pontiac GTO, who constantly picks up hitchhikers, supplying each one with a different backstory about who he is and how he got the car. In different fables he is a test pilot, television producer, etc., but always a braggart and back-slapper.

G.T.O. wears an extravagant outfit, complete with cravat and slip-on loafers, that looks like a precursor to the disco-era leisure suit. He keeps a full martini travel kit in the trunk.

(A note on nomenclature: the iconic Pontiac muscle cars are GTOs, sometimes cheekily expanded to "Gas, Tires & Oil" -- the three things they prodigiously consumed -- or simply "Goats." But the film's credits include periods, most likely an error on Wurlitzer's part, and have become an established part of movie lore. So I'll use them here.)

G.T.O. doesn't actually know very much about cars. He proudly enumerates for a hitchhiker all the particulars of the model, including acceleration times and such, then admits he got all the information out of the owner's manual. He's a poser who views other hot-rodders with disdainful confidence, a self-proclaimed king of the road who's never actually shut anyone down.

"Performance and image, that's what it's all about," he drawls, innocent of embarrassment for these words. 

Driver and Mechanic are his polar opposite. They are young, stoic, long-haired, T-shirted, terse. They don't imbibe or toke up. They talk about nothing but the condition of their vehicle and racing strategy. They travel along Route 66, generally eastward, finding people to race and bet against. It's strongly implied they have never lost.

Their car is the antithesis of flashy, all business: primer gray paint that blurs into the road, a functional but boxy hood scoop for ramming air into the carb, sheet metal shaved and bumper stripped to cut down weight. It has no radio or heater, only rollbars in the back, and the heavy glass windows have been replaced with sliding plastic barriers.

With a mammoth big-block 454 cubic inch plant -- that's about 7.4 liters in today's parlance, or four times the engine displacement of a new Honda Civic -- paired to a 4-speed gearbox and heavily modified, their '55 Chevy is a stealth warrior, a professional machine disguised to look like a local boy's plaything. To access the engine, Driver and Mechanic have to flick a release near each door corner and together tilt the front end up, fenders and all.

Interestingly, this is the only way in which the two men collaborate on the car itself. Driver will help Mechanic take off the hood, then he studiously strolls away and sits somewhere nearby while the work is performed. Similarly, Mechanic offers no words of advice before a race, and never rides along. Each understands their clearly defined roles, and obeys the self-imposed demarcation as if a biblical directive.

They do talk shop while scouting out opponents, however. Mechanic can tell what another driver has under the hood with a glance and a listen to their exhaust note. Driver is in charge of baiting their prey, sidling up at the local car aficionados' gathering spot, offering praise for another's wheels, then derision, returning a challenge of a $50 race with a demand for $300, knowing the man can't back down in front of his hometown crew.

Driver and Mechanic are both played by famous musicians in their only feature film role. James Taylor (Driver) was just breaking out as a solo act, while Dennis Wilson (Mechanic) was sliding down from the Beach Boys' heyday, on the threshold of a dark decade and early death.

Neither has a scintilla of acting talent. Taylor actually stumbles badly during his character's only notable piece of dialogue, seeming unsure if he should keep going or wait for someone to yell "cut." Yet their blank glances, unmodulated speech and nervy unease in front of the camera actually work to the film's advantage. They're single-minded beasts, unconcerned with social niceties or anything that could distract them from speed, and victory.

The one thing that tries is The Girl. She's a hippie and a roamer who rides along with anyone who will have her. She literally waltzes up and throws her stuff and herself into the back of the '55 while the two men are inside a diner, and upon returning they acquiesce to her presence -- without comment.

Despite her reliance on the kindness of strangers, Girl takes pains to aim her verbal barbs and astringent energy at whoever's currently providing the lift. In the case of a twosome of benefactors, she tries to set them against each other. Since Driver seems to express the barest of interest in her, she bestows her affections instead on Mechanic.

It is tacitly understood by all that she will provide sex in exchange for transportation, food and shelter. In many ways she is the pair's true spiritual companion. They are devoted only to racing, and their car is the tool to that end. She is only committed to her own freedom and whims, and offering her virtue is the most obvious and replenishable currency. The Chevy and The Girl's body are merely forms of conveyance.

The trio encounters G.T.O. at a gas station, and the boys use the older man's pride to lure him into the ultimate wager: an overland race for "pinks" -- aka pink slips, or ownership of the loser's car. They mail their titles to a post office in Washington D.C., and the first one who gets there, wins all.

The race gradually devolves into a comradely jaunt. They agree on truces for repairs, eating stops and spontaneous races with third parties. G.T.O. pretends to be their manager, The Girl switches between cars as her mood strikes, and eventually it becomes unclear if they're even going to bother finishing the race.

At some point G.T.O. realizes he's clearly out of his class with Driver and Mechanic, and starts to envy and emulate them. Just as Driver drives and Mechanic maintains and The Girl chases her zephyr, G.T.O. is a chameleon who lives for deception and change. We're not sure what he really was before, but self-invention is now his single-minded vocation. He is on a quest to forget himself.

When your goal is ephemeral and ever receding, all you have left is the race itself.

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