Credit: Universal
by Paul Attard Featured Film Kicking the Canon

Two-Lane Blacktop | Monte Hellman

July 7, 2021

During an interview with Jump Cut in 1976, director Monte Hellman described Two-Lane Blacktop as such: “It’s a film about inner life rather than outer life. But it’s not a film about other films; it’s not a pastiche.” The final caveat was in relation to how Hellman perceived his 1971 breakthrough in relation to the previous Westerns he made during his Roger Corman days, works he summarized as “films about other films rather than films about life,” ones that deconstructed the rigid genre’s understood tropes and re-shaped them to craft acid-laced whirlwinds that captured a battered post-’60s counterculture milieu. However, one could easily examine Two-Lane Blacktop through a similar methodology and verbiage, as a work commenting on a distinctly American mode of movie-making that’s as etched into our cultural subconscious as the Western: the road picture, a masculine-oriented genre influenced by traditionalist notions of Manifest Destiny, while also being indebted to modern car culture. On a more base level, the road movie is something of the most literal realization of the hero’s journey, in terms of movement along a designated path in an open space; or, in other words, the Western of our time, focused not on the iconography of what once was, but what currently is

Hellman had shifted genres, but his thematic scope had only widened when first approached for the material — all before requesting a second screenwriter, Rudy Wurlitzer, to punch up the original draft. He cast two musicians as the leads, James Taylor and Dennis Wilson — both at the peak of their heroin use, and it shows; they look beyond blissed-out in every scene they occupy, while also offering a melancholy presence. Hellman only gave them their dialogue on shooting days, for authenticity’s sake, a method which made Taylor deeply uncomfortable, visibly seen in his brooding performance which carries a noticeable distance and resolve from everyone else. The new screenplay was published in Esquire to draw up early promotion (including the front cover accolade of “The Movie of the Year,” with no accompanying review to back such illustrious claims), but was essentially dumped into theaters during a dead 4th of July weekend by bitter studio heads who couldn’t understand Hellman’s vision for the final product. 

As Wurlitzer himself put it, he knew “something about being lost on the road,” but little about actual cars themselves, which accounts for why the film isn’t terribly concerned with them. There are our two leads and their 1955 Chevrolet 150, and there’s their rival’s 1970 Pontiac GTO Judge, won in a lottery in one scene and given a different backstory in another. They race other cars, but little attention is ever provided for the finer details. There’s a scene where they buy GM QuadraJet carburetor parts — albeit one that feels like a chore when it occurs, lethargically capturing the numbing emptiness of keeping things moving. But these vehicles aren’t humanized, or treated like prized possessions (their pink slips are used for the central bet, never to be collected later), or as extensions for a type of traveling home or community; they’re machines that allow for a vagabond existence, ones that are yearned after by only the most narcissistic of enthusiasts. 

Wurlitzer and Hellman also weren’t that interested in obtrusive narrative elements that would bog down the essence of the film’s simplicity: the central conflict isn’t ever insisted upon, and is never resolved beyond the central characters going their separate ways when things begin to wrap up. What Two-Lane Blacktop is far more invested in exploring is the road itself: Route 66 — shot on location from Los Angeles to Memphis — defined as a physical and psychological space that our characters traverse with little motivation either way. They just continue to move, staring down a never-ending road until they reach their marked destination. And even at that juncture, things never really have a definitive finish, they just sort of… fizzle out at some point, like deteriorating film stock that’s slowly losing its form. This sense of universal indifference is what most defines the shape and character of Hellman’s picture: at one point, a boastful Warren Oates tries telling Taylor’s driver his life story, only to be shushed mid-sentence. It’s unnecessary, fodder to fill the empty air and make small talk. To be on the road is to be within, to understand one’s insignificance in the face of a profoundly uncaring existence. 

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.