Critics Celebrate Two-Lane Blacktop, the 1971 Existential Road-Movie Masterpiece by Monte Hellman (RIP), Starring James Taylor & Dennis Wilson

“The road movie has long since proven itself as one of the great American cultural forms, not least by capturing the imagination of other societies, no matter how distant or different. As New York Times critic A.O. Scott declares in the video above, ‘one of the finest road movies, and perhaps the purest of them all, is Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop.’ In his original 1971 review of the film, a Roger Ebert described Hellman as ‘an American director whose work is much prized by the French, who have a knack for finding existential truths in movies we thought were Westerns.’ In some sense Two-Lane Blacktop is indeed a Western, but Hellman’s death earlier this week will prompt many to revisit the film and see that it’s also much more — as well as much less. Two-Lane Blacktop ostensibly tells the story of a cross-country race from New Mexico to Washington, D.C. In one car, a customized 1955 Chevrolet 150, are quasi-hippie gearheads known only as the Driver and the Mechanic (joined for a stretch by a hitchhiking Girl). In the other, a brand-new GTO, is a middle-aged man known only as GTO. ‘The mysticism of this movie is in its absence of mysticism,’ says Scott. ‘It’s so literal-minded, so bare-bones, so absurd, and it exposes not only the romance of the open road and the car culture, but the emptiness, the nihilism.’ Hellman, as the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody puts it in his own video essay, ‘shears this composition down to its existential bare bones,’ leaving not much more in its reality than what Ebert calls ‘miscellaneous establishments thrown up along the sides of the road to support life: motels, gas stations, hamburger stands.’ As stripped-down as its ’55 Chevy, Two-Lane Blacktop rolled up in the wake of Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, whose success convinced more than a few studios that cheaply produced, counter-culturally themed road movies could hit the box-office jackpot. Though unsuccessful upon its initial release just shy of 50 years ago, the film has only consolidated its power since. Some of that power comes from unexpected sources, such as the casting of singer-songwriter James Taylor and the Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson as the Driver and the Mechanic. These musicians, to Brody’s mind, ‘exert a negative charisma: their presence is both powerful and blank, deeply expressive in its neutrality.’ Scott sees Taylor’s turn in particular as occupying ‘a realm beyond acting, in a kind of deadpan, stoned, zen state of non-performance.’ …”
Open Culture (Video)
Criterion: Two-Lane Blacktop: Slow Ride
W – Two-Lane Blacktop

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