Two Lane Blacktop Monte Hellman (USA 1971) James Taylor, Dennis Wilson, Laurie Bird, Warren Oates
Viewed Star and Shadow Cinema 14 Nov 2019; ticket: £7
Highway 66 revisited
Hellman’s movie looks like the nearest Hollywood has come to making a neo realist film. A fact which Universal, the distributors underlined by more or less pulling the film and not supporting its distribution. Like The Last Movie, the Swimmer, White Dog, which were all left to rot in their cans by the distributors, Two Lane Blacktop probed the soft underbelly of the America belief system and more, compromised Hollywood’s definition of film as an exclusively narrative/action expressive form. But however much Hellman’s movie approaches a European sensibility, this is America, this is an American film and Two Lane Blacktop stays true to its psychogeography.
Hellman’s movie has no violence, no drugs, no sex, no plot. It is pure ‘road’ taking as its theme the idea of life as pure existence. In literary terms it has provenance in Beat literature: Kerouac’s On the Road, Woolf’s Electric Kool Air Acid test and some of Ginsberg’s writings. Hellman’s movie is gentler than any of these (and indeed its Hollywood precursor Easyrider) more like transposing the 19th century concept of the Parisian flaneur onto the highways of the USA. The idea of an uprooted deracinated flaneur, high not on the absinthe, the green fairy, but on speed pure and gasoline. Both the ‘flaneur’ and Hellman’s ‘highwayheads’ exemplify a sort of pure existence, an existence predicated on pure state of being, such as experienced in velocity, a non chemical drug untrammelled by the expectations of society. A self always on the move and implicated in the present. A self existing on its own terms. Doing, achieving, self reinvention, overcoming are notions alien to Hellman’s characters.
In the script the characters are people without names. No name to bind them, no umbilical cord attaching them to place or family. Without past without future, they are the driver, the mechanic, the girl and GTO.
There are different definitions of what the idea of neo-realism means. One idea is that this concept points to the idea of seeing, an arrived-at-understanding on the part of the characters of something experienced. Neo-realist films move away from being action driven to being perception driven vehicles of expression.
Hellman’s movie stays true to its source. Its characters, the driver the mechanic the girl and GTO live in the flow of the road, taking from the road whatever the road offers them. The players remain true to the American psyche, emanations of a culture in which isolation and remoteness from others are defining characteristics. They people are disconnected from their experiences unchanged by their encounters. Understanding is a peripheral concept not a central, what is seen changes nothing. The characters stay within themselves observing but unaffected: cool. For Hellman’s characters there are no moments of doubt; the boys just follow the road, like Kerouac they can never go fast enough; and the girl always contained frozen within the bounds set by herself. They are pure Americana, on the move externally, immobile internally. And the last character, GTO is that most typical of American of characters a man who doesn’t exist outside of the confines of the stories he tells. Spinning out virtual imagined versions of himself to the hitchhikers he picks up as he criss-crosses the highways. And as he starts to talk the rides fade as GTO projects himself onto the road. Two Lane Blacktop is built on a premise of opposing ideas: the openness of the highways, the closed nature of the characters who ride them. A contradiction at the heart of contemporary America.
But Hellman’s film has a sort of suggested Medieaval subtext. Taylor and Wilson look sumptuously beautiful. Beautiful all American boys. Superstars. They reminded me of some of the male faces in Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac. The actual filmic presence of the two rock stars suggests the idea of retro knights errant, chevaliers endlessly circling the globe confronting the strange the wonderful in their quest for the holy grail. Of course the driver, the mechanic are not on any quest; but their existence as they roam the highways, moving from one joust, one competition to the next, paints in a modern day resemblance to the old contes de gestes. Even the girl might double as a damsel in distress, though of course she isn’t. She’s just another errant being like the driver and the mechanic: transposed Mediaeval souls condemned to endlessly circle the earth.
Perhaps that is the difference between the European and the American take on neo realism. The Europeans come to know that somehow they are lost but there is nothing they can do about it; the Americans don’t get lost because it’s not a word in their language.