Thursday, August 6, 2009

Two-Lane Blacktop: Do You Like to Watch Cars Driving?

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Hey, do you guys like James Taylor? Have you ever seen him act? I promise you, he's... he's not that fantastic. Luckily for him, his co-star is Dennis Wilson, the drummer for The Beach Boys. Their characters don't talk much, and frankly don't even have names (they're known to the audience simply as "The Driver" and "The Mechanic," respectively). Directed by Monte Hellman, the film also co-stars Warren Oates and Laurie Bird as "GTO" and "The Girl," respectively. They didn't waste no time naming these guys, so all that pent-up energy was used in moody, stark, still shots of cars driving around, vaguely racing, and James Taylor looking tired and moody behind the wheel of the car.


The plot is simple to an extreme degree. The Driver and The Mechanic are drifters, driving around in their 1955 Chevrolet 150, racing locals for money as they meander aimlessly. It's supposed to be a commentary about the pre-Interstate era as well as the existential post-hippie era. They keep seeing this "Orbit Orange" 1970 Pontiac GTO Judge, and eventually get passively involved in some sort of barely-defined cross-country road race. They pick up The Girl, a hitchhiker, and she mainly just hangs around. ...That's pretty much it, really.


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This film is often touted as a cult classic road film, and I can see it, to a certain extent. Maybe I'm so used to the modern type of road movies, where there's lots of high-speed chases, explosions, and spectacular wrecks. For the most part, however, Two Lane Blacktop is a pretty lazy, rolling film, briefly giving us insight into the lives of drifters, hippies, and good-ol-boys. There's even a scene in a diner where a man asks if they (the Driver and the Mechanic) are hippies, but GTO tells the guy that they're a big family, and that he takes care of them. GTO lies about virtually everything, perhaps a sort of commentary in and of itself.


There's a pretty arbitrary and interesting scene where they come across the aftermath of an accident, between a station wagon and a truck. They go off the road (because a Dodge Charger is right on their ass, perhaps a no to Vanishing Point, which was released in the same year). The Driver seems vaguely interested in it, but probably not. The driver of the station wagon seems to be dead, covered in blood; the driver of the truck is fine, and says his neck is broken.


1955 Chevy 150 (One-Fifty),two-lane blacktop


GTO also spends the majority of the film picking up random hitchhikers, typically hippies. He seems almost obsessed with it; he has a fancy American muscle car, and wears driving gloves, nice clothes, and even an ascot. He has big old mutton-chop sideburns, too, and he's older than the other characters. He uses it as an opportunity to tell these people new versions of his life's story, and who's to tell what's true and what's lies.


1970 Pontiac GTO Judge,two-lane blacktop


I don't know much about cars, in that I don't know ,much about the inner workings, engines, that sort of thing. I can change the oil, change a tire, and some of the more basic fluids. But I can't do much else. But I do like the way cars look, especially these classics featured in the film. There's an impressive scene where they're all at an auto show, and The Girl wanders around exploring, and through her, we got to see some drag races as well as display cars. The primary soundtrack to the movie is the sound of engines and radio/diner music. There isn't much in terms of an ambient soundtrack, which is pretty ironic considering its two main characters were established and decently known musicians. Neither of them have songs on the soundtrack whatsoever.


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The fact that the '55 Chevy 150 has no real paintjob is an interesting detail to me. It looks like it's covered in a bland gray primer, as opposed to the '70 Pontiac GTO Judge which is fully detailed and painted up. The '55 Chevy is clearly a prized possession to the Driver and the Mechanic, and they constantly make adjustments and modifications to it to keep it in working order, but they don't care what it looks like. It's possible that this is another commentary on the general attitude of their generation; unconcerned with outward appearances, competitive interms of real performance, working with their own two hands to keep things running, but with no clear idea of direction or motivation whatsoever.


For a sparse, fleetingly worded and languorious road movie, it's oddly entertaining and inexplicably comforting. I get the very real sense of a deeper and more important message and meaning, but unfortunately, I may be too far culturally removed from the contemporaneous period for it to really mean anything. Yet I can appreciate its quality and pacing, as well as the pretty awesome (now) classic cars featured within. It's no Fast and Furious, and that's an extremely good thing. I give it four taciturn James Taylors out of five, or four drag-racing muscle cars driven by a taciturn James Taylor out of five.

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