It wasn't just the illegal war and the lying president and the uncivilized divide between right and left that made America great in the 1970s. It was also the movies. This was an era of great filmmaking, of films like The Conversation, The Godfather, A Woman Under the Influence and Nashville, films that featured complex characters who were neither heroes nor villains. This moral ambiguity was part of a larger dedication to naturalism that infected the scripts, stories and cinematography of the period, producing some incredibly beautiful and human movies that every film-goer should be acquainted with.
And most of these classics are widely available, though one, considered the golden grail of cult movies from that era, has been tremendously hard to find: Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop.
This film defines the American road movie and was enormously influential on such modern-day independent filmmakers as Vincent Gallo and Richard Linklater. Linklater, in fact, called Two-Lane Blacktop "the purest American road movie ever," a claim it's hard to argue with.
The film opens, without credits or explanation, on a glorious shot of a drag race. You'll immediately notice the look and feel of this film. It's shot in Techniscope, a wide-screen process that used half as much film stock as Cinemascope, with increased grain and depth of field. The chance to see this projected is a rare treat, and you'll have one and only one chance to do so this weekend, when director Monte Hellman introduces the film at the Loft on Saturday night at 8.
The story and characters are intensely minimal. James Taylor plays "The Driver," Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys plays "The Mechanic," Laurie Bird plays "The Girl," and the man who is proof that evolution selects for acting talent, Warren Oates, plays "The Guy in the GTO."
The plot is pretty simple: The Driver and The Mechanic take their souped-up '55 Chevy around the country seeking drag races in order to win enough money to pay for the gas to get them to the next race.
At a rest stop, The Girl gets into their car, and they drive off without asking her who she is or where she comes from. Her only question is "Which way we going?"
"East," replies the laconic Taylor.
"That's cool; I've never been east," she says.
The hippie-ish trio keeps passing the GTO on the road, and this infuriates the seemingly establishment Oates, who challenges them to a cross-country race. At first, Taylor taunts Oates for buying instead of building his car, but when Oates has engine trouble, The Driver and The Mechanic help him out, and they become something of a team.
The relationship between the characters marks this as a film from a different era. It's hard to imagine a contemporary film that featured a challenge like this and didn't depict one side as good and the other as evil. But in Hellman's version, Oates is a sad and damaged man who becomes increasingly sympathetic as he falls in love with The Girl.
Of course, Taylor is also falling in love with her, and as they zoom across the Southwest and into the Southeast, both the tension and the understanding between them builds.
Oates is, as always, amazing in his role. As he drives along, he picks up a series of hitchhikers and enthusiastically tells each of them a different and contradictory story about where he came from and where he's going. Taylor, a first-time actor, is also surprisingly good. Hellman directed him to play almost without affect, and it gives him a sort of smoldering, repressed anger and overall sense of defeat.
In fact, of the main cast, only Oates had any acting experience, and this lends the other three an unnerving naturalism, especially when played against Oates' polished performance as the compulsive liar. The script is full of quotable gems, and the bare-bones story winds up being much more complicated than it initially appears.
Probably the real star of the film, though, is the cinematography. Shots through dirty windshields and across desert wastelands manage to feel small and sad on the human scale by emphasizing the vast and enchanting inhuman environment. It's a perfect example of using landscape as a character.
All of these elements would seem dated if we watched this film 20 years ago, but this is the perfect time for a re-release, because what once seemed hopelessly chained to a specific time now seems timeless. The characters acquire an iconic quality and the broad, open style of shooting, with long, sustained shots, creates a sense of space that seems both universal and specifically American.
If you're serious about film, you'll not want to miss this. If you're not serious about film, but just want to watch something that takes cool to new levels of hot, then this is also the movie for you. The soundtrack is just as sought-after as the film itself, and the clothes and dialect of the characters dazzle with once-and-future hipness. Hellman's film may not have the polish of some of the better known '70s classics, but its rough edges and independent spirit make it more modern, accessible and enjoyable than a lot of movies being made today.