Blu-Ray Review: Two Lane Blacktop – 70s America On The Road To Nowhere

The years when we couldn’t see Two-Lane Blacktop have been kind to it and now we can, we really should!

John Ashbrook

Contributor

It’s likely you’ve heard-of but never seen this early seventies road movie, which features nameless wanderers in a nominal cross-country race. It follows closely the tracks laid down a couple of years earlier by Easy Rider. But this is a more cerebral film than Hopper’s ramshackle classic, and less dated. The years when we couldn’t see Two-Lane Blacktop have been kind to it and now we can, we really should! Two-Lane Blacktop is available on Blu-Ray from January 23rd.

So, why was it unavailable for so long? Blame the lawyers! When films are made, pieces of music used on the soundtrack are licensed for that use but, back in the days before home video, these rights did not include ‘any other medium not invented yet’. So, if a film is to be released on DVD or Blu-Ray, the music has to be licensed all over again. This is all very proper, since it ensures that musicians make a living! However, if the people who now own the film can’t or won’t afford the license fee … There’s a problem.

This film features music by, among others, The Doors and a brief rendering of The Rolling Stones’ ‘Can’t Get No Satisfaction’. Ensuring that it still contains this music was a lengthy and expensive process and it was only Anchor Bay’s insistence on bringing out a 35th anniversary DVD in 2007 that inspired them to spend the money!

Okay, mystery solved. So, was it worth the effort? Unambiguously, yes!

Let’s make no bones about it, this film was made to cash-in on the financial bonanza of Easy Rider and the synergy developing between the movie and music industries in the late 60s. Director Monte Hellman had a history of working with Jack Nicholson and I suspect this, rather than his track record making Westerns, is why the studio offered him the job. But he elected not to cast Nicholson and, instead, gave the only film roles to folk singer James Taylor and Beach Boy drummer Dennis Wilson. That would be like hiring James Blunt and Jason Bonham today.  But, weirdly, it works!

We begin with a scene quite familiar in these post-Fast and Furious days – of a street-race. But, a generation ago, these races were daily events in certain parts of America. A young, wet-behind-the-ears film-maker called George Lucas used to race in them. That’s why he features them so heavily in his breakout feature, American Graffiti (1973).

(Not that this is anything other than coincidence, but it’s worth mentioning that Two-Lane Blacktop was produced by Gary Kurtz, who later went on to work with Lucas on both American Graffiti and a little thing called Star Wars.)

The protagonists, known only as ‘The Driver’ and ‘The Mechanic’, are rootless, drifting across America from race to race, running their car on their winnings, saving enough for a stake in the next race. Eventually a girl known, helpfully, as ‘The Girl’ (Laurie Bird), invites herself into their car and becomes little more than chatty ballast for the next few states. The threesome then bump into an older drifter driving a GTO … called ‘GTO’ … Who races them across America.  Inevitably, emotions develop between them but, as soon as that happens, The Girl switches her allegiance.

All of which makes the film sound like it is narrative driven, which it absolutely is not. It’s a film about wandering, about avoiding standing still long enough for roots to grow. Even the cross-country-race isn’t really a race since there’s no sense that they are actually competing with each other. Character arcs? There are none!  Emotionally the characters end up exactly where they were at the start: Living in denial.

The quality of the acting – particularly Dennis Wilson’s – is not great … But, thankfully, they aren’t really required to act much. This is a very internalised film wherein the characters rarely speak, never speak about their emotions, barely even demonstrate their emotions. James Taylor is particularly captivating in this … He walks slowly, speaks slowly and even blinks slowly, as though it’s all too much effort.

This film represents a time when America’s youth were shell-shocked, literally in some cases; metaphorically in most. This is because the ‘Peace, Love and Happiness’ movement of the sixties had failed, leaving incomprehension and depression in its wake. The young generation simply couldn’t articulate their sense of alienation, so they said nothing.

Road movies of this period: Easy Rider (’69), Vanishing Point (’71), Badlands (’73), The Sugarland Express (’74) are sometimes called ‘existentialist’, concerning America’s struggle to come to terms with its lack of faith in God … But, of course, something far more secular is going on. Thanks to the political assassinations of the sixties, the Vietnam War and Nixon, Americans didn’t believe in their government, in each other or in themselves. They didn’t have faith in anything anymore! This film suggests they didn’t even accept traditional social labels: Hence why none of the characters have names.

Warren Oates is the star of the film … even though he’s in the supporting role of ‘GTO’ … But he is captivating on screen. Fond of his own voice, he weaves elaborate tales about where he’s from, none of them likely true, most of them repeated in one form or another to different ears. He claims to be of a different war – Korea – But there’s no reason to believe that any more than any of the stories he tells. He is a hollow man, all bluster and fragile male ego, desperate to race the two younger men … Drooling over the prospect of winning The Girl off them. As an actor known for macho roles in Westerns, this was quite a brave move for Oates: a complex, contradictory and occasionally cowardly character who ultimately becomes the most interesting character of his career.

The film is full of odd-ball characters – mostly hitch-hikers – who wander in then wander out, with no more sense of direction than the protagonists. Some of them are professional actors, most are not; as Hellman says on the audio commentary: “We cast the cars and minor characters along the way”. Of the pro’s, Harry Dean Stanton makes a particular impression in a two-scene cameo as a gay cowboy hitch-hiker, shot in very moody chiaroscuro.

Throughout, the world of early seventies America is seen from the car’s perspective – through a screen. It is a world of back roads, hick towns, petrol stations and road-side diners. The car is a major character in this film. It speaks more eloquently than any of the actors within it. Indeed, both the Chevy and GTO get a credit in the cast list!

The title character is the road. Roads are important in Hollywood mythology. In a country where petrol was virtually free, they symbolised freedom, they symbolised man’s mastery of the countryside, they were the rivers of asphalt down which sailed ships of masculinity from town to town and state to state. Too much?  Okay.  But Americans do mythologise their roads … Why else would such a big deal be made about Route 66? Of course, this film, which wants to undermine those myths, is set on and around 66 and shows the dilapidated reality of it!

Road movies also have a lot in common with another American myth – the Western. The cowboy was a character who wandered into town, made a difference, then blew away with the wind. Famously, Clint Eastwood’s iconic cowboy character had no name. So, it is to Hellman’s credit that he didn’t overload the Western imagery with this film, just allows it to run under the surface, in neutral, as it were.

Despite the fact that this film does nothing to romanticise the road and the people on it, it has still earned a cult following, Stateside.  Mostly because of the cars! The most cursory Google search will throw up a myriad of reviews and reminiscences. There is even a blog, encouraging people to revisit the locations (most of which have long since been bulldozed).

Ultimately, Two-Lane Blacktop does NOT feel forty years old. Since the post-modern cycle has come round and floppy seventies hair, hippie rock and classic motors are all fashionable again, this film feels surprisingly contemporary. The lack of sideburns and flares, the costly but important sixties music, the car from the fifties and the eternal sense of young people who are lost and looking for some direction, all combine to give the film a timelessness.

Finally, because little is said, little is explained. We never fully understand the characters’ motivation, because they don’t understand it themselves; which leaves the film wide open for interpretation. You can put yourself in that driving seat and explore, with them, the endless possibilities of a long straight open road.

Picture Quality

The film is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.36:1 with a 1080p transfer.

The commentary goes some way towards explaining the complicated history of this film – which was shot on Techniscope (a method which uses half the frame of usual 35mm film). This leads to subdued colours and a lot of visible grain in the night scenes. But this only adds to the documentary feel of the film.

The lack of garish colours and dated crash-zooms, combined with an all-encompassing depth-of-field, all feel very fresh, belying the film’s age. Both Hellman and Kurtz comment that the film has never looked or, indeed, sounded better.

Audio Quality

There are three audio tracks: English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, and English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 (music & effects track). I have no idea why they have isolated the music and effects in a film with relatively little music, unless it is for those who love listening to car engines. They’re out there, trust me!

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack certainly makes the audio clearer and louder – which feasts on those chunky chugging engines – and there are some attempts to create surround-sound, but they’re rather distracting. I actually preferred the original mono track!  Call me a philistine if you must.

Extras

Commentary

Director Monte Hellman and Producer Gary Kurtz clearly still know and like each other and Kurtz, particularly, has very clear memories of the details of the production. This is a very enlightening, no-frills commentary concentrating on the important and interesting details of the production, rather than the tedious ‘oh, he’s lovely to work with’ stuff you often get.

They discuss the technical details of that Techniscope cinematography method, the pros and cons of shooting the film chronologically on the road and of making it rain when you don’t have studio facilities to arrange such things!

This commentary (which originally appeared on the 2007 re-issue) is what all good commentaries should be – a master-class! Given that Hellman is now a teacher, that is only right!

On the Road Again – (43 mins)

Once again, this was originally created for the 2007 American DVD release – This interview – like the film itself – is shot mostly in a moving car, on the pretext of re-visiting one of the film’s locations. Talking to his Cal Arts Film Directing students – who also shoot the footage – Hellman tells about how he became involved with the film, had it completely re-written and saw it through an unusual – some would say unique – production. His unvarnished, matter-of-fact, but still affectionate, reminiscences of the film are delightful.

Somewhere Near Salinas – (28 mins)

Hellman and Kris Kristofferson start off talking about how the latter’s song appears in the movie … But then they wander off and talk about what they really want to discuss: Bob Dylan and Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (which Kristofferson starred in two years after Blacktop was made).

Interestingly, ‘Make It Three Yards’ the interview Hellman conducted with Taylor in 2007 for the Anchor release, is not included here!

Sure Did Talk To You – (24 mins)

Various producers talk about the logistics of making this most un-studio of studio films. Revelations include the not surprising knowledge that the actors were not permitted to see the entire script because Hellman wanted to maintain the spontaneity on camera.

Original Screen Tests

James Taylor – (11 mins) – This takes the form of interviews, in which Taylor comes across as nervous, taciturn and more than a little impatient at the dumb questions he is being asked. But his serious, humourless stare becomes the heart of his performance in the film. He is far more comfortable (though no happier) when he gets to sing one of his songs. The revelation, in the audio commentary, that he has always refused to watch the film, comes as no surprise.

Laurie Bird – (15 mins) – Unlike Taylor’s, this includes some improv scenes. During the interview she comes across as more than slightly wasted which may simply be acting, but I suspect was genuine.

Trailer

The original theatrical trailer. (3 mins).

36 Page Booklet

As usual with Masters of Cinema, they include a booklet featuring essays – in this case by Brad Stevens and Shelley Benoit – but this was not included with my check-disc so I can’t comment on it.

 

Two Lane Blacktop is released on Blu-ray from Monday.