in Criterion Month

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

I like to think there are primarily two kinds of films in the Criterion Collection, “Classics” and “Curiosities”. We all have a general idea of what makes a classic film. Whether it’s a memorable performance or a scene, cinematography or music, or whatever kind of pop culture foot print it leaves behind. What makes a “Curiosity”? A curiosity is more self-contained. It’s a time capsule we reopen after years of obscurity or muted fanfare to learn about a part of the past we may have forgotten about. Two-Lane Blacktop feels like a curiosity.

How else do you explain the gimmick casting of your parent’s favorite songwriter James Taylor and Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson as two hippy gear heads? Or a script that is almost 80% talking about cars and/or car accessories? Top it off with the fact that Two-Lane Blacktop was one of the last notable films of the pre-Interstate Highway era and you have a curiosity.

The idea for Two-Lane Blacktop began with a short story by Will Corry about two men and a young girl driving across the country. Producer Michael Laughlin then passed the idea on to pulp director Monte Hellman. A friend of Hellman’s recommended Rudolph Wurlitzer to write the script and after months held up in an L.A. motel with “stoner car freaks” Two-Lane Blacktop was born. Hellman cast James Taylor after seeing him on a billboard on the Sunset Strip and casting director Fred Taylor suggested bad boy Dennis Wilson in the secondary-role based on his genuine blue collar nature.

The plot is basic, if important at all, considering the stoner pace of the film. The Driver (James Taylor) and the Mechanic (Dennis Wilson) are a pair of creepy guys traveling across Route 66, stopping in small towns for pickup drag races. Along the way, they pick up a bratty hitchhiker known only as “Girl” (Laurie Bird) and tell her they are heading east for… reasons.

The story finds momentum when the trio crosses paths with GTO (Warren Oates) a middle-aged man in a sports car who after years of living a humdrum existence decides to let loose on the open road. After a few awkward encounters, the Driver challenges GTO to a cross country race to Washington D.C. The winner of the race will also receive the loser’s cherished car. So this is is a Fast and the Furious high adrenaline blockbuster, right?

Nah. For a movie about a race, I’m amazed how slow this film feels. Before we get into that let me answer your most burning question “Can James Taylor and Dennis Wilson act? The answer is no, not really. If the idea was to create two emotionless weirdos who talk about cars like serial killers talk about killing people then mission accomplished. I’ll admit they have a few funny moments but nothing big enough to rise above what barely feels like the skeleton of a script.

This is a film that straight up kept scenes where Jame Taylor fucks up his lines. You can watch the clip on the Turner Classic Movies website if you’re curious (the flub happens around 1:30). Maybe you can make a case for a misreading as more genuine but I call bullshit. It was probably the best take they got out of Sweet Baby James.

Thank god for Warren Oates who gives the only human performance in the entire film. There’s kind of an ugly charm about Oates that I can’t place my finger on. He’s not quite the cool guy with his big teeth, curly hair and the fact that he wears his emotions on his sleeves. Yet he has these moments of extreme confidence where he delivers great lines like “If I wanted to bother, I could suck you right up my tail pipe.” Or “I don’t like being crowded by a couple of punk road hogs clear across two states, I don’t.” He’s like that dad who was really cool when he was young only to lose a bit of edge in older age. But give him the right cue and he can turn it back on. It’s an insult to waste Warren Oates by pairing him with these two greasy beatniks. He’s more or less the only reason I liked this movie (the cinematography too).

As for what all this hippy car bullshit means, my favorite read comes from Indiewire who wrote the film is about “the sense of youth fading away.” Which would explain the Driver and the Mechanic’s obsession with never stopping. This despite the fact we are never given much motivation. One could also say GTO is a character who lost his youth long ago and is now in a crisis trying to reclaim it. Those are decent interpretations but I can’t help but feel critics have given this film far more credit than it deserves. You can slather on metaphors and visual symbolism till the cows come home but that doesn’t make the film any more entertaining.

It’s almost as if the viewer needs to come up with an explanation in order to make the experience palpable. Like how soccer fans need to generate enthusiasm from the crowd to make up for how boring the actual game is (no offense soccer). We’re given virtually nothing from the film’s two main characters. They never talk about their families or dreams or hopes or desires. All they talk about is cars. And neither of the two feel like an authority on the matter. Maybe that’s my personal bias but come on, James Taylor? A gear head? I don’t think so.

Two-Lane Blacktop is an oily wet dream for car enthusiasts, but that’s it. Anyone who tries to paint this film as an Easy Rider ode to the death of the 60s is grasping at straws. Granted I love it when different viewers can draw different ideas and conclusions from films (that’s the beauty of cinema) but there are far better films to put on a pedestal and far more curious.

God bless Warren F#@kin’ Oates