Monday, April 20, 2009
Two Lane Blacktop
The drivers in Two Lane Blacktop, men behind the wheels of powerful muscle cars, racing one another for money and pride and just for the hell of it, are true outcasts, existing in a strange world somewhere outside proper society, lingering on the fringes wherever they go. They seemed to have formed their own private world and their own language, an obscure lingo of car parts, numbers, makes and models, speeds, transmissions. They speak entirely in the language of cars, seemingly incapable of talking about anything else. Their whole way of living, their way of thinking, is centered around cars: driving them, racing them, scratching together money to fix them or upgrade them, setting arbitrary destinations just so that when they get there, they can drive some more, race some more, come up with a new destination. They don't even have names, not really; they're credited simply as "the driver" (singer James Taylor), "the mechanic" (Beach Boy Dennis Wilson), "G.T.O." (Warren Oates), the latter synonymous with the make of the car he drives. The hitchhiker they pick up along the way is called simply "the girl" (Laurie Bird), and none of them seem to know her name either, though she flits between them, bored and trying to find someone who thinks about more than cars.
She's mostly out of luck with this crew, though. Taylor and Wilson pick her up while driving around the West looking around for races in their grey '55 Chevy. She goes to bed with Wilson when they first pick her up, but most of the time she's simply sprawled out in the back of their car, a quiet presence on the edges of their vision, crowded out by their laconic shop talk and engine tweaking. During their travels, the two young men run across the somewhat older Oates, who's not a car guy in the same sense as they are: he bought his way into this scene through his supercharged yellow G.T.O., while they more or less constructed their ride from scratch. He only knows as much as is available in his owner's manual, and even then he can mostly just recite the figures without understanding them. What he shares with the Chevy's crew is an aimless wanderlust, a constant need to be on the road, on the move, never settling into one place. He may have been settled at one point — one of the many stories he tells is about having a wife and family who he left behind — but now he's as thoroughly outside society as they are.
Taylor and Wilson challenge Oates to a cross-country race, with the winner taking the pink slips to both cars. But the actual race proceeds only by fits and starts, as the three men actually wind up spending a lot of time hanging out together, sharing meals together, helping one another when one of the cars has some trouble or they need a rest. They seem to spend more time parked by the side of the road or huddled around a table in one of many greasy small-town diners than they do racing. This only confirms that the point, for these men, is not the race, not the destination, but simply finding a way to pass the time. They're competitive, they have to be to exist within this milieu, but at the same they don't really care about the race, and Wilson and Taylor are just as happy to stop and help Oates rather than leaving him in their dust when they see an opportunity.
Director Monte Hellman captures this dusty, meandering cross-country trek with a sharp eye for the subtleties and details. This is a film of small gestures, a minimalist ode to people who exist within their own private, roving pocket of Americana, nomads drifting around on the outskirts of civilization. Of the four main actors, Taylor, Wilson and Bird had never acted before, and their untrained performances are naturalistic and quiet. They're iconic figures, blank-faced and ordinary, with not much to say to one another. Their speech is halting and minimal, often verging on a whisper or an incoherent mumble. Wilson and Taylor are not used to conversation, not used to people outside of their own insular subculture, people who don't speak about carbs and valves and hemis. The girl simply gets into the back of the Chevy one day, without a word, while the guys are inside having lunch, and when they come back and find her there they show no surprise and don't even say anything to her: they simply get in and drive away.
Hellman contrasts these minimally defined characters against the larger-than-life Oates, who relentlessly devours the scenery whenever he appears. If the other characters are rootless wanderers without clear personalities, Oates' "G.T.O." is a man who tries on new personae, new identities, as though changing suits. He's a storyteller, weaving a past for himself out of a patchwork of stories whose truth is dubious at best: according to various versions of his life story, he's a Korean war vet, a former airplane test pilot, a businessman, a family man who left his wife behind. All of these stories might be true, but more likely none of them are, especially since he displays a cheerful willingness to invent more stories on the spot, as he does when he briefly poses as Wilson and Taylor's "manager" and concocts an elaborate history for them as well. He's a man in search of an identity, desperate for some roots, some connections, something to hold. He clearly has no place within mainstream culture, which can't calm his wanderlust or his desire for novelty, but he doesn't fit comfortably within the parameters of the car culture, either. He's an outcast's outcast, and Oates breathes an undercurrent of sad pathos into this gregarious loner. When he looks at the girl, it's obvious that he sees in her an opportunity for salvation, and just as obvious that she won't be able to provide what he needs.
This is the tragedy of this film, in which these wanderers can barely see beyond the confines of their front windshields, a restrictive view that Hellman frequently highlights as a frame within the frame. There's a dangerous undercurrent to this adrenaline-jockey life style, most apparent in the scene where the guys come across an accident, a bloody, stylized highway tableau derived from the pile-ups in Godard's Week End, still the ultimate deconstruction of the modern fetish for fast-moving cars, the allure of the highway. These drivers are on a race to nowhere, speeding towards an amorphous ending, a speed-blur that Hellman represents with an abrupt non-ending. He cuts from Taylor's intense, blue-eyed stare, the car shaking and roaring around him, to a view out the front windshield, at the expanse of grey pavement stretching out to the horizon and beyond, a blacktop wasteland that is then devastated by the disintegration of the film itself, in the form of a bubbling acidic ooze that eats away at the celluloid of this final shot. It's a fitting ending to a film where nothingness hovers constantly beneath the surface, a threatening presence from which these racers and drifters are desperately trying to escape.