American film experienced a revolution in the late 1960s. A new generation of filmmakers, influenced by the French New Wave and other cinematic art movements, began making highly personal pictures that were more statements than entertainment. Films like 'Easy Rider' tapped into the counterculture that was rapidly growing during the period. The hallmark of these films is that they showed America in a new light, and most importantly, were shot with low budgets. Independent pioneers like Roger Corman could afford to give directors carte blanche to tell whatever stories they wanted, so long as they fell within the small budgets that such productions provided. The best of these artists learned to make movies economically and creatively.
Perhaps the best of these films is Monte Hellman's 1971 entry, 'Two-Lane Blacktop'. Singer/songwriter James Taylor stars as the Driver (no characters ever get a real name), and Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys plays the Mechanic. The pair drive around the American east coast in a modified '55 Chevy, frequently crossing paths with GTO (Warren Oates) and picking up a hitchhiker, the Girl (Laurie Bird). Eventually a challenge is made: The first car to arrive in Washington D.C. gets both the Chevy and the GTO. Along the way, all the riders will see America at its best and its worst.
'Two-Lane Blacktop' is deceptively simple. A plot synopsis like the one above inevitably misses that special texture that makes the movie so unique. 'Two-Lane Blacktop' isn't a racing movie. In fact, the DC challenge is just a MacGuffin, a device to get the characters into the right places at the right times. And that's important, because otherwise these people could end up anywhere. This is a film about drifters. The Driver and the Mechanic seem to have no past, and no future beyond their next race. They wander forgotten highways, dropping off at gas stations to refuel, hardly ever talking about anything but the car.
GTO, on the other hand, rarely stops talking. He picks up a constant stream of hitchhikers and the price of the fare is a conversation. Oates performance as GTO rides a fine line. He's an unreliable but sympathetic narrator, looking perhaps to tame his restless soul. In one of the key moments of the film, he tells the Girl that he needs to get grounded, lest he fly into orbit. But can a man such as this ever truly plant roots anywhere? Oates was in his 40s when 'Two-Lane Blacktop' was made. Is he a man going through a mid-life crisis? Is he a perpetual wanderer looking to slow down, even settle down? Or is he just looking to bend the ears of his companions, to seduce sympathy from them as he lives the life he loves? The movie provides no answers.
By contrast, the Driver and the Mechanic are stoic loners. Taylor, in his first of very few roles, cuts a striking figure. There's an intensity to him, a perpetual chip on his shoulder that makes him an unlikely hero. The Driver isn't fighting for an ideal. He's just looking for the next thrill. But he rides a clean race. When GTO is pulled over by the cops, and later has mechanical trouble, the Driver and the Mechanic stop to help him, saying they don't want to win with such an obvious lead. The Driver taxis GTO into town to get repairs, and in those moments you realize that these men are more alike then they are different. Even as competitors, they're both playing the same game, even if they've come to it from different ends.
Hellman directs things naturalistically, allowing each scene to play out without flash or panache. The dialogue, from a script by Rudy Wurlitzer, almost sounds like code, with the characters speaking a lingo that's part counterculture, and part niche culture. Taylor and Wilson had never acted before, and Bird was new to the screen when she appeared here. Their lack of training gives them an awkward authenticity that extends to the rest of the film. Hellman shoots scenes with unknowing extras (such as when the Girl begs for money on a crowded street), and also shoots chronologically as the progress of the narrative follows the progress of production. These techniques, along with the combination of non-actors working with professionals, give the movie an off-kilter feel that makes it all the more compelling. And Hellman seems to take a bit of pleasure in casting two major musical figures and then not letting them sing.
'Two-Lane Blacktop' feels immediately of its time and yet removed from it. It's clearly part of the American filmmaking renaissance, yet stands apart as something distinct. There's a casualness to it that belies the real emotions that are subtly on display. It's a movie that reveals itself in stages, and multiple viewings are a must. You have to come to it on its own terms and soak it in. Like the characters, it will not conform to outside standards. And the world of cinema is all the better for it. 'Two-Lane Blacktop' isn't quite as earth-shattering as some of the films that surround it, but it's one that you'll find yourself returning to again and again, either because you want to understand it, or you just want to revel in its sly strangeness.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Criterion releases 'Two-Lane Blacktop' in their signature clear cases. Gone is the reproduction of the script that came with the DVD release, but the rest of the supplements remain and have been consolidated onto a single 50 GB disc versus the two discs on DVD.
As with most Criterion releases, the booklet, printed on thick and sturdy paper, contains supplements beyond those on the disc. In this case, we get a lyrical tribute from Tom Waits, a verbose and overlong essay by Kent Jones, a far more succinct list of reasons why Richard Linklater loves the movie, and finally a reprinted article from 'Rolling Stone' that documents the making of the film, all interspersed with full color and black and white photos.
According to the booklet, this AVC-encoded 1080p 2.35:1 transfer was created on a Spirit 2K from a 35mm four-perforation interpositive made from the original Techniscope two-perforation camera negative. Director Monte Hellman supervised the transfer. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed. The result is a strong and natural-looking print with nary a scratch. The image is very grainy, most likely due to cheap film stocks, but rarely does this grain descend into actual noise.
Colors are muted but not faded. The east coast scenery gets the most use of color, with the cars and clothes all looking rather drab. Fleshtones also look muted, but not to the point of inaccuracy. Contrast is decent, but suffers during night sequences, and the drop-off to black can be sharp. Detail is strong. You can make out the knobs and dials on GTO's console, and take in all the period furnishings. Even more importantly, you can see every nut and bolt in the engine when the Mechanic works on it. Aside from the slight noise, there are no obvious artifacts, ringing, or other transfer issues of note. In all, this is a strong but not entirely perfect transfer that accurately conveys Hellman's visual intentions.
Again according to the booklet, the film's original monaural track was remastered at 24-bit from the original 35mm magnetic tracks. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were removed manually using Pro Tools HD. There are in fact two mixes for this disc, the original mono track and a 5.1 mix created by Hellman for the DVD release. Both mixes are presented lossless formats, DTS-HD Master Audio for the 5.1 mix and uncompressed LPCM for the mono mix.
The difference between these two tracks is generally minimal. There's obviously a broader soundstage in the 5.1 mix, but the film only takes advantage of it during big racing sequences, of which there are surprisingly few. When it does kick in, you'll find a strong LFE track, but very little in the way of surrounds. If you love the sound of engines revving and tires screeching, then this is the mix for you. The downside is that it doesn't have particularly natural sounding pans, making it feel artificial. Additionally, other scenes may offer some increased ambient sounds, but for much of the film you would be forgiven if you mistook this for the mono mix.
Both the 5.1 and mono mixes offer clear dialogue, relatively free of hiss and totally free of distortion. Dynamic range is good if unremarkable. I felt as if the mono track had better balance, as the 5.1 sometimes mixed the ambient sounds a little too strongly. Whichever way you go, you'll find a perfectly serviceable mix for your listening pleasure.
Criterion carries over all the on disc extras from the two-disc DVD set, now conveniently merged onto a single Blu-ray.
More than forty years later, 'Two-Lane Blacktop' remains a compelling enigma. The amateur turns by James Taylor, Laurie Bird, and Dennis Wilson contrast perfectly with the subtle and layered performance by veteran Warren Oakes. Director Monte Hellman underplays the proceedings, letting its implications slowly seep in. Part art film, part b-film, 'Two-Lane Blacktop' is relentlessly fascinating. This Blu-ray from Criterion presents the film with very strong picture and two audio mixes, and an impressive set of substantial extras that will help viewers gain some perspective on a fascinating piece of cinema history.