Welcome to the second part of our road trip exploring the themes of Route 66 through movies. We’ve covered a lot of miles, but we still have quite a ways to go before we pull off at a roadside motel for the night.
Last week we talked about The Grapes of Wrath and the path of hardship and deliverance that the road offered to thousands of farmers during the Oklahoma Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. This week we’re moving forward to the early 1970s, when America was in a much different place.
Two-Lane Blacktop was released in 1971 and depicts a very different America from the one seen in The Grapes of Wrath. The thirty years that transpired between those two movies saw the nation face some of the most defining moments of the 20th century: World War II, the McCarthy hearings, Eisenhower’s '50s, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the counter-culture movement of the late '60s. God is dead. Beatles records and bras are burned. Lieutenant Kangaroo is officially promoted to the rank of Captain.
Two-Lane Blacktop depicts a restless America without a direction. We’re given a stark canvas with restlessness and boredom as the primary colors of our palate. Our four main characters don’t even have proper names: James Taylor and Dennis Wilson (of The Beach Boys) are “The Driver” and “The Mechanic” while Laurie Bird and Warren Oates are “The Girl” and “GTO.”
These characters come from different backgrounds and have very different viewpoints, yet they still end up traveling the same roads for the same reasons. They don’t know where they are going, only that they have to keep moving and keep searching. Taylor and Wilson represent America’s youth. They are without any passion and direction, inheritors to a nation that they have little interest in and which has nothing to offer them. The gray color of their car represents the emptiness that they feel.
Warren Oates is older and seems to be experiencing a mid-life crisis. He appears to be driving the road to find himself or something to fulfill him. He’s in a brand new muscle car with bright colors, a flashy representation of the slick lifestyle he’s pursuing. He can be whomever he wants when he’s on the highway, and he spends the length of the movie fabricating quite a few different stories about himself and where he comes from. It’s a precursor to Heath Ledger’s performance of The Joker from The Dark Knight. The stories he tells each person are different, but we soon realize that it doesn’t matter where he’s from or who he actually is. His uncertainty about himself is what gives him his identity.
Warren Oates, on the other hand, never shuts up. He’s a motor mouth who talks non-stop about anything and everything to whoever will listen. His need for acceptance seems to stem from insecurity, and his dialog is frequently spent on trying to impress other people. In a movie where Taylor and Wilson rarely say a word, Warren Oates fills pages with his dialogue.
Laurie Bird is an interesting component to the movie as a drifter who is also wandering from place to place. She seems to feel the exact same emptiness that the other three characters do. She’s bound for nowhere, just living her life in the backseats of the cars of strangers. One of her notable scenes has her singing the Rolling Stones lyrics “I can’t get no satisfaction” quietly to herself. Laurie Bird was around seventeen years old when she made her debut in this movie and would only appear in two more movies before taking her own life at 25. This leads me to believe that at least some of her performance is rooted in reality, which is heartbreaking. She was romantically linked to both the director Monte Hellman and musician Art Garfunkel (of Simon and Garfunkel) before her death, suggesting that she struggled with the same emptiness and loneliness that informs the performances of James Taylor and Dennis Wilson.
Two-Lane Blacktop is widely considered a cult classic. It was released to much praise in 1971 and was named as the movie of the year in the magazine Esquire, which also published the entire screenplay in one of their issues. However, it wasn’t a financial success during its initial release and, due to its existential nature, has been far outside of mainstream movie culture. Still, there’s quite a following for the movie, particularly among Roadies (Route 66 enthusiasts) and students of late '60s/early '70s counterculture. It is featured prominently in the book Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY, and the Lost Story of 1970 (which I highly recommend) and in January 2013 was released on Criterion Blu-Ray with a new transfer overseen by director Hellman.
But like Route 66, Two-Lane Blacktop still has a lot to offer. One only needs to find the road and drive.