Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Heath Holland On...Route 66 and Two Lane Blacktop

The road goes on forever…so bring some snacks, a cooler and an empty milk container to pee in.

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.”
The plot is thin, but this movie isn’t about plot; it’s about capturing a brief moment in time. James Taylor and Dennis Wilson endlessly drive across the country in a primer-gray 1955 Chevy, occasionally racing other cars for enough money to get a little further down the road. There’s really nothing that they are headed toward. They’re simply wandering. Warren Oates is a driver that the two Chevy guys encounter on the road. He also seems to be wandering without direction, but instead of an old Chevy he’s in a bright yellow Pontiac GTO. Laurie Bird is a drifter who ends up traveling in both cars, unsure of what exactly she’s looking for.

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.
The movie was directed by Monte Hellman, who had previously directed Jack Nicholson in a couple of westerns that also depicted the changing times and shifting of ideals. I’m not sure if he cast James Taylor and Dennis Wilson because they were popular music stars at the time or if he cast them because they were not professional actors and would bring a sense of realism to the movie. Either way it works. Taylor is wooden and every time he speaks (which is not often). His lines have a stilted, awkward delivery. He ALWAYS seems uncomfortable and uneasy. Wilson seems more comfortable with his lines but uninterested in delivering them. He has an apathetic malaise in every single one of his scenes. This all adds to the emptiness depicted in the movie.

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.
Not all of the movie takes place on Route 66, but a lot of it does. The movie doesn’t call attention to the fact. There are no lingering shots of road signs or landmarks. The road in Two-Lane Blacktop is as non-descript as the characters who are driving it, but showing it this way gives it a characterization of its own and it becomes another player in the story. The Route 66 shown in this movie is not a pathway TO anywhere. The road in the film is the destination. Where it goes is of no importance, as long as it goes SOMEWHERE and as long as it can be driven. It becomes apparent very early on in the movie that road itself is the home of these people. That’s where they want to be and that’s where they find their belonging.

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.
The legacy of Two-Lane Blacktop is large. It remains a snapshot of a point in history when America was lost and searching for identity. The Route 66 shown in the film is similarly a snapshot of a point in time. It wouldn’t be long before the miles of roads and the landscapes seen in the movie were completely bypassed by the Interstate Highway System and Route 66 became a quaint relic of the past, soon to be decommissioned and largely forgotten.

But like Route 66, Two-Lane Blacktop still has a lot to offer. One only needs to find the road and drive.

1 comment:

  1. I just bought the Criterion blu ray a couple weeks ago. I'm really looking forward to seeing this movie, based off your (and a friend of mine's) recommendation.