12/17/2007 02:42 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

You Can Never Go Fast Enough: Two-Lane Blacktop

Two-Lane Blacktop. Criterion Edition.
Greatest Car Movie Ever Made. My year is
complete. Yes.

"If I'm not grounded pretty soon, I'm
gonna go into orbit."

--Warren Oates A.K.A. GTO

It feels almost too easy applying the term
"existential" to Monte Hellman's mysterious
Two-Lane Blacktop, (and Mr. Hellman has
always insisted that the picture is not "existential")
but I think the alienated, ambiguous, weirdly funny
and, at times, desultory cult car classic deserves the
appellation. A work of stark Sisyphean power,
the picture brilliantly combines automobile allure and
the expectations of the race with a sparer saga of the
road - a road that seems free but really isn't.

Now this may sound rather joyless for a car movie,
and indeed for the greatest car movie ever made, but
the picture is so inventive, so austerely beautiful,
so unexpected and, yes, so auto-centric, that it's a
singular wonder. With a then much-discussed script by Rudy
Wurlitzer, the movie came with an interesting amount
of hype. The screenplay managed the honor of being
featured on the cover of Esquire magazine before the
film was made, something that was unheard of at the
time, and something that made the movie's lack of box
office more of a disappointment. Naturally, it's been
a cult favorite ever since.

Leading this gear-head mediation through its long
stretches of lonesome highway are characters stripped
down to their basic handles -- James Taylor is known
only as the "Driver," Dennis Wilson the "Mechanic,"
Laurie Bird the "Girl" and the late great Warren
Oates, in one of his most unforgettable roles, is
"GTO." The stoic Taylor and Wilson work a seriously
souped-up '55 Chevy that's all muscle and speed, no
frills, while a garrulous Oates rolls a yellow 1970
Pontiac GTO -- something Taylor scorns as right off
the lot. All players endlessly drive, seemingly to
challenge other cars and race cross country, but who
knows what they're really seeking. When somewhat
challenged on the matter -- that all the speed will
burn him up- the Driver replies "You can never go fast
enough." And the picture doesn't spare this
feeling on the viewer as the continual purr and hum of
the engine places you at one with the car -- a oneness
that has become the character's very identities.

Two-Lane Blacktop was probably supposed to
be a youth movie, but there's nothing young about it.
Taylor, Wilson and Bird, though certainly not adults
(in the conventional sense of the word) nevertheless
carry a heavy amount of resigned cynicism within their
cipher, stoic, underfed, frames. Had the movie been
made in the 1960s, we might have gotten that kind
of hip swiveling, gone daddy, Psych Out
energy (think Mimsy Farmer tripping on drugs in
Riot on Sunset Strip ) but Two-Lane
isn't working on that tip - these people, whether they
know it or not, are representative of their era --
their specifically '70s era. The rather
glamorized late '60s -- the so-called free,
hippie-flower-child-dancing, politically motivated and
finally tragic decade crashes directly into this
Lane, where inspiration comes not from
changing the world but Which makes perfect
sense to me -- if you can control one thing during
such chaotic times (and if you desire anything to
represent freedom) -- it's your automobile.

As such, these gear-heads aren't driving for show,
they're not trying to pick up chicks (though Bird
casually crawls into their car, which they barely
acknowledge) -- they're simply driving, with serious
almost monk-like intent. Interestingly, it's overly
energetic Warren Oates who represents the "youth
movement" an ultimately lonely and dissipated man who
thinks that maybe he can understand the kids but is
frustrated by their abilities. (He doesn't appreciate
being crowed through two states by a couple of two bit
"road hogs" he complains to the boys). He's
full of half truths, or flat-out fantasies, and we
wonder about his life -- did he dump a middle class
existence and family to head out for the open
road, like those all those hippie's he's seen cruising
the streets or traipsing around those acid-soaked
youth movies? What's with this guy? As such, he's
something of a freak -- not some older road tripping
cool guy, but in the end, a mournful man (though
looking at his bad-ass GTO now only makes me pine for
the days when cars like that really did roll
off the lot, instead of these modern, gas friendly,
vehicles that look like suppositories). And we come
to pity him, even care about him -- moreso than the
other characters. After all, they have youth on their
side, but then...does that really matter? Though
conformity may become the soul sucking void, it's
possible that getting lost isn't always what it's
cracked up to be either.

twolaneposter.jpg<br />
picture by BrandoBardot

This isn't to say that the picture's one long drag,
it's also quite funny and in its subtle moments,
charming (Oates, whom I revere in every movie he's
ever made, displays a fantastic amount of mysterious
weirdness and pitch perfect comic timing).
Two-Lane Blacktop is, no question, a work of
enigmatic significance and auto-erotic gorgeousness
(full confession, the movie turns me on -- and not just
because of Oates -- the cars, oh those cars
are so erotic).

Unlike any other car picture (and I love a lot of
them) Two-Lane Blacktop sits or, more
appropriately, drives in a class by itself. It
goes well past those three yards a drawling James
Taylor spits out before a racing challenge, but his
assuredness matches the perfection of the movie: "Make
it three yards, motherfucker and we'll have ourselves
an auto-mo-beel race." A race that never
ends. Which, car or no car, just might be the ultimate

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