Two-Lane Blacktop, 1971. Directed by Monte Hellman, written by the great Rudy Wurlitzer, Will Corry, and an uncredited Floyd Mutrux. Starring James Taylor, Dennis Wilson, Warren Oates, Laurie Bird, and Harry Dean Stanton.

G.T.O.: Well, here we are on the road.
The Driver: Yup, that’s where we are all right.

I don’t even know where to begin. By the time you’re done reading this, you’ll probably say to yourself, he doesn’t even know what he’s talking about, and you’d be right, except that I’m writing, not talking, but then you knew that. I’m assuming you haven’t seen Two-Lane Blacktop, so if I’m a bit… obtuse, forgive me. If you have seen Two-Lane Blacktop, then you might just nod a bit, thin your eyes and wonder why you haven’t been on the road lately, really on the road, in a good long time. Come to think about it, you haven’t seen Blacktop in forever. But, man, you remember. And you’ll give that sly smile and say: I dig you, man. I don’t quite get it, either.

G.T.O.: I go fast enough.
The Mechanic: You can never go fast enough.

Damn right. You can never go fast enough. And yet, well, damn it to hell, Two-Lane Blacktop moves pretty slow. Slow and meandering, the way you drive cross-country and pick up hitchhikers. The way conversations with hitchhikers go, from here to there, non-linear. I’ll be God damned straight to Gary, Indiana that I’ve never seen a movie this slow that was so compelling, so exciting.

What’s the plot? Why do you ask? Haven’t you ever just driven someplace? Late at night, first thing in the morning, drove, drove, drove, and finally getting hungry you pass by McDonald’s and Hardee’s and all that empty corporate shit just to eat at some strange greasy spoon in the middle of a happy nowhere, a place you can’t ever call home but you can stop through for a bite, have a memory, and wonder if it really happened. There: that’s the fucking plot of Two-Lane Blacktop.

Back in 1971, Monte Hellman got together with writers Rudy Wurlitzer and Will Corry (don’t quite know what Floyd Mutrux did, but he helped somehow, or so it’s said) and threw this thing together. Got some money from Universal Pictures, brought in James Taylor and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, Laurie Bird, a cute model and odd duck, and the great Warren Oates. And then, holy shit, Rolling Stone called it a masterpiece while it was being filmed, and Esquire, having actually watched the thing, put Two-Lane Blacktop on the cover, published the entire screenplay, and declared it “The Movie of the Year.”

See, everyone thought it was going to be the next Easy Rider. Jesus, they were wrong. A bomb. Christ, what a bomb. Thank the good Lord it didn’t cost a ton, because no one saw it. Well, of course, some saw it. And, like me, I bet they felt as if they took one of the most memorable drives of their entire life.

G.T.O.: You can’t stay with the same high forever.

The facts? You just can’t get past that, can you? OK, James Taylor is The Driver, Dennis Wilson is The Mechanic, Laurie Bird is The Girl, and Warren Oates is G.T.O. The Driver and The Mechanic drive around the United States, on old Route 66, looking for races. That’s how they earn their bread, to sleep in dives, eat crap, and have money to fix that souped-up ’55 Chevy of theirs.

On the way, they meet G.T.O. and have a race for “pinks”–that is, the title of the car, and thus for the car itself. “Where to?” G.T.O. asks. “You pick,” The Mechanic says. G.T.O. says, “Washington, D.C.” The race is on.

Only it’s not. Shake yourself out of this fucking need for story, man. What’s that great moment in your life, a time when you did something weird and wild and spontaneous. Was there a plot? No, so just let it ride, man, let it ride. See, they drive. Are they racing? I guess. The Girl, see, she just climbed in the backseat of the primer-gray ’55 Chevy, and asked where The Driver was taking them. “East,” The Mechanic tells her. “I’ve never been East,” The Girl says, settling in. And when they run into G.T.O., well, things don’t really speed up. In fact, they stop, talk, tell lies, The Driver hops in G.T.O.’s machine, G.T.O. picks up hitchhikers, helps a lady to a funeral, and do just about everything but race.

And yet, they’re racing. You can feel it.

G.T.O.: If I’m not grounded soon, I’m gonna go into orbit.

My first impression of this movie was that it’s a masterpiece. I just loved it. Why? I don’t know. Beautiful–it’s certainly beautiful to look at, beautiful to experience. A rainy day in a small town all closed up as if on a Sunday morning, the old service stations with full service, Route 66 right on through the center of town. The sound of the engines, the sounds of the hood being removed, even the yak-yak of a pack of curious greasemonkeys coming over to ogle the engine of the Chevy. The road, twisting around a mountain, flat like a sunning snake through the corn belt, that sense that we know where we are but not really, not really. And all the music, nothing more than incidental, diagetic music bubbling through the radio or blaring off G.T.O.’s super 8-track cassette system. Country, Western, Hillbilly, Rock. The Doors, Kris Kristofferson, Arlo Guthrie.

Even better, there’s little or no politics to mar this foggy adventure. There’s cops, but they’re not bastards, just something to avoid, like a blown transmission. In only one scene does it seem like there’s menace, but it’s fleeting. There’s no hippie v. redneck subplots, no paean to getting stoned, no long ruminations about finding America, like Easy Rider and others in this vein.

No, Two-Lane Blacktop just takes a slice of time, a strange slice of time, and lets you see it without pretension. An exercise in nostalgia? If you want to call it that. But there’s a lot of great stuff here, and mostly, a lot of stuff that just plain works. I get the feeling that there’s a reason James Taylor, Dennis Wilson and Laurie Bird hardly worked again in movies, and no, I’m not talking about the heroin addiction of the first and the untimely deaths of the latter two. You can tell these guys don’t have much range–shit, any range, I’ll grant you that–but here, they’re perfect. Warren Oates is perfect, as usual, dressed in a different polyester v-neck sweater, a new color every day, sometimes an ascot, decked out in knuckle-less driving gloves, grabbing every hitchhiker to tell his ever-changing life story. Worked with rockets in Bakersfield, a TV producer here, lost his wife there. Who is The Girl? We never know, except to know that she’ll drop everything to jump in one car, then another, and finally (for us) a Harley, leaving everything behind. The Driver and The Mechanic? They’ll race, man. That’s what it’s about.

G.T.O.: Just color me gone, baby!

You know, if I was 17 in 1971, and saw Two-Lane Blacktop, Christ, I’d have hit the road. Looked for my own Girl, my own Mechanic, my own G.T.O. It’s as pointless and lovely as those long drives with or without music, lost in thought, picking up speed and slowing down. When you come back from those, it’s hard to tell what it was that made them so special. You get that look on your face, the kind that prompts your spouse to say “What are you thinking?” and you really don’t know. Just like Two-Lane Blacktop.

Here we are on the road. Yup, that’s where we are all right.

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