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Thread: Two-lane blacktop (1971)

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    Two-lane blacktop (1971)

    I just re-watched Two-lane Blacktop on Criterion DVD. I am preparing a screening list for the film history courses I will be teaching in the Fall and Spring semesters. This collaboration between director Monte Hellman and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Walker) is one of the best films of the New American Cinema. It is a product of a period of 8 years or so (late 60s to mid-70s) when Hollywood financed production of daringly modernist films with the aim of attracting the "counter-cultural" younger demographic.

    Two-lane Blacktop has four main characters known simply as the driver, the mechanic, the girl, and "GTO", the middle-aged guy played by the great Warren Oates who drives that Pontiac model. The scarcity of psychological dimension in these characters is a modernist trait found in films like Last Year at Marienbad by which the lack of individuation of the characters renders them representative and archetypal. They function as stand-ins for particular groups or reflect the human condition in general rather than a single subjectivity. Hellman uses James Taylor and Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson like Bresson used his "models". Near nothing passes between their lips unrelated to the souped-up ’55 Chevy they ride on the amateur racing circuit. GTO is in the habit of picking up and chatting up hitchhikers. We find out he lost his job and his wife but little else. He often fibs and misrepresents himself, effectively destabilizing his sense of identity. The viewer's curiosity about the characters remains unsatiated. The driver and the mechanic encounter GTO on the road. They decide to race to D.C. from the southwest for the “pink slips” (car ownership papers), creating certain viewer expectations associated with genre conventions . But nobody is in a rush to get to D.C., or anywhere it seems, and the film becomes a series of digressions and interruptions.

    What emerges is an insightful picture of America at a specific historical juncture when the idealism of the 60s had yielded to exhaustion, aimlessness, and confusion. This is America on the verge of sending Nixon back to the White House and it is sad and a little creepy. Two-lane Blacktop denies the viewer a sense of closure and there is no catharsis. The film ends in media res, with a view of the driver from the back seat of the Chevy. The shot comes to a stop when the image freezes and the film burns out and self-destructs. Hellman explains "we stopped the film in the projector but we didn’t end the story". The last line of dialogue, spoken by GTO to two soldiers he picks up, refers to "emotions that stay with you" and "permanent satisfactions" in a context that underlines their scarcity and elusiveness in contemporaneous America.
    Last edited by oscar jubis; 06-15-2011 at 10:10 AM.

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    Your comments about the period and influences or links are very helpful. I would like to write something of my own about how it feels and how it felt then to watch the movie. I want to see it again on a big screen. I have a copy of my own somewhere, but would like to see it somewhere like Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, which has shown it before I'm sure. I think maybe the former PFA director Tom Luddy (now director of the Telluride FF) has old ties with Wurlitzer and Hellman. I am thinking also my old classmate and frat brother and the Producer of Five Easy Pieces Richard Wechsler, also did have ties.

    It's good that you emphasize the importance of Rudy Wurlitzer's involvement.

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    Well, well. Five Easy Pieces (and The Conversation and Wanda) is another great movie I might show in school. Nicholson produced and starred in another Monte Hellman movie, The Shootist, which Rosenbaum considers a "key forerunner of Jarmusch's Dead Man". I am excited about the prospect of watching these films with my students. I hope that specialized theaters continue to show them rather than more obvious programming like the Godfather movies (which I recently rewatched) and MASH and other good, popular stuff.

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    Of course PFA would be unlikely to show the Godfather series, as a priority. The Coversation is a good source for you especially given your interest in European art films. I don't see the point of Wanda and even found its humor mean. I saw The Shootist but don't remember it at present.

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    We reacted to Wanda quite differently. Here's my capsule review, written in 2005:

    Wanda (USA/1971)

    Winner of the Critics Prize at the 1970 Venice Film Festival, received great reviews during its commercial run at the Cinema II in Manhattan, and then erased from memory. At least in the USA. Europeans, particularly the French, wouldn't let it disappear. This independent feature, the only one directed by Barbara Loden before she died at age 48, was re-released in France in 2003, and then on dvd last year. What a revelation it is! An honest, cliche-free character study of a drifter lost in the coal towns of western Pennsylvania. A feminist film perhaps, yet free of dogma and didacticism. An improvisational film to a great extent yet not a moment seems superfluous. Shot in 16 mm, mostly with handheld cameras, yet never amateurish or crude. Wanda is a woman whose aimlessness and good figure make her particularly vulnerable, but she is not a "victim". Wanda can perhaps be described as a person who is not a good fit for the roles available within her milieu. She ellicits our sympathy even though she seems to have little interest in her two children, whom she admits are "better off" with her ex-husband. Tony-award winner Barbara Loden wrote, directed and played the main role in a film that deserves a place of honor amongst the great American Independent films. Wanda is every bit as good as Cassavetes' Shadows, Kastle's The Honeymoon Killers, and Biberman's Salt of the Earth. It's simply too good to remain in obscurity.

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    I was confused and thinking of something else. I have not seen this, and am getting it from Netflix.

    I watched Guy and Madeleine and could see why you and others like it so much, though I didn't quite fall in love with it.

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    Wanda is a sad movie, as I remember it. Tell me what you think, Chris. I think Blacktop is the one to show in school. I'm glad you watched Guy and Madeline .

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    I'll let you know.

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    The Last Detail is another one that you could show students- any Nicholson films from Five Easy Pieces to Reds would be great- that's when he was really on a streak: Milos Forman, Antonioni, Ken Russell, Kubrick...he directed...won another Oscar in '83 and on and on.
    Jack's a steamroller.

    Warren Oates is one of the greats too- I will check out Cockfighter someday. Didn't Hellman want to direct Pulp Fiction and Tarantino said "No. This is Mine".? I read that somewhere...
    The 70's were something else man..I was BORN in the middle of it. Dig it. LOL
    Last edited by Johann; 08-03-2011 at 08:42 AM.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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    Good choice. I will definitely be watching The Last Detail again soon.

    Since 2-lane, I've re-watched four movies included in the Criterion Collection's "America Lost and Found: The BBS Story": The Last Picture Show, Five Easy Pieces, Easy Rider, and The King of Marvin Gardens.

    I also rewatched a movie that fits with this bunch but was not released until 1980, a few years after the period considered "New American Cinema". I am referring to Dennis Hopper's fierce and uncompromising Out of the Blue. Must-watch!

    All these movies could be screened to correspond with my lecture(s) on "New American Cinema". I think this is a very important period. I will dedicate substantial screening time to it, which may mean slighting the Czech New Wave or New German Cinema. As of right now, I plan to show 2-Lane, an excerpted edit from Woodstock, and...Easy Rider, the film whose box-office success made the Hollywood suits open their wallets and finance a lot of very fresh, interesting movies that did not make much money.

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    I have Out of the Blue on Anchor Bay VHS.
    What an ending! Not for the faint of heart...
    Filmed in Vancouver B.C. too. Dennis Hopper is a Great man.
    Jack Nicholson says "This film is a Masterpiece" on the sleeve.
    I think I posted about it years ago?

    I just saw Dennis in The Sons of Katie Elder the other day- getting roughed up by the Duke...
    I'll always admire/respect Dennis Hopper.
    An ARTIST.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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    And yes, you can't forget Peter Bogdanovich. What's Up Doc? has a scene that will make any student laugh- that dude who jumps over the fence to avoid the car chase- everytime I show it to someone they howl and say "Play that again!!!"
    That stuntman fell HARD onto that table- I wonder if he was hurt....

    I agree it's a very important period and some real American treasure came out of it.
    Cassavetes must be taught.
    Have you read Peter Biskind's stuff? He talks at great length about those "New American" movies.

    Don't forget The Pom-Pom Girls! or The Bingo Long Travelling All-Stars and Motor Kings!
    A side of the 70's peeps forget....LOL
    Last edited by Johann; 08-03-2011 at 08:52 AM.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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    I checked and Netflix doesn't even have Out of the Blue, though it is available for sale on DVD online in various editions. I have never seen it. Besides your recommendations, Roger Ebert wrote this in 1982:
    "Out of the Blue" is one of the unsung treasures of independent films, a showcase for the maverick talents of two movie rebels: veteran actor Dennis Hopper, of "Easy Rider" and "Rebel Without a Cause," and young, tough-talking Linda Manz, whose debut in "Days of Heaven" was so heartbreaking. Made in 1979, it never got a chance in commercial theaters. The movie is Hopper's comeback as a director.

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    Yeah, Dennis Hopper is worth my admiration and respect.

    Double yeeah to "Cassavetes must be taught". I am "teaching" Shadows.

    Biskind's book "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" is famous and popular. The subtitle goes like this: "How the Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n Roll Generation Saved Hollywood". Biskind argues that subsequently this same generation either burned out or sold out with the result being this bloated, corporate, "Blockbuster Hollywood" we've had since Star Wars and Jaws. Certainly an opinionated and controversial book that is fun to read partly because of scabrous anecdotes. Biskind is a good writer. I just might assign a reading from it although Biskind often gets too "gossipy" for academic purposes.

    I wouldn't mind seeing P.B.'s What's Up, Doc? again. Been a while. I also want to rewatch his Texasville.

    Thanks for the Out of the Blue link, CK. Ebert concludes by saying: "This is a very good movie that simply got overlooked. When it premiered at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival, it caused a considerable sensation, and Manz was mentioned as a front-runner for the best actress award. But back in North America, the film's Canadian backers had difficulties in making a distribution deal, and the film slipped through the cracks."

    Rosenbaum on Out of the Blue on the occasion of Hopper's death:

    "To make sure my memory wasn’t playing tricks on me, I recently took another look at Hopper’s previous film, Out of the Blue (1980). Here was proof, if any is needed, that a celebrated burnt-out case came back to establish himself as the legitimate American heir to the cinema of Nicholas Ray — a cinema of tortured lyricism and passionate rebellion that reached its fullest flower in the 50s, as if to match the action painting that was roughly contemporary with it. Hopper managed to remake Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (the film in which Hopper made his acting debut) in terms of a working-class punk (Linda Manz), an androgynous heroine whose grim fate suggested an Americanized version of Robert Bresson’s Mouchette. Casting himself, moreover, as her dissolute father, Hopper gave himself a disturbing part that seemed to update his role as Billy in Easy Rider.

    Originally hired to work on Out of the Blue solely as an actor, Hopper took over as director at the last minute. He fashioned an extraordinary movie with a minimum of time (a month of shooting, six weeks of editing) and money ($1.2 million, $780,000 of it reportedly Hopper’s own) that easily surpassed both Easy Rider (1969), and The Last Movie (1971) — his respectively overrated and underrated first two movies — as historical testimony and as aesthetic object. But very few people have ever heard of this late-blooming masterpiece, much less seen it. The fact that it belongs to that elephant graveyard of titles available on video doesn’t mean that it’s been validated by even the minimal cultural attention routinely given to every Sylvester Stallone release." [5/30/10]

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    I remember Shadows and how revolutionary and strange it seemed when it first appeared. It was premiered at Amos Vogel's Cinema 16 series in NYC and that's where (I think) I saw it. However I re-watched Easy Rider a few years ago with other movies of that time and found it very dated, while others (Five Easy Pieces for instance) are not. I see in your quote Rosenbaum says it's "overrated." I don't think it has held up well. Hopper was a big-time substance abuser -- as was Nick Ray. Who knows how much was lost for that reason of creative work both might have done. Not that both didn't produce memorable work, and Hopper built an amazing collection of modern art. Nick Ray and Dennis Hopper: two "glorious failures." Both important in the history of American film.

    You won't mention Pauline Kael -- bofore your time and no longer fashionable, fashionable only to trash her -- but she championed the period you're talking about, and her big review of Bonnie and Clyde celebrated its seminal effect, but you haven't mentioned that either. I'd think it had a bigger effect than anything by Hopper. Of course it has no outlaw chic (despite being about genuine outlaws) since it turned a big profit. Kael to me made the Seventies seem like an exciting period in movies, when in some ways it wasn't. It was exciting to be able to read Pauline Kael's reviews every other week in The New Yorker. Not always so exciting to see the movies. I would not exchange that period with this but the crap machine is way bigger and better funded now, isn't it?

    I recognize that Pauline's criticism (it's rather monumental though) is not pure gold, but neither is Rosenbaum's. It was she who made it exciting to think about movies during this period.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-03-2011 at 06:21 PM.

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