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Thread: Two-lane blacktop (1971)

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  1. #1
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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 09:10 AM.

  2. #2
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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.

  3. #3
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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.

  5. #5
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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.

  6. #6
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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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