Top 250 Tuesday #242 – Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

Continuing to wend my way through the Sight and Sound Top 250 Greatest Movies of All Time. This week, it’s #180 on the list,  Monte Helllmans Two-Lane Blacktop. For a longer introduction to this series and a look at the full list, just click here. And if you want a heads-up on what I’ll be watching for next week in case you want to watch along, just head on over to the Facebook page or follow me on Twitter (both of those links are also in the sidebar) where I’ll generally be posting that info later in the day.

tlb1 Two-Lane Blacktop is one of those films that seems as though it really could only have been made in the time period that it was.

That’s not to say that there haven’t been road movies both before and after the late 1960s and early ’70s that the film embodies so well and is the period I’m talking about. Certainly there have been. Just for one example, back in March for a Saturday Double Feature pairing with Need for Speed, I focused the spotlight on a rather obscure little gem from 1953 called Genvieve which featured a car race through the streets of London. And even that was far from the earliest Basically, as soon as movie makers were able to, they began pointing their cameras at cars and following them down the road, and they continue to do so today and probably always will.

But there’s something about the road movies that were produced during this time period that seems to make them oddly unique. Of course, in reality that’s true of a number of movies produced during that time period, not just road movies. There was definitely something about that time period, when what became known as the counter-culture  was clashing almost daily with a much more entrenched way of thinking and doing things that caused film studios – even major ones – struggling to figure out how to react, and the surge of films about people taking to the road to explore just what was going on in the U.S., just what American culture at the time was and was becoming, was really just a part of that. This was the time of films like Easy Rider, Vanishing Point, and, of course, today’s movie, Two-Lane Blacktop.

tlb2Then when you also take into consideration that Blacktop was directed by Monte Hellman, the man behind, among other films, Medium Cool which not only took place during, but actually incorporated actual footage shot during the infamous 1968 Democratic National Convention, and that two of its four leads are played by James Taylor and Brian Wilson, both musicians who had never acted in movies before and never would again, and that the actors were never actually given a full script to work from, but simply given their lines for each day’s shooting, well, you’re certainly headed down the road to something unique.

And unique is certainly what you get.

tlb5Under Hellman’s direction, what could have been a fairly standard plot – two drivers racing across country to be the first to reach Washington D.C. – becomes much more, and at the same time, much less, than that. More, because really Hellman seems to have no interest in simply moving his characters from point A to point B with various stops and encounters along the way but instead is much more interested in exploring how the trip affects these characters. As a matter of fact, he is famously known for insisting that the entire film crew and the actors make the trip along with the characters because he knew that having the actual experience would not only change the characters of the script, but the actors themselves, which seems to have actually happened, and we see those changes throughout the film.

tlb3At the same time, it becomes less, because there comes a point where Hellman seems to abandon even that framework of a plot as if it no longer matters, and (okay I’ll throw up a quick spoiler warning here) in the end we never actually see either driver reach the intended destination, and the film itself simply seems to dissolve into nothingness on the screen.

So in the end, where does that leave us? Basically with a film that is not only unique to, but somewhat exemplary of its time period, and yet one which, taken in that context, certainly delivers a worthwhile viewing experience.

In other words, a trip down this particular Two-Lane Blacktop is definitely, at least in my mind, one worth taking.



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