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Archive for June 1st, 2009

two lane blacktop posterThere are two surprising things about Two-Lane Blacktop. One: that it was ever made. Two: that it is any good! It had so much going against it firstly if you look at the cast; singer James Taylor, Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson and teenage Laurie Bird were not actors. Director Monte Hellman is hardly a household name other than Two-Lane Blacktop his best films are probably the westerns Ride In The Whirlwind and The Shooting. Add to this the shoestring budget and the studio executives that hated the film and virtually killed it commercially.

Production:

two lane Blacktop bThe Script was written by Will Corry and was presented to Hellman by producer Michael Laughlin. Hellman liked the idea of the story but not the actual script and agreed to direct if he could rewrite it. He gave the script to Rudolph Wurlitzer who was also responsible for the novel Nog and the script for Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid. He found it unreadable so virtually started from scratch. What he came up with was a completely new idea just keeping the concept of a cross country road race and a few of the main character names. No one at the studio had read the script until the film was ready to go into production; they hated it and put the film into turnaround. After approaching every studio in town it was picked up by Universal with a $900,000 budget. This was about £200,000 less than Hellman wanted and half what some companies said it would cost. Amazingly they came in under budget. It was actually a new youth division of Universal that funded the film; little did they know that the film would not come out as a youth film. As well as the small budget the other constraint of the deal was a sub two hour film. Just like Easy Rider a few years before the first cut came out at over three hours and had to be cut down. Unfortunately none of the cuts were saved so don’t expect to see them on a DVD deleted scene section.

Before the production problems started Hellman went on a scouting trip to choose locations. When it came to filming they ignored studio advice to film exclusively in California and retraced the route thought the southwest and south filming in places including Needles California, Flagstaff Arizona, Santa Fe New Mexico, Boswell Oklahoma, Little Rock Arkansas, Memphis Tennessee (racetrack sequence), Maryville North Carolina. They also filmed on the road whist traveling between locations and did pickup shots on the way back to California. This allowed the film to be shot is sequence which really helps the character development. James Taylor, Dennis Wilson and Laurie Bird where not shown the script and where only given pages a day at a time the night before shooting. This worked well for the non professional actors until James Taylor who is described by the director as a control freak insisted on having a copy of the entire script. He was given it about half way through the shoot somewhere in Texas but didn’t actually read it. What would seem to be a problem filming on the road actually became an advantage. No sets were built for the film it was all shot on location using real towns giving an authentic glimpse of America. It is an America of small towns filled with roadside diners, gas stations and motels. It is view of America that still exists if you get of the interstate highway system but less and less people get t see it these days. It is the America of lonely highways and edward hopperold fashioned gas stations that look like they belong in Edward Hopper paintings. They also used local people and local vehicles. The first scene we see is a race in LA using the LA Street Racers Association a real group of illegal street racers. Even the State police who pull Warren Oates over where real Texas state troopers. It is fitting that a film so much about the road was made on the road, and that what this film is a movie about the road. It not that it is not about the destination, there is no destination. These people aren’t on a journey from A to B they are on a constant journey. There is no start of finishing point to that journey other than birth and death. When The Girl asks where they are going the reply comes “east” not a particular place in the east. Then comes the race to Washington that is never completed, the film burns out before we get that far. If it had continued would they be on their way to Washington to collect their winnings? Will they win the race? Will The Driver and the Mechanic ever see GTO or the Girl again? None of this really matters. This is all part of the existential nature of the film.

Cinematography & the look:

two lane blacktop in carThe film was shot using Techniscope a technique that gives a 2.33:1 wide screen aspect ratio from 35mm film stock. There are many advantages to this, as it uses half the amount of film as anamorphic processes like CinemaScope saving money and also allowing longer shoots without changing film. The other advantage is the smaller stock allowed use for wider lenses giving greater depth of field, this was a great help in the in car shots. They also took advantage of Ambient light so have a very realistic look to the film reminiscent of Cinéma vérité. I can not think of any other film that uses so little light in the in car night shots giving a look closer to being in a car. The depth of field also gives the opportunity to shoot layered scenes where you can see things going on in the background as well as moving the action to different parts of the screen. This all works to give the film a unique look. The final aspect to the look of the film is the costumes. GTO has numerous changes of his coloured sweaters and fashionable bell bottom trousers. The Driver, The Mechanic and The Girl all wear old cloths purchased from a second hand shop. This is unusual as most film costumes are purchased new then artificially aged to get the look, these cloths don’t just look aged they are aged and perfectly match the people wearing them.

The Cars:

two lane blacktop chevy1955 Chevy built by Richard Ruth (who has a cameo in the film as the Needles gas station mechanic) based on a 1956 Chevy that he owned and raced himself. I have read different information about the specification of the film but believe it had a big block 454 with a tunnel ram intake and dual 4bbl carbs. They built three of these, a camera car for interior shooting a driving car and a racing car. The car was also quite a lot quicker than the film suggests they say it will “run well into the 12’s.” referring to the quarter mile time for the car. I truth it was a couple of seconds faster than that. It is also now common knowledge that two of the cars where later reused as Harrison Ford’s car in American Graffiti.

two lane blacktop gto1970 Pontiac GTO 455, In Orbit Orange, with the rally II stripes and spoiler making it look like a Judge. Other than the cosmetic changes mentioned above the car was straight off the production line so based on magazine tests at the time would have been capable of quarter mile time of 15 seconds. Although Warren Oates character claims it is faster and more powerful suggesting it is intended as the Judge it looks like. Monte Hellman actually used the car for several months after the filming wrapped and found himself getting lots of speeding tickets as the car stands out so much.

Characters:

driver and mercanicThe Driver (James Taylor) & The Mechanic (Dennis Wilson) these are two young men (probably mid twenties like the actors who play them) they live to race. They hardly speak to each other and the things they say are purely functional. They discuss how the car is running and what maintenance they need to do to it, they talk about cars that they are going to race and that is about it. For all their single minded attitude to racing these kids are lost, they are alienated from society.   In Tennessee they are asked if they are hippies, although a world away from hippies they too are looking for freedom and identity. They don’t have the literature of the beet generation or the music of the 60’s to define them, they just live their lives a quarter of a mile at a time whist racing everything else they do is just to facilitate the race that is what defines them. Are they running from something or are they trying to find something? The Driver thinks he has found something in The Girl but she has her own ideas.

the girlThe Girl (Laurie Bird) is drifting, she isn’t going anywhere in she leaves the film the same way she came into it by hopping from one vehicle to the next. Is she looking for something in the people she rides with or does she just feel the need to move on. When she gets on the motorbike towards the end of the film she leaves her bag behind. What started as an inability to fit the bag on the bike when the scene was shot actually comes across as a hugely symbolic statement. Assuming the character is the same age as Laurie Bird who plays her she is much younger than the rest of the cast I see her as a hippie who was born too late.

gtoGTO (Warren Oates). The real GTO is never revealed, he tells each passenger a different story about who he is and what he is doing. He comes across as burnt out and jaded but most of all lonely whatever his back story he like all the others is looking for something on the road. In his forties it could just be an attempt to recapture his youth or even to live the life he didn’t live in his youth.

 

Music:

the doorsUnlike the other movies it is often mentioned with Easy Rider and Vanishing point it doesn’t rely heavily on the use of music. This is evident from the start of the film when the car sounds are used instead of music over the Universal logo, the studio where reportedly unhappy about this. Since then it has actually become common in car movies (Smokey and the Bandit uses a truck starting up). A soundtrack album was never released and neither of the films stars used any of their own music. Despite this it was music that kept the film from a video or DVD release for many years. When first made the studio only purchased licensing rights for the music for theatrical and television broadcast. One of the songs Moonlight Drive by The Doors proved problematic as the band members refused to sell the rights as they didn’t like their music been used in films. When they found out the film in question was Two-Lane Blacktop they changed their minds and allowed it (at a very high price according to director Monte Hellman). Their rational for the change of heart was that their deceased singer Jim Morrison (who died around the time the film was in production) would have liked to be in the movie. One of the most significant songs in the film is played by GTO when parked at the gas station. Me and Bobby McGee by Kris Kristofferson. Kristofferson had unsuccessfully auditioned for the part of The Driver and was delighted when Hellman asked permission to use the song and immediately agreed. Hellman later revealed he intended to use the more famous Janis Joplin version but changed his mind as he didn’t want to disappoint Kristofferson.

Reception & Conclusions:

Two Lane Backton 55 ChevyWhere the film stands as 70’s counter-culture classic is often disputed. It is a film that received huge critical acclaim at the time it came out. Esquire magazine said it was the film of the year. Brock Yates organizer of the Cannonball Run claimed it was one of his inspirations for organizing the race. Car magazine describe it with the words “It’s the purest American road movie ever”. Despite all this the film was a box office flop. It received no advertising or publicity from a studio who hated it. The fact it bombed at the box office is probably a blessing as we are spared the terrible sequel More American Graffiti or Texasville for example. Despite the lack of interest it has become a cult classic with people campaigning for years to get a video or DVD release. We now have it and it looks great so much better than the dark print shown on TV. If it had been made before Easy Rider it would have reached audiences with no baggage or expectations. As it was the few people who saw it were disappointed that it wasn’t another Easy Rider (all things considered I think it is a better film than Easy Rider). Having said that if not for the success of Easy Rider the Universal Pictures youth division that funded the film would not have been set up and the film may never have been made. For all its gloss and the iconic soundtrack Easy Ride is a testament to the death or failure of the 60’s dream and is sometimes looked at as the end off the 60’s others suggest Woodstock or the death of 60’s icons Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison mark the end of the decade. However you look at it Two-Lane Blacktop offers something different and can possibly be considered the first film of the 70’s. America and the world were going through changes at the time and there was less hope and optimism this is reflected in the film. I always feel that the film is saying to the 60’s and the Easy Rider generation that was your dream not mine. Take the guy in the diner in Tennessee who asks if they are hippies, if he had appeared in Easy Rider he would have fallen firmly in the camp of the redneck townspeople not Billy and Wyatt. The Driver and The Mechanic are on their own path or should I say road that goes a different way to all these people and we go with the quarter of a mile and twelve seconds at a time.

Of all the people I have spoken to about the film it has completely polarized opinion, you either love it or you hate it looks like it is finding a new audience as it finds it place in movie history. It has some high profile fans like director Quentin Tarantino (Monte Hellman was executive producer on Reservoir Dogs), film critic and car nut Kim Morgan (see a link to her Blog at the bottom of my page) and director/independent film maker Richard Linklater who wrote an article of sixteen reasons to love Two-Lane Blacktop including my favorite:

“Because there’s a continuing controversy over who is the actual lead in this movie. There are different camps. Some say it’s the ‘55 Chevy, some say it’s the GTO.”

All that leaves me to say is: “Make it three yards motherfucker and we’ll have ourselves an Auto-Mo-Beal race”

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