Directed by Monte Hellman
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 101 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0, 5.1 English
Release Date: December 11, 2007
Review Date: December 12, 2007
It’s not until six minutes into the running time of Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop that the first character utters a word. That’s not the only thing that’s unusual about this renegade cult movie of the early 1970s. The characters live in the moment, have ambiguous plans for the future, and exist in a mostly nomadic pattern crisscrossing the country in their revved-up Chevy looking to earn living money by engaging in drag races with whomever they can con, sucker, or rile into betting with them. Their needs are basic and their interests solely involved in fast cars. Everything else is a sideline diversion, quickly taken up and quickly cast aside.
Ostensibly the film involves a race from Arizona to Washington, DC, the winner earning the loser‘s car. Pitted against one another are two young hot-rodders (James Taylor, Dennis Wilson) with a souped-up 1955 Chevy and a slick-talking man of ambiguous origins (Warren Oates) who’s driving a Pontiac GTO. Along for the ride with the boys is a runaway girl (Laurie Bird), possibly from San Francisco but it’s not really important, who likes life on the road and isn’t particularly choosy whom she spends her time with. (At one point, she switches her allegiance to GTO, as he’s known in the credits. He‘s not constantly strapped for cash.) But this isn’t like any car race movie you’ve ever seen before. The race isn’t even of primary importance since there are quite a few stops along the way so neither side gets too far ahead and so that the boys can earn some pocket money by racing others for a short term. And, of course, during the four days on the road, feelings begin to change, and we see the glimmers of perhaps someone among the four beginning to view the world in a different light. The movie is actually a minimalist road picture, operating in the here and now and not worrying at all about what’s around the next turn.
James Taylor (yes, the singer) plays the young Chevy driver in the film, a man of few words and guarded emotions. Equally quiet is his mechanic buddy Dennis Wilson (yes, the Beach Boy). That neither of these two men had great experience as actors allowed film veteran Warren Oates to waltz into the film and neatly steal the picture from them. His GTO is full of bizarre (almost certainly fictional) stories of his exploits and ambitions, and he’s eager to share them with a variety of hitchhikers (Harry Dean Stanton makes a memorable albeit brief appearance as one with something else on his mind). It’s this need for contact with others that ultimately draws him into the race. As the downcast tagalong girl, Laurie Bird gives a sullen, rather amateurish performance of no distinction, but it’s her blank slate of a face and voice that probably endeared her to director Hellman and earned her the part.
Hellman stages some really wonderful drag racing sequences and manages to capture the youths’ anxiety, willfulness, and exultation in a variety of camera set-ups from both sides and in back of the driver and passengers. It’s clear that many on-screen performers had no real experience before a camera, but their awkwardness plays well against the non-verbal demeanors of the film’s young leads.
After the wild success of Easy Rider, studios were eager to jump on the “youth bandwagon.” Feeling that the staid old heads of Hollywood no longer could appeal to the ever-youthful moviegoing public, the studios invested millions in films with maverick appeal and made by an up and coming group of film people in their 20s who ate, drank, and breathed film. Most of the films tanked and lost large sums for their respective studios. Within a couple of years, the “youth revolution” was pretty much over, and it took another generation of filmmakers (Spielberg, Lucas to name two) with a more fantastical vision of what would appeal to youth to make films that would change the marketing of films forever. Two-Lane Blacktop was one of the unlucky misfits of its era. Overlooked upon release, its reputation has only increased with the passage of time.
The film’s Techniscope 2.35:1 aspect ratio is reproduced faithfully in this new anamorphic transfer. The film is very clean with nary a scratch, hair, or speck to mar the image. Color seems only moderately good, but flesh tones are very nice, and sharpness is well above average. Grain varies from light to moderately heavy, and blacks are sometimes crushed in the darkest scenes. The film has been divided into 14 chapters.
The Criterion release offers two Dolby Digital English soundtracks: a 1.0 mono track and a 5.1 surround track. I listened to most of the film in its 1.0 incarnation and found it quite robust and dynamic. The 5.1 has less volume and really doesn’t use the surrounds well with a decided lack of panning in either direction during the race scenes. Dialog such as it is has been rooted in the center channel in the 5.1 mix, but I’d recommend the mono track for a better aural experience.
The first disc offers two audio commentaries to accompany the feature film. The first features director Monte Hellman and filmmaker Allison Anders while the second offers screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer and author David Meyer. I much preferred the latter commentary. Director Hellman seems somewhat reluctant to talk, and Anders must pose questions to him to get him to respond. Wurlitzer and Meyer have a lively and fact-filled discussion with no dead spots. Hellman, however, gets to speak his piece below.
The second disc contains the majority of the special features, four featurettes which were written and directed by Monte Hellman himself. All are presented in anamorphic video.
“On the Road Again” is a 42-minute video commentary by director Monte Hellman to several of his film students as he takes them to some of the original locations from the film. He talks about the making of the movie and answers questions posed to him by his students and by his daughter who’s the designated driver on the trip. Hellman is much more illuminating and conversational here than he is in the commentary.
“Make It Three Yards” is a 38-minute reunion conversation between director Hellman and star James Taylor as they discuss making the picture together and also Taylor’s music career.
“Somewhere Near Salinas” finds director Hellman talking with actor-composer Kris Kristofferson whose song “Me and Bobby McGee” is played at a pivotal moment in the movie. This featurette runs 26½ minutes as the two discuss making movies in the 1970s and how different the movie business is today.
“Sure Did Talk to You” is two separate interviews combined into one featurette running 23 minutes. The subjects of the interviews are the movie’s producer Michael Laughlin and production manager Walter Coblenz.
“Those Satisfactions Are Permanent” presents the original screen tests of stars Laurie Bird (14½ minutes) and James Taylor (10½ minutes). Bird shows no fear, but Taylor seems painfully shy, almost unable to look into the camera or into the eyes of the director as he’s asked questions. He’s more confident singing the lovely “Ridin’ on a Railroad.”
“Color Me Gone” offers a step-through collection of various black and white and color publicity stills and artist portraits that number 110 separate items. There are also a few pages from the movie’s press book.
“Performance and Image” offers a series of photographs and explanatory text pages that show one of the 1955 Chevys from the movie being located and restored to its original look. There are also some still shots comparing locations in the film to the way these places look today.
The film’s original theatrical trailer is presented in anamorphic video and runs 2½ minutes.
The Criterion box also comes with two inserts. The 38-page booklet offers the usual film stills along with two appreciations of the film by film writer Kent Jones and filmmaker Richard Linklater and the original 1970 “making of” piece by writer Michael Goodwin that first appeared in Rolling Stone.
Also included is the complete 111-page script by Rudy Wurlitzer with a preface by director Monte Hellman.
Two-Lane Blacktop is not the road race movie for the ages. It’s rather a quite surprising character study of a few days in the life of four lonely, aimless people living life a day at the time and asking for little other than their freedom in return. Its representation of an era long past is its greatest claim to fame, and this Criterion set offers a terrific collection of bonuses for fans of the film.
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