'Two-Lane Blacktop': Monte Hellman's Existential Masterpiece
Monte Hellman's existential road trip classic Two-Lane Blacktop is in many ways a perfect encapsulation of the spirit of what we've come to know as the New Hollywood era. The film stars James Taylor and Dennis Wilson as two young transients, only known to the audience as the Driver and the Mechanic, who make their money drag racing locals in whichever small town they happen to be passing through. Something of a love triangle develops between the two after they pick up a hitchhiker in California, known as the Girl. Driving through New Mexico, the three of them meet GTO, a seemingly cocky but ultimately inexperienced man in a souped up Pontiac, who challenges them to a cross-country race ending in Washington D.C, with the loser of the race having to give up their car. The race, however, never fully materializes. The competitiveness between them dissipates, and the race ends unceremoniously at a Memphis diner, with the Girl riding away on the back of a stranger’s motorcycle, and the remaining three going their own separate ways.
This is a film that is considered to be part of the New Hollywood era of filmmaking. As the counterculture began to reshape American cultural norms and values in the 1960’s, a new generation of filmmakers emerged that reflected this shift. With films like Bonnie & Clyde and The Graduate, studios began to relinquish creative control to writers & directors, ostensibly giving them free rein to do whatever they wanted. New Hollywood is in many ways a blanket term, as many of the films were stylistically different from one another. However, one thing that can be said for all of these filmmakers is that they all approached their work with an effort to make thoughtful and compelling artistic statements, as opposed to the broad studio fare that had become so ubiquitous in Hollywood. In general, the purveyors of the New Hollywood wave sought empirical truth in their art, and used filmmaking as their medium.
Two-Lane Blacktop is a film that in many ways reflects the New Hollywood era, and the counterculture as a whole. Case in point is the character GTO; this is a character who on the surface seems to be a rather normal, conservative, well put together southern American of the pre-Baby Boomer era. However, as the story unfolds, GTO is revealed to be a painfully sensitive and insecure man searching for freedom from his past and his inhibitions. Throughout the story, he picks up hitchhikers, and regales them in apocryphal stories about his life that are meant to portray him as cool and confident; at the end of the film, he picks up two soldiers, and tells them that he won his car in a race with two men in a 1955 Chevrolet 150, the same car owned by the Driver and the Mechanic. This deconstruction of the portrait of the ideal American male is right in line with the philosophy of New Hollywood; that is, to question our societal norms, and to find the gritty, often uncomfortable center of our beings. Two-Lane Blacktop is rife with quiet, contemplative characters that are meant to both represent certain kinds of people, and portray drifters as unromantically as possible. This conceptual approach results in sparse dialogue, with long silences as the characters are most often occupied by their own thoughts. On a structural level, the film has many qualities that are non-traditional, and in turn can be off-putting. The pacing of the film is unique; in many of the scenes, nothing seems to be happening. The cinematography and the editing are at times choppy, but is in line with the gritty sensibility of the film. In both the creative and technical aspects of this film, Monte Hellman strives for a realistic depiction of those who live their lives on the road.