Two-Lane Blacktop: To Be in Hell is to Drift

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) presents a dilemma akin, let’s say, to appraising abstract art: your intellect may tell you one thing, while your heart pulls you elsewhere.

The whole is definitely greater than the sum of the parts – and perhaps that’s a clue about the enduring appeal of this counterculture cult film.

1960s-style existentialism

It’s quite literally a road picture. Two ‘street racers’, the Driver (played by singer James Taylor) and the Mechanic (as portrayed by Beach Boy drummer Dennis Wilson) appear to exist only in their modified, 1955 Chevrolet. They make money by travelling from town to town, challenging local car aficionados to drag races.  Somewhere along the way they pick up a hitchhiker hippy-chick (Laurie Bird) – essentially a stock character in a lot of 1960s road flicks.

There’s a little more plot, but it doesn’t matter. This film is not about plot. No, it’s about loneliness, about using roads – and cars – as points of connectivity. Little value is placed on words: apart from the Warren Oates character, everyone is monosyllabic. James Taylor, rock’s mellow-man, is likely the scariest guy in the film – with his chronically clenched jaw and thousand-yard stare. Thankfully, neither Taylor or Wilson is really called upon to act. Rather, they pose, but that’s enough.

And yes, the characters can be seen as metaphors (hence the lack of names) – but the use of that tired literary device usually comes when a film fails and the creators attempt a salvage operation. That’s not needed here.

Perhaps some of the cult appeal has to do with the fate of the four principal actors – three of whom met untimely deaths – Dennis Wilson/drowning, Warren Oates/ heart attack, Laurie Bird/suicide (for an odd parallel, see Rebel with a Cause – Dean/Wood/Mineo).

two-lane-blacktop trio
Bird, Taylor, Wilson. Uneasy riders

In 2012, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” A little surprising, but there is something (or nothing in an existential sense) going on.

What of the stillness in this film, rarely seen in the genre? Strangely, quietude raises tension, not peace. Similar to Bonnie and Clyde, another type of road movie, it becomes increasingly obvious this story will not end well. It’s a nightmare world of lost highways and empty cafes, devoid of happiness and compassion. Victory means money, not contentment.

Bernard Shaw believed that “To be in hell is to drift; to be in heaven is to steer.” How ironic that in a road movie, with cool guys behind souped-up engines powering cars at breakneck speeds, nobody can steer at all.

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