9/10/11

DOUBLE FEATURE: Monte Hellman's "Two-Lane Blacktop" (1971) + "Road to Nowhere" (2010)

"Youthful idealism...it's not that rare."
          "Really?  I think that's when it's rarest."     --Monte Hellman's Road to Nowhere



Two-Lane Blacktop
Road to Nowhere 
Film Critic Kent Jones began assessing Two-Lane Blacktop  in his article "Slow Ride" by talking about the more successful pictures that came before it, pictures which are more commonly remembered for being the touchstone cinema of the late 60's and early 70's:  Mike Nichols' The Graduate (1967) and Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider (1968).
"In Easy Rider, the fabled “road” equals freedom, befouled by ugly Americana...while in Two-Lane Blacktop it becomes something altogether different and far more interesting: a repository of dreams and fantasies, for squares, hipsters, and obsessives alike."  
I have fond memories of multiple viewings of Easy Rider as a high school student, but looking back on it during a one-time screening for my Film Appreciation course last year, it might be true what Andrew Sarris said about it:  "See Easy Rider for Nicholson's performance...and leave the LSD trips and such to the collectors of mod mannerisms."  Although I like the youthful exuberance and sometimes heavy-handed nature of Hopper's motorcycle western, reflecting on the way my younger self imagined himself through the lens of that iconic picture seems now like a sad commentary on the late 80's.

Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider
Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate
About  The Graduate, Jones recalls Hellman saying in a 1984 interview that it was "not really a very good film," but noting that "it's a great film because of just what it is."  By the time I got around to seeing The Graduate I felt very much the same way; I had discovered the Pixies by that point, so what use did I have for Simon and Garfunkle?  The use of music in the picture, which is commonly one of the most heralded aspects of it, seemed so overdone and played out that I nearly shut off to the experience completely.  Where The Graduate seems something of a relic, Two-Lane Blacktop comes off as timeless, mythic (and not just because I'd take Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee" over "Mrs. Robinson" any day).

Dennis Wilson and James Taylor in Two-Lane Blacktop 
James Taylor is the lead in Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop, and looking back on it now (despite the fact that I still truly believe James Taylor has little to offer to American Music) he has been stuck to the wall forever as one of the biggest bad asses in American Cinema with a single scene early in the picture where he finalizes a drag bet with a cocky hot-rodder, upping the ante abruptly, adding just the right amount of speed and pressure to his tone:  "Make it three yards, motherfucker, and we'll have us an automobile race."  I can't imagine anyone suspected that the duo of James Taylor (as The Driver) and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson (as The Mechanic) would work as perfectly as it did, then or now, but there is something so right about the pairing that it's hard to believe that neither of them would ever act in a movie again (Wilson drowned in a yachting accident at age 39 in 1983).  Of course, Two-Lane Blacktop is a movie that stars a 1955 Chevy 150 as much as it does Taylor and Wilson, and although it might be a movie that is pleasing to some car lovers, it certainly doesn't act like a typical "Car Movie," from Bullit to The Fast and the Furious, and has probably left more than a few paying customers disappointed over the years for that very reason.

James Taylor and Warren Oates in Two-Lane Blacktop
Richard Linklater, a director who made a similarly decade-defining cult picture at the beginning of the 1990's, Slacker, remarked that Two-Lane Blacktop is "like a drive-in movie directed by a French New-wave director," which is pretty dead-on.  Although nearly all of the Hollywood renaissance directors were burning on the creative fuel supplied by the various European New-wave styles of the late 50's and early 60's, Hellman's picture melds that sensibility so seamlessly with the American traditions of the road picture that it never seems like a conscious nod.  Like The Driver, Two-Lane Blacktop never tips its hand.  Hellman notes in the commentary track of the Criterion Collection edition of the film that there are a couple of consciously Hitchcockian moments of mis-en-scene in the film, but Two-Lane Blacktop never feels like it's copying anyone, but rather setting the pace for the greatest work of the 1970's.


Two-Lane Blacktop
As is the case with fans of 70's cinema, if I get started on Warren Oates we'll be here for a while.  Let's just leave it at a recommendation to check out his lead turn in the 1975 Hellman directed Cockfighter (also featuring Laurie Bird and Harry Dean Stanton, who both appear in Two-Lane).  Oates' work with Peckinpah in this period is significant as well, including The Wild Bunch (1969)  and Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.  Both directors understood the marvelous complexity and vulnerability of this actor, and left us with some of his finest moments.  To refer back to Linklater's "Reasons I Love Two-Lane Blacktop":  #6--"Because there was once a god who walked the earth named Warren Oates." 

Warren Oates
The final scene in Two-Lane Blacktop is a key moment in the history of meta-cinema; a quieting, profound few minutes that draws the viewer back into a deep reflection of the details of the picture, that vaults the film from John Ford territory, as it is most definitely playing with the template of the American western, and into a realm of consideration alongside the works of Bergman and Godard.  The final sequence of Two-Lane Blactop also serves as a portal through which to view Hellman's latest film--his first in 20+ years--Road to Nowhere.  Hellman's filmography reveals a strange journey, particularly for someone who was brought into the industry by Roger Corman, directing horror cheapies like The Beast From Haunted Cave (1959) and a Phillipine jungle-set buried treasure pic concocted by and starring a then unknown Jack Nicholson called Flight to Fury (1964).  The 1980's are probably best left uncovered for Hellman, as he has said that 1988's Iguana was the worst experience of his career, only to be followed by a directorial stint on the third of the Silent Night, Deadly Night trilogy (Better Watch Out!).  I am sure there are some connections and lessons learned between those films that are relevant, but Road to Nowhere mostly reads like a great filmmaker reclaiming his creative self, and pushing away from the missteps of his past in an rather exuberant fashion.

Shannyn Sossamon in Road to Nowhere
Road to Nowhere is the next great entry in the cannon of Meta-Cinema, a picture within a picture within a picture that is even more firmly rooted in the style than the films that are perhaps it's closest cousins: David Lynch's Mullholland Drive (2001) and Inland Empire (2006).  At times bearing a resemblance to an actress who appeared in both of the aforementioned Lynch films, Laura Harring, Hellman's lead actress in Road to Nowhere, Shannyn Sossamon (excellent, as well, in Roger Avery's underrated The Rules of Attraction and Gorin Dukic's feature debut Wristcutters:  A Love Story), captures the same kind of duality that Lynch so often establishes in his central female characters.  Hellman's camera captures this in a subtle manner and, like Lynch, seems to be more interested in raising questions about the nature of his characters and their stories than providing answers.  The experimentation of Road to Nowhere is more restrained than the leaps into the creative abyss that Lynch has taken so successfully over his last few films.  Road to Nowhere is not as interested in the unsettling strangeness that Lynch paints so effortlessly, but shares the same fervor for reveling in the deep, dark holes of incomplete narratives.  As Monte Hellman's alter-ego in Road to Nowhere, Mitchell Haven, reminds us:  "If it all made sense, I wouldn't be interested."

Laura Dern and David Lynch shooting Inland Empire
Shannyn Sossamon and Cliff De Young in Road to Nowhere
Road to Nowhere is a film about the making of a film called "Road to Nowhere" which centers around the mysterious case of Velma Durand.  The character of Laurel (Sossamon) is hired by Haven (Trygh Runyan), which doesn't sit well with the rest of the crew, since the actress has only appeared in one other film:  a low budget horror/exploitation film that captivates Haven during casting.  Amid talk of Leonardio DiCaprio and Scarlett Johansson as casting possibilities, Haven becomes obsessive about hiring Laurel, even though there seems to be problems with Laurel who is embroiled with some kind of political plot in Cuba...or double suicide...and mistaken identity...or something...

Cliff De Young and Shannyn Sossamon (and Velma Durand?)
in Road to Nowhere
Ok, I'm not going to pretend that I or anyone could even do a plot summary on this picture.  But, more importantly, in the attempt is revealed what is so great about Road to Nowhere, and exactly what might cause audiences less inclined to ambiguity to throw up their hands, proclaiming it the biggest piece of pretentious claptrap to come along since...well, the last Lynch picture.  Prepared for a film that is not interested in wrapping up every plot point, or making distinctions between narrative realities, Road to Nowhere can be one of the most rewarding film experiences of the year.  Perhaps a bit of a film buff's delight, the film references abound in Road, with innumerable nods to the world of film noir, from Humphrey Bogart to Sam Fuller, to the specific scenes that we watch along with Haven as he courts Laurel, screening his favorites for her in their room at night, including Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve, Victor Erice's Spirit of the Beehive, and Bergman's The Seventh Seal.  Maybe if you take all of those pictures and mix them up in a stew with a dash of Lynch hair and a pinch of youthful idealism from a 77-year old filmmaker, you get Road to Nowhere.  Then again, chances of "getting" Road to Nowhere in terms of the factual events of Velma Durand's story are slim, but as Haven reminds us, "the myth, as usual, has no relation to reality."  For Haven, the reality he is creating through the film, as it usurps the details of the true story, is what will ultimately, although perhaps only briefly, drive the truth forward.  In Two-Lane Blacktop, Warren Oates' character, GTO, lives by the same philosophical principle, reinventing himself and the world with each hitchhiker and roadside cafe, ultimately taking the story of the film's lead characters away from them in a cloud of dust.  I think Baudrillard called it "the procession of the simulacra," that is, the continual obscuring of the "truth," as the real and the imagined become less and less distinguishable from one another.  As a film that expounds on these ideas, Road to Nowhere leads to some good conclusions.

Dominique Swain in Road to Nowhere
I had a film instructor once who gave me a great bit of advice about analyzing film in writing:  "Be really careful when you're using the word 'Real'."  As Dominique Swain's character puts it in Road to Nowhere:  "Fuck the facts."  

Shannyn Sossamon in "Road to Nowhere" in Road to Nowhere








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