By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “Two-Lane Blacktop,” Universal Pictures, 1971]
No cultural testimony tracks our national alpha waves as eloquently as road movies even the most bankrupt examples yowl with the fatally American yen for escape, automotive identity and frontier doom. And no road movie is as in touch with its own road movieness as Monte Hellman’s long-martyred “Two-Lane Blacktop” (1971). Not widely seen or available on video in any form until 1999 as a victim of music rights and studio neglect, “Blacktop” might be a definitive American expression of roadness uncompromised, Rorschach-inconclusive, mythic, yet as real as highway weeds, and so eloquent in its mumbling way about basic existential identity and destination dilemmas that every frame has the poignant and needy ache of a child fruitlessly asking about God. It has little competition as the great lost and found movie of the much-missed American New Wave.
Virtually everyone who sees the film is seduced by it, but it’s not a charming piece of work: It’s laconic, distancing, de-dramatized, soberly shot, totally devoid of visual showboating and campy counterculture à la “Easy Rider.” Echoes of Beckett and “Godot,” which Hellman had staged in the ’60s, abound; think of emptied-out motorheads James Taylor and Dennis Wilson as the lost ones stuck in a ritual dialogue, petulant hitchhiker Laurie Bird as Pozzo and Warren Oates’ G.T.O.-driving jabbermouth as Lucky. Still, to witness “Blacktop,” for all its metaphoric torque, is to be thrust into the dusty, dirt poor midday of American road culture (most of it “found” by the filmmakers, shooting the movie on a road trip from Needles, CA to the Carolinas), surrounded by overgrown flatlands, vanishing points and the angry chortle of car engines. The movie breathes as only ’70s movies breathe, with whole scenes dedicated to nothing more than capturing a place and moment.
Taylor is the Driver, Wilson is the Mechanic, and their life is a series of impromptu drag races against local drivers, almost always winning with their custom dragster in a primer-gray ’55 Chevy shell. Their encounter with Oates (whose credit reads “G.T.O.”), a slumming dude with a hot car he knows nothing about, leads to a cross country race between the two vehicles that passes for the film’s plot. Along the way, à la “L’Avventura,” the wager is neglected by the drivers (and Hellman) and forgotten. Though scrupulously unfaddish, Hellman’s acidic, calm but desperate vision is far from ignorant of its place and time: Wilson steals local Southern plates to slap on his Chevy because “I get nervous in this part of the country,” while a quiet roadhouse confrontation with a redneck chills even Oates into stymied silence.
Few films display such brilliant visual wisdom about our relationship with the automobile (dare you to triple-bill this with Spielberg’s “Duel” and Cronenberg’s “Crash”); however, Hellman sees the car as an extra-human, quasi-cinematic consciousness, designed both to conform to our bodies’ limitations and powerfully extend them into the world like the manifested projections of a collective ego, complete with the Panavision-shaped screen of the windshield. “Blacktop” even lists its cars as cast members. Roadtripping may have been a drop out, turn on hot rod cliché even in 1971, but nobody told Hellman, whose frustrated odyssey feels sui generis the first and last of the real road movies. The druggy rhythms, the downtime, the meaningless forward motion the movie itself is like a long drive to nowhere. And it never ends: like his characters, Hellman never admits the frontier is gone, that the road has an end, and simply lets the film grind down and burn in the projector gate instead. This new Criterion edition, neatly obviating the need for the old Anchor Bay issues, supps the film with loads of new Hellman interviews, an essay by longtime Hellman proselytizer/critic Kent Jones, and a copy of the original Rudy Wurlitzer script, famous for being published in its entirety in Esquire before the film’s release.
Today’s gritty New Wave dead-endness is happening in Romania, which makes sense, globally speaking one should never underestimate the historical gravitas that comes with generations of brutal Communist dictatorship, the reverb of its violent overthrow, or the deathless ancestral textures of Balkan peninsula peasant culture. The films and their accolades are still arriving: last year’s critical triumph of Cristi Puiu’s “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” (which won Best Film from the nation’s most expansive critics’ poll on indieWIRE ) was followed this year by Corneliu Porumboiu’s “12:08 East of Bucharest” and, opening semi-wide in January, Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” all three anointed with Cannes trophies. Suddenly, a poor ex-totalitarian nation that had little visible film culture at all (outside of Lucien Pintille) for decades is now the hotbed of what the world’s film festivals are perceiving as new-millennium cool fresh, expressive and pertinent. The 1989 coup that ousted Ceauşescu haunts the films in a distinctive way: the primary filmmakers in question are all now 40 or under, and were still teenagers and film school students when Romania became a “new democracy,” presenting them with a nervous, newly mercenary sociopolitical world they’re still trying to figure out.
Catalin Mitulescu’s feature debut, “The Way I Spent the End of the World” (2006), is one of the movement’s key films, and the closest thing young Romania has to a generational anthem movie. Set in 1989, its rebel-without-cause is Eva (Doroteea Petre), a tempestuous, smart, rebellious but never stereotypical high schooler dissatisfied with her smitten boyfriend and more or less completely fed up with the Ceauşescu regime, prompting her to fraternize with a crazed anti-Communist nerd and to contemplate escaping. But to where?
Mitulescu’s movie sings with the Slav-style mordant wit that so much of Eastern Europe does so well, and it also does the neo-naturalism jig with enormous skill (and without the longueurs and middle-aged grumpiness of many other Romanian hits). Mostly, it has Petre, who earned the film’s award from Cannes for her watchful, impetuous performance that knocks out what had become a 20th century cliché the revolutionary teen, bristling against authority and embracing rock ‘n’ roll into four lovely dimensions. (However supercool she seems, Eva is always a tangible, lovable person, as opposed to say, the similar but idealized protagonist of the overpraised, overwritten “Juno.”) Inevitably, Mitulescu’s movie climaxes with the revolution is being televised events of December 1989, giving Eva’s story a thoroughly unsentimental happy ending that comes with its own kind of disappointing blowback, keenly felt across the country. Reportedly, “The Way I Spent the End of the World” may still go theatrical in ’08, but for now, Film Movement a unique video subscription label specializing in overlooked imports has made it happen on DVD.
“Two-Lane Blacktop” (Criterion) will be available on December 11th; “The Way I Spent the End of the World” (Film Movement) is now available on DVD.