Two-Lane Blacktop: Criterion Collection
January 4, 2013
In anticipation of its release later that year, Esquire magazine ran a substantial piece on Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) and boldly proclaimed it to be the best film of the year. Despite high praise from such a prestigious periodical, the studio refused to promote the film and it was barely released theatrically. Perhaps the studio felt that the minimalist plot and characterization, coupled with the existential vibe, wouldn’t appeal to a mainstream audience. However, over the years, Two-Lane Blacktop developed a small, but loyal following among car enthusiasts who fetishized the 1955 Chevy and 1970 Pontiac GTO featured so prominently that they deserve top billing alongside the lead actors. The film also found an audience with people who dug other nihilistic road movies like Easy Rider (1969) and Vanishing Point (1971).
Two-Lane Blacktop’s plot (if you can call it that) follows two young men who race other cars in their customized ’55 Chevy. We never find out their names and the credits list them simply as the Driver (Taylor) and the Mechanic (Wilson). Early on, they pick up the Girl (Bird) in Santa Fe, New Mexico and cross paths with a rival driver (Oates) in a ’70 Pontiac GTO. The Driver and the Mechanic say little to one another and when they do it’s only about cars – their own and others. The Girl, in comparison, is infinitely chattier. Eventually, they meet GTO at a gas station and challenge each other to a cross-country race to Washington, D.C. for “pink slips,” the title to the loser’s car. GTO is gregarious to a fault, scaring off a hitchhiker by repeating the same stories twice and telling his life story, which changes with every new person he picks up.
All these guys are is reflected in their cars and the open road that stretches out in front of them. Even though they’re racing against each other, they help each other out, sharing food and offering mechanical advice. They may be polar opposites personality-wise, but they share a love of going fast in their cars – it’s the fuel that keeps them going.
Director Monte Hellman’s camerawork is very minimalist, almost documentary-like in how matter-of-factly it depicts the race and the places and people that they encounter along the way. For example, the Driver and the Mechanic come across a car accident and the Mechanic’s first instinct is to check their car before they see if the others are okay. With all of the car-speak and loving shots of fast, muscle cars, Two-Lane Blacktop is a car lover’s dream. It has also become a nostalgia piece as they just don’t make cars like the ones in this film anymore. This film also immerses us in the car-racing culture of its day like no other film then or since.
The characters in Two-Lane Blacktop never really connect with each other in a meaningful way. The Driver and the Mechanic only talk about their car, GTO talks about his car and lies about his past, and the Girl is just along for the ride until something better comes along. After all, it’s not about who wins, it’s all about the race.
The Blu-Ray upgrade courtesy of the Criterion Collection is excellent. The skin tones look warm and the moody cinematography has never looked better. This disc also features 5.1 and the original mono track, which is a nice nod to purists. It should be noted that this new edition does not include a copy of the screenplay, which came with the DVD edition so completists might want to hold on to that version.
Fans of the Anchor Bay edition will definitely want to hold onto that copy, especially if you’re lucky enough to own the limited edition collectors’ tin, as none of the extras are included on this new one.
The first disc features an audio commentary by the film’s director Monte Hellman and joining him is filmmaker Allison Anders. He talks about how he got his start as a filmmaker, working for Roger Corman and American International Pictures. Anders keeps things moving by asking Hellman a lot of questions about making the film. He points out things that were improvised and how the famous, “motherfucker” line almost cost them an X-rating at the time.
There is another commentary by the film’s screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer and film professor David Meyer. They kick things off by defining the road movie and what it’s all about. Wurlitzer talks about the romanticism of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and the evolution to the existentialism of Two-Lane Blacktop. He also talks about the influence of Luis Bunuel’s films and John Ford’s westerns on his own writing. This is a very philosophical track as he and Meyer talk about the film’s themes and analyze their meaning.
“On the Road Again” features Hellman and some of his film students revisiting some of the locations in the film. Along the way, he talks about how he got involved in the film, how Rudy Wurlitzer came on board, and casting the lead actors. Hellman also talks about the troubles he had getting a studio interested and how Universal Pictures backed it. He talks about the style and intentions.
“Make It Three Yards” is a conversation between Hellman and James Taylor done in 2007. Taylor says that he’s never seen the film because he doesn’t like watching himself as it makes him feel self-conscious. He also acknowledges the documentary-like nature of the film. Taylor recounts his impressions making the film, including a few hair-raising mechanical mishaps with the cars.
“Somewhere Near Salinas” is a conversation with Kris Kristofferson who let “Me and Bobby McGee” be in the film. He gives his impressions of James Taylor and talks about how he contemplated playing the role of the Mechanic but Hellman felt that he was too old. Kristofferson reveals the origins of the song – Federico Fellini’s La Strada (1954).
“Sure Did Talk to You” features production manager Walter Coblenz and producer Michael S. Laughlin talking about the making of the film from their point-of-view. They talk about how Hellman let the actors only read the pages of the script for that day in order to allow for a more spontaneous reaction. They also talk about how the cars were put together and so on.
“Those Satisfactions are Permanent” allows one to see screen-test outtake footage of Laurie Bird and James Taylor. They don’t actually read from the script but are interviewed instead.
“Color Me Gone” is a collection of behind-the-scenes stills.
“Performance and Image” features car enthusiast Walt Bailey reconstructing a ’55 Chevy and offers his account via text and photographs. Also, then and now photos of locations used in the film are displayed.
Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.