Something hidden -- go and find it;
Go and look beyond the Ranges
Something lost behind the ranges:
Lost and waiting for you. Go!

-- from Guy Maddin's CAREFUL

Being a periodic meditation on some of the more obscure outlying regions of cinema;
regarding movies that are inadequately publicized and hence, easily overlooked --
and by cinema, it is meant in the larger sense of films/tv/DVD/internet --
that might be worthy of your interest, but perhaps has escaped your notice.


Friday, December 7, 2007


       Webster’s defines the word genre as “A category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, marked by a distinctive style, form, or content”. The term can also of course be applied to cinema, and the medium is just chock full of its’ own particular examples thereof. “Comedy”, “Romance”, “Action”, “Horror” -- all familiar film genres; and all of which have their own specific sub- (Action: “Cop/Buddy” movies) and recombinant (”Romantic-Comedy”) forms. Some film genres tend to be quite rigid and narrow in their conventions: how many horror films show someone opening a cabinet door only to find nothing there -- and then, seconds later, have the hapless victim set upon by the menace-du jour? Then there are those genres which encourage a more free-form approach; none more so than the “Road” movie, I think -- and you’re not likely to see a better example of this amorphous, free-wheelin’ style than in Two-Lane Blacktop.

       The movie is set in the world of illegal street racing, and focuses on the interwoven fortunes of four characters -- individuals whose every waking moment is so completely subsumed by their lifestyle that they don’t even have names, just designations: “The Driver” (portrayed by singer-songwriter James Taylor), “The Mechanic” (Dennis Wilson, of The Beach Boys fame), “The Girl” (Laurie Bird), and “GTO” (Warren Oates). Without giving away too much of the plot (and truth be told, there’s not much plot to speak of), “The Driver” and “GTO” meet at random, and after a quick sizing up, acknowledge each other as peers - and as competitors. As they make their way cross-country, they put each other through a series of dares, challenges and race-offs; including, of course, vying for the affections of “The Girl”. This synopsis would suggest that Two-Lane Blacktop is an “Actioner” -- a race-car movie, to be precise -- but as soon as the film establishes it’s genre roots, it quickly becomes something else - more of a character study, as well as a hard look at the alienated state of the American Psyche during the mid-70’s.

       Alienation as a theme -- as well as a tendency to make genre pictures that quickly turn into something more than merely that -- seems to be the modus operandi of Monte Hellman, the director and co-screenwriter of Two Lane Blacktop. Hellman’s work ranges the spectrum of Film genres: Westerns, Noirs, Period-piece Thrillers; even a Horror film or two. Along with fellow filmmakers Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme and Martin Scorsese, Hellman sprang from the “Corman Film School”, and his work -- especially the handful of movies he made with Warren Oates -- are greatly admired by contemporary auteurs Richard Linklater & Quentin Tarantino. The influence on the latter of the two is pretty clear; Tarantino is renowned for the “spin” he puts on his genre pictures; but Hellman was there, over two decades earlier, doing just the same type of thing -- and frequently better, IMHO.

       Two-Lane Blacktop has been released on DVD before, but that edition had a full-frame transfer and is now out of print. Fortunately, this Tuesday, December 11th, Criterion will be releasing it’s own DVD of the film, featuring a brand-spanking new HD widescreen transfer of the film, as well as a re-mastered Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. Extras include commentary and interviews with Hellman himself, a copy of the screenplay reprinted in its’ entirety (.PDF format) and “appreciations” of the film by Richard Linklater and Tom Waits. Worth taking out for a test spin, if you ask me.

Next post -- 12/14/07


Rich said...

This -- as far as I know -- is the only film in cinema history that had its chance for success ruined by raised expectations. Esquire Magazine had a cover story that called the script "The Greatest Screenply in Film History" (or some such). This was immediately post-"Easy Rider" -- we cinephiles were all panting for "The Next Big Thing." I went. It was interesting movie. I'll take another look, unburdened by the hype.

grigorss said...

"Greatest Screenplay in Film History!?! Yeah, that is overhype indeed... I don't think Two-Lane Blacktop's screenplay is it strongest asset anyway -- I think it has some good, even great naturalistic performances (and of course I'm mainly talking about Oates here, the most underrated leading man ever!): I also think of it as being a good, early example of the kind of character-driven genre film that Tarantino has made such a rep re-inventing -- not that there haven't been other ones; peculiarly perhaps, more and more of them, the earlier you look in cinematic history -- but a really solid contemporary example thereof.

And hey... -- I had to write about sumthin' this week, didn't I?