Studio:The Criterion Collection Year: 1971 Cast: James Taylor, Warren Oates, Dennis Wilson, Laurie Bird, Harry Dean Stanton, Jaclyn Hellman, Rudy Wurlitzer, Bill Keller Director: Monte Hellman Release Date: January 08, 2013 Rating: Not Rated for (brief language) Run Time: 01h:42m:30s Genre(s): drama
"You can never go fast enough." - The Driver (James Taylor)
Even if you're not a gearhead (and I most certainly am not) there's an undeniable sense of self-discovery and purpose in Two-Lane Blacktop, a stripped down, revved up love story about men, cars, women, life.
Movie Grade: A
DVD Grade: A
I don't remember the first time I saw Two-Lane Blacktop, but it was years after its original release. I stumbled across it somewhere somehow, and was fascinated by this barebones story of a pair of monosyllabic car geeks who love nothing more than driving. The film's stark narrative structure was jarring for me back then, but I have had the opportunity to revisit it a few times since, most recently with the 2008 Criterion SD release. It was then that I felt I was seeing Monte Hellman's film in a whole new light. Sure, it was a low-budget project, but it is a back roads travelogue, one that quietly but eloquently speaks to the phenom and mystique of the male/car relationship in a way that is decidedly minimal in its approach.
Now, with Criterion's Blu-Ray release I am given the opportunity to once again revisit Hellman's. And the experience has only improved. The discussion of the film below is culled from that earlier review, while I have updated the image/audio/extras section.
It's about driving. It's about cars. It's about life. Or at least life as it relates to driving.
The main characters are never named, and simply exist in the credits as generic descriptors for what they are within the context of Hellman's film: The Driver (James Taylor), The Mechanic (Dennis Wilson), The Girl (Laurie Bird) and GTO (Warren Oates). The presence of singer/songwriter Taylor and Beach Boy drummer Wilson as the leads may seem like weird casting, but they come across as believably natural long-haired gearheads, focused more on their wheels than anything. They speak very little to one another, and most times when they do it's a laconic discussion of cars they have raced or might race.
The relatively skimpy plot has The Driver and The Mechanic heading East in their '55 Chevy, and they casually acquire a young hitchhiker—The Girl—representing a dangerous dose of free spirited innocence that impacts both men very differently. An encounter with the brash, cashmere-sweater-wearing driver of a bright yellow 1970 GTO prompts a long-distance "race for pinks", from Arizona to Washington D.C., steering clear of the interstates and traveling the one-horse town byways of small town America.
In Hellman's hands it almost becomes more of an homage to tiny gas stations, greasy diners and long stretches of pavement, and because the concept of the race gets overshadowed by the journey itself. In fact the race is largely forgotten not long after it begins, as the people in the two vehicles intermingle in various combinations, with sparse bursts of dialogue that prompt a bit of self-discovery and the casual impermanence of living out on "the road".
This is hardly The Gumball Rally, and as things unfold slowly—if at all—Hellman incorporates a documentary feel to many of the scenes, from secret street races to panhandling, all of which are occasionally reinforced by the use of backseat camera angle that gives the viewer the sense of riding along. The connection the leads feel to their respective cars, even as Oates piles on tall tale after tall tale to whatever random hitchhiker he picks up, spells out just how important these vehicles are, like an extension of their wandering road-hungry essence. The long-lasting impact of Hellman's opus is due in large part to the lost-in-yourself appeal of driving those endless stretches of two lane pavement, evolved as it is here into carefully maintained high-test romanticism.
The film's infamous final shot is maddening and stark, and one that likely forced those who may have seen this in a theater or (more appropriately) at a drive-in to wonder just what the hell had happened. Its impact on disc doesn't quite carry the same effect, but it does effectively still cut the legs off of the narrative quickly, and we're left to wonder, as well.
The 2.35:1 1080p AVC-encoded transfer comes with the Monte Hellman blessing, and it shows improvements over the 2008 SD release, though those differences are marginal. The restorative work appears to be the biggest plus, while the film's gritty texture remains, yet this time around the sense of depth of field is more pronounced. Colors are never oversaturated, and instead hold their original muted hues, while black levels come up a bit muddy in the night shots.
Audio is presented with the option of either PCM 1.0 mono or a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. As with the 2008 release when mono was paired with a new 5.1 track, there is a more exaggerated sense of movement with the DTS-HD via the front channels, but the minimalist dialogue and low-budget roots of the film don't necessarily lend itself to the improved dynamics. Call me a nerd, but I found the hiss-free PCM mono track to be perfectly compact and much more emotionally effective.
The biggest loss here compared to the 2008 Criterion SD release is the absence of the 110-page screenplay book, which on a purely unnecessary-but-cool scale was a neat plus. While I mourn that omission for the BD the rest of the supplemental material has been ported over, beginning with a 36-page insert booklet, featuring an essay entitled Slow Ride by Kent Jones, bullet point appreciation comments from Richard Linklater (Dazed And Confused) and a reprint of On Route 66: Filming Two-Lane Blacktop from the October 1970 issue of Rolling Stone, written by Michael Goodwin.
There's a pair of commentaries here, as well, the first with Hellman and filmmaker Allison Anders, the second with screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer and author David Meyer. Hellman seems a little elusive here, and fares much better on the disc two supplements than he does with the commentary, though Anders (Border Radio) gives a good effort to try and prompt him for recollections, as well as supplying her own remembrances of what Two-Lane Blacktop meant for her. The Wurlitzer/Meyer track, by comparison, moves along a snappier pace, and addresses larger concepts about the writing, dialogue and the direction of the story.
Also included is a block of in-depth anamorphic widescreen features with Hellman, along with a handful of various photo galleries/text essays and the film's original theatrical trailer. On The Road Again: Two-Lane Blacktop Revisited (42m:48s) has the director leading an SUV full of film students (along with his daughter, who has a minor role in the film as a very, very young hitchhiker) out to take a look at the locations in Needles, CA today. Hellman is effusive and talkative about his film, and when they arrive the doc marries clips from the film with the actual locations. Make It Three Yards (38m:31s) has Hellman doing a sit down interview with James Taylor in 2007, while Somewhere Near Salinas (27m:38s) has the director chatting up Kris Kristofferson and topics such as the role of Me and Bobby McGee in Two-Lane Blacktop and another key project (and slightly more well known), also penned by Rudy Wurlitzer. Sure Did Talk To You (23m:21s) stretches out the remembrances beyond Hellman, digging particularly into the thoughts of producer Michael Laughlin and production manager Walter Coblenz.
Those Satisfactions Are Permanent features a pair of screen tests, one each for Laurie Bird (14:49) and James Taylor (10m:51s)—who sings a tune, too — while Color Me Gone is an extensive set of promotional photos and on-location shots. Slightly more interactive thanks to some onscreen text) is Performance & Image, highlighting the restoration of the three Chevys used in the film, and a visit to some of the locations used.