Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Running on Empty with Two-Lane Blacktop

Years ago, when I was interviewing for a job with B-movie mogul Roger Corman, he insisted I read and prepare to discuss with him Siegfried Kracauer’s Theory of Film. As his subtitle, The Redemption of Physical Reality, suggests, Kracauer saw film as fundamentally a visual medium, one that captures photographically the way the world looks and moves. Of course I felt obliged to read this ponderous tome from cover to cover, and waited for my chance to have an in-depth discussion about its merits. But, though I got the job, Roger never mentioned Kracauer again.

I brought up this little story when I interviewed one of Roger’s many famous alums, the cult filmmaker Monte Hellman. Monte, who had been fairly detached throughout most of our conversation, suddenly sat up and took notice. He explained that throughout his career he had spent a good deal of time talking to interviewers like me, and that it was rare for him to learn anything new. But I had managed to surprise him. He’d had no idea that Roger was interested in Kracauer’s Theory of Film, but said:  “That happens to be one of my Bibles, so I’m very amazed at that.”   

My own hunch is that Roger, who loves being au courant about intellectual matters,, had picked up on Kracauer through Monte himself. Back in the early days, while preparing to make one of Roger’s cheapie films, the two had together driven Highway One from Carmel to San Francisco. A lot of their talk involved their feelings about Nietzsche, but I suspect Kracauer raised his head as well.

In any case, I thought about Kracauer recently while watching Monte’s most well-known film, 1971’s Two-Lane Blacktop. As Charles Taylor explains in his fascinating chronicle of movies in the Seventies, OpeningWednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You, Two-Lane Blacktop was not an indie but a genuine studio release, bankrolled by Universal Pictures as its response to the success of Easy Rider. Like Easy Rider it’s about young men in motion, traveling aimlessly across the American landscape in search of  . . . whatever. Instead of motorcyles, the taciturn characters known only as The Driver and The Mechanic roar through the Southwest in a souped-up ’55 Chevy sedan. There’s also a young woman, equally adrift, who’ll hook up with any male who happens by. Then there’s G.T.O., a middle-aged would-be hipster in a spiffy canary-yellow muscle car. He’s as talkative as the others are silent, but his self-aggrandizing stories don’t usually convey the ring of truth. A challenge is issued, and the race is on. They’ve wagered their cars’ pink slips, so the outcome ought to be important.

Except it’s not. Monte’s original cut ran 3 ½ hours. Contractually he was obliged to get his film under 120 minutes, and so he did. But what he cut was surprising. Gone were most of the film’s racing footage and the drama of combat behind the wheel. Monte retained instead the dingy diners, the small town gas pumps, the tedium of going nowhere for no particular reason. The cast was unusual too, featuring musicians James Taylor and the Beachboys’ Dennis Wilson along with another acting novice, Laurie Bird. Only the blabby G.T.O. was played by an experienced actor, the marvelously manic Warren Oates. The result is less a story than a haunting mood piece. 

Here’s a viewer comment I found on IMDB:  “This is either the best film I've ever seen, or just an interesting exercise in film-making that is ultimately of little value. The problem is that I can't decide which.” But Kracauer would have been proud.


  1. what seat brackets were used in car?

  2. Sorry, Sully. I don't have an answer to this one. Do you?