This weekend (October 8th & 9th), Chicago’s Music Box Theatre is screening Monte Hellman and Rudy Wurlitzer‘s 1971 masterpiece Two-Lane Blacktop. Long overlooked, Two-Lane has for the past five years or so been enjoying a critical renaissance, and is increasingly regarded as one of the greatest films of the ’70s. (Click here to read some of my own thoughts on it.) And right now is an especially opportune time to see it, what with its grandchild Drive currently killing things in theaters.
There are two screenings, one Saturday, one Sunday, each at 11:30 AM. I’ll be attending the Saturday 11:30 AM show. Anyone care to join me? The movie is 102 minutes long and I was thinking we could grab a coffee afterward, before peeling out onto our nation’s highways.
(Yes, Two-Lane Blacktop really does star James Taylor and Dennis Wilson—in their only film roles! No, they don’t sing, nor is any of their music used in the movie. Yes, they’re both incredible—though it’s Oates who really steals the show.)
… And here’s Chicago Reader contributor Ben Sachs’s Cine-File write-up:
From Kent Jones’ essay for the Criterion Collection’s DVD release, a superb piece of writing that’s worth quoting at length: ‘[The movie creates] a trancelike absorption in movement and ritual. Hellman’s film, like [Jacques Rivette’s] Paris Belongs to Us, is comprised of many of the in-between moments that most filmmakers would cut. In the process, a strange terrain of tenderness and disconnection inhabited by the four principal characters is mapped out: their shared remoteness is exactly what makes it safe for them to venture into one another’s company. This movie about a cross-country race between a car freak in a lovingly souped-up ’55 Chevy and a fantasist in a store-bought GTO moves at an even, gliding pace, and it’s all about stopping to gas up, eat, make some bread in local quarter-mile drag races, pick up hitchhikers, let the engine breathe, share a drink. The characters think they’re in a race, but they’re really players in a theater of life, the stage of which stretches from sea to shining sea.’ While Two-Lane Blacktop has been rightfully recognized as Monte Hellman’s masterpiece, it’s also worth noting the contribution of writer Rudolph Wurlitzer, himself a worthy successor to Beckett. Wurlitzer was recruited to rewrite the film on the success of his first two novels, Nog (1969) and Flats (1970). Those books are remarkable pieces of experimental fiction that feature characters who are constantly shifting their identities—a novelistic device that Wurlitzer adapts brilliantly to his film script. None of the characters have proper names, and Warren Oates’ GTO creates a new history for himself with every conversation he enters into. (As Jones puts it, “Oates is the smiling extrovert-dreamer, for whom everything becomes a part of the Playboy dream he’s spinning on his drive across the country… he puts the softness of the American character on display to devastating effect.”) These are narrative reflections of the wide, empty spaces that characterize Hellman’s mise-en-scene, and they combine to create a memorably eerie portrait of American ambition and folly. (1971, 102 min, 35mm widescreen)