Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Easy Rider Lite

Film: Two-Lane Blacktop
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on big ol’ television.

For whatever reason, the acting business and the music business are tightly connected. I mean, I understand precisely why in terms of using music in movies, especially as more and more directors follow the lead that Tarantino popularized in using found music. What I mean here is that it seems like every actor is a wannabee singer and everyone who sings would really like to act. Case in point? Two of the stars of Two-Lane Blacktop had never acted before and never did again, but both of them cut plenty of records.

Having watched this film, it occurs to me that there are two distinct possibilities. It’s entirely possible that The List contains a vast number of essentially plotless films because someone really likes them. It’s also entirely possible that there aren’t a ton of them, but I have merely selected a few of them in relatively rapid succession purely by chance. Two-Lane Blacktop is basically plotless. The characters drive, often in silence, and that’s pretty much it. They don’t even have names.

The Driver (James Taylor) pilots around a home-bulit ’55 Chevy assisted by The Mechanic (Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys). The two look for other people who like fast cars and they race them, using the money they win to move on to the next town and the next race and making modifications to their vehicle. They have no real goal in mind and no plans other than finding new places and new people to race.

Things change, but not much, when The Girl (Laurie Bird) climbs into their backseat one day and goes along with them. Like The Driver and The Mechanic, she appears to have no real direction in where she is going, but simply comes along for the ride. Neither of the guys question her presence or where she came from, but immediately accept her presence in the car and in their lives.

Driving aimlessly around the same general area is an older gent in a GTO (Warren Oates) who decides that the ’55 Chevy is following him. He challenges The Driver to a cross-country race to Washington D.C. for pink slips—winner takes both cars. And they drive, sometimes try to cause problems for the other car, and more often than not end up in the same place at the same time. GTO picks up potential back-up drivers and generally just as soon ditches them while The Girl tries to decide which car she really wants to be in. And that’s really it.

For something that really has no plot, there’s a lot going on in this film below the surface. It deals in many ways with the same ideas that Easy Rider did a couple of years earlier, but with far less direction and optimism. At one point, GTO says to The Driver that he (Driver) needs to find something more in life than just driving around looking for new people to race. Then again, it appears that GTO hasn’t found much for himself, either. He tells a different story about who he is and what he’s doing to every hitchhiker he picks up, and it’s impossible to tell if he’s a former television producer or former test pilot or current location scout, or none of the above. And it really doesn’t matter. To get at the meat of this, though, it’s necessary to discuss the ending, and that means a spoiler:

*** BLOW IT OUT, GTO ***

Eventually, while our four primary characters are sitting in yet another nameless diner in yet another nameless backwater town, GTO and The Driver confront each other over The Girl. GTO wants her to go with him to Canada, or Chicago, or Florida, or New York. The Driver wants to go buy parts in Ohio. She decides…on neither of them. She gets up and hops onto the back of the motorcycle of the guy who just left the diner. As they pull away, she drops her bag and leaves it, completely letting go not only of the trio she has ridden most of the way across the country with, but her entire past.

With the girl gone, there appears to be no sense of purpose left. In reality, it seems that no one was really racing for pinks in the first place, but were racing for the rights to The Girl, who opted out of the competition completely, evidently deciding that she’s not a prize to be won. GTO picks up a few more hitchhikers and heads off, spinning yet another story of where his car came from while The Driver and The Mechanic to back to looking for suckers to beat in drag races to fund their continued wanderings.

It’s the final shot here that really sticks with me. As The Driver floors it, the sound drops out, and eventually the shot freezes and the film begins to burn, slowly burning out the image of this guy in his constant, unending, meaningless quest to go faster than someone else. Nothing has changed and he’ll keep racing until he can’t race any longer.


There is a mood to this film I find hard to describe or explain, a sense of unexpressed desire for meaning that truly doesn’t exist. The Driver, GTO, and to some extent The Mechanic are all looking for something. They don’t know what they’re looking for, and they probably won’t know if they find it until much later. But it’s never where they are, and so they drive off in search of it. There’s a sense of empty accomplishment with each race. It’s not a hurdle to overcome or a challenge to meet, but merely something there.

And so there it is—an endless chasing after nothing. It seems strange to sum up a movie with such a short statement. It seems stranger to say that said film is excellent, engaging, and worth watching multiple times. But it is.

Why to watch Two-Lane Blacktop: Kick-ass cars.
Why not to watch: A whole new definition of “taciturn.”


  1. I think your assessment of this being an endless chase after nothing is pretty accurate. If I had to choose a movie from this sub-genre (70's car movies leading nowhere)for the book I'd go with Vanishing Point instead.

  2. I thought the same thing watching it, but then you and I don't have any say in what goes on The List.

    Maybe we should band together and make our own version--sort of a "regular film watcher's 1001."

  3. I do list some on my blog (maybe 10%) that aren't on the 1001 list. I figure if the book can list "Pretty Woman," I can list "Hamlet" or even "Plan 9 From Outer Space" if I feel like it.

    Another entry in the 70's road series, which I fist saw when I was 11 or 12 was the Peter Fonda/Susan George film, "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry." I watched it again a couple of years ago and it doesn't really hold up that well as one might expect.

  4. Before I started and at the end of last year, I mentioned a few films I think should be added. I figure I'll do the same thing again this year. Call it a personal 1% of the list.

    Presumably you're talking about the Olivier Hamlet and not the one that appeared on MST3K.

    1. I missed that. Which Hamlet was on MST3K? I'm guessing the one with Nicol Williamson and Marianne Faithful. I liked it OK, but it's weird, so weird, and I can see how MST3K could have a field day with it.

    2. It was the German made-for-televsion version from the 1960s starring Maximillian Schell. It's pretty dreadful.