This is a movie made by guys about guys. James Taylor and Dennis Wilson play two gearheads whose lives revolve around their car. We never get to know their names, and the credits just list them as The Driver and The Mechanic. Warren Oates is an amiable eccentric who picks up hitchhikers in his yellow GTO. The three meet on the road and bet their pink slips on a cross-country race. For the rest of the film we follow them as they travel down country highways, stopping at diners or garages, racing to make a few bucks when they need to.
It’s that simple. This movie discards all the conventions we expect from commercial films. It’s not played for suspense or for laughs. There’s no love story. We just follow these guys as they drive across the country. The lone woman in the film is a hitchhiker who joins the group early on. Played by Laurie Bird, the character is only identified as The Girl, and like the other three she seems to be drifting aimlessly.
Two-Lane Blacktop is a road movie in the purest sense of the word. Director Monte Hellman decided to shoot the movie on location and in sequence, and so the crew spent weeks travelling across the US, shooting on country back roads and in small towns. Though the film plays out against the backdrop of the vast American landscape, it’s actually very intimate. It’s a portrait of three guys, and in spite of their obvious differences, they’re all united in their obsessive urge to keep moving. Through car windows we see lush forests and grassy fields sliding past. We ride through endless, dusty plains, under blue skies filled with tiny cloud tufts trailing off to the horizon. The small towns that appear now and again seem to be nothing more than a few buildings gathered along a stretch of road. Hellman and cinematographer Jack Deerson give us a detailed panorama of rural America. They capture the cities and the towns and the forests and the hills, but just as important, they also capture the spaces in between.
The film also takes advantage of another kind of space, and that’s the “silence” between lines of dialogue. I put the word in quotes, because it’s not really silence that we’re hearing. Actually, we’re listening to the sounds that most movies push into the background. The clatter of dishes in a coffee shop. The murmur of conversation in a bar. The drizzle of rain falling in a tiny rural town.
The film seems to catch life as it’s happening. The performances are so natural and unforced that they appear to be improvised, though the director says he followed Rudy Wurlitzer’s script closely. According to Hellman, there are only two scenes that stray from what was written. The Driver and The Mechanic speak very little to each other, and when they do it’s almost all about cars. How the engine is running, how the car is handling, where they can make repairs. At the opposite end of the scale is GTO, who loves to hear the sound of his own voice. None of the three, though, says much about what they’re feeling. A crucial exception is the brief scene when GTO seems to open up and start talking about how his family is falling apart. The Driver quickly shuts him down. No need to hear about each others’ problems. There may be a world of pain inside each one of these guys, but it’s better not to talk about it. Just keep driving.
I went out of my way to see Two-Lane Blacktop at the Aero in Santa Monica. I had seen it once before years ago at the New Beverly, and wanted to watch it again on the big screen. Monte Hellman was there and after the screening he talked about the movie. It was interesting to hear his comments on the making of the film, and it was also interesting to hear him talk about this particular screening.
The credits list the authors of the screenplay as Will Corry and Rudy Wurlitzer. According to Hellman, he gave Corry’s original script to Wurlitzer, who said he couldn’t get through more than a few pages. Hellman says he then told Wurlitzer to go ahead and write what he wanted, and that all they used from Corry’s version is the concept of two guys in a car.
Hellman went on to say that the film bombed at the box office, which he blames on lack of support from Universal. Apparently Lew Wasserman, who ran the studio back then, saw the movie and hated it. So while Two-Lane Blacktop was shown at theatres nationwide, Universal did nothing to promote it. Aside from a rave review in Esquire, the critics were not enthusiastic. But over the years it has gained a sizable audience.
One of the audience members said he had last seen the film at a drive-in when it first came out. Hellman at first responded enthusiastically, and said that’s the way it should be seen, on a huge screen. But then he talked about the print we had just watched and said that the colors were not as rich as they had been in the original dye transfer prints. I was kind of stunned when he went on to say that these days he preferred to watch the film on Blu-ray, because the image was crisper and the sound was richer.
But I’m still glad I saw it on the big screen.
I think I was twelve years old when I saw 2001 at the Egyptian in Hollywood. It blew my mind. The movie took me from the dawn of man, to the depths of outer space and beyond the infinite. I’d never experienced anything like it.
That was when I started really paying attention to films. I’d already spent a lot of time in movie theatres, but nothing had ever had that kind of impact on me. By the time I was in my teens I was heading out to see films with my friends as often as I could. This was the seventies. Not only was it a great time for movies, it was also a great time for movie theatres. Aside from the Egyptian, in Hollywood alone you had the Chinese, the Paramount, the Pacific and the Pantages. In Century City there was the Plitt, and out in Westwood you had several more. The screens were bigger than ever, and innovations in recording and playback were making sound better than ever.
These days I spend a lot of time watching DVDs. I still go to movies, but the convenience of DVDs is hard to resist. You can watch a film any time you want, pause it as often as you want, and if you want to look at something again you just play it over. You also have a huge selection to choose from, whether you’re buying or renting, and some day you may have just as much to choose from via download. We’ve gained a lot in terms of convenience and accessibility.
But we’ve also lost something. In fact, we’ve lost quite a lot….
When we’re watching a movie in a theatre, it has our complete attention. We’re sitting in a darkened auditorium facing the screen. Ideally, there are no distractions. At home we’re well aware of our surroundings and there are endless distractions. The phone may ring, somebody may walk into the room, or we may decide to just take a break and raid the fridge. We may or may not be focussed on the film, and we’re entirely in control. We can start and stop any time we like.
More important, we’re not experiencing the film the way we would in a theatre. With some exceptions, watching a film in a theatre is very different from watching it on TV, even if your TV is huge and your sound system is killer. At least until recently, most films were made to be seen on a big screen. Watching 2001 all those years ago, I felt like I was inside the movie. The Searchers is an epic where the landscape plays a major part, and that can only be really felt watching it in a theatre. Even with older films shot in standard format, scale is still important. Stars like Bette Davis and James Cagney were larger than life. Their personalities were powerful enough to fill the big screen. A few more examples….
Part of the beauty of watching Sunrise is being pulled into the swirling expressionist poetry created by Murnau and his collaborators. The film was designed to dazzle the viewer’s senses, to make you feel what the characters are feeling, to make you experience the world through their eyes. This effect can only be diminished by watching it on a small screen.
I’ll never forget seeing Bladerunner in Pasadena at the Hastings when it first came out. The film’s vision of twenty-first century Los Angeles was breathtaking, frightening, overwhelming. Skyscrapers towered above me, the city stretched to the horizon, and neon flickered through the haze. Ridley Scott, Jordan Cronenweth and dozens of others knocked themselves out to create those dense, detailed images. Even if you watch it on the largest home screen, you’re getting about eight percent of what you would on the smallest movie screen.
P.T. Anderson has gotten a lot of praise for the way The Master looks, but the sound is just as impressive. Footsteps echoing in department stores. Conversations mingling at a posh dinner party. The buzzing of a motorcycle as it cuts through the desert air. Hearing the movie in a theatre, the sound creates space vividly, and much of that will be lost viewing it on your iPad.
I’m not arguing that we should give up our TVs, or toss our DVDs and Blu-rays in the trash. What I’m saying is that people who love cinema should not get lazy about seeing movies in theatres. When you watch a film on a small screen you can still enjoy it, you can still be moved by it. But when you watch a film on a big screen in a dark theatre, you can really surrender to it. You let go, and allow it to take you somewhere else. That’s what it means to really experience a movie.