The road goes on forever

While stopped at a Route 66 gas station, Warren Oates, Laurie Bird, James Taylor and Dennis Wilson discuss racing to Washington, D.C.

(Originally published Nov. 10, 2008)

I first saw “Two-Lane Blacktop” during high school in its initial release back in 1971. I saw it at a drive-in theater — probably the Lakeshore Drive-In in Edgewater, Colorado, although it could have been at the Wadsworth or West. (My parents always felt the Lakeshore attracted too many hoods, so we were discouraged from going there.)

Even with the threat of hoodlums aside, this road film made a big impression on me then. The plot of “Two-Lane Blacktop” is simple: Two cars race across the American heartland and, ultimately, we see that its characters are going absolutely nowhere. If anything, I guess this movie forces viewers to fill in the blanks.

Filling in those blanks proved easy for me. Our family moved several times during my adolescence and I was intimately familiar with highways and horizons. Once, in a grand but ultimately disastrous adventure, my dad moved us cross-country from Colorado to California, then to Alaska, and then back to Colorado. And we drove all the way. The Alaska Highway has been burned into my brain, along with memories of crossing Utah, Nevada and the vast northern expanses of the Yukon Territory — when gasoline was sold in imperial gallons and we picked up a hitchhiker who, we later found out, was an escaped murderer being pursued by the RCMP.

Maybe this why when I headed out on my own and moved to Wyoming and, later, Arizona, I found myself looking forward to the long, lonely drives. In an odd way, I find myself enjoying the start of the trip and the midpoint more than the arrival. In fact, the arrival usually is a let-down. “Two-Lane Blacktop” has no let-down; its characters never reach their destinations and are still traveling when the movie ends.

Director Monte Hellman hadn’t made a movie like much of the others out there at the time. I had managed to sneak into R-rated “Dirty Harry” at the Paramount Theater in downtown Denver and really appreciated what I perceived to be its sophisticated storytelling techniques. However, that Don Siegel film seemed hopelessly mainstream compared to “Two-Lane Blacktop,” which frequently has been described as nothing less than existential.

I missed out on Anchor Bay’s limited release of the film about 10 years ago, so the next time I saw “Two-Lane Blacktop” was last year, when it was available for something like six months as part of Comcast’s free on-demand movie service. Although I must have watched it a dozen times and enjoyed it, there was still something missing, mostly because this anamorphic widescreen movie had been converted to the dreaded “full screen” pan-and-scan format.

Thankfully, the film is now available in its original format on a new Criterion Collection release. Take a look at the frame grab I’ve placed here. It shows Warren Oates, Laurie Bird, James Taylor and Dennis Wilson at a small-town gas station where the decision is made to race all the way to Washington, D.C., for pink slips. Just imagine cropping that image to 1.8 times its width; Hellman’s thoughtful widescreen composition demands letterboxing at its native 2.39:1 ratio.

The supplemental material on Criterion’s two-disc set provides additional insight into the making of “Two-Lane Blacktop” and its creators’ mindset. In one segment, Hellman’s daughter drives the director and several of his film students from Los Angeles out to one of the remote, high-desert locations used in the film. In another, Hellman interviews James Taylor, who has apparently never watched the film he starred in almost 38 years ago.

There’s no musical soundtrack to “Two-Lane Blacktop” in the usual sense; music in the movie is heard in the background from radios. That’s why the best interview by far is with Kris Kristofferson, whose “Me and Bobby McGee” sets the tone for the film. Kristofferson’s original version of his song plays in the background as James Taylor challenges Warren Oates to the cross-country race. The result is a haunting, almost melancholy yearning for the open road.

Interestingly enough, when I bought this Criterion version from Amazon, I was prompted to buy it as a package deal with “Vanishing Point” and “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry,” two other car chase films of the 1970s. Both are entertaining, but fall far short of reaching the classic level of “Two-Lane Blacktop.”

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