Movie Project #15: Two-Lane Blacktop [1971]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Two-Lane Blacktop [1971]

Two-Lane Blacktop [1971]
Director: Monte Hellman
Screenplay: Rudy Wurlitzer and Will Corry
Country: USA
Genre: Drama
Starring: James Taylor, Dennis Wilson, Warren Oates, Laurie Bird
Running Time: 102 minutes

Reason for inclusion: Vanishing Point was one of my favorite selections from last year’s project, and many readers recommended I check out Two-Lane Blacktop as well.

Accolades: Inducted into the National Film Registry in 2012, part of the Criterion Collection

“What are you trying to do, blow my mind?”

There is something to be said about a man and his car. In Monte Hellman’s cult road movie, Two-Lane Blacktop, there isn’t a whole lot that *is* said. Instead, it’s the cars that do most of the talking.

With a cast comprised mostly of non-actors — Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, singer-songwriter James Taylor and young photographer Laurie Bird — alongside the rugged character actor, Warren Oates, much of the focus is placed on two cars.

Taylor and Wilson, known only as “The Driver” and “The Mechanic” respectively, are a couple of drifters who live on the road in their souped-up 1955 Chevy One-Fifty. While stopped at a diner in Flagstaff, Arizona, a young hitchhiker (Bird) known only as “The Girl” hops into the back of their car. No questions are asked — she seems just as aimless as the two of them and wants to go for a ride.

And so they ride.

Two-Lane Blacktop [1971]

It’s in New Mexico where they meet another driver, “GTO” (Oates), who is a cocksure fella that is mighty proud of his 1970 Pontiac GTO. Nevermind the fact that he doesn’t seem to know too awfully much about his car, at least not anything that isn’t found in the manual. He loves to race, and the idea is quickly brought up to challenge the One-Fifty.

The stakes? Their cars. First one to Washington, D.C. gets both pink slips.

This sounds like the perfect setup for a balls-to-the-wall racing flick, but Two-Lane Blacktop is anything but. This is a minimalist film with sparse dialogue, and so much of it is open to interpretation. Not much actually happens in the film — the race is pretty much scrapped from the get-go — yet so much can be taken from it. This is the type of film that shows you the bare minimum and lets you interpret it as you see fit.

Two-Lane Blacktop [1971]

I appreciate this abstract form, but the film left me wanting more. How did GTO, who is clearly going through a midlife crisis, get to this point in his life? Why are The Driver and The Mechanic drifting along so aimlessly? And why in the hell is The Girl staying with them?

There are little things in the film that everyone can appreciate, however. The cars sound LOUD — in a nice touch, it’s often difficult to hear the characters talk over the engines. There are also some beautiful shots of the Route 66 countryside. And although Taylor and Wilson are devoid of personality in this film, Warren Oates delivers a wildly entertaining character. As I dig into the classics, he is quickly becoming a favorite actor of mine.

Two-Lane Blacktop is a divisive film. There are those that absolutely love it (hence the cult following), whereas others find it dull and boring. I’m somewhere in the middle. At the very least, it is an interesting relic of its time.

7/10

Movie Project #24: The Last Picture Show [1971]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

The Last Picture Show [1971]

The Last Picture Show [1971]
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Genre: Drama
Starring: Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Ben Johnson, Cloris Leachman and Ellen Burstyn
Runtime: 118 minutes

“Nothing much has changed…”

I grew up in a small town, one with a population of roughly 200 people. I could not leave it fast enough. It seemed like so many people there were stuck in a rut. They lived their lives, worked menial jobs, then proceeded to have kids who in turn fell into the same endless cycle. While not always the case, many of them rarely left their seemingly comfortable surroundings. That wasn’t me. I had to get out, and that’s how I ended up in Chicago, the polar opposite of my hometown.

The Last Picture Show takes place in the 1950s in a small town in West Texas. Its denizens are people exactly like those I knew grewing up.

There’s Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms), a high school senior who is dating a slightly overweight girl whom he is not in love with. Ambivalent about the prospects of life after school, he drifts aimlessly. His best friend is Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges), a good-looking and popular fellow senior who is more interested in girls than thinking about the future. He is in a relationship with Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd), a sex-crazed girl who comes from a rich family.

The Last Picture Show [1971]

On the adult side of things, there is Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), the depressed housewife of the local football coach. There’s a man known best as Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson), the owner of the town’s cafe, movie theater and pool hall — basically the only sources of entertainment in the area — who acts as a sort of father figure to the two seniors. We are also introduced to Jacy’s mother, Lois Farrow (Ellen Burstyn), who is struggling as a single parent.

For 118 minutes, we are immersed in the world of this small dying town in Texas. Part character study, part coming of age, all hopelessly stagnant.

When I say “immersed” in this town, I am not overstating this at all. Director Peter Bogdanovich *nailed* the movie’s setting. The bleak, dusty, wind-torn town is captured in all its decaying glory, beat-up pickup trucks and all. The movie was wisely filmed in black-and-white (thanks to a suggestion from Orson Welles), making it feel like we are watching something plucked right from the 50s. Seriously, I felt like I was there.

What doesn’t feel like a 50s film is the gratuitous sex featured on screen, complete with a generous amount of nudity. With raging hormones and little else to do in town, it’s easy to see why its members rely on promiscuity to pass the time. It’s not just the high school kids who are hooking up — it’s the adults, too, including some who are breaking the bounds of marriage.

The Last Picture Show [1971]

It’s impossible to look back at The Last Picture Show forty years later and not be amazed at its cast. Many would go on to long and prosperous careers, including the very young Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd. Miss Shepherd, in particular, is absolutely stunning — it’s easy to see why every guy in town is in love with her. Ben Johnson, as the aging cowboy Sam the Lion, won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Cloris Leachman, absolutely fantastic in her role as the despondent housewife, won Best Supporting Actress. The only major star who didn’t make it as big as the rest is Timothy Bottoms, which is a shame because he is one of the true highlights in this film.

The Last Picture Show also received six other Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Cinematography.

When people discuss the greatest films of the 1970s, I rarely hear The Last Picture Show mentioned near the top. The film certainly has a high amount of critical acclaim, but it seems to get overlooked amongst the Godfathers and Taxi Drivers of the world. That’s a shame, because this is a fantastic effort all-around, and it is one that perfectly encapsulates the setting it takes place in. Some may find this to be too melancholy and others may struggle with its characters, but to me, this reminds me of home, for better or for worse.

9/10

Movie Project #1: Vanishing Point [1971]

Due to the overwhelming success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a second round for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

Vanishing Point [1971]

Vanishing Point [1971]
Director: Richard C. Sarafian
Genre: Action/Drama
Starring: Barry Newman, Cleavon Little and Dean Jagger
Runtime: 106 minutes

I miss owning a car.

Vanishing Point has re-emphasized that point for me, and I really want to hit the open road again.

There’s something to be said about just driving through open terrain for long stretches at a time, especially when you are behind the wheel of a souped-up car. That’s the case for Kowalski (Newman) and his white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T. He has accepted an assignment that requires him to deliver the Challenger to San Francisco from Denver in one weekend. That’s not enough for Kowalski, however, and he takes a bet to get the car there in 15 hours or less (an especially difficult task for that time period).

Why the hell not? The dude can drive.

Vanishing Point [1971]

Hopped up on speed pills, Kowalski effortlessly weaves in and out of traffic, carefully dodging construction areas and evading the police. Those in the way have less than desirable results, often leading to spectacular crashes. It’s exhilarating just to watch the professional at work.

We don’t learn much about Kowalski, and he really doesn’t have much to say. A few brief flashbacks show that he is a Vietnam War veteran, a former race car driver and former police officer, but they don’t provide an extensive amount of depth. This isn’t a big deal because it’s easy to empathize with the man who is just looking to finish his job.

Vanishing Point [1971]

Despite spending most of his time driving, Kowalski manages to meet/connect with a few people along the way. Most important is Super Soul (Little), a blind radio DJ who hears of Kowalski’s high speed chase and encourages him to keep going. As any driving aficionado understands, good music is essential to enjoying the journey. Super Soul is enigmatic and delivers the audio goods on his end, with a soundtrack that has cuts from Bobby Doyle, Delaney & Bonnie and Mountain, to name a few.

It’s easy to see why Vanishing Point is considered a cult classic today. There’s the breathtaking cinematography that proudly shows off the American Southwest. There’s the white-knuckle racing and the relentless chases. There’s a killer and diverse soundtrack. Consider me the latest fan to the ever-growing Vanishing Point collective. This is a damn fun movie, and I couldn’t have asked for a better way to kick off my project.

9/10

Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas [1971]

Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas
Author: Hunter S. Thompson
Original Release: November 1971

“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”

This is quite possibly my favorite opening sentence from a novel, and it sets the tone for the drug-addled adventure that is Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas. The story is an exaggerated account of Hunter S. Thompson’s pursuit of the American Dream in Las Vegas. Accompanied by “Dr. Gonzo,” his faithful attorney, Thompson (as Raoul Duke) is initially sent out to Vegas to report on the off road race known as the Mint 400. However, this work is quickly scrapped in favor of just getting blitzed and then becoming involved in random bizarre adventures.

Fear and Loathing is absolutely hilarious, and is certainly one of the funniest books I have ever read. Duke and his attorney find themselves in some very precarious situations. On their ride into Vegas in the “Great Red Shark” (their rented red Chevy convertible), they pick up a hitchhiker who quickly becomes scared shitless by their drug-induced craze. In Vegas, Dr. Gonzo brings a Jesus and Barbara Streisand loving innocent young girl back to their hotel room, where he proceeds to give her acid (when she had never even gotten high before). There is also an extremely amusing encounter with a hotel maid who stumbles into their room when both Duke and his attorney are stark naked. The dialogue is just incredible here, and Thompson’s unique way of writing makes everything even more entertaining.

As mentioned earlier, there is a lot of drug use in this book. The characters are frequently in a state of paranoia because of this, and often see some ridiculous hallucinations (which are brought to life by Ralph Steadman’s amazing illustrations). Just read their drug haul that they brought with them to Vegas:

“We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.

Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.”

If you think that sounds insane, well, you are absolutely right! Some people are turned off from this book because of the drug binges, but if you do so you are missing out on a wildly entertaining and witty novel that also indulges in biting satire. I have lent my copy of this book out to many friends and family members, all of whom have also loved this. Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas is one of my favorite books of all time, a rare novel that I can read over and over again without losing interest. If you are able, pick up the Modern Library version of the book, which also comes with two of Thompson’s short stories. I cannot recommend this book enough!

10/10