A Book Review by Tanja Bresan.
Townsend successfully rips out the sentimentally and nostalgia of the counterculture era in which the film is set, serving cold facts…. reading the events [with] a sobering effect.”
Sylvia Townsend’s production history Bumpy Road: The Making, Flop and Revival of Two-Lane Blacktop (Mississippi, 2019) chronologically explores the film’s development from concept through elaboration, distribution, reissue, and its subsequent revival. Her interlocutors were the people directly involved in the development of the film, from studio heads to car mechanics. Also involved were the ever-growing loyal fans and champions of the film. There is very little sentimentality or intellectualization in the book. Townsend has written an accurate, extensively researched, but rather dry account, describing the origins and processes by which the film came about. The author views the film as a collaborative product, rather than solely an auteur work. Though all accounts indicate the collaborative nature, Monte Hellman’s vision of the film, his use of landscapes, space, and time, and the overall poetry is what clearly stands out. Hellman was both the film’s director and its editor, and his control and vision were exacting and authentically applied from start to finish.
Hellman liked the idea of the cross-country race, but he did not like the original script written by Will Corry, given to him by the young producer Michael Laughlin. One of the first choices for the director was screenwriter Floyd Mutrux who, together with Laughlin, loved the original version:
The final screenwriter, Rudy (Wurlitzer) wrote a really good script. So did Will Corry. Nobody gives Will Corry credit. But the framework and some of the most celebrated features of the film originated in Cory’s script, including the title, the promise of street-racer protagonist pitted against a rich guy, the west to east route, the generic names for characters, their failure to finish race, the ’55 Chevy ( the quintessential hot rod at the time) and pitting it against a GTO, the first factory hot rod.” (9)
Alterations were done by the experimental novelist Wurlitzer (screenwriter of Alex Cox’s Walker, 1987) and with both director and new screenwriter sharing common ground, sensibilities and casual interest in car races, a quintessential road movie, unusual and aloof for the subject in question, was planned out. Two-Lane Blacktop is more of a prototypical Western film, where the world of the Driver (James Taylor) and Mechanic (Dennis Wilson) is suddenly interrupted by a young and spirited Girl (Laurie Bird). Dialogue serves an economical purpose opposed to an intellectual one. Nothing is explained or contextualized. The notable exception is the character of G.T.O., played by Warren Oates, who is the only one who seems to be in need of communicating. That he’s a compulsive liar and braggart on the verge of a possible nervous breakdown is of no interest to the Driver and the Mechanic.
The book chronicles the casting procedures, alterations of the original script, and pre- and post-production endeavors that engage the reader in how the three Chevys came to be and the relationship the crew members and mechanics had with the filmmakers and actors on set. Richard Ruth is the name behind the cars, an Angeleno street racer and car builder who constructed the three 1955 Chevys and patterned them on his own ’55 Chevy street racer (he also is an actor in the first gas station scene, wearing a Glendale Speed Equipment t-shirt): “Ruth was the polar opposite of the high-priced, low-quality Hollywood car customizers: He didn’t know that movie cars didn’t have to be realistic” (22). Like Hellman, Ruth opted for authenticity first, artifice last. Naturally, they clashed. He found himself among a crowd that didn’t know much about hot rods and street racing, and given free rein, he boasts: “I made the car of my dreams on the studio’s money” (22).
Townsend gets to the bottom of some of the gear-head talk in case one has been wondering about all the jargon. As it might be expected there is a meaning in the details of the dialogue. Cinematographer Gregory Sandor was another outsider to the crew: having not been part of the union, he was credited only as “visual consultant,” a common dodge at the time. Budget and aesthetic considerations led them to shoot in a half-frame 35mm format pioneered in Italy known as Techniscope. This format fully established the movie as an independent effort that gave credence to what European film makers were doing to make productions both grand and inexpensive at the same time.
After filming was over, the original production outfit Cinema Centre Films backed out, and Universal’s Ned Tanen and Daniel Selznick came to the pictures supposed rescue. This was far from beneficial. Tanen was adamant regarding the studio’s interference and was in favour of the first cut, while Selznick wanted a more conventional ending. Lew Wasserman hated the film and went to incredible lengths to prove his point, sabotaging his own studio project and making sure that no director in the future would get the final cut it deserved.
Hellman’s direction gave the film a documentary style and unembellished mise-en-scène. There’s no overt sentimentality, only the possibility to stay in the reality of the present moment. No glory is to be seen in the lives of the Driver and Mechanic, the modern version of cowboys, with cars instead of horses. The competitiveness is fleeting and drained of satisfaction and adrenalin of a usual car race. (1)
Townsend delivers a range of meticulous details on the actual work being done, as opposed to giving a specific critical assessment. (Her research efforts, however, are ambivalent to the sociological, philosophical and political aspects in the film.) This approach makes up for an extensive telling and retellings of the events that took place before and after the film had been finished. Such accounts tend to feel bleak and repetitive, and dare I say, even boring at times. Townsend successfully rips out the sentimentally and nostalgia of the counterculture era in which the film is set, serving cold facts. This reading of the events has a sobering effect on how much probability played a role in making of the film, the repercussions of the financial costs of the studios involved, the psychology of the (New) Hollywood and studio system, and the contractual obligations put in relations to the directors vision. The reader may feel drained and discouraged, but if a dedicated fan, one will also feel enormous gratitude for all the work put in and the people involved in the making of the film for having persisted in their beliefs.
On the whole, mainstream audiences and, historically proven, most of the studio executives have not considered reexamining film genres with great openness. For a car-race road movie, Two-Lane offered no permanent satisfaction. There was no specific point of view, no guidance in what to feel about the characters. Eventually, there was no triumph or reward. There was no end to the race and subsequently no defined end for the characters. According to Kent Jones, Two-Lane is the least romantic road movie imaginable. However, there is no denying of some form of love manifested in the film, a prospect of a second chance for a rediscovery and a new start. (2)
- “Two-Lane is not political so much as sociological and philosophical. The characters don’t use drugs, aren’t violent, aren’t blown away at the end. They are not making a statement – they’re just not interested.” (Stevens, Brad , Monte Hellman: His Life and Films, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 81)
- “I was interested in what has happened to love, for one thing. What contemporary attitudes towards love are as opposed to traditional attitudes, and how much romance is left in a non romantic world.” (Monte Hellman interviewed by Beverly Walker , Sight and Sound, Winter 1970/71)
Tanja Bresan holds a masters degree in art and cultural studies from the University of Arts, Belgrade. Her writing on film had appeared in several online journals including Berlin Film Journal and IndieKino Berlin.