A cult classic road movie from the 70s.

Two-Lane Blacktop.

Two-Lane Blacktop is exactly the sort of film everyone expected there to be hundreds of after the global success that Easy Rider enjoyed in 1969.

Easy Rider starred and was written by Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, together with Terry Southern, who’d previously worked on the script for Dr. Strangelove and was credited by Tom Wolfe as having pioneered New Journalism. It cost just $400,000, but went on to gross over 60 million dollars. 

Both a commercial and a critical sensation, it ushered in the New Hollywood era that blossomed throughout the 70s with the likes of Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Martin Scorsese, Francis (ex of Ford) Coppola and Paul Schrader.

Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider.

Surprisingly, Easy Rider has aged remarkably well and is definitely worth a look if you haven’t already seen it. As is this, its spiritual sequel.

Two-Lane Blacktop, the blacktop being the open road on which our latter day cowboys face up to one another on, came out in 1971 and was directed by Monte Hellman

A driver and a mechanic prowl the open road looking for likeminded loaners to race, living off of the proceeds. Inevitably, they pick up a girl looking for a, ahem, ride, and what plot there is revolves around their pursuit of her, and their confrontation with the older outrider they square off against on their respective steel steeds.

But neither the film nor its principle characters seem terribly interested in pursuing their objects of desire. Instead, it’s the spirit of Antonioni that reigns supreme. His regal Zabriskie Pointe (reviewed by me earlier here) had come out the previous year, and, as there, the predominant mood is one of existential ennui. 

Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point.

This is further accentuated by the casting. The two male leads are played by James Taylor and Dennis Wilson. The former went on to establish himself as the archetypal 70s singer songwriter, while Wilson was the least naturally gifted of the three Beach Boy brothers, musically speaking. And was so insanely young when the whole Beach Boys thing happened – he was 23 when Pet Sounds came out at the endof their heyday – that inevitably, he spent most of his thirties in a drug-addled haze, before drowning tragically at just 39.

Harry Dean Stanton, in a brief cameo in Two-Lane Blacktop.

So instead of the sort of performances with a capital P that you would have expected from a Dennis Hopper or a Jack Nicholson, they amble they way through the film in exactly the right state of disinterest, not so much by design as by default. Pleasingly, you suspect that their casting was similarly happenstance. They just happened to be there when that particular joint got passed around.

It doesn’t quite give the heady hit that Easy Rider produces. But it is a curio well worth investigating and is a pleasing antidote to all that green screen nonsense. 

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Antonioni’s “Zabriskie Point” at the cinema.

Zabriskie Point

Zabriskie Point

After the 1966 film Blow Up became a surprise box office hit, and especially after the commercial and critical success of Easy Rider in 1969, Hollywood was desperate to grab ahold of the zeitgeist and jump on board. And so Italian film maker Michelangelo Antonioni was invited by MGM to go over to America and make a movie for them. This is what he presented them with.

Blow Up.

Blow Up.

Traditionally, Zabriskie Point (’70) is seen as the second and by far the weakest of Antonioni’s English language trilogy. An unfortunate and uncomfortable trip to America in between the twin masterpieces of Blow Up in ’66 and The Passenger in ’75. That’s certainly how I would have regarded it before seeing it again in the cinema this week. And that I think is the key, you really do have to see this film in the cinema. It’s a revelation.

Whatever about the critical pasting that it got at the time, it’s not hard to see why it bombed at the box office. It’s exactly the kind of fractured, anti-narrative portrait of counter-cultural disgust for conventional bourgeois capitalism that you’d expect from the darling of the European avant garde. In other words, it’s exactly the kind of film Hollywood would have claimed it was looking for. As ever, be careful what you wish for.

Monica Vitti and Alain Delon in L'eclisse.

Monica Vitti and Alain Delon in L’eclisse.

The reason that it makes for such remarkable viewing today is not because it offers up such a fascinating snap shot of Los Angeles as the idealism of the 60s became subsumed by the nihilism of the 70s. Although it is definitely that. Rather, it’s the combination of Antonioni’s exceptionally measured and carefully constructed compositions in a film that invites contemplation at the expense of a conventional story.

Many, indeed most of the shots are long lens, but in close up. So, say, a man sitting at a desk will lean forward, thereby going out of frame, before coming back into frame as he changes position in the chair once again. What results is a hyper awareness of the frame and of the very tactile nature of film, as in celluloid. You can feel the texture of the images as they unfold before you. And the experimental soundtrack, both the use of sounds, and the music of Pink Floyd, the Stones and Roy Orbison accentuate and compliment the images as they reveal themselves.

Daria Halprin in Zabriskie Point

Daria Halprin in Zabriskie Point

The Monica Vitti trilogy of L’Avventura (’60), La Notte (’61) and L’Eclisse (’62), together with the other two films from the English language trilogy, Blow Up and The Passenger, are conventionally understood as Antonioni’s masterpieces. Zabriskie Point can now also be included in that august list. It confirms Antonioni as one of the two most important film makers to have ever worked in the medium. The other of course was Bergman. And they both died on exactly the same day in 2007, on July 30th. But, and I hate having to say this, you really do have to see it in the cinema.

You can see MGM’s trailer for Zabriskie Point here. Groovy.

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