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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