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Friday, Jan. 20, 2012
'Road to Nowhere' / 'Two-Lane Blacktop'
After a 21-year break, can Hellman top his own masterpiece?
Every film buff knows the Terence Malick story by now: a visionary director who made a couple of landmark films in the 1970s, then disappeared for two decades before staging a late-life comeback, which culminated with "The Tree of Life" winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes last year. Fewer know the story of director Monte Hellman: a visionary director who made one stone-cold classic road movie in 1971, "Two-Lane Blacktop," then gradually faded into obscurity, his gem out of circulation — never released on video, and only on DVD some 30 years later — and his career a question mark of unfulfilled promise.
The comparison ends there, though: While both directors had an eye for taking genre material — such as a war movie or a road movie — and turning it inside out, Malick moved increasingly toward the mythic and spiritual while Hellman remained focused on real, grungy-looking people and the space between them.
Hellman came back in 2010 at age 77, after an absence of 21 years, with his new film, "Road to Nowhere," finally released in Japan this week — and like "The Tree of Life," it's a mixed bag.
The film's plot concerns a director (Tygh Runyan) who casts an unknown actress (Shannyn Sossamon) in a film he's making about a North Carolina political scandal that culminated in a double-suicide. Troubles arise when his film's story starts to intersect with the real-life agendas of those involved in the scandal. The film within a film aspect, along with an emerging doppelganger theme and a multitude of perspectives, resembles nothing so much as a more comprehensible version of David Lynch's "Inland Empire," minus the rabbit-people.
Another connection with that film is a new approach to filming: "Road to Nowhere" was shot in its entirety on a Canon digital still camera with video capability and flash-card memory; Hellman has pointed out that its 12-minute memory capacity is longer than the 10-minute limitation of a 35 mm reel of film. It looks far superior to the murk of Lynch's video experiments, and certainly points a new way forward for low-budget filmmakers.
While ostensibly crafting a film noir, Hellman riffs freely on other aspects as well, including the movie-making process and how the obsession with a "muse" can inspire or ruin a director. And possibly the muse as well. Hellman himself has some demons to exorcise here: He cast unknown Laurie Bird in "Two-Lane Blacktop" and soon became romantically involved with her; she would later jump out of a window to her death (after breaking up with Hellman and moving in with singer Art Garfunkel) at age 25.
While "Road to Nowhere" has plenty going for it — including Sossamon, a striking beauty who displays more talent than her B-movie resume would suggest — two things hold it back: The plot is nearly impossible to follow on first viewing, and there's a singularly off-putting performance by Runyan, who's best known for "Snakes on a Plane." If the goal was to have him portray a pretentious, insufferable A-hole, then he succeeded, but I'm not sure that was the intent.
The upside of Hellman's return is that "Two-Lane Blacktop" is now being revived with a pristine new print. The '70s is a decade teeming with lost classics, but this is arguably the best; Hellman's tale of car-bound drifters drag-racing across small-town America was a cross between the cool minimalism of Michelangelo Antonioni and that most American of art forms, the road movie. Hellman's poetic take on the banal — jukeboxes and bleary-eyed coffee in highway pit-stop diners, the smell of burned rubber on tarmac amidst the nowhere flatness of the southwest — was almost beatnik.
Yet where the Beats were obsessed with words, Hellman sought a Zen-like silence for his leads. The most loquacious character, GTO (Warren Oates), is notable for talking nothing but bull, an empty flow of words to ward off the void. The leads, however, are singer-songwriter James Taylor and Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, who exhibit a laconic cool and aimlessness that anticipated Jim Jarmusch's vibe by over a decade. This is pre-"How Sweet it is" Taylor, back when he was a lean, smouldering-eyed junkie, and Wilson matches him in monosyllabic, slouching cool.
"Two-Lane Blacktop" is about these two men — The Driver and The Mechanic — and their focus on grifting hotheaded townies in drag races, making just enough on wagers to move from one town to the next. Their mute, highway-hypnotic bond is strained by two outsiders: The Girl (Bird), a talkative Lolita-hippie drifter who hops a ride with them, and GTO, the cocksure middle-aged driver who challenges the young punks to a cross-country race for their "pinks," the registration slips that mean ownership of the cars.
While this film is always referred to as "minimalist," it looks positively action-packed compared with the turgid "slow cinema" served up these days. The current penchant for blank, unreadable characters — such as Stephen Dorff's in "Somewhere" or Emily Browning's in "Sleeping Beauty" — can be traced directly to Taylor in this film, and yet that inscrutability never seems like an affectation here.
The film is also, surprisingly, rather funny at times: Oates' character is hilarious, a square trying on hippie slang for size ("Color me gone, baby!") and pathetically serving up a different bogus back-story to every hitcher he meets.
"Two-Lane Blacktop" is the prototypical film where "nothing happens" — two guys drive around in an old Chevy, they race some old dude, but the outcome of the race isn't even important. A girl shows up and then she leaves. One town fades into the next. And yet, the film is like a diamond bullet, straight to the heart, about flight, about the male tendency to shut up and keep moving and not talk about it, and how that plays out when the chance for a different future flickers on the horizon.