Friday, August 15, 2008

Freedom's Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose...

Like most people, I like cars. I love the look of the great classic cars, from the mammoth Buicks of the 50s to the slick and stylish Corvettes of the 60s to the muscle cars of the 70s. I've never actually driven any of them, but when I see them out on the road - which is actually often on the streets of Austin - I turn to admire them, gazing at the tremendous workmanship that went into their design and the care that the current owners put into their upkeep. I occasionally gaze at classic auto mags and have wandered around one or two auto shows in my time, but also like most people I couldn't tell you the first things about most any of them or what the difference is between this make and model over another. My feelings for them are always of great respect and admiration, but they're not exactly where my passion lies. They're truly wonderful things, but I personally can't see myself devoting a lot of time and money to them. But I can, however, truly understand the passion.

I'm on this rant because I've had a lot of thinking about cars lately, pretty much since the beginning of the year, and I'm not done them yet. Back on June 19th, following a Weird Wednesdays screening of Franco's 99 WOMEN, I got into an accident that has left me without one. No one was hurt, thankfully, and the matter has just recently been settled (I've made out fine), but it's still not a fun experience by any means. I've been through it once before (only 18 months earlier) and it was worse then (though likewise not my fault), but I'm now going to have to go through the process of finding a new car, registering it, and all that other bullshit, and I'm not looking forward to it. Don't get me wrong; I love driving and get very, very restless without wheels, but this sure isn't the fun part of owning a car. That said, there is absolutely nothing compares with a great, long trip behind the wheel, despite all the occasional hassles, and it's something I try to do at least once a year if I can. When I made the drive from N.J. to Austin at the end of April, I did so not just because it was cheaper than flying (though not that cheap these days) but because I had to - the opportunity to see and experience America (at least half of it) was something I could not pass up and I'm glad I didn't. Seeing America from the behind the wheel of that somewhat crappy 1997 Toyota Corolla I had was wonderful, a reminder of a transition to a new life versus the one I was leaving behind and it was the only way to go. The open road is one of the most oft-used metaphors any writer can steal, and with that in mind the road movie has a great tradition in American cinema. It's certainly one of the finest contributions to culture America has given the world; there are definitely some great European road movies (Chris Petit's RADIO ON instantly comes to mind) but we own this genre, no question. Monte Hellman has been quoted as saying that all great movies are essentially road movies, and maybe he's right. But for as many great American road movies as there are (IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT; SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS; SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT) there is truly is none finer than Hellman's own TWO-LANE BLACKTOP, which I recently viewed again and found to be not just better than I remembered, but the genuine cinematic masterpiece that so many others have found it to be. Not that I didn't like the film, but after having gone through so much lately because of automobiles, I feel like I finally get it.

Like so many great films, TWO-LANE BLACKTOP is completely open to interpretation - it is whatever you want it to be - and my assessment of it isn't going to tell you anything new. What I can bring to the discussion is that in watching TWO-LANE BLACKTOP this time (at the Alamo Ritz, with Hellman in attendance) is that I feel like I understand the era in which I was born a little bit better now. BLACKTOP was filmed in the fall of 1970, 7 months after my birth, and released the following summer; though it's probably not 100% all of it, what I sense from the film now is that this was indeed America in 1970. The country had broken in two and these differing sides - the careless, free, zen-like, and liberal Driver, Mechanic, and the girl opposite the uptight, delusional (always pretending to be something he's not) and materialistic GTO - pretty much paint the proper picture. Not trying to get too deep here, TWO-LANE BLACKTOP is no more about cars than it is about life - the point of the journey is not to arrive - but what's also wonderful about it, at least to me, is that it also carries with it the feel and spirit of the low-budget genre cinema of the time, drive-in cinema, if you will. It's the greatest Roger Corman movie Corman never made; it's got all the elements - young people, fast cars, chases - while at the same time it's so much its own thing. The fact that Hellman got his start working for Corman shouldn't be forgotten, and while I'm sure that Hellman will deny it, I couldn't help but feel the Corman influence all over it. But that's probably just me.

More so than pretty much anything, the automobile and the open roads represents freedom for a lot of people, and I include myself in that list. Put yourself behind the wheel and just drive to where you need to be or want to be, in charge of your own destiny for the most part for however long you're out there. Some of us, like GTO, are out there because they have no home, while others, like myself, are just travelers, going from one place to another. The Driver and Mechanics of the world have achieved a kind of inner piece by simply staying on the road. What they need to get by the most is freedom and everything else - food, shelter, sex - are mere roadblocks to more freedom. I couldn't live like that myself, but I can respect those who take that route, and whenever I think of them, I will always have TWO-LANE BLACKTOP in mind.

I've got other reasons why cars, car lovers and TWO-LANE BLACKTOP have been on my brain as of late, but I'm not going to go into that here. I do, however, want to direct your attention to Kim Morgan's appreciation (a massive understatement - it's a fucking love letter) of the film that is unquestionably one of the best things this gifted writer has ever done. The film is obviously one of great importance to her and her passionate, perceptive and heartfelt piece is 100% spot-on, as always.

1 comment:

J.D. said...

Yeah, this is a great film and your comments are right on the money. It really does capture a specific time and place. It also makes a great double bill with another awesome '70s car film, VANISHING POINT, which is my personal fave.