Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
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2020 July 15 • Wednesday

Two-Lane Blacktop is a great movie but great in the way that, say, an Edward Hopper painting is great.

Look at Hopper's most famous painting, "Night Hawks". It's beautiful and it has recognizable characters and a recognizable if unknown location.

Does it have a story or a plot? Not really. Does it have meaning? Certainly not. Not unless you're going to impose a meaning on it, because you feel you must.

What could it possibly mean, after all? What could any Edward Hopper painting be said to mean?

Nothing, if you ask me. It's beautiful or it's not.

Most movies are also similarly devoid of meaning but, we hope, not beauty. A "meaning" is not a story.

Take any famous movie. It probably has a clear and compelling story but it would be wrong to say that the movie means something.

North by Northwest doesn't mean something. There's no "meaning" to Jaws.

But once you remove story and plot, or strip them down to the minimum requirements for a movie to have characters with names who do things, and then people will start exerting themselves to tell you what the movie "means" because it's not enough, apparently, simply to enjoy it for its aesthetic qualities.

And so you end up with silly statements such as that Two-Lane Blacktop is "a sophisticated look at American male obsession".

Well, that particular statement could be made about 99.99% of American movies if you take away the word "sophisticated".

You could make the case much more persuasively about Jaws or North by Northwest, that they're a look at American male obsession, than you could about Two-Lane Blacktop.

But I sympathize. I don't think that Two-Lane Blacktop is about anything in particular, any more than Edward Hopper's "New York Movie, 1939" is about anything in particular.

Certainly Hopper might have had something in mind and there's the right combination of blankness and detail for you to project any number of possible meanings or stories onto it.

But the actual thing itself is just beautiful art.

And so with Two-Lane Blacktop.

The title itself, two white lines on black, shows the title of the movie as well as telling it.

The film follows four characters without real names that we ever learn: The Driver, The Mechanic, The Girl and GTO.

It's pretty clear how The Driver (James Taylor) and The Mechanic (Dennis Wilson) get their names. Equally clear for The Girl (Laurie Bird). Warren Oates is GTO because that's the car he's driving.

The Driver and The Mechanic drive around the country in an astonishingly blank-looking 1955 Chevy racing people for money. They pick up The Girl hitchhiking and then start racing GTO cross country, with the prize being their cars instead of cash.

But this idea is soon dropped without explanation and we're left to wonder more about who these people might be than what they do.

One of the attractions of movies is that every single thing in a movie could be a metaphor but doesn't have to be.

And so they're are some shots that might mean something but of course might not.

Is it significant in this shot that the GTO faces one way, the Chevy faces the opposite way and a third car of a different color is lifted off the ground and perpendicular to both other cars?

How about this one? Does it suggest that The Driver and The Mechanic are imprisoned by their compulsion to live only for racing and driving and speed, and that GTO and The Girl are viewing them from the outside, wanting an intimate human connection but not at the cost of becoming trapped in some similar cage?

Does the reverse shot suggest that The Driver and The Mechanic perceive GTO to be just as trapped in his way?

Definitely maybe!

GTO famously tells a different story about himself to everyone he meets. He has music to play for any occasion and a well stocked wet bar in his trunk.

Part chameleon but probably not a pathological liar, he seems lonely to the point of desperation, though terrified of getting too close to people.

Harry Dean Stanton shows up as hitchhiker who makes a sexual advance toward GTO. GTO rejects him but it's not exactly clear why he rejects him. It seems not to be gay sex in particular but sex in general and the presumed vulnerability that are too much for him.

Warren Oates gives one of his best performances as GTO. As part of his ever-shifting nature, he changes his colors, very chameleon-like, in almost every scene.

Do the different colors mean anything more than that? Does the actual color correspond somehow to the person or persons he's with? Are they meant to match the colors on their map?

Does the following shot suggest that The Driver and The Girl are literally "on the fence" about what they're doing and where they should go from here?

Definitely maybe!

But mostly it's just mysteriously beautiful.