Two-Lane Blacktop (Monte Hellman, 1971) opens on a street race. Engines roar prominently on the soundtrack, and we get a montage of tarmac, cars, and a few close-ups of The Driver (James Taylor) that will become one of our main characters. No one speaks.
When The Driver finally does speak – after the opening credits and several minutes into the film – it’s a comment on the auto race. In general, the dialogue from the leading male characters is very utilitarian, or else focused on automobiles.
At first glance, Two-Lane Blacktop seems to offer a traditionally macho portrait of its male characters. They’re hyper-focused on cars, mechanically-minded, independent, and uninterested in family attachment. However, succumbing to this interpretation would oversimplify the film. As Monte Hellman’s biographer, Brad Stevens, and media scholar Katie Mills both argue (though in interestingly different ways), Hellman’s film stands as a contrast to other masculinist road movies of the era (most notably Easy Rider).
In The Road Story and the Rebel: Moving Through Film, Fiction, and Television, Katie Mills compellingly argues that the women characters in movies like Two-Lane Blacktop throw into relief the deficiencies of white masculinity. Mills writes of The Girl (Laurie Bird), “Her quiet presence is enough to push the men to recognize their emotional shortcomings and their failure to ask for what they want.” While Mills is quick to point out that Two-Lane Blacktop is not feminist, she observes that the boldness of The Girl to take action makes the inaction of The Driver and The Mechanic (Dennis Wilson) even more obvious.
Brad Stevens, in Monte Hellman: His Life and Films, takes a different approach, directly contrasting Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969) and Two-Lane Blacktop. Stevens comments on the paradoxical masculinity of American counterculture – drawing from literary scholar Joan Mellen’s 1970s book on masculinity and film – that even as the counterculture rejected some aspects of straight culture (centrality of the nuclear family, notions of respectable behavior), it bought into others (myth of the independent man, expectation of sexual availability for women).
And in fact, films like Two-Lane Blacktop help reveal paradoxes in both straight and counterculture masculinity. Part of the reason such paradoxes exist in the counterculture is because straight culture was grappling with these same issues during the 1970s. In the wake of the 1960s, in the midst of the women’s lib movement, men of the 1970s were wondering what it meant to be a man.
For white masculinity, there were open questions of sentimentality, sexuality, anger, and emotion, giving rise to things like “men’s liberation,” a movement that advocated for “unblocking” the American man. This meant allowing him to express emotion and have sex without strings. “It is important to note,” writes gender studies scholar Sally Robinson, “that the emotions most often identified as dangerously blocked are anger and resentment rather than, say, love and fear.” An overarching question of the 1970s seemed to be: how can a man break free of the stifling aspects of traditional masculinity, but without “becoming a woman?” Pop culture grappled with this question in a variety of ways, without any clear answers ever emerging. (I would venture the problem was with the question itself, which couldn’t see beyond the gender binary.)
Hellman’s main characters might be considered “blocked” – strong, silent types unable to connect with their interior selves – but in keeping with Brad Stevens’ interpretation of the film, we do not see them exhibit bursts of anger or meanness, like the way Bobby (Jack Nicholson) treats Rayette (Karen Black) in Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson, 1970). In fact, when The Girl is clearly traumatized by a car accident they stumble upon, it’s touching the way The Driver and The Mechanic check up on her.
Whatever its treatment of gender, Monte Hellman was not an intentionally political director. He tells Brad Stevens, “Two-Lane Blacktop is not political so much as sociological and philosophical. The characters don’t use drugs, aren’t violent, aren’t blown away at the end. They have just decided not to marry, raise a family, etc. They’re not making a statement – they’re just not interested.”
Here, we see the clear influence of the French New Wave on Hellman’s approach toward storytelling. Two-Lane Blacktop gives us little access to character psychology; there’s almost no exposition; and rather than a causal line, the narrative presents a series of unrelated occurrences, held together primarily by the linear journey east of the characters’ cross-country race. It seems fitting, I think, that Hellman was influenced by directors like Rivette and his New Wave contemporaries, whose treatment of gender was also complex, paradoxical, and often grappled with transitioning norms of masculinity.
Laura Ivins loves stop motion, home movies, imperfect films, nature hikes, and Stephen Crane’s poetry. She has a PhD from Indiana University and an MFA from Boston University. In addition to watching and writing about movies, sometimes she also makes them.