At the risk of sounding too negative, I’d say that the majority of filmmakers, even some very good ones, are ultimately conventional in that they rely on established forms of film language to communicate with us. Throughout the history of cinema, it has only been a much smaller group of artists who have sought to construct alternative visions and wholly new ways of looking at the world. Among this small group of ferociously idiosyncratic film artists, which would include such figures as Stan Brakhage, Robert Bresson, and Alexander Dovzhenko, one would have to add the recently deceased Monte Hellman (1929-2021), a brilliantly original narrative filmmaker who was one of the greatest figures in American cinema during the last half of the twentieth century.
Hellman’s cinema, it seems to me, is often concerned with the act of breaking down — a process of degradation that seems to be tied to the force of motion. This is certainly true of his one canonized masterpiece, Two-Lane Blacktop (1971, my choice for the best American film of that decade), a road movie starring James Taylor, Warren Oates, and Dennis Wilson. As the characters engage in a coast-to-coast drag race across the country, the narrative of the film begins to slowly dissolve in a way that’s both eerie and strangely liberating. By the end of the race, even the materiality of celluloid itself deteriorates, burning up before our eyes. What unsettles the viewer here is an unceasing, forward momentum into an unknown and potentially destructive oblivion, a reoccurring theme in Hellman’s work. Rarely has form so consummately embodied an idea.
Hellman took the western genre to a similarly scary, postmodern place in his twin classics Ride in the Whirlwind (1965) and The Shooting (1966), shot concurrently on tiny budgets and both produced by Jack Nicholson. Here, figures on horseback ride into the melting, experimental freefall. Very few films from this post-classical era in American film possess as much respect for the natural landscape as Hellman displays here. These are patient works, assembled with an almost frighteningly precise montage. They are also resolutely political films, stories about people and the land — they burn everything else away to reveal the genre’s central concern, the foundations of civilization. The violence of movement is always Hellman’s subject.
Despite his immense and highly original talent, Hellman didn’t make a great deal of films, mostly because he couldn’t find funding for many of the projects he wanted to bring to the screen. Hellman’s post-Blacktop films haven’t been as widely seen as they should be; the ones I’ve managed to see are close to sublime. Cockfighter (1974) is a wonderful hillbilly comedy starring the great Warren Oates (the “last working-class actor”), probably Hellman’s most important collaborator. His third and final western China 9, Liberty 37 (1978, shot in Spain and Italy), is an extremely special experience, an oneiric and ecstatic work about love that contains some of the most beautiful erotic passages I’ve encountered in cinema. It’s a film constructed of strange, almost anomalous moments, such as a sequence set around a waterfall or another in a traveling circus, that make it seem almost a road not taken in Hellman’s career — but still approached with the kind of rigorous, sensitive relationship with landscape that one finds in the rest of his work. Hellman’s last work before his late-period return to filmmaking (Road to Nowhere, 2011) is the remarkable period film Iguana (1988), a tale of mutiny and abuse on a remote island in the nineteenth century that’s worthy of Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno (1855) in its disturbing unspooling of the psychology behind forms of personal and political rule.
The death of Monte Hellman represents a major loss for American cinema; he brought to each new project a certain kind of personal intensity and patient, formal purity that made each film a very special experience. I certainly don’t know of another American filmmaker currently working who can rival Hellman as an editor — his austere montage brought with it the sense that each new cut in a film was an opening onto another world. Perhaps some enterprising company will finally bring out restored home-video editions of Hellman’s later, post-Blacktop films. The time has come for many people to seriously engage with the work of this great American artist.
Two-Lane Blacktop was screened at IU Cinema in April 2019 as part of its Sunday Matinee Classics: One, Two, Three for the Road series — a screening I’m happy to say that I attended!
Two-Lane Blacktop, Ride in the Whirlwind, and The Shooting are available in home-video editions from the Criterion Collection. Cockfighter and Iguana are both currently streaming on Prime Video, and China 9, Liberty 37 can be rented on YouTube.
For a more in-depth look at Two-Lane Blacktop, check out Laura Ivins’s piece “Two-Lane Blacktop and 1970s Masculinity.”
Jack Miller enjoys the films of Howard Hawks, Jacques Tourneur and John Ford. He graduated from Indiana University with a BA in English, and currently resides in Chicago. He also enjoys listening to country and disco music.