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Re-examining car-race classic 'Two-Lane Blacktop'

By Chris Herrington

NOVEMBER 15, 1999: 

Two-Lane Blacktop directed by Monte Hellman (Anchor Bay Entertainment)

A recipient of tremendous hype upon its 1971 release but mostly forgotten today, this existential car-race classic from cult director Monte Hellman has been released on video (and DVD) for the very first time. This remastered, widescreen print from Anchor Bay Entertainment will allow viewers to discover a time-capsule worthy film that may not be as digestible as similar generational markers like American Graffiti and Easy Rider, but which leaves just as strong an impression.

In the minimalist Two-Lane Blacktop, singer James Taylor and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson (in their first and only screen roles) play The Driver and The Mechanic, a sort of Vladimir and Estragon of the American highway system. Driving their souped-up 1955 Chevy from town to town in search of a race, these nomads almost never speak, and when they do it is usually to discuss the car or racing. Along the way they meet The Girl (the late Laurie Bird), a young hitchhiker who joins them on their odyssey, and a nameless man driving a yellow GTO, played by the incomparable Warren Oates (Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, The Wild Bunch).

In contrast to the near mute Driver and Mechanic, the older Oates is loquacious and lively, with a penchant for picking up hitchhikers, whom he calls "fantasies," and spinning tall tales about his life and prized car. After a few run-ins on the road, the three meet at a gas station somewhere in the Southwest, where they agree to race for "pinks" -- pink slips to each other's cars, in other words, a battle for identity itself. Pressed by the younger, arrogant Driver to name a destination for the race, Oates responds, "Okay, smart-ass, Washington, D.C." The rest of the film follows this cross-country race, like a low-rent/high-brow version of Cannonball Run, though the race peters out, a victim of disinterest, before they can reach D.C.

Alienation is the central theme of Two-Lane Blacktop, with the emotional isolation of The Driver and The Mechanic mirrored by the barren landscape they traverse. Like the very similar Easy Rider, which came two years before, there is certainly a political point to be made by this investigation of Silent Majority-era alienation, but the mood explored by Two-Lane Blacktop doesn't seem to be quite as tied to a specific cultural or historical moment as the mournfully patriotic Easy Rider. At its best, Easy Rider is a road trip hymn to vernacular America, while Two-Lane Blacktop is more of an analytical essay. The slowly paced film is like Chuck Berry's "Maybelline" as reinterpreted by Jean-Paul Sarte -- as simultaneously illuminating and boring as that comparison indicates.

The Passion of Joan of Arc directed by Carl Dreyer (Home Vision)

Rightfully considered one of the true masterpieces of the silent cinema, Danish master Carl Dreyer's 1928 examination of the trial and execution of Joan of Arc is a cinematic artifact like few others. Not only does it concern itself with events in the deep past, but, like some of Akira Kurosawa's samurai flicks, it seems to be a document of the era itself. The Passion of Joan of Arc is so brilliantly elemental as to seem like a pre-cinematic artifact.

The film was written based upon the actual transcripts of the trial and was filmed almost entirely in close-up. It is for this last aspect, and the concomitant greatness of its lead performance from Renee Falconetti (in her only screen appearance), that The Passion of Joan of Arc is most cited today.

This restored print from Home Vision Cinema dates to a restoration done in 1985 of an original Danish copy of the film found in the broom closet of an Oslo, Norway, mental hospital in 1981. The discovery of this well-maintained print was of astounding significance in terms of film history. Prior to the discovery it was believed that both negatives of the film were destroyed in a fire shortly after the film's premiere. For more than 50 years the only available prints of this classic film were incomplete or damaged.

This video version features a wonderful new score composed for the film by Richard Einhorn. Entitled "Voices of Light," the piece is sung by the classical quartet Anonymous Four. This version also contains examples of some of the restoration work that was done on the found print.

Ordering information: Anchor Bay, 1-800-745-1145; Home Vision, 1-800-826-3456.

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