Road to Creativity and Candor: An Interview with Monte Hellman (Preview)
by Robert Sklar, with an Introduction by Adrian Martin
From the moment I first saw it as a teenager over thirty-five years ago, a particular sequence in Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) has continued to haunt me. Three characters who don’t say much—the Driver (James Taylor), the Mechanic (Dennis Wilson), and the Girl (Laurie Bird)—plus one who never stops talking, GTO (Warren Oates), cruise into Boswell, Oklahoma. It seems to be an excessively sleepy town (“Must be Saturday”), since the garage is unattended, and no locals are visible at all. But the Mechanic senses that there is some indefinable menace in the air (“I get nervous ’round this part of the country”) and swiftly begins raiding nearby vehicles in order to switch license plates. GTO follows suit but, in his usual half-distracted, half-indifferent way, falls asleep while doing so. Meanwhile, the Driver heads off down the main street in pursuit of the Girl: their relationship is enigmatic and cryptic, and his attempt to give her a friendly driving lesson turns, in a split second, into a macho demonstration of power. As the gang regroups, a garage attendant wanders in to work, takes one look at these strangers, and duly calls the cops, who instantly show up. Suddenly, it’s time for our lead characters to split this scene, as fast as they possibly can. “What’s happening?” the Girl asks. “The town woke up,” the Mechanic replies.
This sequence encapsulates for me so much that is remarkable about the cinema of Monte Hellman (born 1932). Its action is simple, even minimal, and quite straightforwardly filmed: the wide-screen compositions are relaxed, open, and sometimes intricately choreographed, but no ostentatious displays of style ever poke the viewer in the eye. It is full of ambient dread, but nothing dramatic actually takes place: no confrontations, fights, or explosions, just a couple of cars burning off down the road. As the characters tend to take their laconicism almost to the point of catatonia, their dialogue is sparse, even banal—but an endearing form of hard-boiled wit, with a quietly poetic, expressive undertone, indelibly summarizes whatever is really going on in any situation. And then there is the soundtrack, with a special quality that many viewers do not notice at all on a first viewing: it is precisely the absence of music (whether scored or incidental) that creates such growing unease in the spectator. This is what sets Two-Lane Blacktop so far apart from, on one side, Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969), with its wall-to-wall rock selections, as well as, on the other side, Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973), with its eclectic collage of Erik Satie, Carl Orff, and, indeed, James Taylor.
But, above all, the happy encounter with this sequence of Two-Lane Blacktop in a cinema in Melbourne, Australia, all those years ago, gave me an intense, even hallucinatory epiphany: in these understated images and gestures, details and vistas, I had the feeling that I was directly experiencing some little piece of the truth of America itself. And that was, generally speaking, a big part of the thrill of that decade for moviegoers in many parts of the world: from Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us (1974) to Bob Rafelson’s Stay Hungry (1976), from Arthur Penn’s Alice’s Restaurant (1969) to John Cassavetes’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), from Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970) to Floyd Mutrux’s aloha, bobby and rose (1975), a wave of diverse yet interrelated films immersed us in the idioms, atmospheres, behaviors, and textures of an America that we had never seen depicted on screen in quite this way previously…
James Taylor as The Driver in Two-Lane Blacktop
Cineaste: People have spoken about your work as a critique of American values or maybe even a critique of American cinema, whether it’s a political position rather than an aesthetic position. Do you see your films as having a politics?
Monte Hellman: If my films do have a politics, it’s not something that I think about when I’m making them. I get interested in politics every four years. The only time I ever watch television is in the months preceding the election. But it’s not something that enters my consciousness when making movies.
Cineaste: The words that get used about your films—“loneliness” or “existentialism”—and even the title of your most recent film, Road to Nowhere, imply that there’s some metaphor or sense in which this is a lonely country or the roads don’t lead anywhere.
Hellman: Road to Nowhere is a real road in North Carolina that was started by the federal government in the late Forties and continued in construction through a number of years and then was just given up. We actually shot the movie on the Road to Nowhere. The tunnel that you see in the movie is the actual end of the Road to Nowhere. There’s nothing mysterious about this.
Cineaste: Yet there are so many examples of people wandering or not finding a destination at the end of your films—a trope that repeats itself.
Hellman: I think the neatness of Hollywood movies with people getting married or dying is not as interesting or moving as dealing with whatever the subject is and continuing. I like to end a movie before that kind of a resolution happens. It’s a “to be continued” kind of thing.
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