MOVIE DIARY 2018: WE DON’T NEED ANYTHING FROM ANYBODY. WE ARE SELF-CONTAINED, BABE.
MOVIE DIARY 2018 is back, this time with one of my favorite writers on movies, Sean Witzke! Sean is also one of the hosts of the only movie podcast in the world, Travis Bickle on the Riviera. I didn’t really plan for it to work this way, but this week we’ve got a 70’s special! Three movies from the 70’s and two of them feature Warren Oates! That’s just what the 70’s were like, I guess, you’d go out there and get high and lose your Led Zeppelin tickets then decide to watch a movie with Warren Oates in it then you’d drive around aimlessly and hope you wouldn’t get drafted, what a wild time, I assume! Maybe I’ll do more themed weeks in upcoming MOVIE DIARY 2018 entries on purpose next time!
Two Lane Blacktop (1971)
SPECIAL GUEST WRITER: SEAN WITZKE
For large portions of Two Lane Blacktop you are just watching things happen without context. That includes dialog, and plot… there’s kind of a plot, it’s in theory a movie about a cross-country race. Everything about this movie is unfulfilling it’s promise. it’s not a movie about racing. It stars two musicians, features barely any music (like many of the great car movies, you spend a lot of time just listening to engines). On and on.
The movie has had an obvious present day influence, Tarantino and Refn stole from it for Death Proof and Drive, but it failed at the time. It may be the earliest death in the fall of New Hollywood, a decade before Heaven’s Gate. There’s a version of this movie that’s all macho bullshit, or fake art posturing, but director Monte Hellman and writer Rudy Wurlitzer (both of whom were most successful making existential, paranoid westerns and only collaborated once) aren’t interested in either. The emptiness of Two Lane Blacktop isn’t an affectation, and it isn’t there for contrast either. Wurlitzer did a legs-up rewrite on a trash script Hellman had been given by Roger Corman, turning it into a uniquely American movie about people who are unable to communicate their wants or needs. The four characters — none of whom have names — either don’t talk, only talk about their bullshit, or talk so much about bullshit that they shut other people down. Everyone is in crisis and saying nothing about it. That so much of it has been buried in cars is almost immaterial, if it didn’t ring so true as being part of the American pathology (Wurlitzer copied all the car dialog from hot rod magazines, and it’s got a weird verisimilitude even when it’s contradictory). The fact is, it doesn’t matter.
James Taylor’s innate charisma and awkwardness on camera — he never acted again — play into his character, but also work for the movie. He’s a lightning rod of a screen presence but I don’t think it makes his character any less of a prick. Warren Oates is the only trained actor in the movie (except for a 2 scene cameo by Harry Dean Stanton), and he never stops talking until he does. Those moments, he’s so vulnerable, it’s painful. The two big setpieces of the movie take place at a gas station and a diner respectively. In both scenes, nothing actually happens. Warren Oates, he clams up in both, and the tension crawls up the back of your eyes. Hellman says the diner scene is his tribute to Hitchcock, with tension building using the space and props, but it’s all internal. There’s no bomb going off.
The way these characters manage to understand one another and don’t, that’s the subject here. It’s not talking vs non-talking. Oates knows how to talk nonstop but he has moments catching himself, he’s struggling to keep it together. He needs to keep moving, then laments having no place to be tethered to. He can’t stand Taylor and Wilson, but he also recognizes they have the same thing going on behind the car shit. In one scene Oates tries to sell his line to Taylor and gets shut down with an “I don’t care”. He’s never been so incensed. Oates has some heavier shit going on than the younger guys because he realizes this is no way to live. The way Oates’ clothing changes colors scene to scene is testament to his volatility being one with his stability. Him presenting as normal is the hallmark of his weirdness.
This isn’t a psychedelic road movie, it’s an existential one. The scene where a good ole boy asks them if they’re hippies — the scene that’s in Easy Rider and so many other road movies of the time — is about mitigating violence with language, because they all know the danger in the moment. They’ve all experienced it and know how to get through it. They aren’t hippies. They aren’t normal people either. It’s not that “these guys don’t know how to talk to women” as this movie is often summed up. It’s that there’s something fundamentally broken in the way they convey what they need, it’s twisted and supplanted by the most useful narrative at any given moment. The moments where they interact with other people, they can manage them. They aren’t worth reaching out to. Like the car stuff. It’s alien. It’s a foreign language. The hitchhikers, the gas station attendants, car weirdos who swam them in small towns. They may as well be aliens. The car accident scene, the surviving driver walks up to Taylor and starts telling his story unbidden. He needs to be heard. He needs to be believed. Taylor seems more freaked out that the guy is talking to him than the dead body in the corner of the frame.
The movie’s dirtiest trick is it gets you to buy into those narratives. It becomes about Taylor and Oates fighting over Laurie Bird’s affections. We know that so much of convention has been shredded by this story but we as an audience still think “winning the girl” is a story structure so fundamental that we didn’t know it was a double bluff. The final moments in the diner, we are told from the beginning it’s about possession of Bird. She gets up and leaves, without saying anything, and the race suddenly doesn’t matter anymore. She even throws her baggage in the street as she leaves. Good writing is obvious as hell. The scenes with the men that follow are devastating, retreating to their behavior in a disquieting fashion. Bird isn’t here to play into a pre-existing narrative but the movie seems to conclude that even stepping outside of regular society, these guys don’t know how to do anything but play out behavior, and it’s not doing anything but shredding their insides. They’ve managed to find a thing that keeps them moving, but that’s not going to help too much longer. Who knows if it ever helped to begin with.
Race With The Devil (1975)
Race With The Devil is a movie where you need to just kind of accept that Warren Oates could ever be someone who would ride a dirtbike. Don’t worry you don’t need to do it for too long, and once you get past that you’ve got a nice and lean chase movie where this double date RV vacation through rural Texas is ruined by satanists. There’s a really excellent chase sequence where this giant luxury RV that our main characters are riding in is getting boxed in a pounded by three other trucks. Warren Oates and Peter Fonda try to fend them off with a shotgun and some way too aggressive for an RV driving, and it feels like a Mad Max movie if everyone’s car were the biggest, boxiest, most cumbersome things on the road. It’s some really incredible action filmmaking, there’s just something so impressive and primal about the visual of big trucks hitting each other and flipping off the road. I’m no expert or anything but my advice to filmmakers: If you can fuck up a real car for your action scene, please please please please please fuck up a real car for your action scene.
The chase scenes aren’t the only thing this movie has going for it, though. One of the things I really enjoyed here was the idea that these satanists are just so well-connected that it seems like everyone in this area of Texas is probably a satanist. As the movie goes on there’s this creeping realization that everyone is in on making these four people suffer, from law enforcement, to the gas station attendant, right down to their neighbors in the RV park. It’s very much reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), the idea that all of your neighbors are conspiring to keep you trapped, that your entire community is working against your best interests. The satanists themselves aren’t really the scary part of this movie, it’s more the idea that no matter how far away you drive you can’t get away from the feeling that you can’t trust anyone.
Aloha, Bobby And Rose (1975)
I think I liked this one more in concept than in overall execution. Bobby and Rose just met each other and they’re cruising through the streets of Los Angeles in 1975. They go ice skating, window shopping, makeout by the Hollywood sign, and then they find themselves responsible for the death of a convenience store clerk when a dumb prank goes wrong, so they just up and decide to leave everything behind and get out of town. I like the idea of two dumb kids in love and on the run but it felt really loose and stuff just seems to pop up out of nowhere. And I get that that’s kind of a reflection on the tone of this movie, that you’re young and reckless and it’s the 70’s so yeah stuff will just pop up out of nowhere, it was a wild time, Warren Oates would show up in a movie and ride a dirt bike and people were like “yeah ok I see that,” but I think tightening it up a bit would have helped to make it feel like there were any stakes at all to this movie. I mean, there are stakes — Rose has a young kid and she’s wrestling with the idea of leaving him behind — but they never really feel as significant as they should be. Rose makes the hard choice to leave her kid behind once the cops catch up to them, but this moment needs more time to set in and create a more meaningful impact.
And let’s talk about Bobby for a second — what a shithead! Rose gets these very small moments to agonize over leaving her kid behind and every time she has these moments around Bobby he gets all mopey, talking about how maybe she doesn’t feel as strongly about him as he does about her. No shit, Bobby. She’s worried about her child, she’s only known you for like eight hours and you’ve dragged her into being a fugitive. He’s not even that hot! Bobby is an entertaining character to watch, though, because while he is kind of a dumb meathead, he’s such a scammer, bullshitting his way through their new life on the road the same way he bullshits his way through his relationship with Rose. Bobby is doing these things because he thinks it will let him live the independent life he wants, but what he’s actually doing is actively trying to stifle those around him to keep them close. We see it in his speech when his friend Moxey makes a move to advance his career and he tells Moxey that he’s going to get trapped in there, and we see it in the way he keeps talking Rose into staying with him.
The movie has its problems, but it does look cool. That 1970s Los Angeles aesthetic of cool cars driving down streets soaked in neon and ambient light from car dealerships and drive thrus (there are great shots of old Bob’s Big Boy and Jack-in-the-Box) hits a nice sweet spot that’s complemented by the narration of a radio DJ introducing the next 1970s needle drop. However! There’s also an unseemly amount of Elton John in this movie, particularly “Benny and the Jets” which, at least for me, was pretty fun, but by the end of it all I feel ok trying to avoid “Benny and the Jets” for the foreseeable future.
— THE WIDE WORLD OF MOVIE DIARY 2018 —
Check out some more writing from former MOVIE DIARY 2018 special guests!