Friday, January 25, 2013

Blu-ray Review: Two-Lane Blacktop - The Criterion Collection

The Film
Is there a duller, less inspired way to describe this movie than "the essence of cool"? Oh well, because it works. Monte Hellman doesn't seem to be striving or straining in a single scene of Two-Lane Blacktop; its countercultural ambitions are not worn on its sleeve or maybe anywhere visible at all. It's an almost purely elemental experience.

Like the primer-gray, accoutrement-free '55 Chevy that James Taylor and Dennis Wilson drive, this is a film stripped down only to its essential parts. Another tired description? Maybe, but it can be hard to articulate exactly why Two-Lane Blacktop is such a thrilling cinematic experience. Sure, Taylor telling a prospective racing opponent in the film's early moments, "Make it three yards, motherfucker, and we'll have us an automobile race" is a spine-tingling moment by virtue only of the diction, but most of the film's pleasures are more obfuscated. There's hardly a traditional structural payoff or emotional beat to latch onto anywhere, which ends up making the film all the more elusively cool.

The bare threads of a narrative find The Driver (Taylor) and The Mechanic (Wilson) taking on a smug Pontiac GTO driver (Warren Oates), whose feigned gregariousness stands in direct opposition to their impossibly aloof nature. It's clear that he's everything they are not, a mere pretender who drives a stock sports car he knows little to nothing about; all flash and image and a wide, deceptive grin. When they decide to race cross-country, with the winner taking over ownership of both cars, it seems a healthy dose of comeuppance is in store.

But, this is not one of those films, as one could probably surmise from the elliptical editing that pays little attention to winners and losers in the film's early street-racing scenes. Hellman relies more on composition than dialogue to develop his characterizations, which become more complex than they seemed at first blush. Complicating matters between the three male leads is the presence of The Girl (Laurie Bird), a hitchhiker who falls in with the Mechanic and the Driver, but isn't averse to G.T.O's attentions either.

Two-Lane Blacktop is one of the greatest road movies, precisely because it avoids nearly every convention that we've come to expect from the increasingly hidebound genre. There are no moments of "unexpected" bonding, no fraught run-ins with the law. There's only the road — cold and unforgiving, but constant.

The Blu-ray Disc
Two-Lane Blacktop is presented in 1080p high definition in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. This isn't a dramatic improvement over Criterion's 2007 DVD release, if only because that transfer was pretty strong already. Here, we get an image that is more film-like, with a better-resolved grain structure and some additional fine detail, especially in well-lit close-ups. Likely inherent to the source, the film's darker scenes are just a tad muddy, but it feels appropriate to the look of the film. The drab color palette isn't meant to pop, but skin tones are natural and consistent.

Audio options include the original uncompressed monaural and a Hellman-approved 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. The surround option is a good way to go, preserving most everything in the fronts while adding a few effects and the music to the surrounds in a crisp presentation.

Special Features
Everything is ported over from Criterion's two-disc DVD set, save for the screenplay that was included in that box. The extras include two audio commentaries — one with Hellman and filmmaker Allison Anders and one with screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer and author David N. Meyer. Also included is a piece where Hellman revisits shooting locations and talks about production, a conversation between Hellman and Taylor, interviews with a number of crew members and another conversation between Hellman and Kris Kristofferson, whose "Me and Bobby McGee" is featured in the film. Screen tests for Taylor and Bird, several photo galleries and the film's trailer round out the disc. Also brought over is the booklet with a superb essay by Kent Jones, appreciations by Tom Waits and Richard Linklater and a Rolling Stone on-set article.

The Bottom Line
The upgrade over the DVD isn't major, but it's certainly worth it for fans of the film's exquisite photography.

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