Thursday, May 24, 2012

The 70's Road Movie

While this blog is mainly dedicated to new theatrical and DVD releases, I am also a huge classic film buff. So, from time to time I am going to dedicate a post to some of my favorite classics. The 1970s were a great time for American Cinema. Restrictions faced by film makers of earlier decades had loosened up.  Hollywood was now re-born with a new wave of independent film makers who were now free of the "studio system."  Some of the greatest genre of film came about in the 1970s.  The late 60s and early 70s brought about "The Muscle Car," and with that "The Road Movie" was essentially born. Three movies come to mind when I think of the classic 1970s Road Movie: Two Lane Blacktop (1971),  Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974), and Vanishing Point (1971.)

Dennis Wilson and James Taylor were two icons of the 1970s. They epitomized everything about that, drugs and rock-and roll.  As musicians, both Wilson and Taylor were natural actors, and it's a shame that neither one starred in a single movie following this cult classic. Traveling across the country in a rebuilt '55 Chevy, "The Driver" (Taylor) and "The Mechanic" (Wilson) pick up a young female hitchhiker, known only as "The Girl" (Laurie Bird.) Actually, the girl just jumps into the car without even asking, and the the three of them make their journey across the southern part of the United States.  They make money by racing other muscle cars in small towns along the way. The trio runs into "GTO" (Warren Oates) aptly named after the car he drives, and they challenge him to a race to Washington DC. The first car to reach the destination wins the pink-slip of the loser's car.

Two Lane Blacktop is mostly about the race between the '55 Chevy and GTO. What's odd though, is that no one seems to want to win. They keep stopping to help each other out along the road, almost as if the road would be a lonelier place without the other.  A sub-plot of the film is the relationship the three men have with the girl.  The Mechanic, who seems the most care-free of the group, could really care less if he has any sort of relationship with the girl; however, The Driver and GTO both seem to be vying for the girl's attention. The title song to the soundtrack, "Me and Bobby McGee" fits in superbly with the plight of the girl, especially towards the end of the film when it becomes apparent that the girl has moved on emotionally (and then physically) from Driver and GTO. If you listen to the lyrics of the song, you'll find that the story about "Me and Bobby McGee" takes place out on the open road of America, just like the plot of this film.  Side-note: "Me and Bobby McGee" was written (and performed in this film) by Kris Kristofferson. He stated in a 2007 interview with Two Lane Blacktop Director Monte Hellman that the song is  associated with his former lover, Janis Joplin- especially the line "somewhere near Salinas, Lord I let her slip away."

If I had to guess who the protagonist of this film was, I would have to say that it was the road. Shot in sequence and on location, the back-road gas stations, motels, and burger joints paint the backdrop of the settings and the narrative of this film.

Directed by John Hough and starring Peter Fonda, Susan George, and Adam Roarke, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry was more than just a road movie. Larry (Fonda) and Deke (Roarke) are small time car racing duo who rob a grocery store and plan on using the money to break into the NASCAR Circuit.  Just like in Two Lane Blacktop, the plot essentially has the two same characters: a driver, and his mechanic...except in this film, said driver and mechanic are also criminals.  They were good at only two things: racing and stealing. Their plan to escape after the robbery goes awry when Larry's one-night stand, Mary decides to tag along for the ride. Pursued by the local Sheriff, Everett Franklin (Vic Morrow) and his redneck band of deputies, the plot takes you on a wild ride through back country roads.

What I love about this movie is that the action is real. The stunts for this film were performed by actual stuntmen, including Fonda.  When a car crashed, it actually crashed- there was no CGI enhancement simulating the crash or explosion. People actually risked their lives filming a movie like this...something you don't see in today's movies. It's no surprise that this film was an inspiration for Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof (2007.)  The narrative of this movie is all about fast cars, fast women, and being held down by "the man."  If you're looking for an adrenaline-filled muscle car flick with non-stop action, then Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry is the film for you.

Another inspiration to Quentin Tarantino is Vanishing Point.

Kowalski (Barry Newman) is a Vietnam Vet. He is also a dishonored ex-cop and a failed race car driver.  He is hired by a drive-away service to deliver a 1970 Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco. There is one catch: he takes a bet to get the car delivered in fifteen hours.  Kowalski is chased time and again by police, but outruns them.  Throughout his journey, Kowalski is guided by a blind radio disc jockey- Supersoul (Cleavon Little.) Kowalski's mission gains a cult-like following from people as the word spreads across the radio waves by Supersoul.

Zipping across the country, Kowalski becomes the Anti-Hero. You get the feeling that Kowalski is (or at least once was) a good man who has been slighted by "the man" or "the system." His encounters with the police, tambourine-rattling faith healers, gay hitchhikers, and naked hippie chicks support this in the narrative.  What captures the viewer in this film is that Kowalski's journey becomes transcendental, and the rendezvous with the junction at the film's climax becomes his "Vanishing Point."  

Vanishing Point is another film that isn't about dialogue. This film is basic. It's about thrills and chills...and pills. If you strip this film down, it's basically a bad B-Movie; but the action will keep you bolted to your seat to see what happens at the "Vanishing Point." 

No comments:

Post a Comment