'My Mind's All Unsatisfied With It':
From the moment I first saw it as a teenager almost 50 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 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 (1932-2021). Its action is simple, even minimal, and quite straightforwardly filmed: the widescreen 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 hardboiled wit, with a quietly poetic, expressive undertone, indelibly summarises 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 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’ 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, behaviours and textures of an America that we had never seen depicted on screen in quite this way previously.
Two-Lane Blacktop remains Hellman’s signal masterpiece, but the qualities that make it great are evident, to a greater or lesser extent, in almost every film he has signed. Serving his apprenticeship in Roger Corman’s B production stable from 1959 to 1963 – he was fortunate not to have begun in our current era where directors must launch themselves as fully-fledged auteurs with their first indie feature – he began to hone his characteristic filmmaking style in the modest war films Flight to Fury and Back Door to Hell (both 1964).
Hellman’s way of unfolding a narrative is patient, anti-melodramatic, observant to the point of sometimes breaking into pure documentary; the critic Kent Jones has rightly observed that he is “not a director of rhetorical flourishes or sudden jolts of action – he concentrates on the whole picture, and sets his action in one key”. Or, as Paco (Conrad Maga), the grimly charismatic guerrilla leader in Back Door to Hell, states: “I have nothing to explain. I told you a fact” – and Hellman’s films often give the impression of simply presenting a Rossellini-like succession of such facts.
Yet, at their best, these films also alight upon deeper, unspoken mysteries – especially the enigma of what drives his frequently obsessed characters, invariably blinded by their own passions and fixations. And when such troubled characters are embodied by Jack Nicholson (in his early roles) or Warren Oates (in his prime), it is hard to look away from the screen.
At either side of Two-Lane Blacktop in Hellman’s rather bumpy career came three films that his fans love to pore over: the Westerns The Shooting (1966) and Ride in the Whirlwind (1967), and Cockfighter (1974). All were Corman productions: the first two were genre quickies shot back to back, the third ostensibly a sensationalist piece of exploitation showcasing America’s most popular illegal bloodsport. But Corman got more than he bargained for from Hellman and his closest collaborators, because his films usually set up a three-way relation between standard movie expectations, “deep dish”Americana (as Manny Farber loved to say), and a fond immersion in European and Asian art cinema traditions.
All the most interesting mainstream American films of the 1970s display a roughly similar mix of art and genre elements, but Hellman’s case is truly unique: while his undemonstrative mise en scène declares an adherence to the classicism of John Huston or Carol Reed, his thematic and storytelling interests lead him inexorably toward 20th century influences from the Theatre of the Absurd, Alain Robbe-Grillet’s modernist cinema, or the baroque complexities of Latin American fiction.
Not that this heady cocktail was always easy or even possible for Hellman to pull off. The unevenness evident in Cockfighter – several superb character-based scenes interspersed between efficient but mandatory spectacles of animal-on-animal violence – was to dog Hellman through a series of ever-cheaper commissions for the remainder of the ‘70s and through the ‘80s. I cannot quite follow the authors of existing books on Hellman (Brad Stevens in UK, Charles Tatum, Jr. in Belgium) in their deathless enthusiasm for the works of this difficult period in the director’s career: China 9, Liberty 37 (1978), Iguana (1988), and Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out! (1989) all have striking scenes and elements, but no one coming to them without foreknowledge of Hellman’s best films could imagine that a master auteur is at work behind the camera.
However, as if to prove F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous claim that “there are no second acts in American lives” dead wrong, Hellman – at the age of 80! – made a startling return to top form, after two decades years in the wilderness of endless project development, with another low budget project: Road to Nowhere (2010). The in-between years at least allowed the Hellman cult to blossom, and that cult eventually served him well: both his previous short Stanley’s Girlfriend in the portmanteau film Trapped Ashes (2006) and Road to Nowhere got off the ground because of devoted cinephile fans, respectively former American Cinematheque programmer Dennis Bartok, and veteran Variety journalist Steve Gaydos.
Although there are many generic elements lurking around the edges of Road to Nowhere – especially of the mystery-thriller and film noir kind – it clearly offered Hellman the free space to fully explore his more Byzantine artistic aspirations. The result is a dazzling puzzle of a movie, impossible to understand in one (or even several) viewings, and disquieting in virtually all its superbly realised details – but not without that dry, sardonic humour that has always been the director’s trademark.
Oddly enough, it also returns Hellman to the kind of dark, existential vision of human folly that first peeked out amidst the cheap sets and fake-looking monsters of Beast from Haunted Cave (1959) – a vision of the world that is not exactly radically political (in the way his champions sometimes claim), but which certainly serves to puncture many sentimental, humanist illusions in a salutary fashion.
Road to Nowhere takes the film-within-a-film trope of 21st century mind-game movies (as they have been dubbed by Thomas Elsaesser) to a dizzying level – recalling Warren Oates’ exasperated complaint from The Shooting: “My mind’s all unsatisfied with it”. Gaydos’ labyrinthine script defies synopsis (the film’s Wikipedia page plaintively advertised, for years, that it needed a plot summary, and it still lacks a good one). But suffice to say that it revolves around the making of a film by young, hotshot director Mitchell Haven (Tygh Runyan) that re-stages, and inevitably delves into, a true-crime case involving the mysterious Velma (Shannyn Sossomon) and her shady, criminal accomplices.
Hellman deftly builds a multi-layered structure: there is Velma in the past, Velma in the film being made, and the increasing enigma of the actress named Laurel, with whom Mitchell swiftly falls in love, who is playing Velma. In this most openly cinephilic of movies, clips on TV sets (from Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve to Víctor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive) keep drawing us, like crumbs scattered along a trail, to the deepest and most despairing logic of this mystery.
Shamelessly steely and cerebral on the one hand, intense and hypnotic on the other, Road to Nowhere ends up as something like a cross between Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and Robbe-Grillet’s rarely seen head-scratcher L’Immortelle (1963) – and it is surely not coincidental that all three films are suffused with insanity, danger, tunnel-vision obsessiveness, and amour fou. Now that Monte Hellman has left us, his fans and friends have only his numerous, wise, droll Facebook posts of the past decade to contemplate – and the imagining of what the testament project he nurtured, Love or Die, might have contained.
© Adrian Martin May 2012 / April 2021