Who’s the Driver? Who’s the Mechanic? A Post About Auteurs.

Hellman directed; Wurlitzer wrote; Universal demanded brevity. The result is a masterpiece of collaboration.

The auteur theory goes like this: a movie is a director’s vision, it reflects her vision, her personal taste, and she is the “author” of the film (auteur is French for “author”.) Despite the fact that a motion picture is not only a collaborative effort, and in many cases an industrial effort, the theory goes that the director is the creative force behind a motion picture.

Francois Truffaut is credited with this theory, and the influential French magazine, Cahiers du Cinéma ran with it, championing the likes of Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, and others, men who had toiled under the studio system in relative obscurity, but who, they claimed, stamped their movie with a very personal style. They were auteurs.

I’m always a bit bemused by this theory, only because I find it interesting the way some people use it in a very literal sense. The director is not literally the author of the film, obviously, unless he or she wrote the screenplay. But setting that aside, even directors like Lynch, Korine, Renoir, Bergman, directors who are clearly expressing a deep and personal vision, are not expressing that deep and personal vision all by themselves. Actors interpret that vision, cinematographers photograph it, editors cut it into beautiful ribbons, not to mention the army of casting directors, costume and set designers, etc. A novelist truly controls everything–they are the director, actor, editor, cinematographer. They are the author. Even the best auteur has help–a lot of help.

I’m nitpicking a bit, but only because I sometimes chafe at the thought that some directors are seen as the sole visionary behind a movie, and I find that unfortunate. I like the auteur theory, but I typically don’t like it when people embrace a theory and pretend it’s everything.  In a few cases, there are moments when a movie comes together magically: the visionary director, a heady writer, great cast, and a producer that knows how to pull this all together. Case in point: Two-Lane Blacktop.

Two-Lane Blacktop is one of my favorite movies. Directed by Monte Hellman, written by Rudy Wurlitzer (yes, he’s the scion of the jukebox family), produced by Michael Laughlin, and starring James Taylor, Brian Wilson, Warren Oates, and Laurie Bird, Blacktop is a strange and wonderful movie, as esoteric and obscure as one of those great drives you take that lingers in memory. What fascinates me is that only Warren Oates really went on to cinematic glory–the rest either died (Wilson, Bird), never acted again (Taylor), or went on to a career studded with problems, dead ends, or outright failures (Hellman, Wurlitzer, Laughlin.)

Wurlitzer had some success as a writer, penning the great Peckinpah film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, but then he’s also responsible for the shitty Little Buddha. A lot of people love Hellman, who had some acclaimed movies like Cockfighter, The Shooting, Ride in the Whirlwind… but then he also directed Silent Night, Deadly Night 3. Michael Laughlin is best left alone.

Two-Lane Blacktop is regarded as Hellman’s masterpiece. The Criterion Collection’s DVD of the film is a sweet package, with the movie, a dynamite booklet with terrific essays, and the original screenplay. That screenplay tells us a lot.

For starters, it tells us that Two-Lane Blacktop was originally around three hours long. And to be honest, it was going to be one hell of a mediocre movie.

One of the essays is by Film Comment’s Kent Jones. He writes about how Blacktop was able to be made in part by the success of those counter-cultural icons, The Graduate and Easy Rider. He (rightfully, I think) reminds us that those movies are hampered, Rider especially, by a reliance on “big themes”. “Where Hopper’s film is set in the Great American Dreamscape,” he writes, “Hellman’s vision of the American West if far less pretentious, parceled out in nicely measured, seemingly offhand portraits.”

Problem is, this is true only in the final film. The screenplay is another matter altogether. It is important to note that Hellman bought into Wurlitzer’s vision and filmed it almost verbatim–he turned in a three-hour version. Initially, Universal found the script to Two-Lane Blacktop and loved it–it was a straight-up racing flick, hoping to capitalize on the Easy Rider craze, and, by every account, a total piece of crap. This was the one written by Will Corry (who received $100,000 for it–an amazing sum in 1971.) Corry’s version is lost, and virtually none of it made it to the big screen. Hellman was asked to direct, but he hated the script, so he turned to Wurlitzer, whose novel, Nog, Hellman admired.

All I can say is, I’m glad wiser heads prevailed. There’s an excerpt of Nog in the beginning of Criterion’s published screenplay, and it borders on awful, but it does not border on pretentious–it is totally pretentious. And his script for Two-Lane Blacktop is the same way. I grant that Wurlitzer was wise to dump Corry’s number, since it was nothing more than the usual “good friends fighting over a girl” movie (or at least that’s the general consensus.) But where the final Two-Lane Blacktop is truly a mix of “nicely measured, seemingly offhand portraits” of America, Wurlitzer’s original is weighted with the same lousy, “important” scenes as Easy Rider was.

Take for instance a strange moment early in the script. The Driver (Taylor) and the Mechanic (Wilson) are tooling along outside a town in Arizona. They see some cops, who are driving punishingly slow. The Driver passes them, but at normal speed. However, the cops flip on their lights, and we know The Man is about to bear down on our heroes.

Well, they make their escape, eluding the fuzz by zooming away, heading down a residential street and quickly pulling into a driveway of a suburban home at night. The boys pile out of the car, and then, inexplicably, stand and stare in the window at a scene of a family just sitting down to dinner to eat roast beef.

Get it? They’re on the outside looking in. And oh those cops! What makes the final cut of Two-Lane Blacktop so effective today, what makes it so timeless, is the fact that, unlike many movies of that time, there’s no hippie/straight dichotomy, no didactic moments showing us Real America, no pigs with their guns and Billy clubs beating down the kids. The script, Wurlitzer’s script which was shot whole by Hellman, is rife with talk about The Man, with the Girl (Bird) going on and on with random shit like “I only talk when I’m uptight. I’m not into words. I like to just flash on someone and get outside of word games.”

Thing is, Two-Lane Blacktop is a delicate picture. Like the ’55 Dodge they drive, it needs to be perfectly balanced, every part humming. But it hums along; its engine runs perfectly smooth. You add a few scenes to this movie, and it would ruin the thing. Cut some, it would be imbalanced. Its dialogue could be awful in spots, but instead it sings–but if you were to add more, ladle on the trippy talk throughout the movie, it would be tedious. It’s sure tedious in the script.

This perfect balance was, in part, a corporate decision on Universal’s part. Hellman sounds disappointed when he notes that they were contractually obligated to keep it at two hours. But he did as he was told and edited this preachy hippie flick into the perfect road movie.

I know that I’ve come down hard on Hellman and Wurlitzer, and we do have to remember that all that is in the final product is purely theirs as well. The fact that Hellman himself was the editor shows that he seemed to know that once cutting had to be made, he might as well hone it down to simply being a perfect driving picture.

My point here is simply that at times great accidents happen–just as sometimes there’s a serendipitous moment when you have a great drive which you totally didn’t expect to happen on a routine trip. Monte Hellman and Rudy Wurlitzer controlled this movie–they are its authors. Hellman was the one who brought in the great cast, and it’s his direction that makes it just sing, his editing made it lean. Wurlitzer was responsible for all the great lines in the movie, great little speeches that also benefit from being totally honest–it helps that they’re delivered by guys like Warren Oates.

Like The Third Man, one of the great collaborative movies ever made, Two-Lane Blacktop is a sort of accident, a bringing together of talented, though deeply flawed artists and a corporation willing to clamp down on them hard–but not too hard. The result–authors, editors, actors, everyone working in conjunction–made Two-Lane Blacktop a collaborative masterpiece.

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One Response to Who’s the Driver? Who’s the Mechanic? A Post About Auteurs.

  1. Ward Howarth says:

    Thanks for writing about this film, Peter. I love it & dug your insights.

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