Friday, June 25, 2004

Two-Lane Blacktop, or James Taylor--Who Knew?

When I think of James Taylor, I (like probably a lot of Gen-Xers) see an image of a middle-aged, slightly balding singer with tunes on radio stations with catch names like "Soft Hits", "Light Favorites", "Kozy" or what have you. But Back in 1971, he was a dark, brooding (and stunningly handsome!) lead in an independent film called TWO-LANE BLACKTOP. Directed by cult legend Monte Hellman, the film follows two drag racing drifters, Taylor and Beach Boy's drummer Dennis Wilson, as they race the incomparable Warren Oates across the American southwest with a mysterious hitchhiker, Laurie Bird, in tow.

TWO-LANE BLACKTOP is minimalism at its best. The characters have no name, the dialoge spare, the landscape barren, even the 1995 Chevy they drive is stripped down to its primer gray paint. This is a movie that sneaks up on you. I remember thinking in the middle of my first viewing that nothing much is going on here, but by the time the last frame dissolves into nothingness, I am stunned at the film's stark beauty. Produced during the Vietnam war and social upheaval at home, TWO-LANE BLACKTOP is a meditation on alienated youth. Many critics have noted that this film captures the mood of the era better than its more famous predecessor EASY RIDER (1969). I tend to agree.

This would be James Taylors and Dennis Wilson's only acting roles. Laurie Bird would only appear on screen two more times, in Hellman's COCKFIGHTER (1974) and in Woody Allen's ANNIE HALL (1977). All three, in their own way, battled darkness with tragic results. Wilson would drown in 1983 aftern drunkenly jumping off his boat. Bird would commit suicide in 1979. Only James Taylor, who fought drug addiction and mental institutionalization, seems to have come out on the other side.

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