Friday, March 20, 2009
Camera Obscura: Cars The Movies Love
The roads which cover America pulse with our lives and our lives become reflected as the cars we take to those roads. These aren't just roads - they are called 'national infrastructure', cars are economic giants, and wars are fought over oil and fuel around the world. Cars and driving are serious, really serious business.
I got lost on this road of thought when I decided to mention that you can see Monte Hellman's great 1971 movie "Two-Lane Blacktop" on Turner Classic Movies, 2:30 a.m. Saturday morning. The movie follows two guys - The Driver, played by then long-haired singer James Taylor, and The Mechanic, played by Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson - as they take their '55 Chevy tooling across America, hitting the drag racing circuits in town after town. Driving is their life. The Chevy is their home.
They hookup with a young female hitchhiker and then with another lost soul racing across the American landscape in a Pontiac GTO - actor Warren Oates in a must-see performance is the man known only as GTO. Each time he talks to someone, his entire life's background changes, and he gets obsessed with racing that Chevy. They criss-cross the country (including scenes shot in Athens, TN, and in Deals Gap, TN and in Memphis, plus Tucumcari, New Mexico, Needles, California, Flagstaff, Arizona - towns roll past like song lyrics.)
But the movie is no stack of simple action scenes - it's more a sad and moody song, the kind you hear in a barren roadside diner playing on a glowing Wurlitzer jukebox. Appropriate, really, since it was novelist Rudy Wurlitzer who wrote the script and with director Hellman created a unique American story set in that time when the love of roads and cars had started to peak, just a few years before the first Oil Crisis hit the nation. The hollowed-out rootless wandering of the 1960s is swallowing up all of the characters, too.
All the words of the characters are swallowed up too. There isn't much dialog in the movie. But you do hear the hum of the wheels on the highway and that incredible throaty roar of the Chevy (the sounds were lifted from this movie and used as the sound of Burt Reynolds' Trans Am in his "Smokey and the Bandit" movies). There were three Chevy's built by Richard Ruth for the movie, two went on the be used a short time later in "American Graffiti".
On one of many fan-pages of the movie found on the web, the car's description sounds like the lyrics of a Bruce Springsteen song and pure poetry for car fans:
"The 55 in Two-Lane had a big block 454 with aluminum heads, a tunnel ram intake and dual 4bbl Holley carbs. The transmission was a Munci M-22 "rockcrusher' feeding the power back to an Oldsmobile rear axle with 4.88-1 gears. Ruth fitted the car with a straight axle and four wheel disc brakes. The tilt front end was fiberglass as were the doors and deck lid.
Ruth also used plexiglass for the side windows that slid back to front instead of rolling up and down. The wheels were American mags 200-s, 15x6 front and 15x10 rear. They used M&H Racemaster drag slicks for racing and Firestone grand prix rain tires for street use. In the movie the car is said to run "well into the 12's. However later in the movie he beats "Mr. Bardahl". I heard the 55 was capable of low 10's at over 130mph! "
Back in 1971, there were no laws about seat belts, gasoline was 35 cents a gallon, road trips were something we inherited from the pioneer days. Today, it's hard to get much feel for the road in heated seat cushions, embedded DVD players and computer maps.
Something happens to you when you ride the road for long stretches. You're not a commuter anymore. It changes how you look, what you eat, and you start talking about "making good time".
Newer attempts at car movies don't cut it - the remake of "Gone Is 60 Seconds" went from lean independence to an over-glossed videogame. The upcoming release of the fourth "The Fast and the Furious" will see some theaters install new seats which are meant to shake and rattle their inhabitants like a thrill park ride.
A real car movie already knows how to make you feel the road. It's the journey itself.