Two-Lane Blacktop(The Criterion Collection, 12.11.2007)
Eight or nine years ago, Monte Hellman's reputation was a bit of a mess. He hadn't made a film in ages and his most recent effort was the third entry in the increasingly forgettable Silent Night, Deadly Night franchise. It was around this time that Anchor Bay issued Two-Lane Blacktop on DVD for the first time, instantly reviving Hellman's rep and opening the floodgates for a series of wonderful Monte Hellman special editions, including The Shooting, Ride in the Whirlwind, Cockfighter, and Iguana. The latter two were also Anchor Bay releases. Hell, they even released the Shaw Brothers/Hammer Films co-production Shatter with a commentary by Hellman, even though his work on that film was uncredited.
By putting previously unavailable Hellman films back into circulation -- in their original aspect ratios with commentaries and other extras -- Anchor Bay may have singlehandedly salvaged Monte Hellman's reputation as one of the vital American auteurs of the sixties and seventies. Thankfully, Anchor Bay was on the case before anyone else... and it's quite possible that this Criterion release would never have come to pass if not for their hard work.
With that in mind, Criterion deserves their usual standing ovation for taking the baton and creating the ultimate Two-Lane Blacktop experience. But don't throw out that original Anchor Bay edition just yet. If you ask me, Criterion's release functions as discs 2 and 3 of a mind-blowing 3-disc Two-Lane Blacktop special edition started by Anchor Bay almost a decade ago. If you managed to get your hands on Anchor Bay's limited edition tin box release of Two-Lane Blacktop (complete with a keychain and other goodies), you might as well go ahead and stuff both editions inside (give it a try; they just might fit).
The main attractions on the old Anchor Bay disc were a short documentary (Monte Hellman: American Auteur) directed by George Hickenlooper and a commentary by Hellman and producer Gary Kurtz. Both have been dropped from this edition -- which is the main reason to hang on to the old one -- but Criterion has filled the void with pretty much every other extra a Two-Lane Blacktop fan could ask for, including the film's trailer, photo galleries, a look at the restoration of a '55 Chevy from the movie, and much, much more.
The video features provide solid info-tainment value that takes up most of disc-2. My personal favorite is the somewhat awkward chat between Hellman and James Taylor. They hadn't spoken for many years and, to this day, Taylor claims that he's never seen the film and still takes issue with Hellman's not-particularly-inclusive directing methods (for example, he wouldn't let Taylor watch dailies or read script pages in advance of shooting).
Hellman's chat with Kris Kristofferson is more friendly and laid back, though Hellman reveals elsewhere on this set that he actually wanted to use the Janis Joplin version of "Me and Bobby McGee" in the film. In the longest featurette, Hellman provides a tour of the film's locations -- and many behind-the-scenes anecdotes -- while cruising around with his daughter and several of his students.
It's also worth noting that disc 2 features the most mind-blowing screen-tests I've ever seen. It's amazing enough to see James Taylor break out a guitar a perform a brief set for Hellman's camera, but then we see the late, great Laurie Bird on location, interacting with extras and improvising dialogue with a deeply spaced-out white guy-with-a-fro (no, it's not Hellman), who also seems intent on getting into her pants. These scenes play like deleted scenes... from a different movie... but a movie I really wish I could see.
However, for my money, the real prize is the commentary by legendary screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer and author David Meyer. Whereas Hellman and fan/professor/director Allison Anders offer a lively and engaging discussion on the other commentary track, Hellman's aversion to analysis/interpretation proves somewhat stifling. Thankfully, Meyer and Wurlitzer fill in the gaps, providing many fascinating and original insights into this unusual and enigmatic film.
Criterion has also included Wurlitzer's original screenplay, which was published in Vanity Fair (under the headline "The Movie of the Year") long before the film was released. When I heard Criterion was including the script, I was skeptical, given the film's spare storytelling strategies, but as it turns out, this style only came into being because Hellman cut most of Wurlitzer's dialogue in the editing room. I haven't read the script yet, but it promises to be revelatory.
The other booklet included with this set features a decent essay by Kent Jones that relies far too heavily on Easy Rider and The Graduate-bashing for my taste. This booklet also includes a brief poem by Tom Waits, a terrific report from the set by Rolling Stone writer Michael Goodwin, and Richard Linklater's list of "Ten [Sixteen, Actually] Reasons I Love Two-Lane Blacktop." Though it seems that this list originated with an introduction by Linklater at South by Southwest, I saw him read the same list at The Toronto Film Festival in 2001.
This may all seem like overkill to some, but I've been sifting through this stuff for days and I still haven't had enough. This may be Hellman's masterpiece (though Ride in the Whirlwind comes pretty close) and it really does warrant intense scrutiny. Last, but not least, Criterion should be commended for improving upon the respectable, but slightly-too-soft Anchor Bay transfer, without losing any of the grain inherent in the film's 2-perf source. The transfer doesn't look perfect (nor should it), but it does seem to look exactly right.
So now that this release is a certified winner -- and easily the best release of a Hellman movie on DVD, thus far -- what's next for the mysterious filmmaker? If Criterion's feeling really adventurous, maybe they'll release the still impossible-to-find director's cut of Hellman's China 9, Liberty 37. In the meantime, fans can look forward to Stanley's Girlfriend, his first film in almost twenty years and easily the best entry in the still unreleased horror anthology, Trapped Ashes. This short deals with a little known chapter in the personal life of Stanley Kubrick and in no way, shape or form does it resemble a horror film. In fact, it's not quite like anything Hellman has directed before.
I got to interview Hellman in conjunction with the Trapped Ashes screening at the Toronto Film Festival in 2006 and, while he was already in his mid-seventies at that point, he seemed energetic, youthful, and ready to make more films. He was talking about an old school western executive produced by Paul Thomas Anderson and Martin Scorsese, as well as a project built around the incomplete final script by Carole Eastman. In his commentary on this set, he also mentions an ongoing project with a script that made him weep uncontrollably. Here's hoping Hellman gets the chance to complete one of these projects before the film burns out on his amazing, wildly varied, and all-too-brief filmography. -- Jonathan Doyle