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In the Driver’s Seat Again
Four decades after his low-budget opus Two-Lane Blacktop put him on the map, director Monte Hellman returns to form with Road to Nowhere. It’s about time
Monte Hellman is the ultimate outlaw filmmaker. His films are about desperadoes, cockfighters, Wild West badmen, and drifters along Route 66; and in the 1950s and early ’60s, when the Hollywood studios still dominated American movies and no one knew what an “independent” director was, Hellman emerged from B-picture mogul Roger Corman’s school of film on the fly embracing its outlaw aesthetic. This may have been because it was in his nature to make virtues out of limited time and money or because, having been mistaken for an outlaw at the outset, he had—like the innocents in his 1965 Ride in the Whirlwind—no choice but to become one.
Being Hellman was never as easy as being, say, Jack Kerouac or Bob Dylan. Novels and songs lend themselves more readily to the natural solitude and light-on-your-feet insurrection of the guerrilla artist; you just need a typewriter or a guitar. But movies—notions of auteurism aside—are inevitably conspiratorial, involving collaboration in the most bare-bones circumstances. With a total cast and crew of a couple dozen plus, costing less than a million bucks (cheap even by the standards of the day), 1971’s Two-Lane Blacktop was at once Hellman’s “biggest” movie and his most quintessentially incorrigible. An open-road odyssey free of polish and embellishment if not existentialism and metaphor, Blacktop starred Warren Oates, Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, and James Taylor exuding more charisma in an hour and 40 minutes than he has in 40 years of music; from the California border to Tennessee, the film follows two street racers who pick up passengers along the way and place their bets on a trip that begins before the movie starts and ends after the movie is over. Blacktop was as close to the big time as Hellman was ever going to get. The subject of an infamous Esquire cover story that hailed it as the year’s best movie months before its release, it tanked, maybe because two years after Easy Rider Hellman, pushing middle age and suspicious of the era’s facile agendas, seemed to audiences to be the disciple when in fact Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Jack Nicholson were his.
Even outlaws want an audience, and the failure of Two-Lane Blacktop knocked the wind out of Hellman. Four decades later, and more than 20 years after his last and worst feature, Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out!, Hellman’s new Road to Nowhere has had scattered screenings locally and is being released on DVD this month. His first work since Blacktop to match that film’s confidence and audacity, Nowhere is different from not only Blacktop but from anything he’s done. Where Blacktop was rock and roll John Ford, Road to Nowhere is punk Antonioni; as written by longtime collaborator Steven Gaydos, it’s fragmented and kaleidoscopic. A director making a movie based on a recent unsolved crime casts in the lead of the femme fatale an unknown actress who bears a closer and closer resemblance to the woman in the “real” case, as unfolding events bear closer and closer resemblance to the “real” crime—and that’s only stating the film’s reality-within-art-within-reality premise at its most obvious. In contrast to Blacktop, where the road is as long and linear as a strip of unspooled celluloid, Road to Nowhere is a vortex, and one is tempted to say that along with Antonioni there’s also a little David Lynch—while retaining Antonioni’s distance, the film achieves Lynch’s obsessiveness—until you realize there was a little Hellman in Lynch’s Lost Highway. Maybe the 20-year hiatus, or the 40 years since Two-Lane Blacktop, as well as whatever profound dismay Hellman felt making slasher pictures that were beneath him, liberated the filmmaker from the artistic prejudices he formed over the first half of his career, or from the pact he made with the muse to whom he feels no longer bound. I don’t need to make films like this, I can make them like that. Hell, I’m 80—I’m near the end. I’m more truly an outlaw now than I ever was.
It’s been a season for cinema’s lions in winter, who can rightly be considered renegades, at the least eluding whatever claims on them the Hollywood establishment has tried to make. For the most publicly renowned, Woody Allen, who is near fourscore like Hellman, Midnight in Paris is more a return to form than anyone could have expected, and therefore understandably overrated. The first quarter transplants the standard Allen tropes from Manhattan to Paris—it’s both disconcerting to see Owen Wilson playing Woody Allen and a relief to see anyone but Woody Allen playing Woody Allen—until a flight of imagination hijacks the film and us with it. At the end of a career Allen still is capable of finding a new source of inspiration, even if he’s a bit late stumbling onto the City of Light a century after everyone from Hemingway to Henry Miller, and even if it throws his New York myopia into sharper relief: As we’ve suspected all these years, it wouldn’t have killed him to get out more. Conversely the new movie by Terrence Malick (the kid in this trio, on the sunny side of 70) isn’t so much a variation on a theme as the movie that’s been hiding inside his other movies. In retrospect we can see that The Thin Red Line was a prelude to The New World, which was a prelude to The Tree of Life, wherein the tedious business of plot finally is dispensed with altogether. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Tree of Life calls for a different way of seeing and considering cinema, and I think there’s already a growing suspicion that, as with the Kubrick movie, years from now naysaying could look clueless.
Inspiration is more finite than any artist wants to admit. It’s not just a case of energy flagging or ideas exhausting themselves, nor a matter of the second-guessing that becomes more obligatory the deeper into a body of work an artist gets. Rather it’s the perspective that wearies, the inability to see anew the future in terms of the present. You’ve been facing the same direction so long that you can only hope to notice, in your line of sight, something you’ve overlooked all this time, or hope that as you get closer to what you’ve been watching, something comes into view that always was there but too far away to see. At some point near the end, however, the artist turns around. Maybe it begins with a glance over the shoulder, but in any case it’s a different view, the present in terms of the past, which risks nostalgia, not to mention self-absorption. Three independent filmmakers summing up three very different careers in three very different ways, Allen, Malick, and Hellman negotiate the hazards of nostalgia in their new movies and, directly or obliquely, comment on it. Having made a movie that no one would confuse with anyone else’s, Allen the former joke writer renders the irresistible past a punch line, which is that one person’s irresistible past is someone else’s unsatisfactory present. Having made a movie that distills to its purest state everything that’s distinguished his vision, Malick the former philosophy student floods the past with the white light of the cosmos; once our sight returns, only myriad versions are left of the present—dinosaurs munching on plants by the river, a mother receiving a dreadful telegram that plunges the rest of her life into grief, a small black planet swimming toward a nova like celestial sperm to a new egg—along a time line that bends into a circle. Nostalgia is a conceit of the human condition. God got over nostalgia back around the Flood when, thinking everything would turn out differently if He started over, He found out it didn’t.
Unlike Allen and Malick, Hellman had no previous life before the movies. He’s the once and future cineast, reinventing his outlaw aesthetic as something no one would have anticipated but that makes sense as soon as you’ve seen it. There’s a scene in Road to Nowhere in which the story’s film director—whose name, “Mitchell Haven,” is in the opening credits rather than Hellman’s—watches enthralled the early ’70s Spanish film The Spirit of the Beehive, about a small girl living under Franco who sees 1931’s Frankenstein and finds her own life transformed. For Hellman this is evidence of cinema’s power to exist outside time or recollection, where there are movies inside of movies inside of movies, and no such thing as nostalgia. Every time you watch a movie you become part of its moment, whenever it may have been, and you live the moment over again rather than simply remember it. In the final scenes of Road to Nowhere, reality catches up with art and then becomes consumed by it, Mitch Haven tumbling into whatever chasm between the two still exists. This time the credits that roll are the real ones, and it’s a measure of what the movie achieves that it barely matters. The director whose name mirrors Hellman’s winds up where outlaws must, as the camera slowly closes in on a woman’s parted lips and the chasm within.
Photograph courtesy Everett Collection