Cinema and gambling go together. Even those not betting at drag races or Reno craps tables have no problem cathartically sharing in lucky streaks of others; we get lost in the thick of the action, our mood rising and falling with the stacks of chips at our hero's side. And filmmakers are nothing if not gamblers themselves: moving fast and loose with huge wads of other people's cash, tangling with the odds, and making choices moment-by-moment that can make or break the bank. One huge hit and they're flush, one bomb and they're on the skids.
Most films just offer escapism --a thrill ride away from the humdrum; some films are 'artsy' and drag us closer to "messages" we'd rather not address, like mom guilting us to church; others subtextually congratulate us for being bourgeois enough to relate to first world problems like lost love and backstage opera dramatics. A few, truly great films bring us away from the phony profundity of congratulatory bourgeois grandeur, away from social or political sermonizing, and even away from pure escapism, and closer to something like real purity of essence (P.O.E). We can see ourselves--as escapists, i.e. moviegoers-- in these rare films the way parents see themselves in their children. Well, I see my brother Fred in the lug wrench work involved with being a drag race mechanic in TWO-LANE BLACKTOP (1971), a mythopoetic saga of masculinity that reverberates to my core, and shit. So how come both BLACKTOP and Altman's gambling drama CALIFORNIA SPLIT (1974) are so underseen? Doesn't anybody ever roll the dice no more?
I saw Nicholas Ray's LUSTY MEN (1952)--a story about the manly world or rodeo riding-and BLACKTOP-director Monte Hellman's COCKFIGHTER (1974)--about the manly world of cockfighting--a couple years back, on the same day, and wrote that I thought neither was on DVD in any reputable form due to their edgy titles (put together they read like a gay porn marquee). The problems besetting BLACKTOP and SPLIT are similar, but more of a legal rather than promotional nature, specifically: song rights. Apparently just having a Doors tune playing from a radio in the distance at a drag strip, even if only for a minute, can spin your film into limbo for generations to come.
Then, for different reasons, the new head of TWO-LANE's parent studio hated the film, He didn't "get it." He probably would have loved it had it been in French with English subtitles, which every bourgeois philistine considers a signifier of a certain kind of artiness. But as it was, he refused to pay for any publicity. Then it had a hard time on video due to copyright issues associated with that damned diegetic Doors song. Oh brother. What a bad luck streak! BLACKTOP uses music so sparingly anyway. The '55 Chevy has no radio, so all music is either heard in Oates' GTO or else playing out of speakers at the various drag spots. When the music does appear, your ears devour it. The songs seem extra nurturing after the enigmatic silences and roar of exhaust pipes and V-9201 triple D hydrophonic quad engines... but are they worth the limbo? Course not - screw the Doors anyway, Hellman should have just slid in an alternate track, like Altman did for our next film...
One of the more artsily respectable ('cuzza subtitles) of these "flurry of activity" subtext-melting precedents for all this is the Rome stock exchange in L'ECLISSE (1962, above and so below). You can argue Antonioni is criticizing capitalist greed in these scenes, and you'd be right, but that's a pretty simplistic analysis. He's really in awe, marveling at the way idle humans can find something to get passionate about, their spirits rising and falling over literally nothing--for no one passes any actual money around in these stock market scenes (as opposed to LANE and SPLIT). They just shout numbers: "20,000 Finsider at 20!" and write things down on pads. The effect is something anyone who's been in a foreign country and not known the language can understand and perhaps that's why subtitles make crass French movies "seem" artsy while a film in English about gamblers or drag racers "seems" trashy no matter how existentially acute it is-- and when either contradicts our expectations, we rear back like spooked horses. A common currency breeds resentment, but a special private language shared only by your fellow degenerates creates a special nook. There's no race, age, class or gender distinctions, only who's got the cash to back up their hunches. And paying up without bitterness when you lose helps ensure you win next time, because karma isn't abstract in these worlds -- lucky streaks are recognized as they cohere within the time-space continuum -- and gamblers shape their lives like ascetic monks in total service to the Goddess of Chance.
But Taylor and Wilson don't really drink, it would slow them down. Even the girl they hook up with can't seem to find a way to get them to notice her. And again, if you're in or were ever in even a moderately successful band you know this feeling, because you and your bandmates need a certain open channel ESP onstage to be any good. When that's obtained you become closer than a family, a true band of brothers. The only thing similar I've seen is in Sam Fuller war movies, the way the men fall all over each other, tap each other's helmet in the third eye area like an on-the-prod benediction.
By comparison, Warren Oates' GTO-driver is hopelessly insecure, alone with no purpose or destination, other than living his dream of owning and driving a GTO and never looking back (this being the day when gas was under $1 a gallon). He alone listens to music. His challenging Wilson and Taylor in a race is apparently for friendship rather than monetary interests, but of course neither team can admit that. Oates' idea of taking "the girl" and driving somewhere like "Chicago or New York" is the plan by which all his dreams will come true. He's old enough to know though that he wouldn't know what to do there except drive away. It's the "We're retired in Florida now, Mister" dream of EASY RIDER, but she's not buying it, just as Captain America didn't--and neither, once the dust of his bullshit settles, is Oates himself. He cycles through outmoded braggart personae like a man searching his pockets in progressive desperation at the toll booth.
Existence on the road is all these people seem to have - their house exists only at 55+ mph on the blacktop ribbons tying America together like a giant wondrous gift; they have no address, no home other than their car, or-- in the girl's case--someone else's car. Momentum, stillness in motion, soothes their nervous longing. Stretched out along Route 66, they're vagabonds on wheels, sleeping in shifts or just hanging out in some no-horse town at the best time to be hanging out in such towns, dawn. GTO's patter indicates he's aware of this perpetually displaced vagrancy while fundamentally unable to "accept it" and stop the idle chatter. He tells his disinterested hitchhiker passengers that these boys he's racing with "get hysterical... They run right over ya if they get the chance; but they can't stand up to the 455 no way." As if anyone even knows what that is, as if even he knows.
Some movies can portend to be about everything cosmic and cool, but are really about the director's narcissistic insecurity, like Woody Allen's. Monte Hellman's are the reverse: they're about the masculine psyche finding a way to calibrate itself (once all the illusion escape plans are exhausted) via some spiritual discipline -- Zen and the Art of the Chevrolet, and at their core these boys reveal a transcendental quietude worthy of Ozu or Bresson. And much as I love EASY RIDER, you can see the difference as clear as night and day between the judgmental redneck bashing of Hopper's film and the way Wilson quietly changes his license plate when driving through the Deep South because he doesn't feel "safe," letting you infer deep suspicion towards out-of-staters, but sparing us any actual redneck violence, sleazy sheriffs or other cliches.
Foreign film subtitles create this same disconnect--which is why 'abstract' or signifier-disrupted films tend to be more appreciated outside their native country. Hellman gets that the intensely insular language of "carspeak" or "cockspeak" is like that (Altman is a bit different - he leaves us on the outside of it more literally). Students go abroad to be plunged into foreign situations, they handle it better than adults, absorbing the strangeness with no learning curve or means of judging it as either good or bad. Make it too unfamiliar to ever breed contempt, and it's lasting art. Once thoroughly solved, well, fade-to-burn, baby, and don't roll no post-singe credits, when the film's final image burns in the projector, don't wonder if the film broke or it's some arty flourish - just quietly pack up the car and hit whatever road leads farthest away from whatever 'here' happens to be lying around. Once that speedometer crests 55, you know you're home at last.