Wednesday, May 19, 2010


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 today we see are simple escapism--we always need a thrill ride away from the humdrum; some 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. Alongside the hard-to-find Cockfighter, and the rarely known westerns The Shootist and Ride the Whirlwind, Hellman seems a brand name slipped from its rightful place on the outsider American tongue. He's the director we thought Dennis Hopper would be after Easy Rider. Dennis turned out to be too addled and inconsistent --and he took too long over the coke-dusted editing bay. Hellman is more disciplined, the samurai to Hopper's sloppy magistrate, the Olivier to his Welles.

TWO-LANE eventually resolved its music issues and is now on an awesome Criterion two-disc set, decades after failing to get theatrically released in time to ride the slipstream of EASY RIDER or its predecessor THE WILD ANGELS or to overcome the hipster suspicion raised by the April 1971 Esquire cover (left), which proclaimed TWO-LANE their Movie of the Year before it was even released. Nothing turns off the countercultural cineaste like some petit-bourgeois, Rolex-hawking, semi-pornographic rag like Esquire announcing which film will define your generation before you've even heard about it. 

Then, as if bringing down a mighty curse, 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 without them--and with its hip taciturn veneer and minimalist vibe running counter to the AIP-drive-in idea of a facile good time--this head refused to pay for any publicity. So no one but the critics saw it, and some of them didn't even get it. Later on, it 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 it's almost funny that this royalty thing hung it up so often over the years. 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 hydro-colonic 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...

Robert Altman's CALIFORNIA SPLIT (1974) is similarly about the world of male bonding via "putting up or shutting up," and "laying it all on the table." There's no point digging for homoerotic subtext in a movie where the subtexts have been stripped down and exposed and nobody cares because once a subtext gets exposed. and if it doesn't lay down on the table it's because there's another game already starting. As with much of Altman and Hellman's output, we're given richly-layered characters immersed in a niche culture with its own insular overlapping dialogue complexity--in this case the semi-seedy smoke-filled back room poker games, racetracks and rundown casinos of LA and non-Vegas, Nevada. We watch the flashing of dollars in people's waving hands and hear the overlapping numbers. ("Three to one on Egyptian Femme in the ninth by eight points,") from a distance, like a little brother tagging along, craning his neck over crowded shoulders to see the table. Thrown in, jostled about, awash in sound--it's chaos to the untrained eye--dozens of bets going on at the same time in the same space--but in that chaos eventually we discern grace, aliveness. These characters love gambling. The quickness with which they willingly hand over huge piles of cash to each other --without receipts or invoices--is life-affirming. Honor and adherence to the codes and systems of betting and bookmaking is paramount. No one welshes or kibbitzes or moans in outrage or tries to cheat (i.e. "I never said fifty, I said five!")-- no matter how much bread is on the line. The chips are what count; the cash they represent is just an abstraction.  What's most important is the camaraderie, the thrill, the flurry of activity and flutter of passed-around paper, the glimmers of patterns within the randomness of luck makes them feel alive. And within that din, the Hawksian patter of George Segal and Elliot Gould functions like an earrly Tom Waits song interpreted by Lenny Bruce and Sal Paradise.

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 the same film in English "seems" trashy, no matter how existentially acute it is. 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 on your losing bets without bitterness 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.

BLACKTOP stars James Taylor and Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, and the idea of having two non-actor musicians as the stars may seem odd at first, but then you realize it's genius, just like the rest of the choices, because these guys might not know from acting, but man do they know the road, oh yeah. Whether struggling or successful, musicians spend half their lives (or more) on tour, city to city, bumfuck stadium to bumfuck ampitheater to bumfuck hole in the wall. Each gig is a roll of the dice: it could be sold out with adoring girls, or empty except for one drunk waiter screaming "Freebird!" between every song. Let me tell you, most of being a musician is a lot like this film: you drive for four hours, pull up to some gas station for a refill  and while one person takes care of the pump, the other people in your party pile out of the van, use the bathroom, steal some candy, buy some soda (for chaser, presuming they had the foresight to bring a flask), and wander around the grassy shoulders of the off-ramp, peeing in the bushes (if there's no bathroom), stretch, stare vacantly out into the spaces, noting under their breath how glad they are not to live in this freakin' nowhere town. Then you round everyone back up, and hit the road again. 

When you finally get to your venue, the drunken anxiety of the gambler really kicks in: you set up your amp and do your soundcheck and then have to wait around until 11 PM when the show starts, sitting in a big empty bar, wondering if anyone will come. The place is still empty by nine so you start to panic and you have to stay reasonably sober until at least second set, which is very hard when you're so rattled, and just sitting around backstage at a goddamned bar for hours with nothing to do, smelling the faint but nagging mix of stale beer, urine, puke and cigarettes of the night before. Finally you do your show and it is awesome, but the girls dancing in front that were giving you lusty looks all night vanish by the time your second set is over, and the ones still there are way too drunk and obnoxious to deal with.  Then you sleep on some cool dude's floor or in some girl's bed if you're lucky, or just stay up and drink until suddenly it's morning. Then you hit the road again. And if you've got the guts to coast that way, you can do it forever.... you're essentially homeless, or rather your home coheres around you at around, well, 65 mph or higher. Stillness in motion -- a home in that rock - your fate, the crowd you draw in each venue, seemingly open to chance. 

The dynamic of the relationship between Wilson's mechanic and Taylor's driver in BLACKTOP mirrors the drummer and guitarist 'types' in a band: on the road they're eerily calm as befits they who have learned to spend these long two-lane stretches between races listening to the engine for the slightest sign of disrepair, every mile like a period of zen detachment and pure focus--just as every beat, every bass note, needs to be in its perfect place. They talk about what needs tuning or tightening, what went wrong or right the night before. If they're in a band they listen to the soundboard tape to last night's show, played in the car all day long, i.e. you're forced to listen to every little bass guitar fuck-up you made because you were too drunk, again, Erich! You didn't wait til second set, did you? No, sorry Dave. You (the bassist) begin to feel less like Bill Wyman and more like Brian Jones..All the time there are three or four better bassists salivating in the wings, eager to take your spot. 

But Taylor and Wilson don't really drink. It would slow them down and they got to keep moving. 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 that, if he ever went there, he wouldn't know except leave again. 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 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.

Instead this focus on the art of driving is a spiritual thing that the truly enlightened, deranged, or anyone experiencing a mid-life crisis or lysergic epiphany can understand: the thing in itself doesn't matter so much as the right-minded doing - in this case the fast-talk distraction that comes from winning money, watching races and fights and admiring each other's vehicle or stack of poker chips. Losing with detached grace (rather than welshing or crying foul) is as important as winning. In that frame of mind anything can become poetry: the roosters fighting in slow motion in Hellman's COCKFIGHTER, or the white line dash blur of the blacktop. The beauty of the road is the way constant motion can breed deep inner stillness. Time and responsibility can be escaped through some motorized loophole.  Who wins the race or fight hardly matters to Hellman. Destinations are for chumps.

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.


  1. Anonymous21 July, 2016

    Nice review. Haven't seen Two-Lane Blacktop yet (but it's on my list). I enjoyed California Split. Have you seen Altman's "Images" from 1972? If you haven't, I think you might enjoy it. Oh and 3 Women from 1977 is amazing as well.

  2. Thanks ANonymous. Yeah I've seen IMAGES - the one part where she comes out of kissing a guy and its a different guy threw me for such a double spit take loop I'll never forget it. Altman, man, you know he's been there. But the bulk of it (aside from the main lady's play-combative relationship with the neighbor girl) just kind of lays there- as I recall.

  3. Anonymous22 July, 2016

    Yes, I like that scene you're referring to. I agree; Images isn't a great film by any stretch. I do love Susannah York and the Irish countryside setting.

  4. very nice entry Erich. I liked the band on the road description. "The sights, the sounds, the smells....."


  5. "BLACKTOP stars James Taylor and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys..." You mean Dennis Wilson, the drummer for the Beach Boys. Brian wrote the music and produced all of the Beach Boys music until he had his breakdown. Dennis drowned in 1983 at the age of 39 while Brian (with a lot of help) still tours with a very talented band.

  6. "BLACKTOP stars James Taylor and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys..." You mean Dennis Wilson, the drummer for the Beach Boys. Brian wrote the music and produced all of the Beach Boys music until he had his breakdown. Dennis drowned in 1983 at the age of 39 while Brian (with a lot of help) still tours with a very talented band.


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