The event of the year so far for me is the chance to see Road to Nowhere, the first feature in 21 years by Monte Hellman. He and the film were fêted at Venice and now, this Thursday through Saturday, the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian is hosting an in-person tribute, with a killer pair of double bills and a sneak peak at the new film.
Hellman has long been the unsung hero of American cinema, the quiet artist, best known for an obscure road movie with strange casting that tanked when it opened in 1971. That’s Two-Lane Blacktop, starring singer James Taylor and Dennis Wilson, of the Beach Boys, as the Driver and the Mechanic of a souped up ’55 Chevy. They are men without qualities just as snazzy GTO (Oates) is a man of too many, all put on. They agree to race across country for pink slips but the movie has little interest in the contest itself; like all Hellman’s greatest work it’s stripped to the philosophical barebones, the difficulties of communication, and of existence and its meaning. In Cockfighter (1974), Warren Oates doesn’t even speak for most of the film: a self-imposed vow of silence as he takes his bird on circuit to the title he threw away the year before.
These are arbitrary acts to provide focus, and purpose, but their validity is suspect. Hellman shot both films deep on location, in faceless places by the road, unremarkable hotel rooms, in ways that make the background fade away, or at least become interchangeable; his realism is such that it can be played out anywhere so long as the camera is running, and the more abstracted the better. As Hellman unremittingly strips away all that is inessential, it is the tension caused by this self-generating reality that combusts in the radically perfect ending of Two-Lane Blacktop.
The stars of that film don’t really act so much as exist, or rather live the bare story that was given to them in pages as they shot chronologically across the country. The result is a spare, remarkable film of dream-like power. It’s as little about cars as Cockfighter is about cockfighting. Oates is fantastic in both, finely nuanced, and if the latter is a less sparse – though no less brilliant – that’s partly because producer Roger Corman shot more actual fighting to cut in. Hellman and Corman go back to the 60s together, when Hellman repaired botched Poe adaptations. In 1965 Corman paid him to make a pair back-to-back westerns with Jack Nicholson which, after a pair of curious and enjoyable Philippines-set films, proved the first full flowering of his talent.
Ride in the Whirlwind has an added bonus in old-hand iconic Cameron Mitchell, although like the film as a whole, he is noticeably subdued. Mitchell, Nicholson and handsome Tom Filer are traveling cowhands mistaken for outlaws, holed up and hounded. It’s a bleakly absurdist injustice, and a tale full of Sisyphean tasks and dead ends. In The Shooting, Nicholson plays a gunman hired by the mysterious, imperious Millie Perkins to hunt down rascally Warren Oates. Just as in the 70s’ films, the goals are presented as arbitrary. Whirlwind is the more conventional western, though defiantly unromantic; dialogue was plucked from Old West diaries, and the film has a real-life immediacy bolstered by grubby, non-descript production design. The Shooting, by comparison, starts with extraneous detail and strips itself bare: figures stalk through barren landscapes for reasons unknown to us. In its relation to conventional cinema, and full of enforced inaction, Whirlwind goes with Hellman’s Philippines films; The Shooting, however, was his first existential masterpiece, a film whittled down to essentials, with ambivalent fatalism, mesmerizing power and a killer ending.
If each of these films seems suffused with the meaninglessness of existence, they yet avoid being meaninglessly bleak. Partly this is because the process of examining existence is so grippingly rigorous; partly because his characters do achieve moments of human contact, even if it will not last; and partly because Hellman is a film-maker of rare artistry. There is a quiet exhilaration in his film-making, the exercise of the art, and in its inextricable relation to real life. His new film Road to Nowhere makes that explicit, inspired in part by how Hellman and long-time collaborator Steve Gaydos used to shoot. The lead, a director making a movie based on a real life intrigue, almost has Hellman’s name; the mysterious actress who may not be what she seems is partly inspired by Two-Lane Blacktop’s Laurie Bird; and Hellman shot across America and Europe guerrilla-style with a digital SLR. The narrative triggers of his best work function in a similar way to Hitchcock’s MacGuffins and the intricate games of Jacques Rivette, an excuse to make the film, and in Hellman’s case, examine these people and these relationships, even if the context is borderline abstract. Road to Nowhere sounds like a more ambitious puzzle piece than he has yet given us, from murky convolutions of plot to the bleeding of fiction and reality. I can’t wait.
- Two-Lane Blacktop plays with Ride in the Whirlwind on Thursday May 12, starting at 7.30pm
- Cockfighter and The Shooting are on Friday May 13, 7.30pm
- Road to Nowhere plays on Saturday 14, 7.30pm
Monte Hellman will be in attendance at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood all three nights.
Read more about Road To Nowhere via David Hudson’s excellent round-up on Mubi.