A treasure to some, trash to others, “Drive”—the shameless B-movie starring Ryan Gosling in the laconic role of “Driver”—signals a revived interest in the car chase film, which has had a remarkable and colored history in American cinema. Car chases are a staple of action movies, but few films truly give top billing to cars themselves.
“Drive, They Said: Car Chase Cinema,” the latest midnight movie series presented by IFC Center (323 Sixth Avenue at West Third Street), brings together some of the most interesting films in which cars play a starring role. After kicking off with “The Fast and the Furious” (2001) last week, IFC offers “Two-Lane Blacktop” (1971) Oct. 21 and Oct. 22 at midnight.
Although the film and its director, Monte Hellman, may not be familiar to many, the historical importance of “Two-Lane Blacktop” cannot be overstated. Its release was hot on the heels of the birth of the so-called New Hollywood, in which studios responded to both Americans’ growing interest in European art cinema as well as its overall liberal zeitgeist in the late ’60s. Studios produced such films as “The Graduate” (1967), whose commentary on American family values sparked debate, and “Easy Rider” (1969), whose formal experimentation and counter-cultural spirit more or less revolutionized cinema. Contemporary viewers of “Two-Lane Blacktop” will hardly believe that it was distributed by Universal. Unlike the New Hollywood films of the 60s, the film positions itself totally at odds with standard studio fare. Its meandering plot, elusive characters, lack of a rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack, and general ethos of abstract minimalism makes it feel like it could have been directed by Claude Chabrol of the French New Wave.
Like in “Drive,” the similarly-named protagonist of “Two-Lane Blacktop” is called simply “The Driver.” Played by singer-songwriter James Taylor in his first and last role in a feature film, the Driver heads east from Los Angeles, leaving behind the youthful drag racing scene he’s embroiled in, on a road trip in a souped-up 1955 Chevrolet with his friend, “The Mechanic.” Somewhere in New Mexico, they cross paths with a man in his 40s (played by the great Warren Oates) who is also making his way cross country. Dubbed “GTO” for his 1970 Pontiac GTO, the man and the Driver decide to race to the nation’s capital. Along the way, a hitchhiker the Driver picks in California, known only as “The Girl,” complicates the duel with GTO and raises the stakes higher than those of a simple gentlemen’s bet.
While a bevy of car chases naturally ensue, “Two-Lane Blacktop” is no action or crime picture. IFC’s “Car Chase Cinema” series covers that genre plenty, though, with films such as “The Bourne Identity” (playing Nov. 11 and 12) and “The French Connection” (Dec. 2 and 3). Made the same year as “Vanishing Point” (Nov. 4 and 5), another experimental road movie that treats its cars as much as its lead actors as main characters, “Two-Lane Blacktop” is as exhilarating as it is timeless. One of the film’s biggest fans, writer-director Richard Linklater (“Dazed and Confused”), wrote, “it’s both the last film of the sixties–even though it came out in ’71—and also the first film of the seventies.” Despite its heavy ties to the Western, he added, “it’s the purest American road movie ever.”