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Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

2012 National Film Registry

Courtesy of Universal Pictures and Michael Laughlin Enterprises

During a short-lived period following the success of such youth-oriented films as “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Graduate” and especially “Easy Rider” in the late 1960s, Hollywood executives financed — with minimal oversight — a spate of low-budget, innovative films by young “New Hollywood” filmmakers. With influences ranging from playwright Samuel Beckett to European filmmakers Robert Bresson, Jacques Rivette and Michelangelo Antonioni, one such film was the minimalist classic “Two-Lane Blacktop.” The film follows two obsessed but laconic young operators of a souped-up 1955 Chevy (singer-songwriter James Taylor and Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson) as they engage in a cross-country race with a 1970 Pontiac GTO, whose loquacious, middle-aged driver (Warren Oates) continually reinvents his past and intended future. The drivers’ fixation on speed, mastery and competition is disrupted when a 17-year-old drifter (Laurie Bird) joins their masculine world and later leaves them in disarray. Director Monte Hellman and screenwriter Rudolph Wurlitzer allow audiences time to absorb the film’s spare landscapes, car-culture rituals and existential encounters, and to reflect on the myth of freedom that life on the road traditionally has embodied.

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