Thursday, 22 April 2021

Satisfactions that are Permanent: Monte Hellman 1929-2021

Monte Hellman, the great American film-maker has passed away at the grand old age of 91. I was first introduced to Monte Hellman by Alex Cox, who often mentioned the likes of Two-Lane Blacktop and Cockfighter during his introductions for film screened as part of BBC2’s Moviedrome’s cult film season. Indeed Hellman’s signature film Two-Lane Blacktop was screened as part of Moviedrome’s 1989 season, but this was just a little before Cinema became one of my obsessions. In fact for a number of years, Hellman’s film were almost like rumors; impossible to get hold of here in Ireland, and I had to wait a few years for the arrival of DVD to secure Stateside copies of Two-Lane Blacktop, Cockfighter and Iguana (all courtesy of Anchor Bay) and The Shooting (VCI). The best of Hellman’s films are hard to pin down, and their pleasures not easily explainable. They can be mysterious and elusive, obscure and aloof, but most film scholars will agree that his best work are among the most remarkable films in post-War American Cinema. He was also the greatest director, Peckinpah included, of Warren Oates with whom he made four masterpieces with: the aforementioned The Shooting, Two-Lane Blacktop, Cockfighter and their last film together, the underrated and underseen China 9 Liberty 37. I’m looking thru filmography section in Brad Stevens' excellent 2003 biography Monte Hellman: His Life and Films and I’m reminded of the often uncredited film work he did, having a hand in The Intruder, The Terror, Dementia 13, The Wild Angels, St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, Head, Shatter, The Killer Elite, Avalanche Express, The Awakening and Robocop. Hellman was famously generous and supportive to film students, often taking them out of the classroom and into the field on his own productions and in the 90’s he became a sort of godfather to the American Independent scene when he helped secure financing for Reservoir Dogs, earning an executive producer credit.

To mark the passing of Monte Hellman, I watched Two-Lane Blacktop last night. By right I should have chosen Ride in the Whirlwind or Iguana, two Hellman films I haven’t seen enough, but the pleasures of Two-Lane Blacktop are inexhaustible, and despite numerous screenings over the years, the film retains that special mythical quality. As ever I’m fascinated by the casting of James Taylor in the film, and here he delivers a strikingly hesitant, even uncomfortable performance. I often wonder was the making of the film difficult for Taylor who famously had never seen the film until it was released by Criterion in 2007 (which Taylor put down to in part to the film being long unavailable, which is true), so it’s nice to see him in the pictures below looking relaxed and cheerful.

Filming Two-Lane Blacktop: James Taylor, Monte Hellman and Dennis Wilson

Filming Two-Lane Blacktop: Dennis Wilson, James Taylor, Laurie Bird and Monte Hellman

Filming Two-Lane Blacktop: Monte Hellman, Warren Oates and James Taylor

Watching the film again last night, it occurred to me that Taylor’s Driver is nursing a kind of death wish – not in the conventional sense, but it’s as if The Driver’s failure to make a connection with Laurie Bird’s Girl, results in his giving up the last vestiges of his humanity to meld with the Chevrolet 150. The Driver never sleeps in the film, unlike The Mechanic and G.T.O., and when The Mechanic suggests he get some sleep, The Driver replies: “I feel good. I can take it all the way”. It’s as it The Driver has become a man-machine, such is his obsession for motion. Famously in the film, the race between the Chevrolet and the Pontiac simply peters out, that the race was never about pink slips anyway, but about the rituals involved (engine maintenance, getting across states without being noticed, picking up the necessary cash at grudge matches). When G.T.O exits the film, the story finally runs out of road and the film is effectively over, and while The Driver has yet another drag race to take part in, the celluloid itself seemingly exhausted from these ever decreasing circles, combusts as if to say, “Enough, no more!

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