It has taken a long time for American audiences to find Monte Hellman but perhaps now is the time. Hellman started his career about the same time as Scorcese, Da Palma and Bogdonovich but his films failed to connect with audiences and he faded quickly into obscurity though he developed a cult following in Europe. Heilman is perhaps best known for his role as Executive Producer of Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs but people are now discovering what an exceptional director he was. His films are elliptical and very intense, filled with lonely brooding characters desperately searching for connection whether it is in the Utah desert or on a drag strip. Though the medium of DVD, his works can now be fully appreciated for the masterpieces they truly are.
Directed by Monte Hellman (1967)
"Did I tell you to do something?" - Billy
"I don't give a curly-hair, yellow-bear, double dog damn if you did" - Coley
Four people ride across the desert tracking a killer but it is not clear who they really are and who it is they are looking for. In Monte Hellman's subversive western The Shooting, just released for the first time on DVD, Warren Oates is Willett Gashade, a bounty hunter turned mine owner who returns to find his brother Coin missing, his partner dead, and a fellow worker in a state of panic. When a strange woman shows up, the three set out on a journey with an unknown destination that leads to a final bizarre confrontation. The Shooting has more questions than you can find on the SAT and it is often a frustrating challenge to fit the pieces together. Hellman shot the film on a limited budget in eighteen days in the desert country near Kanab, Utah with B-movie producer Roger Corman and a young actor named Jack Nicholson.
It was released to television and did not play in the theater until years later after it developed a cult following in Europe. The quality of the transfer is impeccable but the dialogue borders on the incomprehensible. Slow-witted but good humored Coley (Will Hutchins) is fearful as he tells Gashade that he was asleep when he heard an argument between Willett's partner Leland Drum and Coin. He says that Colin fled, and Leland was shot dead by an unseen gunman and tells Gashade something about Coin having ridden down "a man and a little person, maybe a child," but Coley's not sure about that. Soon, a woman (Millie Perkins) who is not named arrives and offers to pay Gashade to guide her to Kingsley, a town that lies some hours away, beyond a dangerous desert. The woman is abrasive and complaining but Coley takes to her immediately while Willett is distanced and aloof.
Mystery piles upon mystery. When the riding party sets out, the woman asks to be led in the wrong direction without offering any explanation. The woman shoots her horse claiming it was lame but it turns out have no broken bones. When asked why she shot the horse, after a long period of silence, she can only muster a feeble smile. Along the way, Coley, Willett and the woman meet up with Billy Spears (Nicholson), a nattily dressed gunman with a sadistic smirk, and it becomes apparent that the purpose of the journey may be to track down the person or persons responsible for shooting Leland. Beyond that it is anyone's guess as to what the film means and an unforgettable climax does not clear up the confusion.
The director has said that The Shooting is a mirror of the Kennedy assassination where doubt remains about what actually happened on that day, but the connection is murky. Whatever its ultimate meaning, The Shooting is an involving ride full of twists and turns and Jack Nicholson's mighty performance as Billy is worth the price of admission. Actually the meaning may be revealed when Gashade says to Millie, "If I heard your name I wouldn't know it, would I?" She says, "No." Then he says, "then I don't see no point to it." She says, "there isn't any." Perhaps like life, The Shooting doesn't mean anything. It's just there to grab your attention.
Directed by Monte Hellman (1971)
Long out of circulation because of disputes over music rights, Two-Lane Blacktop, now available on DVD, is one of the most original and compelling American movies of the twentieth century. It is a road movie, a film about cars, and a search for meaning in American life that could easily be called "Zen and the Art of Drag Racing". Shot from the inside of a car, it is an authentic vision of what it is like to be driving across America at a specific historical moment. Promoted by Universal Studios in 1971 as an answer to Columbia's Easy Rider, the film was originally released to less than enthusiastic audiences but has since taken on the status of cult classic and it is richly deserved. Unlike Easy Rider, it is a film that simply observes and what it sees is pure Americana: its people, gas stations, diners, and drag strips. We feel the claustrophobia, the spaces, the speed, and the loneliness.
The film stars singers James Taylor (Fire and Rain) and Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys as taciturn drag races who drive their souped-up 1955 Chevy across the country challenging locals to a drag race. The main characters are drifters. They come from nowhere and are headed east, toward a destination that is murky at best. They are people whose reality begins and ends with their machines. Everyone talks about how good life can be -- somewhere else -- in New York, Chicago, the beaches of Florida, and the coast of Mexico, somewhere up the road apiece. Warren Oates, a Monte Hellman regular, turns in a truly outstanding performance as the driver of a Pontiac GTO who challenges Taylor and Wilson to a cross-country race, the prize being the ownership of the cars. GTO is a talkative fellow who concocts tall tales about his background to impress every hitchhiker he picks up (one is a gay cowboy played by Harry Dean Stanton). He is a sad and perhaps self-destructive individual but he is human and you can reach out to him and feel his pathos.
First time actors Taylor and Wilson express little emotion and there is scant dialogue but they also seem right for their roles. Their total focus is on their car. Though the Chevy looks old and ugly, it is as powerful as any car on the road and the driver and the mechanic treat it like their own flesh and blood, constantly fine tuning to maintain its impeccable performance. They go from town to town, just trying to survive by racing. In the words of author John Banville, they "have no past, no foreseeable future, only the steady pulse of a changeless present". Along the way they pick up a cherubic young roadie (Laurie Bird) who is willing to go wherever the ride takes her. After each of the boys has sex with her in motel rooms and in the car, she becomes moody and resentful and fears that she is being used but has nowhere else to go. Though the main thrust of the plot is the race to Washington, DC, the focus seems to get lost along the way, and the film becomes more of a character study of the lack of human connection than about racing.
The film looks for the soul of America in the early 1970s and comes up empty. It was released in 1971 at a time when the hopes and dreams of the '60s counter culture had given way to the disillusion of Kent State and Altamonte, the bombing of Cambodia, and the media's cynical preemption of the Hippie movement.
The movie is about everything and nothing. Everyone is biding their time waiting for life to turn out rather than creating the possibility. Though they live for the moment there is no joy, only the gnawing reality of something missing. They are like many of us, skimming along on the surface of life, reminiscing about a goal that once seemed real but is now just out of reach. They look ahead to a blank future, while ignoring the life around them, what is in the present moment. Two-Lane Blacktop is an exceptionally beautiful film, a poetic description of a world without possibilities. It may also be the definitive statement of the anguish of the materialist paradigm that has begun to crumble and fall apart.
Directed by Monte Hellman (1974)
Cockfighter, another Roger Corman/Monte Hellman collaboration, explores the popular but mostly illegal "sport" of cockfighting (it is banned in 48 states). The film was marketed under several different titles but it never caught on and was virtually unseen until the Anchor Bay DVD release in 2001. Based on a novel by Charles Willeford, the film contains one of Warren Oates' best performances as Frank Mansfield, a trainer of prize cockfighters. Since he was disqualified for the "Cockfighter of the Year" award for excessive drinking and talking during a fight, Frank has taken a vow of silence and refuses to talk until he wins the medal. Filmed in actual outdoor arenas in Georgia (cockfighting was legal in Georgia) by cinematographer Nestor Almenderos (Days of Heaven, Kramer Vs. Kramer), the crowds at the matches consist of real fans and people who have participated in this brutal spectacle, giving the film a documentary look and feel.
In Cockfighter, we are privy to a world that none of us will probably ever see or ever want to see, a world where roosters are bred and trained to engage in a deadly battle with other birds for the benefit of gamblers and spectators. With cocks equipped with little metal hooks attached to their feet to make them more deadly, Cockfighting is shown for what it is, a violent bloody business filled with sleazy operators who have no feeling for the life and death of the animals. Though the roosters in the film were destined to be killed in matches anyway, there is animal violence in the film and those that object to this should be forewarned. I personally had to turn away from the screen on several occasions.
As the film begins, Frank has lost a match with his friendly adversary Jack (Harry Dean Stanton) and has to give up his truck, mobile home, and his girlfriend Dodo (Laurie Bird). Without wheels or money, he sells his house where his brother (Troy Donahue) and his sister-in-law (Millie Perkins) had been living and visits fiance Mary Elizabeth (Patricia Pearcy). Mansfield is a driven man, yet also one who is thoughtful and gentle and the scenes with him and Mary "talking" about their future with a glittering lake in the background are unforgettable. Mary loves him and wants to get married but is clearly put off by cockfighting and will not go to a match. To shore up his finances, Frank goes into partnership with Omar (Richard B. Shull) and his luck seems to turn for the better. Like most films about sports or competition, the adversaries end up in the big match, in this case, the Southern Conference finals.
While Cockfighter contains some sports cliches, it is not a soap opera in any sense. Rather it is a thoughtful character study of a man on the edge, caught between the only profession he has ever known and a chance to escape a lifetime of loneliness. Although Oates says only a few words during the film, his facial expressions and hand gestures leave little doubt about what he is thinking and feeling. Hellman, true to the standard he set in his earlier films, has created a gritty and involving film that deserves a wider audience and Oates gives the film true character.