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Cisco Pike & Two-Lane Blacktop

On the road again in Two-Lane Blacktop (Universal Pictures/ Photofest)

Two minor masterpieces carved from the bitter husk of the 1960s make up this superb double bill — both of them shot in 1970-71, one (Two-Lane Blacktop) greeted with incomprehension upon its release, the other (Cisco Pike) barely seen and lost to misty legend for nigh on 30 years. Linked by the casting of rock stars in the lead roles (Dennis Wilson and James Taylor in Blacktop, Kris Kristofferson in Cisco), the presence of Harry Dean Stanton, and an abiding sense of loss, they are nonetheless widely divergent in mood and tone. Cisco unfolds in vanished Venice, lost hippie citadel of the ’60s, where Kristofferson’s paroled pot dealer — a once-promising folk singer now anxious to go straight — is blackmailed by narcotics cop Gene Hackman into selling $10,000 worth of pot in 60 hours. His sales route leads through the studios and music-world hangouts that were once his domain, but now he’s just a delivery boy, patronized by his former musical cohorts, badgered by his girlfriend (Karen Black in her wide-eyed prime) and weighed down by the presence of his former bandmate (Stanton), now a junkie failure. This was Kristofferson’s acting debut, and his halting performance — sad-eyed, world-weary, but determined — foreshadows the end-of-the-line Billy the Kid he later played for Peckinpah, and nicely complements Hackman’s motor-mouth antagonist. The “small-town car freaks” of Two Lane Blacktop are too alienated to mourn the loss of anything, though the movie unfolds in dying small towns bypassed by the new freeways. Known only as The Driver (Taylor) and The Mechanic (Wilson), they’ve drifted away from their very names and personalities, talking an auto-shop argot of foot-pounds of torque, carburetor types and gas mileage, and little else. They’re merely vessels for an obsession with speed and performance, fleshly adjuncts to their souped-up ’55 Chevy. Nothing matters to them except their lackadaisical cross-country race for pink slips with an exuberant aging hipster and highway delusionist called GTO (an all-cylinders Warren Oates — “Color me gone, baby!”) in his canary-yellow muscle car. An uncategorizable entity — drive-in art-movie? existential drag-strip B flick? — Blacktop, with its exquisite, Edward Hopper–meets–Walker Evans evocation of melancholy roadside America, continues to yield up fresh riches even on the seventh or eighth viewing. (New Beverly Cinema; Sun.-Mon., July 16-17. www.michaelwilliams.com/beverlycinema)

—John Patterson


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