Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

Masculinity Doesn't Drive Itself

I went to see Two-Lane Blacktop last night at The Loft, after kdotdammit brushed aside her concerns about everything we need to do around the house and told me that I simply had to see the film on the big screen, not least because it featured my Lieblingsauto, the Pontiac GTO, about which I recently wrote a disturbingly revelatory entry. Unfortunately, when I arrived at the theater I discovered that it was screening upstairs on the not-very-big-at-all screen. I was sure that the pristine print Kim and hollsterhambone had seen at the director-in-person event on June 18th would have been scratched to hell. When I called Kim to tell her of my disappointment, though, she insisted that I stay the course. I'm glad I did. Whether it was through sheer luck or a repair made to The Loft's upstairs projector, the film still looked great. Damage was minimal. And, because I took her advice to sit on a couch in the front row, it looked big enough to override the sensation of watching a big-screen television that you get further back.

Kim already gave a long and extremely insightful analysis of the Two-Lane Blacktop experience -- the film itself, the special event audience, the Q+A -- on her blog. While I missed out on the hot rods in the parking lot and their drivers inside The Loft, I certainly saw ample confirmation for the excellence of her reading. The film is definitely, unequivocally, and rather self-consciously dealing with the desires men have for each other. There are plenty of moments when sexual innuendo intrudes on otherwise "innocent" exchanges. The looks that actors James Taylor, Warren Oates, and Dennis Wilson exchange with each other and which they pointedly do not exchange with Laurie Bird's listless female passenger are a perfect example of the triangulations and exclusions that feminist theorist Eve Sedgwick describes in her highly influential book, Epistemology of the Closet. It's hard to imagine a film being more homoerotic without depicting actual sex between men.

Having said that, however, my own perspective on the film is a little different. What struck me most -- and please bear in mind that I already had Kim's reading in my head to bounce my ideas off of -- in Two-Lane Blacktop was the film's exploration of the relationship between masculinity and authenticity. The key figure for me was Warren Oates's 1970 Pontiac GTO-driving dramatic foil. His choice of automobile is crucial. Though GTOs of that vintage are now regarded as classics -- though perhaps not as classic as ones from the latter half of the 1960s -- they would have been regarded as somewhat contrived and artificial when the film was made. Oates's character -- credited in the screenplay simply as "GTO" via a metonymic logic the film goes out of its way to reinforce at every turn -- is driving a brand-new, factory-stock "muscle car," because he has neither the knowledge nor wisdom to put his own muscle into cars. Unlike James Taylor's "Driver" and Dennis Wilson's "Mechanic," who drive around in a primer-ugly 1955 Chevy that has been inelegantly but effectively modified for street racing, Oates drives the dealer-showroom conception of cool.

I understand this better than I understand my bodily urges because as a pre-schooler I spent countless hours poring over a 1971 Pontiac catalogue that my father had brought home for me. One of the cars inside it was a GTO in almost the same color and trim as the one Oates drives in the film, though his is from a year earlier. I had fantasies about that car as it was represented in the catalogue, a response that Pontiac surely wished to elicit from the grown men who shared my fixation. At any rate, I think it matters a great deal that, no matter how authentic GTO's GTO seems to us now, thirty-five years later, it is the very model of inauthenticity within the narrative itself. The Driver and The Mechanic clearly mock GTO at various junctures in the story and regard his car as a potentially interesting vehicle seriously limited by the fact that it has not been modified to exceed factory specifications in any way.

And yet, although The Driver and The Mechanic seem to represent authenticity in stark contrast to GTO's lack of same, they are bound to him in ways that call their own identity radically into question. Instead of proving themselves by leaving this desperate, pill-popping fool in the dust, they go out of their way to stay close to him, as if they need him to be reminded of who they are. Just as they require the myopic arrogance of local street racers they encounter on their cross-country drive in order to support themselves financially, they also require GTO's obviously clueless attempt to impersonate a real car buff in order to support themselves psychologically.

In other words, their authenticity is parasitic on an inauthenticity that is, in turn, parasitic on their performance of authenticity. The closer you look, the more obvious it becomes that no one in the film is able to live up to the ideal of masculinity that saturates the narrative. It is telling that the race to which The Driver and The Mechanic challenge GTO never comes to a conclusion, because arrival at their geographic destination would signify achievement of the telos or "end" of masculinity. The goal is like a mirage floating up where the highway merges with the horizon, always in view and always as distant as it was the minute before.

To sum up, then, I read Two-Lane Blacktop as a film that exemplifies Judith Butler's theory of gender as much as it does Eve Sedgwick's theory of masculinity. If masculinity is revealed to be a performance that always falls short of its mark and one, furthermore, in which authenticity and inauthenticity play off each other in an infinite regress of uncertainty, then the homoerotic dimension of the narrative must be shadowed by the sense that the erotics of homo are inextricably bound up with the realization that this classificatory term transcends any conception of gender difference. All human beings belong to the category of homo; none deserve the name "man." I use the word "deserve" very deliberately here, because its ambiguity suggests both that no one is worthy of the designation -- we can't live up to the ideal of masculinity that our culture forces upon us -- and that no one deserves the opprobrium of being given a name that so forcefully limits freedom.

Two-Lane Blacktop's metonymic logic pays off most handsomely in our recognition that the project of masculinity requires daily repair. Not only do The Driver and The Mechanic fail to reach their goal, they also spend a lot of time tinkering with their vehicle in the process of not reaching it. The adjustments that The Mechanic makes to the 1955 Chevy -- significantly, they are usually the same adjustments, made over and over and over -- are, in a sense, the adjustments that those people called "men" must make in order to sustain any semblance of momentum. Without that work of the automotive bricoleur, they would fall to pieces, their becoming rendered as inert as the hulks of cars in a scrap yard. Ultimately, motion toward a goal, even if that goal is unattainable, is preferable to its cessation. At least, that's the argument that I see Two-Lane Blacktop advancing. The self is no auto. Masculinity doesn't drive itself.
Tags: film, history, theory

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