Despite transparent light and searing heat, all seems frozen. Something clings to the landscape. Amidst Joshua trees and sagebrush, an ineffable presence surrounding even the stinkbugs.
This is where George Stevens—who once said that Utah’s western desert ranges “look more like the Holy Land than the Holy Land”—filmed The Greatest Story Ever Told. Soon thereafter, a younger man breathing that same numinous air made a very different kind of movie. In fact, Monte Hellman made two: The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, displaced and gritty, eternally unblessed, a diptych belonging to the Western, yet standing at a slight angle to it in the same breath.
Monte Hellman entertains a few questions on this perennial state of unblessedness, and the peculiar tone of what are, in my opinion, misnomered movies—his “Existential Westerns.” And here, I’m after the concrete processes that actually drive Hellman’s characters, his post-modern wraiths. So we touch on film theory, painting, politics, and, last but not least, that revenant of 1960s/70s cinema, actor Warren Oates. Always the smallest glint of insanity in his face, no matter how benign the expression—to me, Oates is the dark side of amiability, with those burlap features and that corpse laugh of his.
He reemerges in Two-Lane Blacktop, recently screened at Anthology Film Archives here in New York City. When I arrived home in the wee hours, after walking over the Manhattan Bridge with a buzz inspired by Hellman’s extraordinary film, I sent him an email. He responded almost immediately. A charmed night! Our short interview begins in Utah, where one big jowl with eyes (Oates) seems to well up from the parched earth of Monte’s no-man’s-land.
NOTEBOOK: Your movie, The Shooting (1966), emerges a year after the Stevens epic. Despite the shared location and profound sense of ghosts in the desert, your film couldn’t be more different—The Shooting is austere and scaled to simple, highly realistic storytelling. Of course, there’s also a pervasive dream-like atmosphere, so perhaps you’re telling a surrealistic story... with a straight face? I’m reminded of Balthus paintings in which the air surrounding the figures—his “negative space”—is always poised to congeal into dangerous forms.
MONTE HELLMAN: I wasn't familiar with Balthus, but dream-like and surreal applied to realism seem apt. Years ago, when I was hoping to make a movie from Kafka's The Trial (before Welles actually did it), I knew I was going to tell the story absolutely realistically. Regardless of subject matter, I believe, along with Kracauer, that motion pictures are concerned primarily with physical reality. Of course artists like Cocteau sometimes bend reality, but they do it mostly through manipulation of the physical. My methods in The Shooting aren't really any different form those in Ride in the Whirlwind, although the latter tells an absolutely realistic story, while the former does not.
NOTEBOOK: Does Ride in the Whirlwind have any political objectives?
HELLMAN: I don't usually dwell on "message" when I'm making my movies, but the phrase "guilt by association" seems to come to mind when I think back to the time of production. I seem to remember a conscious decision to forgo the concept of white hat and black hat in the movie. We also were conscious of an attempt to alter numerous clichés of the genre, hopefully to wreak havoc with audience expectations. I don't remember making the connection then, but there could be a case made that we were conjuring the McCarthy era.
NOTEBOOK: You mentioned defying audience expectations just now—and that was certainly my first experience with Cock Fighter (1974)—bewilderment. Especially after Warren Oates rips the head off a chicken, pressing it into the hand of his girlfriend as a love token. Did the humor/horror dichotomy bubble up of its own accord, or were you consciously going for shock value?
HELLMAN: I think when you have the hypocrisy of an illegal sport blatantly being ignored or accepted by the law, it can't help being funny. Then-Governor Jimmy Carter visited us on the set, although he very skillfully avoided the camera's eye. Also, Warren Oates couldn’t help being funny.
NOTEBOOK: How closely did you direct Warren Oates? I’m especially thinking of Two-Lane Blacktop.
HELLMAN: I don't "direct" any actors, least of all Warren. I try to choose actors I feel are capable of assisting me in telling the story.
NOTEBOOK: Were you aware of the intense feeling of loneliness in your compositions? It’s as if you channeled Edward Hopper.
HELLMAN: I don't normally think about the effect my shots might have, but rather what's best for telling the story. I do recall being aware of the feeling of loneliness the screenplay evoked in me.
NOTEBOOK: The reason I bring up Two-Lane Blacktop is that I saw it last night – and let me tell you I can still feel my bones ratting from that old Chevy. It felt like I was inside the thing. Even now, your edit leaves me kind of giddy. Returning to Balthus for a moment, I have to mention The Street, a masterful painting from 1933, in which the people move as if in a dream. There are funny moments but, ultimately, the whole scenario is grim, which is precisely how your movie makes me feel. It’s a heady combo.
HELLMAN: Everything I do in movies comes out of my unconscious, much of it from dreams. I am aware of continually breaking rules. Some of my older editor friends and mentors were shocked at my disregard of rules, and surprised at how well these broken rules worked. My method was primarily to search for the most effective performance, no matter the angle in which it occurred.
NOTEBOOK: Afterwards, I walked back to Brooklyn feeling high.
HELLMAN: That pleases me.