Brett Howard Sproul

Photographer | Graphic Artist

THE VIETNAM WAR & TWO-LANE BLACKTOP

One thing that helped my Father deal with the past was watching movies. Among his favorites was a very old copy of Two-Lane Blacktop, which is a much bleaker and far more mature and complex counterpart to his other favorite film, American Graffiti, which nostalgically portrayed youth culture in the early 1960′s.

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971, directed by Monte Hellman), is about two wayward, unnamed young men in their mid-twenties who drive a heavily modified 1955 Chevy across country surviving off street races. They meet a female teenage drifter along the way and a wandering middle-age man who they challenge to a multi-state race for pink slips. The film is deceptively simple and never gives a forthright explanation for anyone’s behavior, but masterfully portrays an inherently irresolvable societal and personal discontent across generations.

In the film, each character exists solely in the present because they have nothing else, although the present is mostly a reminder of a past they try futilely to escape through the solitude of the road and ultimately from each other. Conversation is banal, and meaningless physical contact and proximity are substituted for intimacy. Only the 1955 Chevy and 1970 GTO receive genuine trust and affection, which they reciprocate through the speed and performance that brings the sole fulfillment and joy the men experience, briefly providing some semblance of escape and point to their existence.

For me, Two-Lane Blacktop represents an era I knew yet didn’t, with characters I knew yet didn’t, who were compelled by distant and not-so-distant experiences and the resulting inadequacies, fears and anguish that yielded broken lives. Their past, however, has become an abstraction, a dream that may or may not have happened as recalled, and one that’s primarily discarded even though it and a barely acknowledged, insincere hope towards an indefinite and likely perpetually transient and empty future are what propels everyone forward.

The resulting restlessness and persistent movement are misconstrued as freedom, or unconvincingly designated as such, but essentially represent a larger cage and a lack of better, more fulfilling options. The thought of stopping is equated with death, or at least relinquishing the search for life’s greater significance that will finally confer some semblance of peace.

I was born in 1971, and the 1970′s I knew correlated closely to the nomads in Two-Lane Blacktop, albeit in what passed for the real world and with real people; ones whose devastation by and estrangement from so-called civilization were much greater, as were the long-term effects. I experienced first-hand the lost generation of Vietnam War Veterans whose country didn’t want or respect them, wouldn’t acknowledge them and the mental and physical ailments they suffered, and essentially abandoned them to adjust and survive alone in a world that lost most of its meaning and that they were ill-equipped to handle.

They unintentionally and unknowingly passed those consequences to their children, some of whom continue to fight an unwinnable war, which for most people is simply a footnote in a brutal, bloody and irrelevant history. But it’s a legacy I struggle with every day.

To me, the characters in Two-Lane Blacktop will always be young men and women aimlessly speeding away the remnants of youth, trying to figure out why and where it’s all heading.

 

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    THE VIETNAM WAR & TWO-LANE BLACKTOP

    One thing that helped my Father deal with the past was watching movies. Among his favorites was a very old copy of Two-Lane Blacktop, which is a much bleaker and far more mature and complex counterpart to his other favorite film, American Graffiti, which nostalgically portrayed youth culture in the early 1960′s. Two-Lane Blacktop (1971, […]

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