We’re not beginning to…to…mean something?
Mean something! You and I, mean something!
Ah that’s a good one!
—Samuel Beckett, Endgame
In Monte Hellman’s 1971 roadsploitation masterpiece Two-Lane Blacktop, James Taylor’s nameless protagonist sits on a fence ruminating on the life cycle of cicadas.
“Those are some freaky bugs,” he tells his traveling companion. “They come out of the ground every seven years…to crawl out of their skins and grow some wings so they can fuck, and then they die, but before they die they manage to lay some more eggs.”
The line echoes another from Hellman’s 1964 World War II picture Back Door to Hell. In that case, though, the sentiment refers to humanity: “What’s so special about a human being? They get born, they stumble around in life for a while, they die. That’s all.”
If any thematic motif unites the disparate filmography of one Monte Jay Hellman (née Himmelbaum), born in 1929 in Brooklyn and raised everywhere from Missouri to California, whose filmography encompasses schlock from 1959’s Beast from Haunted Cave to 1989’s Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out!, it’s this sense of life’s essential futility.
“I think there is a touch of Beckett in everything I have done,” Hellman said in 1988, and his interest in the esteemed absurdist saw him direct the first Los Angeles production of Waiting for Godot. The Los Angeles Times review of the 1957 production, only the fifth to premiere worldwide, described it as “unquestionably one of the most mystifying events ever presented to the public.”
Hellman’s theater company was forced to disband after a year; their space was converted into a movie theater, which would one day become the New Beverly Cinema (so it goes). But from this brief dalliance in avant-garde theater came an offer from one of the company’s investors, B-movie mogul Roger Corman: “The theater is being converted into a movie theater, and you should take that as a sign. You should direct a movie.”
Hellman was handed the opportunity to direct Beast from Haunted Cave, a film budgeted at $13,000 and given 13 days to shoot. There’s little to recommend Beast from Haunted Cave save one conspicuous Hellmanesque dramatic conceit: a group of outlaws trek into the wilderness (here, a snowy one) in pursuit of some goal that seems pretty damn unlikely from the jump (making off with a load of gold bricks) only to be annihilated in a genre-specific cataclysm (the attack of the titular beast in the titular cave).
In 1965, Hellman returned to Corman. Now joined by their mutual associate Jack Nicholson, the director asked Corman to put up the cash for a New Wave-inspired film in which Nicholson would play a character (based on himself) who tries to raise $300 so his girlfriend (to be played by Millie Perkins) can get an abortion.
“I don’t want to make this picture,” Corman told them. If they wanted to make something commercial, though, that would be a different story. “So we said, ‘What’s commercial?’” Hellman recalled later. “And he said ‘Well, a Western is commercial’…Then he said, ‘Well, if you’re going to make one Western you might as well make two.’”
So it is that we have The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind—two low-budget Westerns directed back to back by Hellman and starring Nicholson, two projects designed to comprise the bottom halves of double bills, but two films imbued with enough existentialist anxiety to place them comfortably in conversation with Monte Hellman’s beloved Samuel Beckett.
The Shooting opens on a paranoid man. This is Gashade (Warren Oates), who seems unable to trust the very atmosphere around him as he creeps through the wilderness on a return trip to his mining encampment. Once he arrives, Gashade discovers only his traumatized friend Coley (Will Hutchins), who bears the news that Gashade’s brother Coigne has killed a man and a “little person” of indeterminate age in a nearby town. Perhaps in retaliation, an unseen assassin has killed their friend Leland, and Coigne has taken to the hills.
It has long been Hellman’s preference to drop viewers into a film as late as narratively possible. “To me, the ideal story begins at the beginning of the crisis,” he told the Asbury Park Evening Press in 1970. “I don’t really care how my character arrives at the point of crisis, only what [they’re] going to do about it!” It’s likely this principle that led Hellman to eliminate the first ten pages from writer Carole Eastman’s debut screenplay, removing as much context as possible. The Shooting is a film cut to the bone—Hellman even pulled two frames from the beginning and end of each shot in order to save on runtime—and as a result, the viewer is left with precious few spots on which to grab purchase and orient themselves.
The morning after Gashade returns to camp, a woman (Perkins) appears on the ridge. She materializes in the space of an insert shot—we see the barren ridge, a quick shot of a soaring bird, and then the same ridge with this unnamed menace perched atop the rocks. The introductory technique epitomizes The Shooting’s relationship to realism; there is nothing strictly surreal about the woman’s arrival on the scene, but something feels ineffably off about it, a movement of bodies through space that seems to just slightly disobey the agreed-upon rules of reality.
The woman demands that Gashade and Coley escort her on an ambiguous journey, and so the group sets off into the desert, the perfect absurdist landscape. Just like the wasteland of Waiting for Godot—a backdrop meant to stand in for a pointless existence on a spinning rock—we watch three people ride over the flat plains towards what looks for all the world like nowhere at all.
Writing in his 1961 book The Theatre of the Absurd, critic Martin Esslin argued that Waiting for Godot is a play about how it feels to “experience the action of time…self-defeating, purposeless, and therefore null and void.” The characters’ unchanging lifestyle allows them to focus on the passage of time, and so be “[confronted] with the basic problem of being—the problem of the nature of the self.”
The theatre of the absurd was a midcentury artistic subgenre rooted in existential anxiety, a fear that the world might not operate on comprehensible rules. By way of expressing the universe’s mercurial nature, characters in absurdist drama often have a habit of shifting their bearing and demeanor inexplicably, underscoring our inability to ever really grasp the circumstances of our surroundings. In Waiting for Godot, we have the meek Lucky and bloviating Pozzo, cartoonish characters who undergo a radical and uncanny transformation between acts, and while The Shooting doesn’t feature any character as outrageous as those, it does feature the constantly shifting moods of the woman, who turns on a dime from peevish to mocking to petulant. And soon enough, the story’s uncanniness is elevated by the arrival of her associate, the natty gunslinger Billy Spear (Nicholson). Wearing black gloves and a crisp-brimmed hat, Spear receives as little context as the woman, and with their dual intrusions into the world of Gashade and Coley, The Shooting offers a clear and present microcosm for the world’s unknowable hostility.
If there is a foundational text for the philosophy of absurdism, it would be Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, in which he argues that a perception of life’s absurdity arises from a perception of life’s pointlessness—the sudden onset of a feeling that one’s daily routines are as ineffectual as Sisyphus endlessly pushing his boulder up a hill, only to see it roll down again every time. If any task in the real world might echo Sisyphus’ hopeless quest, then crossing the desert in pursuit of someone with a head start would seem to qualify. Beckett had a preference for lightening up his own dour prognostication with bursts of vaudevillian humor, and while Hellman isn’t above a touch of the same (much of it courtesy of Coley, who carves a hilariously wordy tombstone early on, and later attempts to gracefully hop onto a fence only to tumble back off), his view of life’s absurdity seems distinctly more dour than Samuel Beckett’s.
Much of The Myth of Sisyphus concerns itself with the matter of death—how can we believe in the meaning of life, after all, when we have no hope of ever agreeing on the meaning of death? Death has rarely been as cheap as it was in the Old West, a lawless landscape in which life wasn’t worth much at all; you could kill someone, dump the body on the sand, and it could so easily seem that they were never there in the first place. For that reason, there’s an essential nobility to Gashade’s choice to bury Coley after the younger man is gunned down by Spear, a repaying of Coley’s identical gesture to Leland. He may not be able to imbue his friend’s death with any significance, but at least he can grant it dignity.
There’s an elastic term, acid Western, used to describe a loose collection of counterculture Westerns in which the rules of reality seem mutable, warping and rippling in the heat wafting off the packed sand. Jonathan Rosenbaum, usually credited with popularizing a term first coined by Pauline Kael, cited The Shooting in his first handful of exemplar acid Westerns, but held up against other prime examples like Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, Hellman’s film might seem to be a borderline case. Unlike other classic acid Westerns, nothing outright surreal takes place in The Shooting, though it’s very easy to mistake the ending for a breach of reality.
The horses die. The party runs out of water. And still they trudge on until they come upon a man clambering up a canyon wall. The woman shoots, and the man turns—he has Gashade’s face. Seeing Warren Oates’ uncannily doubled visage, it’s easy to feel as though the movie’s relationship to realism has slipped off the axis and into a realm of dream logic. Only the film’s final line of dialogue—Gashade’s desperate “Coigne!”—offers us an anchor: this must be Gashade’s brother, an identical twin the viewer may well have forgotten exists by this point in a hopelessly disorienting story. According to Hellman, Corman insisted on inserting multiple references to Gashade’s brother throughout the story, terrified that the viewer would forget Coigne’s existence, but Hellman believes the effort was futile; with Coigne all but entirely absent from the story, he evaporates from the viewer’s mind immediately after each invocation. And so it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that Gashade has come upon his own doppelgänger in this desert canyon. By now, the universe of The Shooting would seem to allow it.
Ride in the Whirlwind, the sibling film to The Shooting, has some thematic overlap—again, Hellman presents a story of paranoia and pursuit co-starring Jack Nicholson and Millie Perkins—but it lacks the suffocating dread that elevates The Shooting to the status of what Brad Stevens, writer of Monte Hellman: His Life and Films, terms “the first Hellman film that can be described as a masterpiece.” Despite this vaunted status, though, neither The Shooting nor Ride in the Whirlwind was widely seen for years. After no distributor proved interested in Hellman’s Westerns, the films languished in canisters until Corman arranged for television broadcast (so it goes) in the early 1970s. By then, Nicholson’s rising fame had made these two low-budget oddities into something resembling a commercial proposition, but the pressures of commerciality have not tended to be of primary concern to Monte Hellman. When another of Nicholson’s breakouts, Easy Rider, led Universal to ask for their own counterculture road movie primed for crossover success, Hellman took the mandate and delivered Two-Lane Blacktop, yet another existentialist yarn in which people ride out towards nowhere in pursuit of something they seem only fitfully to actually want.
In The Theatre of the Absurd, Martin Esslin claimed that “works that are essentially concerned with conveying their author’s sense of mystery, bewilderment, and anxiety when confronted with the human condition” function as “the clearest and most concise statement of [their own] meaning and message, precisely because [their] uncertainties and irreducible ambiguities are an essential element of [their] total impact.” Though his book was published half a decade prior to The Shooting’s production, Esslin could just as easily have included Hellman’s film in his categorization. This is an elemental story, one that can be studied and analyzed but one that will likely shake the analysis off like a horse flicking a fly from its haunch. The Shooting speaks for itself more clearly than any essay could, and though it may have been built to shout its message up from the bottom of a double bill, its voice is loud and clear, its message as dark as cowboy coffee.
The closing image of The Shooting depicts Billy Spear trudging into oblivion. Gashade has annihilated his shooting hand, and so the only capability that gave his life any significance has been taken away. Now, just as we all must do in some form every day, he shuffles into the haze, hoping it’s not too late to make some kind of meaning out of existence.
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