Vanishing Pointrecommended viewing

Don’t go into the light
Richard C. Sarafian
Barry Newman, Cleavon Little, Dean Jagger, Victoria Medlin
The Setup: 
Guy is chased as he drives car fast.

I had always heard about this movie and had a vague interest in seeing it, just because everyone else is so excited about it, but it was watching the Tarantino section of Grindhouse that prodded me to advance it to the top of my list. And now I know what the fuss is all about.

The first thing we see are the credits and have a moment of: “WHAT?! Charlotte Rampling?!” Which is awesome, I always like to see her [although we barely do, that’s another story]. Then we begin in this tiny Western town at dawn. There is a gorgeous shot with the camera down on the ground, picking up the pale pink of the sky as reflected in the surface of the highway pavement, as the black silhouettes of two tractors come toward us. We see some of the people of the town gathering, including an old codger chewing in a weird way. The tractors move along and clank their pails down next to each other, creating a roadblock. You’ll notice that the tractors are shot from very low angles so that they appear monumental; they looks like an Edward Burtynsky photograph from Manufactured Landscapes.

We then join Barry Newman as Kowalski, in the famous white Dodge and being chased by a helicopter. He looks sort of like a cross between Mac Davis [Remember Mac Davis? Didn’t think so] and Tom Jones. He comes toward the tractors and stops, turns around, drives, then pulls off the road by these abandoned wrecks of cars, gets out and has a think. Then he gets back in the car and takes off. Throughout one has been noticing the incredibly beautiful skies the camera has captured. There is a gorgeous long shot of his white car and a similar black car shooting toward each other, and the frame freezes just after they pass. We then get a close-up of the two, and the white car fades out. Then a title: California, Sunday, 10:02 AM. Welcome to Vanishing Point! And, as I have written in my notes at this point: Is it possibly going to get better than THIS?

We then flash back to the previous Friday night. Kowalski, who delivers cars for a living, arrives at a bar to get some speed, explaining that he must drive the car from Denver to San Francisco in 15 hours. And now, off he goes.

We then have a nice, lengthy shot of a blind black man slowly ambling through a desolate Western town. We see some white residents regard him as he slowly picks along, enters a building, and then suddenly explodes into loud jive into a microphone; he is at a radio station. This is Super Soul, the other major character in the film. Soul plays the music that Kowalski listens to as he drives and eventually starts sending him coded messages about where the cops are waiting.

So Kowalski picks up two motorcycle cops on his tail, gets chased, eventually runs them off the road. I read somewhere, no idea if it's true, but it's interesting if it is: that this movie takes place not long after the introduction of speed limits on US highways, and the cops were new to enforcing these new laws and were unsure what they would really mean. It’s also important to keep in mind that the only crime Kowalski has committed—before he runs the cycles off the road—is speeding. And it can’t hurt to remember that we don’t really know WHY he has to get this car to SF—he just DOES.

So there is fast driving and occasional chases all set to the sound of some good soul and 70s rock music. It’s hypnotic, and the director continues to shoot it all to emphasize these masses hurtling through space. This was apparently one of the first movies, after Easy Rider, to feature an all-rock music score.

So while he’s intermittently being chased—at one point by this rich yahoo who wants to test his shiny sports car—we have admirably brief flashbacks to Kowalski’s past. These come in a nice non-linear fashion, but we will get a nice summation by a police officer later. Kowalski was in the Army and went to Vietnam, then came back and was a police officer, but got thrown off the force after he stopped a fellow officer from raping a girl in their custody. Then he became a private eye, and a dirt biker, and at one point a girlfriend of his drowned, and finally now he is reduced to delivering cars. So you see it’s all about a man who has been burned by the system and is now a total outsider and perhaps a little bitter.

So he meets various folks and has little picaresque adventures along the way. He meets this rattlesnake seller who goes to this Pentecostal revival in the desert where Delaney and Bonnie are singing a seemingly endless song about Jesus. Interestingly, David Gates of Bread and Rita Coolidge and among the musicians. He then picks up two gay hitchhikers from a broken-down car with a “Just Married” banner on the tail. These gay fellows cannot be said to be represented in the most positive light. The one who sits in front looks like Roman Polanski and speaks in a breathy, Marilyn Monroe-type voice, saying to Kowalski “You’re so silent… and moody.” Then they pull out a gun! Now, Kowalski ain’t gonna be robbed by no prissy fags, so he beats them, jerks the car and opens the door, sending them flying, and which point the one in the backseat minces “Oww! My hand! It hurts!” It is an entirely hateful portrayal, especially as it seems intended to make the audience feel that “those fags got what they deserved.” And also--WHY did Kowalski stop, if he's in such a hurry? I’m a fool for not listening to the director commentary on this sequence. Given that he later states that when one has gotten involved with women one has sealed one’s own doom, I can only imagine what his comments here might have been.

As it goes on, Kowalski starts drawing the grass-roots support of the common man. He meets a few more people and has more narrow escapes, but the law is tightening in. I’M GOING TO REVEAL THE ENDING NOW. Finally he sees the tractors, shot with a bit of light shining through where their blades meet, guns it for them and kills himself in a burst of flame. We then see a title saying it’s 10:04... the ending shows several clues that ties the moment into the beginning, but does NOT include his break by the abandoned cars [during which we now know he was deciding to kill himself], and his passing by the black car. This black car, which looks to be the exact same car as Kowalski’s, only black, has been periodically seen throughout the movie, like a lurking death doppelganger car. At the moment from the beginning—which we know is the end, this death car finally catches up with Kowalski. On the commentary the director refers to the sliver of light between the two tractor blades as “the crack in the fence” that Kowalski—who is way hopped up on speed, remember—thinks he can make it through. There are many interpretations of the ending—that he meant to kill himself or, as stated above, that he thought he could somehow once again find a way through. Personally I think he meant to kill himself, i.e. not surrender, but I’m open to argument. Not that I really want to argue about it.

A common interpretation of this film is that it’s a sort of existentialist epic. Kowalski only has the flimsiest reason for driving, essentially he just DRIVES, that’s what he does, and that’s all there is to it. Similarly he hasn’t really done anything wrong except speed. There are other touches like us never learning his first name and only the barest minimum about him, all pointing to the idea that it is all symbolic; Kowalski is the freedom of the road and the common man. The law is the oppression. The journey shows the increasingly futile quest of the common man to escape oppression. So clearly it’s not too hard to understand why this is seen as one of the banner movies of the 60s counterculture, and their rage for freedom against repression by the official institutions.

This movie was clearly quite influential, and made me understand several things. For one, you can see where Tarantino got the idea for us never to find out Uma’s name in Kill Bill, and various other Tarantino things I don’t care to go into. It also explained the movie Convoy, which I watched thinking “What are they trying to pull with this ridiculous idea that the common man is somehow so moved by this moron trucker?” That movie can now be seen as a piss-poor watering-down of this film. Speaking of watering-down, one can also see how both The Cannonball Run and Smokey and the Bandit came out of this as well. There was a 1997 TV remake starring Viggo Mortensen, which is said to be an insult to humanity as well as fans of the original film. First of all, it’s pointless to try to update this because it is so intricately tied to its moment as the 60s became the 70s. Secondly, apparently they made the colossally stupid decision to give Kowalski a reason for driving, and not only that, but to give him the reason that he’s trying to see his dying wife before she passes on! Maybe in the next one he can be desperate to deliver toys for tots or something.

So yes, terribly influential, but how is it as a movie? I was really into it for the first half, then I must confess I got a bit bored. Admittedly I am not the car-chase-movie demographic, so others may be super into it from the beginning to the end, but my attention started to drift. Excellent cinematography can only take you so far.

Regardless, definitely a very influential movie that is an indispensable product of its time.

Should you watch it: 

If you’re into Tarantino, car-chase-movies, or 60s counterculture movies.