Vanishing Point (1971)

Directed by Richard C. Sarafian

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Vanishing Point has a lot in common with The Sugarland Express (1974) and Smokey and the Bandit (1977).  It’s a car chase movie that starts off small but then builds and builds until our hero behind the wheel has attracted a large, adoring cheering section.  In this case Kowalski (Barry Newman) becomes a legend to people who barely know him, if at all.  Some will reach out and help him evade the police, but most of them just watch from the sidelines, hitching to Kowalski their subconscious hopes and dreams.  He becomes a counterculture, anti-establishment revolutionary.

That being said, the focus of Vanishing Point is not on Kowalski so much as this reaction to him.  In that sense it seems a counterpoint to the revolutionary films of the late 60s, all your Easy Riders and Bonnies & Clydes.  Those films identified strongly with their uncompromising revolutionary protagonists, but Vanishing Point takes a step back and looks at the reaction to those same types of characters.  The emphasis is not on those who push back but those who regard those who push back.  In a way it has much the same thematic subtext of Cool Hand Luke, about a soon to be mythologized prison inmate who is framed by those watching him.

Kowalski is a delivery driver tasked with taking a white Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco.  Leaving Friday night, he buys Benzedrine pills from a friend to stay awake and makes him a bet that he can get to San Francisco by 3 pm the following day.

As he’s speeding through Utah the next morning, two cops attempt and fail to pull him over, one of them crashing off the side of the road.  Thus begins the massive pursuit of the unknown driver in the white Dodge Challenger.

Within several hours the myth behind Kowalski will expand.  Cops and others will wonder what he’s done.  Is he a killer?  A thief?  A madman?  When the cops in Utah fail to catch him by the time he hits Nevada, they phone the Nevada police to alert them of the situation.  At firs the police are confused, the man hasn’t done anything, but nevertheless they agree to bring him in.

They don’t, of course, because he’s still got to get to California, and with each passing police blockade the legend of Kowalski grows.  Part of this is due to a charismatic radio DJ nicknamed Super Soul (Cleavon Little), who waxes poetic about Kowalski’s race from and against the establishment and then even reaches out to Kowalski directly.  To his surprise, however, Kowalski ignores him and tells him to “go to hell.”

Vanishing Point is a film constructed around various car chase set pieces.  The whole thing is out on the open roads of the Western United States, and there are many car crashes, off-roading sequences and even comic moments.  He runs into helpful bikers, a Jaguar that wants to race, too many cops to count, a group of faith healers led by one particularly unkind healer, and in the strangest moment in the film, a recently married couple of men who try to stick him up.  Though this last segment feels either underdeveloped, problematic or both, it is just the latest example of Kowalski running into a wide variety of characters who seem to embody the changing landscape of the late 60s and 70s.

Though Kowalski says very little, we do learn a bit about him in flashbacks.  He served in the war, he was a racecar driver and even a cop.  In one instance he prevents his partner from sexually assaulting a woman they brought in for question.  All these things help us empathize with him, and during his car chase, whenever someone pursuing him wipes out on the side of the road, he always makes sure to stop and check that they are okay.

So the film wants us to like Kowalski, but only to a point.  He’s a stoic man who seems to care little for the people who root for him from afar, though he does express kindness to those he interacts with.  He has no interest in becoming a symbol, though try as he might he probably will.

All of this is so broad as to be a bit funny.  If this film were released in the late 60s, just 2-3 years earlier even, I get the sense it would be much more serious than it is.  Kowalski would be more of a lone wolf, perhaps maybe with a woman in the seat beside him to sell the romance of it, and he wouldn’t be idolized by anyone.  He would instead just be an invisible man fighting the good fight all alone.

As it is this film is careful to show us how people react to him.  It is as if this is a movie about the ways audiences reacted to those movies a few years earlier, almost lampooning their adoration of those characters.

The 70s as a whole seemed to generate films that have this same kind of distance.  The perhaps self-indulgent characters, whether romantic or simply miserable, like in The Graduate and Five Easy Pieces are replaced with broader character types or just blank slates, as in this film and ones like Brewster McCloud and What’s Up, Doc?  

Granted this is all just me brainstorming here, but it seemed like the people who made the more revolutionary films of the late 60s thought they were making a change.  By presenting new perspectives or new modes of expression, there can be a real impact.  That’s why there was even an attempt to humanize Bonnie & Clyde, and that’s why Easy Rider ends with the two main characters dying so suddenly.

The films a few years later, then, made fun of all of this, likely saying something along the lines of “f*ck it, nothing’s going to change.”  Even this was a revolutionary sort of tactic, with films where the rulebook was thrown out because what does it matter anyways?  This film and Brewster McCloud both end rather suddenly and in a way that’s not meant to make you gasp but to make you laugh, it seems.

Well let’s look at these endings, actually, using Easy Rider on one side and Brewster McCloud and Vanishing Point on the other.  In Easy Rider the two main characters (Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda) are killed for no reason.  A passing pickup truck wants to scare them and in doing so causes one to crash, then just shoots the other.  Their iconographic motorcycles go up in flames, and the camera cranes up and away while the credits roll.  The suddenness of it all makes us react.  They die, the end.

In Brewster McCloud the titular character (Bud Sort) hopes to use these giant mechanical wings to fly one day.  Well, as the film draws to a close the police are after him, so he uses the wings to escape.  It works, unexpectedly, at least for a time, but then he suddenly comes crashing right down to earth and falls flat, dead, on the ground.  Rather then the movie ending, however, there is a long credit sequence in which the characters return as they would at the conclusion of a play.  The music is loud, and the characters smile and wave.  Brewster dies, but rather than allowing us to react, the film tells us how to react, or at least how we should feel.  It suggests it’s all meaningless anyways.

Now in Vanishing Point Kowalski will race towards a police blockade while the music swells.  Characters watch eagerly from the side of the road or even from other locations, as if they can sense what’s happening.  Kowalski smiles, then smashes into the blockade, and his car explodes, killing him.  Rather then ending there, however, the film shows us all the surprised, disappointed and resigned faces of those who attributed meaning to his meaningless car chase.  They hang their heads and walk away.  Once again the film reacts for us, framing not the car crash but the response to it as well.

So what to make of this, I don’t know.  It just seems to me that the 60s had an earnest rebelliousness, and the 70s had more of a sarcastic or apathetic tone to their own rebelliousness.  This is all conjecture, but I think there’s some truth to this.  At the very least the anger of the 60s was fresh, but by the 70s it must’ve have become more jaded, the depression following the fiery anger.

In the documentary Birth of the Living Dead (2013), George A. Romero explained how such thinking went into making Night of the Living Dead (1968).  He said that people thought they could make a difference, that all the deaths both in the Vietnam War and in protests at home would mean something.  Then the calendar turned the page, and so many of those issues remained.  The war continued to rage on while people like Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated.

Up Next: Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), Non-Fiction (2018), Take Shelter (2011)

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