Why I Love… #2: Vanishing Point

Year: 1971

Director: Richard C Sarafian

Stars: Barry Newman (Kowalski), Cleavon Little (Super Soul), Dean Jagger (Prospector)

Genre: Action / Road Movie

It’s a lot harder to justify Vanishing Point as a genuine five-star picture than it would be any number of better-known, better-made movies. Vanishing Point, especially on first viewing, is not an obviously brilliant film. The story is not particularly strong or compelling. The acting throughout is competent at best, and at times, not even that (witness the stilted first scene of dialogue between Barry Newman’s Kowalski and a mechanic; it’s not a comfortable trendsetter). The pacing seems to go against every rule in the book. Yet, Vanishing Point survives and improves on repeated viewings because of something mystic in its bodywork. Underneath its flash stunt driving and B-movie attitude is one super soul. Pun intended.

For what its worth, Vanishing Point tells the tale of speed-addicted car delivery driver Kowalski, who places a bet with his dealer to drive a suped up 1970 Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco with less than  a weekend to make the journey. Pressed for time and disinterested by speed limits, Kowalski soon finds state troopers on his tail and – thanks to seemingly clairvoyant blind radio DJ Super Soul – enough exposure to become a national celebrity.

This covers the first half hour of the movie, and what a wild ride of audacious stunt driving we are given. Focusing largely on Kowalski’s first encounters with officers of the law, it is a bravura exercise in choreographed action, kicking up dust and managing to maintain narrative interest in the pursuit as well. However, strangely, it is only after this flurry of high octane thrills that the movie settles down, slows down and acquaints us with not only the characters but its lamenting ethos. One would expect a film like Vanishing Point to build up to its big stunts. Instead they are dispensed with (in style) in order to focus on more existential matters as Kowalski diverts into the Nevada desert in order to avoid capture.

Director Richard C Sarafian and little-known leading actor Barry Newman make Kowalski an enigmatic presence. Newman plays him as aloof, monosyllabic and almost indifferent, despite his insistence on risking imprisonment or even death in order to fulfil his trivial promise to make it to San Francisco as fast as possible. Kowalski is a rebel, but in flashbacks he is painted as a hero – the last American hero if Super Soul has any say in things – a distinguished Vietnam war veteran, a moralistic cop, a revered race car and motorcycle racer; Kowalski was all of these things. Yet something has disenfranchised him enough to set him in motion on this devil-may-care quest.

In this sense Kowalski is the focal point of the film’s richness. Vanishing Point is great because it is about the time it was made in. Like the elegiac Two-Lane Blacktop (also 1971), Vanishing Point is about America at the end of the 60s. A country spoiled by Vietnam, traumatised by assassination and revolutionised in its politics. America was changing so fast it was exhausted. The ride of free love was over, and along with everything else, some people found themselves with no place to turn. Kowalski embodies a simple refusal to accept the world and through its open, barren landscapes, the film evokes a blown-out fatalism far superior to the acid freak-outs of Easy Rider.

***SPOILER PARAGRAPH***

In the desert Kowalski rejects religion in the form a troupe of fanatics obsessed with rattlesnakes brought to them by an old prospector. His high speed game of chicken with the law has already seen him reject more earthly authorities and his journey will ultimately see him reject life itself, his ride ending in sudden explosive death. When Kowalski smiles and accelerates into the bulldozer barricade at the end of the movie, he ascends to another level; he’s done with this existence, and having finally rejected everything but simply living – simply driving – our addled politics and violence toward each other are petty vices he has no need for. He leaves us to our problems, and the world becomes a sadder place for having lost him. The credits roll and the audience feel oddly bereft of closure. Kowalski’s story may continue, but not here. We’ll rejoin him one day. As Kowalski passes, so does America’s innocence. The 70s had begun.

Vanishing Point is one of those all-too-rare movies that is more than the sum of its parts. The aforementioned flaws back in paragraph one? Well forget them. Vanishing Point succeeds in spite of them. You might say they add to its imperfect charm, that the movie wouldn’t be the same movie without them. They add to the essence of the picture. The soul of the thing. And as much as the film may be a requiem for a broken dream, it is also, quite simply, a love-letter to living and feeling alive.

A TV remake starring Viggo Mortensen was made in the 90s. I have no interest in seeing it. And reportedly Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly is working on the screenplay for a further reboot. I see no reason for it. If you want to create a new movie highlighting our existential angst then make a new movie that deals with these fears, these questions. Vanishing Point is a five-star movie because it so perfectly documents a time and a feeling that I never even knew. But I sense it in Kowalski’s vacant eyes, in the drifts of dust from the road, and in those empty vast horizons.

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