Sunday, April 28, 2013

Vanishing Point (1971)

          Although I’ve never really grooved to this particular counterculture artifact, as many friends who dig the same cinematic era have, all it takes to explain the appeal of Vanishing Point is to describe the close parallel between the film’s minimalistic storyline and prevailing early-’70s social concerns. Barry Newman stars as Kowalski, a drifter who makes his living delivering cars across long distances. After accepting a job to ferry a hot rod from Denver to San Francisco, Kowalski jacks himself up on speed and blasts down open highways with legions of cops in pursuit. Meanwhile, an enigmatic, blind radio DJ going by the handle “Super Soul” (Cleavon Little) narrates Kowalski’s journey for his listeners, framing the driver’s ride as a principled fight against the Establishment. The sympathetic reading of this material, of course, is that Kowalski just wants to be free, man, so when society tries to trap him with laws and rules and speed limits, he strikes a rebellious blow on behalf of rugged independence. And if you can’t anticipate how a story comprising these elements will end, then you haven’t seen too many counterculture flicks—as the song goes, freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.
          Viewed as historically relevant symbolism, Vanishing Point is interesting, because it presents a lone-wolf protagonist whose existence comprises nothing but early-’70s signifiers: He’s an alienated Vietnam vet, he self-medicates with illegal drugs, and he’s determined to force a confrontation with what he perceives to be the oppressive forces of law and order. Heavy shit, no question. It seems safe to say that writers Guillermo Cain, Barry Hall, and Malcolm Hart—as well as director Richard C. Sarafian—deliberately infused their story with of-the-moment dimensions.
          But very much like another existentialist road movie of the same vintage, Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Vanishing Point plays an iffy game by using ciphers instead of fully realized characters. For instance, certain conventional narrative elements, such as backstory and well-articulated motivation, are largely absent from Vanishing Point. So, even though Vanishing Point provides ample fodder for post-movie interpretation games, the actual onscreen events are repetitive and superficial. It doesn’t help that Newman, who enjoyed a very brief run as a leading man in movies and television, is a bland persona. (Conversely, Little exudes casual-cool charisma and delivers his on-air monologues with smooth style.) It also says a lot that many Vanishing Point fans dig the movie because they’re entranced by the Dodge Challenger muscle car that Newman drives in the movie. After all, the Challenger has the film’s most fully rendered characterization—especially compared to the cringe-worthy portrayals of two gay hitchhikers whom the hero encounters.

Vanishing Point: FUNKY


Joe Martino said...

Is it a perfect film -- no, but a key reason I kept seeing this over and over in the theaters as a ten year old boy was the great acting by Gilda Texter as the Nude Motorcycle Driver. A true vision of heaven.

DC said...

Love this film. I see your wrapping up your website. Been following it for years...great work on your part! Keep waiting for you to review the other Barry Newman essential...Fear Is the key. What about it?

By Peter Hanson said...

Fear Is the Key is actually a UK film, so even though it received an American theatrical release, it's a bit outside the scope of this study...

Brian David Schwartz said...

Comfortably-positioned in my Top 25 films of all time, I concur it's not a perfect movie and probably can't be because of its subject matter. Vanishing Point presents the narrowing downslide of an existential dilemma, from start to finish, and ends like one would expect - - in disaster.

Lead Newman played his role, mm, almost perfectly-wooden as a man who slowly lost his humanity and reason to live, as his character Kowalski merely subsisted on amphetamines, fast-driving and breezy acquaintances. And the film suggested why in brief, supporting flashbacks.

Any actor playing Kowalski would have to strategically minimize showing personality in their performance, and what better actor to pick than... Actually, there were some like an Eastwood or a Bronson then, but they drew higher dollar.

I find what's missing from many reviews this film received over the years is that it also presented a curious contrast of characters going through the motions of life like Kowalski, and others like Super Soul (Cleavon Little) and the grizzled prospector (Dean Jagger) trying to make the most of their wayward and perhaps shipwrecked lives.

Vanishing Point is not a terrible film by any stretch, but I suppose films like Thelma and Louise presented these similar themes with more punch and substance...

And, ya gotta love Charlotte Rampling.