Vanishing Point (1971)

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*. Why do Americans associate their cars, and driving them down the highway, with freedom? I don’t think it’s the same in Europe or Canada, and it’s odd because it’s not like freeways are, in any way, free. Is any other activity so heavily regulated and policed as driving? So is it just the illusion of independence the open road gives? A way of thumbing a collective nose at socialistic public transit and car pooling?
*. I guess it helps if the highway has no other traffic on it. In Vanishing Point Kowalski seems to have slipped through a time portal and travelled back to the Wild West. Aside from the cops chasing him there are few other people on the road. Even the communities he drives through are ghost towns.
*. Speaking of which, how likely is it that some one-horse town on the edge of nowhere has its own radio station, playing all the latest funky hits and operated by what must be the only two black guys within 100 miles? Or is station KOW just another part of the surreal landscape, not to be taken literally?

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*. D. J. Super Soul was originally supposed to be Super Spic, and played by writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante. But that was deemed racist, even if it would have been slightly more credible.
*. This is a car chase movie. Not a movie with a big car chase scene in it, like The Italian Job, Bullitt, or The French Connection, but a car chase movie. Think Smokey and the Bandit or some such other nonsense. It is not a genre with many highlights, this film and Two-Lane Blacktop (released the same year) being two of the very few.
*. Is it anything more than a car chase? Well, it seems to cast its eyes just over the horizon. It’s about freedom and standing up to the Man. It’s about breaking on through to the other side.
*. Pretentious? A bit. But its stripped-down simplicity also gives it a kind of resonance that it has managed to maintain for over forty years. Indeed, it’s that simplicity that makes it as relevant as ever. Imagine Kowalski being hunted down today by GPS instead of that ridiculous big board at the California Highway Patrol. That vulvic cleft between the bulldozers through which Kowalski sees a shining light is narrowing in our own time to a sliver.

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*. Yes, I said vulvic cleft. Because that’s quite obviously what Kowalski is aiming for. And if you think the analogy goes too far, note how on the DVD commentary Richard C. Sarafian says the exploded car at the end, unable to fit between those pearly gates, takes on the appearance of “a bent penis.” Whoa! I did not see that!

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*. While I’m on the subject of male and female, one of the things that struck me when I was watching this movie recently was that the dispatch office in California is staffed entirely by women. I wondered if this was intentional and when I listened to the commentary by Sarafian he explained that he “wanted to plant the idea that once you’re in the hands of women, you’re doomed. They’re gonna get you.” Is that sexist? I’m not sure. Then there’s the appearance of Charlotte Rampling as Lady Death. At least it all has a mythic consistency.
*. Speaking of Charlotte Rampling, has she ever seemed more normal on screen than here? And how weird is that?

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*. Sarafian thought of Kowalski as a modern cowboy, his horse replaced by a car. At one point there was a scene where he hallucinates and sees a posse on horseback chasing him in his rear-view mirror, but it was cut. Good call, as the connection is already sufficiently implied.
*. The cowboy is another mythic figure, and Super Soul does his best to puff Kowalski up even further, calling him the last American hero, an electric centaur (why electric?), and the super driver of the golden West. It’s a heavy burden for one man to carry, but it works because Kowalski is so indistinct. He’s a former square (Vietnam vet, police hero) who’s now just tired of living, a broken hero who wants to go out on a last chance power drive (was Springsteen thinking of this movie when he wrote “Born to Run”?).
*. Stephanie Zacharek calls Barry Newman “soulful looking, like a Jewish Lord Byron.” That’s the romantic version. I think he looks a bit like a friendly poodle. But he does have an interesting face, which really helps in such a vague role.

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*. I don’t find the freaks and weirdos he meets along the way that interesting. Which is odd because they are freaks and weirdos. The snake cult that now has music so it doesn’t need Dean Jagger’s vipers, the villainous gay couple, the naked chick on the motorbike, Rampling’s spectre . . . they are striking and distinct, but none of them are characters or have anything interesting to say. They’re like symbolic tokens Kowalski’s picking up like chips on a poker run.
*. Some of it is very silly. Sarafian didn’t want us to think Kowalski was a heartless bad guy, so he has to show concern for the people he runs off the road. Who are all, remarkably, unhurt after their various crashes and wipeouts. This is especially odd given that nobody wears seatbelts. Is this because Kowalski doesn’t care if he lives or dies, or because no self respecting road warrior in 1971 wore a seat belt? I’ll say the latter. It would be many years before we’d regularly see people buckling up.
*. Another silly thing is how much damage his car takes. They wrecked eight Dodge Challenges in shooting the film, which seems low. You cannot take cars like that off road. Period. God knows what the client in San Francisco was going to think when his car finally got delivered, seeing as it must have been pretty wrecked even before Kowalski goes kamikaze at the end.
*. It’s a film cliché, but cars that get in accidents don’t usually explode into fireballs. They only do that in movies. It’s silly, but it’s become a part of that alternative reality movies have created.
*. Did the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine (1968) originate the term “blue meanies”? I’m guessing that’s what Super Soul is referencing when he uses the expression to refer to the cops.

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*. I felt sorry for the nude biker. Not only bouncing around through off road, but on a seat that was apparently so hot they had to pour ice water on it. According to Sarafian, shooting her in the nude the sun also “burnt her vagina,” leading to blisters that a doctor had to burst so that she could keep working. I mean . . . ouch.
*. Sarafian lucked out getting John Alonzo. The photography looks beautiful, and not just for the shots of the road cutting through the desert, the smoke trails below and clouds above. Almost every setting has a rich sense of composition.

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*. It’s been compared, fairly enough I think, to Easy Rider. I think it’s a better movie, but then I don’t think much of Easy Rider, at least as anything more than a work of cultural and historical significance. It also makes me think of Thelma & Louise, which introduces the gender argument again. Thelma and Louise ride off a cliff but they do it together; at least they have each other. Kowalski is very much alone. In Easy Rider Wyatt and Billy are killed separately. Could we imagine two men dying together?

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*. Easy Rider was also a movie more explicitly about the counterculture. I don’t think that’s what Kowalski represents. He rejects drugs (mostly), except for speed, which is only a kind of fuel. He’s not just out for a joyride but actually doing a job in delivering the car. He doesn’t fight authority so much as he just wants to escape it. The movie has a spiritual, not a political message.
*. As we learned in The Wraith (1986), “roadblocks won’t stop somethin’ that can’t be stopped.” What is it that can’t be stopped? Fate. According to Sarafian, Kowalski is “propelled by forces out of his control,” though he seems to me to be very much in control throughout, and chooses his fate. On the other hand, if the car is the real star of the movie (as Sarafian has also said) then technology is in the driver’s seat. This is the paradox of freedom I began by questioning: are you driving your car, or is it driving you?

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