Friday, February 26, 2010

Film Friday: Vanishing Point (1971)

Sometimes lousy movies are just plain lousy. Sometimes, they're lousy enough they actually become enjoyable in an odd sort of way. And sometimes, somehow, they hit on something that makes them fascinating. Vanishing Point falls into the last category. And interestingly, it’s what the movie doesn’t tell us that fascinates us.

** spoiler alert **

I first heard of Vanishing Point when Quentin Tarantino mentioned it in Death Proof. On the surface, Vanishing Point is a movie about a man driving a 1970 white Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco. He needs to be there by three o’clock the following day. As he drives along, he runs into some strange characters and is chased by the cops. In the end, the cops set up a roadblock and he slams right into it. Doesn’t sound like much does it? But it’s oddly compelling because it's filled with little mysteries.

For example, we know the man’s name is Kowalski, but never learn his first name. They even make a point of not telling us. We know Kowalski needs to be in San Francisco the follow day (when asked if he’s joking, he tells us: “I wish to God I was.”). But the movie never tells us why. In fact, we have no idea what is motivating him. All we know is he is a former hero-cop and a race car driver, who hit rock bottom after his girlfriend died in a surfing accident. But that was long ago.

As he starts out from Denver, he antagonizes two motorcycle-riding state troopers by forcing one off the road. But we have no idea why he does this. As the cops hunt him down, he’s getting guidance over the radio from Clevon Little, who plays a blind disc jockey named Super Soul. Super Soul plays a variety of songs from some soon-to-be famous people. For example, the first ever recorded material by Kim Carnes appears in this soundtrack, Rita Coolidge and David Gates (Bread) appear on screen as revival singers, and Big Mama Thornton performs some of the gospel music. Super Soul knows exactly what Kowalski is doing at every moment, even though there is no way he could know this, and again we never find out how or why. Finally, the big mystery. . . at the end of the film, the police set up a roadblock. Kowalski sees the roadblock but drives right into it killing himself. And he does it with a smile. Why?

That is what makes this movie so interesting. Who is Kowalski, what is motivating him, and why does he commit suicide at the end of the film? Who is Super Soul and how does he know what he knows? The film never tells us and we want to know.

There are many theories about Kowalski. Some argue that Kowalski represents the last free American -- which is why he has no particular name. This explains why he meets with hippies and bikers and other people who live outside of society. He is the archetypal anti-hero, who drives for pure love of speed and personal freedom, and the police are hunting him down because America is changing and freedom is ending. Coming out in 1971, against the social upheaval of the 1960s, this argument makes a lot of sense.

But there is more to consider. The movie is strewn with religious symbols and gospel music. Super Soul is more like a guardian angle than a disc jockey. And when the locals try to stone Super Soul to shut him up, it feels metaphorical for Biblical punishments. Further, Director Richard Sarafian says he intentionally made Kowalski appear “otherworldly” as he charges the barricade. Moments before the impact, a bright shining light appears between the bulldozers and lights up his face. That’s when he smiles. Many have interpreted this as the Biblical Rapture and his smile as the moment he is saved. Though, this interpretation is troubling as Christianity does not condone suicide.

Barry Newman, who plays Kowalski, speculates that the entire movie is an essay on existentialism and that Kowalski gives his own life so he can define his own life:

“Kowalski smiles as he rushes to his death . . . because he believes he will make it through the roadblock. To Kowalski, [the small hole between the bulldozers] was still a hole to escape through. It symbolized that no matter how far they push or chase you, no one can truly take away your freedom and there is always an escape.”
Others have speculated that he is suicidal because of the death of his girlfriend. But then why choose now and why choose this method of killing himself?

In the end, there is no answer, and that is the biggest part of Vanishing Point's appeal. Hollywood convention tells us that films may never leave big questions unanswered. But Vanishing Point disproves this. Humans are inherently drawn to deep psychological questions because we struggle to understand ourselves and we desperately want to know why others make these kinds of emotional choices -- and suicide is the most dramatic act a human can undertake. Leaving Kowalski's motivation unexplained creates an irresistible mystery that draws people in and keeps them thinking when the film ends.

Finally, interestingly, we actually know how this film would have turned out if they had answered these questions. In 1997, Vanishing Point was remade with Viggo Mortenson replacing Barry Newman and Jason Priestly replacing Cleavon Little. Unlike the original, this movie tells us who Kowalski is (including his full name) and why he wants to get to where he’s going (pregnant wife). Priestly also has no supernatural ability to see Kowalski, and instead spends the film spouting off anti-government militia-type opinions on the radio while arguing with callers about what is motivating Kowalski. The 1997 version stinks.

So maybe Hollywood should rethink this convention that says that everything needs to be explained. Perhaps, sometimes, what we don’t say is even more interesting than what we do?

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25 comments:

Writer X said...

One thing for Tarantino, he's always pushing the envelope which is one reason his movies are always so compelling. I don't count myself as a hard-core fan, but it's always worth watching his movies because you never know what to expect. To me, his movies are alaways like watching his train-of-thought: I'm never sure if the meaning goes below the surface or if he's just playing with the audience.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, I agree. And another thing that's absolutely good at is finding interesting old movies and old music that has been forgotten and the pointing it out in his films.

This is one of those cases. I think that Vanishing Point would have vanished (no pun intended) if he hadn't mentioned it so prominently in Death Proof. It was only after that, the Vanishing Point (along with two others that are mentioned) came back into television rotation.

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew, I know Vanishing Point, and actually remember it quite well. It was just after I had gotten out of college. It moved kind of slow at first, but the reason I remember it was that actor Barry Newman had done a pilot movie for a series called Petrocelli about a lawyer, so afterwards, when Vanishing Point would show up televised, I always thought to myself, oh that was the movie starring "petrocelli."

Rita Coolidge, a Cherokee Indian, is a Tennessean by the way, and has done some native Cherokee music albums with her sister.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I didn't know that about Coolidge -- I know her mainly from the couple of big 1970s hits (Your Love Has Lifted Me Higher being the one I remember the most).

As I say in the review, I'd never seen Vanishing Point until after Death Proof revived it. It's interesting. I think it's definitely miles ahead of many of the other "road" movies of the era, though it's not a great movie in a technical sense. But like I said, what interests me about the film are the questions that it leaves hanging out there. That's fairly rare in filmmaking.

StanH said...

“Vanishing Point,” a cool flick ! Saw it at the drive-in, a real B-Movie that had legs.

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, It would be a great drive in movie. Good description -- "a B movie with legs"!

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: I saw the movie when it first came out. It came out just after our first baby was born. My wife's mom offered to babysit so we could have a night out. I thought that maybe fatherhood had caused me to lose gray matter, because I couldn't figure out what the movie was about. Looking at the puzzled look on my wife's face, I realized she had experienced the same feeling. But now, all these years later, with my collected wisdom--I still don't know what the movie was about. Like Stan, we saw it at the drive-in. And like Tennessee, I remember Newman from Petrocelli. That was a TV series I could relate to, since it was about a lawyer who basically lived in his truck with the camper. Sounds like me after the divorce. LOL

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, It definitely takes some thought to figure this out, and even then there just isn't an answer. There are clues, but no real answers. That's what makes it interesting -- like the end of the Sopranos.

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: Well, the car was cool, and so was the crash into the bulldozers. Nice fireball. And the movie used recording artists to put together one of the many manifestations of Delaney Bonnie & Friends.

Maybe I just don't understand existentialism. If a car crashes into a bulldozer, and nobody goes to the movie, does it make a sound?

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, LOL!! Very nice. . .

Anonymous said...

Do I remember this correctly? At the end, he sees the bulldozers, stops, turns around then drives away. Then he stops again, turns back toward the bulldozers and smashes into them.

I always thought there were two possible endings, one, he drives away and in the other, the fireball. You decide which.

AndrewPrice said...

Anon, I don't remember him getting within visual distance of the bulldozers and then stopping, but he does stop before he starts his final run.

I can certainly see your take on it. In fact, it would be very interesting if the director was giving you a choice? I know that many have speculated that one of the reasons he's not worried about dying is that he knows this isn't real somehow. That's an interesting take that would fit with what you've said.

In the version that was released in the UK, he apparently picks up a hitchhiker who is supposed to represent death.

Lot's of neat ideas. I think that's what makes this movie so interesting, is that there are all these possibilities, they all seem legitimate, and yet, you still feel like there must be an answer. In other words, it feels like we should be able to solve this puzzle.

Neill said...

well see, where the remake went wrong was in not remaking the scene with the naked blonde on the Honda motorcycle...Of course, if Kowalski played as stupid in the remake as he did after her offer in the old one, I'd worry about the boy!...Just rewatched the scene...what a putz.

AndrewPrice said...

Neill, LOL! Good point!

MegaTroll said...

I like your point. I think Hollywood should be more willing to trust the viewers to figure things out for themselves and to build their own stories. We don't need to know everything to make a good story.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Mega. I wouldn't recommend it as a wholesale strategy, but I think that a carefully placed unsolved mystery in a film could certainly be a good thing now and then.

John Mac said...

I saw VP at a drive In as a new release, along w/ "THX 1138"- George Lucas's 1st big film. A truly odd pair of films, both a bit disturbing for their day.

But even as a kid, I understood that VP was a reflection of the post-Woodstock 'where are we going now?' mood that was in the minds of many young people.

I disagree that VP would have, eh, vanished, were it not for QT's note of it in DP. VP never went away- it had reached cult status by the late '80s, by lovers of the '70s, muscle car freaks, and film buffs.

In addition to the social commentary aspect of the film, it is now also a fasciating time capsule of how the southwest looked at the time-still primative in some ways, not changed greatly since the '40s.

AndrewPrice said...

Welcome John! Any thoughts on the ending? I have no idea how many times I've seen this film and the ending still perplexes me.

Good point about the southwest. In many ways, it's still the same, but in others, it's very much a different world today.

Neill said...

I cannot believe I was fixated so completely on the missing naked motorcyclist scene in my first comment that I glossed over what was essentially an early "super group" on stage in the desert.

Yes, I'm back, almost 3 years after my first comment, to make a correction or two, because with the sin of omission, we have both given short shrift to several other fairly big names in American rock/gospel/blues/funk/etc. You correctly ID'ed David Gates, looking a little pudgy on keyboards, but totally skipped Delaney Bramlett on guitar and singing the lead lines, and Bonnie Bramlett, the blonde woman in the long skirt with glasses on. And, to be fair to her, their daughter Becca Bramlett, (a very highly sought after singer in her own right as an adult now) the small child in Bonnie's arms on the revival stage.
And while that is certainly Rita Coolidge in the dark braided hair, the black woman to her right is probably not Big Mama Thornton, she's much too young to be the late 40's-aged Thornton, who was also known for her hefty physique. Something this gal does not really share.
And last but not least by a far cry is Sam Clayton on the congas in the back there. He was the first percussionist (not drummer) to play for Little Feat, and he and bass player Kenny Gradney, who'd both played for Delaney & Bonnie, went over to Little Feat at about the same time after D & B fell apart. Gradney replaced (Frank Zappa's old sideman) Roy Estrada on bass with Feat when Roy left to join Captain Beefheart's Magic Band.

AndrewPrice said...

Neill, Thanks for the excellent additional information! I think Thornton sang on the soundtrack, but didn't appear in the film.

It's interesting who all showed up in this film isn't it? For being such a minor film in the scheme of things, i.e. not a huge production, it's amazing what they assembled here!

Anonymous said...

i saw vanishing point in 1974 as a teenager..it left a lasting impression on me ill take to my grave..no other movie has made such an impact on me

AndrewPrice said...

Anon, Me too. This is a movie I think about a lot and I'm not even sure why. It just has something to it.

Anonymous said...

Growing up in Hollister CA., Vanishing Point was often part of the double feature at the movie theatre, and thru the years Ive seen it at least 20 times. I never thought about the many hidddn meanings behind his actions, but the 2 things Ive always wondered was why the movie is called Vanishing Point, and why he avoids the road block at the movies opening but hits it at the end.

MOPAR Guy said...

You mention an unsolved mystery being a good thing now and then, which brings up the contents of the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. Maybe VP was Quenten Tarantinos inspiration for leaving that a mystery.

Kent Douglas said...

One of my all-time favorite movies. Just watched it again the other night, and picked up on something I hadn't caught before. I think Kowalski's first name IS revealed. Right at the 15:00 mark, when he pulls into the bar parking lot to meet up with his drug dealer, the dealer shouts out "Hey Jake! What's happening'?". At least it sure sounds like that to me.

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