• No direction home: ‘Vanishing Point’ (1971)

    The success of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) kick-started a motorcade of road movies in which the wide open spaces of the West were traversed by countercultural characters in cars and bikes, seeking freedom, each other or something else. With one ancient American legend now overlaid with its contemporary equivalent, a new wave of film-making had arrived. Amongst this group, which include Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Terrence Mallick’s Badlands (1973) and Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978), one film stands out as perhaps the ultimate existentialist exploration of this kind – Vanishing Point (1971).

    The film follows an adrenalin- and drug-fuelled car delivery driver whose bet that he can take a white Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco in 15 hours evolves into a cross-state chase of epic proportions before reaching an unexpected conclusion. Guillermo Cabrera Infante, writing as Guillermo Cain, synthesized his story from real-life events and was in demand for what he had created. Director Richard C. Sarafian combined impressionistic visuals, non-linear storytelling and complex editing to craft from it an exceptionally lean portrait of time, space and destiny in which image, music, sound and silence each have as great a part to play as dialogue.

    As later becomes clear, the film actually begins near its end. A slow pan around a tiny, dusty, silent desert town is interrupted by two yellow bulldozers grinding their way forward toward a road junction. One wonders if Michael Mann was inspired by this to start Heat (1995) in a similar fashion, with massive vehicles reduced to moving blocks of colour filling the screen. Out in the scrub, Kowalski (Barry Newman) pulls his Challenger to a halt, gets out, and considers his options before quickly returning to the car. As he passes another vehicle travelling in the opposite direction on the same road, a freeze-frame occurs, from the midst of which Kowalski’s car slowly fades away; the freeze is released and the other car continues on its way.

    Disconcerting yet elegant, this beautifully conceived and executed moment summarises the entire story in one shot but more importantly initiates a flashback of a day or so to scenes that serve as the briefest of set-ups for what is to come. From them, the action moves forward more or less conventionally, as a small infraction leads to the police pursuing Kowalski with increasing zeal whilst the driver himself appears hell-bent on making his bet notwithstanding the forces ranged against him.

    The journey that results seems often to pass through what Sarafian has called “another reality”. Tone and mood shift between the muscular and the lyrical, from a tightly-flown helicopter buzzing the Challenger to a respite in a religious commune and from spills in gravel to a hiatus of memory with a young female admirer. These changes are signalled, too, by the score, which moves from the easy-going country-folk of Jimmy Walker’s Where Do We Go from Here to the atonal yet hypnotic electric guitars of JB Pickers’ Freedom of Expression echoing the sound of Kowalski’s tuned-up car.

    As Kowalski crosses an apparently endless and almost formless landscape of mountains, oil derricks and sand, he goes back to his past as well as forward to the future through additional shifts in time and place that establish him as a decorated soldier, honest police officer and devoted lover. And yet despite having controlled his morality as tightly as his car, Kowalski is still plagued by uncertainty, revealed when finds himself lost in the salt flats, his tyre tracks forming a crossroads that he contemplates with concern. In fact Sarafian pointedly includes similar lines – railroads, highways, telegraph wires, the horizon itself – throughout the film, as though to lead or perhaps tease his protagonist, a character whom the director has said was on a “highway into another plane, another level”. The scene – present only in the British theatrical release – whereby Kowalski picks up and sleeps with a female hitchhiker, who can be interpreted as either the ghost of his dead girlfriend or death itself, tends to confirm this reading.

    As the narrative inexorably returns to the present and with those bulldozers representing a “crack in the fence” that might allow that becoming, the ending is as profound as it is shocking and can be seen as Kowalski’s past catching up with his present. Cinematically, it features a breath-taking use of a music track that includes an exquisite and audacious burst of silence and a bold curtailing of the cue, whilst the crowd’s actions demonstrate an astonishing prefiguring of the current unhealthy symbiosis of broadcast and social media and tragedy.

    As is often the case, the background of the principals is instructive. Infante was actually Cuban; initially studying medicine, he became involved in the Revolution and after its success edited the literary supplement of a Communist newspaper. Sarafian also studied medicine and also then moved into journalism, in his case as a reporter for the US Army; he then made industrial films and befriended Robert Altman. The importance of these experiences for both men can be seen not just in the obvious anti-establishment theme of Vanishing Point but also in its thoroughly grounded, observational and often almost documentary style.

    The film stands as a crucial document of a particular moment in recent American history, and an outstanding filmic achievement.

    This piece draws on the recent digital showing of Vanishing Point at the BFI as part of its Edgar Wright-curated Car Car Land season. Quotes from Sarafian come from the DVD commentary. The soundtrack has recently been re-issued on CD.

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here

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