"With all their speed forward, they may be a step backward in civilisation. It may be that they won't add to the beauty of the world, of the life of men's souls. I'm not sure.
But the automobile has come and almost all the outward things are going to be different because of what they bring. I think that men's minds are going to be changed in subtle ways because of automobiles.
It may be that in ten or twenty years from now, if we can see the inward change in men by that time, I shouldn't be able to defend the gasoline engine, but I would have to agree that automobiles had no business being invented.
--The Magnificient Ambersons
An oddly prophetic statement contained within a film of old, but what an appropriate opening for Mark Williams excellent work Road Movies: The Complete Guide to Cinema on Wheels
; the definitive bible on the Road Movie.
Not so much.
One of the defining aspects of Vanishing Point
is that it cannot be easily pigeon holed into
the category of just being a movie that means this or that. A review of the movie alone would not do it suitable justice. What I propose instead is to provide a starting point for a discussion of the film by providing a basic analysis and some insight into Vanishing Point
. I will add into the discussion some of Mark Williams take on the movie as well.An open road; a lone driver; a sound of tuned thunder.
It is late in the evening, almost midnight, when a driver pulls into a garage in Denver delivering a car he just drove from California. The night is over for everybody else, but this driver wants another car to deliver. After much pleading, his wishes are met as he is provided a vehicle to deliver to San Francisco; he will stay on the road tonight.
The engine roars like the greatest cat of the jungle letting the others know it presense. It pulls out of the garage in its gleaming white coat, a beautiful spectacle of power and purity. It is a 1970 Dodge Challenger, super-charged no less, and at the wheel is a man we simply know as Kowalski.
But Kowalski is on a different ride tonight. It is not just another delivery he is making. He seems carefree in making a bet to deliver the car to San Francisco in just 15 hours against a running amphetamines tab. Despite the odds of him actually making his bet, the white knight leaves in the dark of night only chased by echoes; so far.
As day breaks, reports of a 1970 Dodge Challenger breaking all known speed limits come pouring in. Kowalski is at the wheel. He has a determination. All borders and restrictions are non-existent on the open road. Reflections; well those will always be with him.
What lies ahead will be a challenge. Kowalski will weave a tapestry of memories past and events yet to come which will represent the very fabric of a people; the very fabric of an open and free spirit challenging everything.Can you tell me who I am, sir?Vanishing Point
exercised a form of character development which slowly build the protagonist of the story through the events which transpire. Though this is exercised in many films, what sets Vanishing Point
apart is that this is entirely how we come to know Kowalski. In using this technique, we can not only empathize with Kowalski, but is some ways we become part of him through the act of watching the movie.
One very important aspect of Kowalski is that he cannot be defined by a single characteristic, other than to obliquely say he is a free spirit. He has many memories of different aspects of his life which are beautifully paralleled within the progression of the story as he encounters people. Kowalski, like all of us, is a complex character built from a variety of experiences. If someone did not get this throughout the movie, it is made appallingly obvious by the use of the collage of newspaper clippings in the scene with the biker girl.
Kowalski's past has included being a police officer, a motorcycle and racecar driver, and having a relationship which ended in a tragic drowning. Though Mark Williams considers Kowalski to have had two failed careers, I prefer not to look at it that way as it seems to put his drive into a perspective of a suicide flight from the beginning.
Kowalski's police career ended because he was incorruptible as a police officer and stood up for someone against a fellow police officer. This does two things by painting Kowalski as having been part of the establishment, but refusing to let it take his soul.
Kowalski's Racing career ended due to a tragic racing accident. Despite his no longer being part of the race, he was still being touted as the best driver out there. And, despite Kowalski no longer driving to a finish line, he had a different finish line to make on this day.When you have sight, you lose the ability to see.
The last free spirit in America races down the highways of Nevada; breaking all the speed limits and outrunning, and outmaneuvering, the police. In a shanty littly town sits a small radio station, with a blind black man at the helm; Super Soul.
Super Soul is made aware of the driver tearing up the highways through the police radio (uh...illegal police radio...cough) they have at the radio station. To anybody else this would seem like a lawbreaker who is waiting to be caught; but Super Soul is not like anybody else as he is certainly tuned in on a different level.
For Super Soul, Kowalski is the last free spirit in America racing down the highway with no borders, no cops, no barriers being able to stop him. There is no Nevada in Kowalski's drive, only the open road which belongs to the driver; not any state or authority. The road is an open and free place.
Alas, Super Soul knows that Kowalski has some tough challenges ahead, but this beacon of freedom cannot be stopped. Super Soul will use his ability to communicate, but it will develop on a special level with Kowalski; one which allows them to communicate with each other across a vastness of desert.A man is not an island alone.
Along Kowalski's Jouney, he meets with a number of people which helps to not only paint a picture of Kowalski himself, but also weaves a tapestry of the world in which Kowalski exists; our world.
Kowalski will encounter an old prospector in the desert who puts him back on the path to the road. This old prospector is a serpent collector, played wonderfully by Dean Jagger, who provides snakes for a religous sect in exchange for goods. Yet, on this day, the sect has freed themselves of the serpents.
Kowalski will meet a gay couple who just got married (I think we can safely say the 'Just Married' sign on the car is a dead giveaway).
Kowalski will meet with a biker couple who help him to further his journey.
Each of the people with whom Kowalski meets, regardless of how trivial it may seem, will further develop the story of Kowalski and what his journey means to him and us.She's not bare; she's laid bare.Vanishing Point
is certainly filled with its symbolism. Apparent from the very beginning as the movie opens with a definition of a vanishing point: (paraphrased) the point in the distance where the two sides of a road appear to come together.
From this start, we are greated with characters such as the old prospector, who for some may be a defining of the old ways dying out; or perhaps, in some way, he may also be representative of the devil, leading Kowalski back into the mundane.
The biker girl wears no clothes. Is she another allegory for freedom, whether of spirit or expression, or is she simply a representative of the sexual tolerance which was coming of age at the time? She also is the one who made the collage of newspaper clippings about Kowalski's life. Did this remind Kowalski of something good, or did he want to put that behind him; as his mood seems to have changed at that point.Despite the best of intentions.Vanishing Point
in many ways was made out of what it had going against it. Richard Sarafian wanted to do some things differently, but was forced by the studio backing the film to comply with certain creative changes.
The soundtrack for the film was originally going to be scored by a different band. Fox studios didn't want to use anybody, however, who was not under contract with them. Though the movie ended up with quite a soulful soundtrack, it works well with the story.
A major contention was the ending. In the original script, Kowalski drives between the blades of the bulldozers while Super Soul cheers him on. This was intended to be along the lines of the metaphysical where Kowalski sees the gap between the blades, which is his vanishing point, and escapes into a different level. The studio felt that it was too esoteric and that an audience would not accept it, and forced a different ending.
In some ways, though, the ending seems an appropriate message, though if not a bit of a downer, that, in the end, authority wins. Or did it?It comes with a price, but the studio will never see it.
Despite any intended or unintended message, the strength of Vanishing Point
is that it speaks to everyone, and on different levels. It has meaning, but is that really what some one takes away from it?
A perfect example of what it meant to soemone who saw it at the time of its release, and what it meant to them in the context of the time was well stated by Trek_Geezer:
I saw this movie when I was 16 at the drive-in (yes, the year it came out). There was definitely an air of anti-authoritarianism going around back then. We were neck deep in Viet Nam and the government was lying to us and spying on it's on citizens, so myself and most of the other teenagers I knew had very little respect for anyone in a position or authority. We quite regularly p**sed the high school principal off. He even kept our entire class after a pep rally once just to tell us he was going to declare war on us if we didn't shape up. (I can tell you some stories about how he didn't succeed).
We cheered Kowalski on because he respresented something that seemed to be lost. He was an individual who was damaged by the events in his life and his "purpose" had become the road, plain and simple. Plus he was saying f*** you to "the man".
A lot of movies in that time period had the same attitude, even those that featured military and law enforcement types. Take for example Dirty Harry and The Last Detail.
As for Kowalski's death, only Kowalski can know the true meaning of it.
Despite the symbolism, ultimately Vanishing Point
is the story of a troubled man running from his past and looking to the road ahead to provide either an answer or an escape. This man is also the epitome of a free spirit; not bound by state borders or rules. In the end, there is a lesson about authority, but is this message good, bad, or do we even care?Vanishing Point
's strength is, that despite the time in which it was released and having spoken volumes about a free spirit and stuck its tongue out at authority, it works today just as well. With its myriad of symbolism, it can mean different things to different people, or you can just simply enjoy it for what it is, a great movie.
I have put enough of my thoughts on the movie down; how about taking your turn and providing your insights about the movie.