‘Vanishing Point’: An American Story of Outrunning the Future

Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, Richard C. Sarafian’s magnificent, exhilarating American odyssey captures this country’s confounding paradoxes like nothing else.

Cupid Productions

What we have here is one of the most American films of all time. Despite the litanies of disillusioned and corrosive associations ‘the American way’ often engenders when discussing the back half of the twentieth century, this time I mean ‘American’ in a uniquely positive sense. To explain:

Richard C. Sarafian’s chase film / hippie elegy / road epic / cult gem Vanishing Point is a disarmingly jaunty, joyous, exciting, yet deeply emotive and perceptive piece of work, very much from and of the year 1971. The ‘plot’ is simple: a car delivery driver, Kowalski (Barry Newman), is supposed to deliver a pristine, supercharged ice-white 1970 Dodge Challenger (what a car, might I add), from Denver to San Francisco. He has ample time to do this. But that’s no fun, so in between wolfing down Benzedrine to stay awake as long as he can on the road, Kowalski bets his friend Jake (Lee Weaver) that he can make it to ‘Frisco in less than two and a half days.

It is a wanton and unnecessary wager, but in this display of impulsive determination within its first few minutes, Vanishing Point has already set up a recognizable facet of day-to-day life: one has to grasp excitement where one can. Today, particularly in a time when simply going outside has become a special treat in many circumstances, that feeling rings true. In 1971, the likes of Kowalski are not only trying to celebrate the spark of life, they’re grasping for the embers of a liberation movement that’s on its last dope-smoking, freewheeling legs.

Almost immediately, Kowalski is tailed by motorcycle cops. He’s going about double the speed limit through the Colorado canyons, blasting the radio and doing what many would do in a supercharged Dodge Challenger: driving like he means it. But such an expression of freedom is total anathema to the “blue meanies,” and these two decide to pull him over. To the tune of Bobby Doyle’s extremely catchy foot-tapper “The Girl Done Got It Together,” Kowalski maneuvers around them with speed demon agility and manages to knock both cops to the pavement. He checks to see they’re not seriously hurt, then burns asphalt into the distance. The chase is on, and it does not stop until the very last frame.

It’s a magnificently American odyssey. Both sides of the gargantuan opposition set up within the film’s rollicking narrative embody intermittently beautiful and bitter truths of an all-encompassing culture war that we are still reeling from today. Throughout this adventure, the gleaming Challenger, Kowalski in it, and the film along with them fervently try to keep the rather fantastical, utopian ideas of Americanism alive: freedom, diversity, creativity, love and communion with nature, and intensity of passion and connection and celebration and community and experience and individual expression.

Kowalski — and all those who start to support him as news of his evasions of multiple state police forces spreads —  are effectively attempting to outrun the turning of the page from the humanist, peace-loving momentum of anti-war protests and free love ideologies into corrosive, Vietnam-inflected, everyone-for-themselves-and-everything-for-the-market thinking. (This latter worldview being embodied and enforced, of course, by the “blue meanies” on his tail.) Those who wish to defend this America of freedom, righteousness, and equality — and those who wish to uplift that which was promised to so many millions but delivered to almost none — are seen desperately attempting to outrun an overbearing, hauntingly inevitable American fascism, embodied in all those terrible and familiar forces: brutal policing, white supremacy, abuse and exploitation of nature, suppression of individuality in favor of capitalist obedience, vilification of sexuality and women, the fetishization of militarized aggression, and so on.

In this manner, Vanishing Point is a striking film for its incisive contemporariness. It is a rare movie that can be enjoyed in equal measure as a fabulously romantic, stylish, gritty car chase movie and a blistering, sobering portrait of a nation at an existential crossroads. It is 1971 incarnate. The turn of the decade and the decaying of the hippie optimism of the 1960s is on the tip of every character’s tongue. As our mononymous protagonist barrels ahead on this arbitrarily scheduled, almost certainly doomed mission, he blazes past all manner of metaphors for this nationwide changing of the mood: free lovers who wear almost no clothes exiled in the barren desert; a batty but friendly lone prospector whose livelihood selling snakes to Pentecostal Christians is going out of fashion; a gay couple openly robbing travelers by feigning victimhood; and policemen perversely obsessed with capturing and demolishing whatever free spirit they can get their power-drunk hands on.

These various episodes and encounters throughout Kowalski’s adventure are amusing in parts, invigorating in others, but always curiously philosophical underneath the surface. They reflect warped visions of what could have been; where notions of aggression and exuberance have all started to drift in the wrong directions. What was meant to be sexual freedom is now fruitless isolation; what was meant to be a return to non-transactional experience is now just another obsolete trend; what was meant to be inclusion is now plagued by exploitation just like everything else. This wasn’t the dream, man.

With a screenplay by left-wing Cuban novelist, essayist, and screenwriter Guillermo Cabrera Infante (writing under the one-time pseudonym Guillermo Cain), Vanishing Point achieves a stunningly delicate balance between a lament for a fading revolution and a blast of celebration for that movement’s defining ethos. Kowalski is both a valiant and tragic figure in equal measure; as regular flashbacks fill in his life story, the film patiently infers a parallel between his trajectory and the country’s. He was once a racing driver, and then a soldier in the Vietnam War, during which he received a Medal of Honor; later, he experienced a great love, but she was lost to the sea while surfing. He was even a police officer at one point, but as perhaps the most disturbing scene of the film illustrates, the men he encountered around him in that profession were too cruel and despotic to be trusted. He has seen a lot, that Kowalski, and learned from each experience. As he pushes the Challenger ahead, he is at once a man with nothing to lose and a figure of immense wealth. He carries his memories, he has processed them, and he knows that all the individual can really do in life is set a course, promise not to hurt other souls on the way, and follow it. This time, it’s to ‘Frisco by 3pm Sunday.

This stark determination keeps Vanishing Point from ever resembling a dreary diatribe. While the metaphorical implications are hefty, Sarafian keeps the pace up and the ribald spectacle of it all at the forefront. Not to mention the many stretches of deliriously fun chase scenes and musical pairings. Despite the daunting realities of a culture being dragged back into conservatism, oases of joy, love, freedom, and compassion are still glimmering here and there. It just takes a rupture in the social order as daring and unstoppable as Kowalski’s otherworldly defiance — and that Challenger outrunning every cop in sight — to make the people wake up and tune in. And tune in they do.

The soundtrack is just about perfect, both in its impeccable taste and its thematically relevant winking optimism. The selected music is just as aware of the calamitous possibilities of this loss of spirit as the diegetic characters and allegorical layers in the narrative. Songs like Jimmy Walker’s towering “Where Do We Go From Here?”, Delaney and Bonnie’s infectiously earnest “You Gotta Believe”, and Kim & Dave’s triumphantly nihilistic “Nobody Knows” are exemplary instances of needle-drop references to the country’s existential crisis, as well as being kickass ‘70s bangers belonging to all sorts of characteristically American genres. You’ll be spinning the soundtrack immediately after the film ends, I promise.

Deserving of his own section of praise is Cleavon Little as ‘Super Soul,’ the Black radio DJ who immediately feels a kinship with Kowalski when he hears of his white-hot car chase, who and begins relaying the story on the air. Still a few years off from his magnificently iconoclastic turn in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles as a very different kind of authority out West, Little is electric here as a blind poet of the airwaves, who can see more potential and bombastic value in Kowalski’s escapade than seemingly anyone else. A metaphysical bond forms instantly between the two men, separated by hundreds of miles but preternaturally linked somehow, not least because Super Soul’s station in Goldfield, Nevada happens to be named KOW (which a makeshift banner draped on the building later in the film extends with an ‘-ALSKI’ for total clarity).

Like an oracle guiding a Greek hero through battle, Super Soul eventually addresses his broadcasts directly to the Challenger, guiding his step and describing upcoming trials on the warpath. He both romanticizes and mourns for this singular expression of resistance. To Super Soul — who is, in many ways, both the heart and brain of the film — what Kowalski is doing is magnificent, inspirational, and deserving of a nationwide audience and a legion of support. But this exception is in serious danger of proving a terrible rule. That sinking feeling, as well as mordant irony, creep into focus again as Super Soul’s on-air monologues begin to reflect the cruelty of the situation: this chase, like all things, revolutions, and dreams, must eventually come to an end. And that end might just be more crushing than the adventure was liberating.

One could spend ages thinking about the pertinence and breathtakingly prescient nature of the Super Soul scenes. The people should know, if there ever was a film that emanated a responsibly-measured A.C.A.B. energy without making it obvious, overbearing, or reductive, it is Vanishing Point. Few scenes of police brutality feel more realistic and incisive than one late in the film, when the most fascistic-minded ‘good ol’ boy’ cops turn their sights on Super Soul’s KOW broadcasting house. The tragedy lies in how honest it feels, how recognizable this hegemonic impulse to cut the heart out of liberation movements still feels today. We could have so much love and community if those meant to protect and serve weren’t so busy crushing any threat to their presumptions of order.

I drove across the country with my father in the summer of 2014. (Well, most of the way.) Beginning in our hometown of Washington, D.C., we first stopped in Cleveland to pay homage to my father’s father’s birthplace — and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame while we were at it. Then we went west, stopping at hotels when needed, having a blast driving to all sorts of rock anthems — although unlike Kowalski, we mostly stuck quite strictly to the speed limit. Funnily enough, we stopped just about where Kowalski begins, in Denver, before we turned back and drove home along Southern highways to add some more states to our itinerary. It was a meaningful trip in all sorts of ways, one that provided wonderful quality time with my father, first and foremost, but it was also the most eye-opening week of my life thus far because it showed me more of the vast American landscape than I had ever experienced or honestly considered. I came much closer to understanding the ardent optimism of so many American ideologies that week. It is not for me to expound on what this country means to anyone else, but personally, as straightforward as it seems, I found a disarming solace in the simply gigantic scope of the place. It seems almost insane to imagine so many people dispersed over so many thousands of square miles collecting together for any reason, and yet in a strangely comforting sense, the unlikelihood of it made the banner of ‘Americanism’ seem all the more inviting, defiant, fulfilling, and welcoming.

No film has captured that expansive paradox quite like Vanishing Point, which I maintain is one of the most American films ever made, even as it documents the dissolution of almost everything that America has at least tried to get right. I live in the United Kingdom now and regularly find myself defending aspects of the United States that I am not sure I even support wholeheartedly. But I defend the complexity of the place, and more than anything its immense diversity, as strange and nebulous a term as that can seem. I tell my conversation partners I will not give up on the country. I cannot, no matter how depraved so many of our leaders and neighbors might become. When I say this, I am not applying blanket righteousness, good god no; it is the spirit and communities and ethics and tapestries celebrated and immortalized in Vanishing Point to which I am referring.

It may all be a fantasy, as a number of the film’s subtle hints of surrealism infer, but even if purely mythical, these are wonderful myths to embrace and wonderful values to defend to the last breath. If we can outrun the worst of the blue meanies and all they represent in any way, shape, or form, we must put pedal to the metal and try. That is an American ethos forged back in the cultural furnace of what has been termed the “Long 1960s,” for which films like Vanishing Point provide appreciative but conclusive punctuation. Perhaps this is why the film fared much better upon release with U.K. and European audiences than with American ones. Those intrigued by the American trajectory devoured it; those living through this backslide perhaps knew it all too well.

Now, however, 50 years later, Vanishing Point is both time capsule and prophesy, easier to embrace but all the more daunting a premonition for its timeless qualities.  Surrounding the hypnotic visuals, charming performances, impeccable soundtrack, searing action, and undeniable fun, this film is crafted like a Janus statue, peering sentimentally into the past and the future, but rooted manifestly in its present. This is as perfect a pairing of film and release-year one can have; here’s hoping it continues to be embraced, remembered, and celebrated for decades more to come.

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