Vanishing Point presents an American state-crossing car chase ripe for narrative interpretations and thematic metaphors.
Vanishing Point is one of those flicks that, when discussed in a group, most say to be “well put together”, without agreeing on what entirely it was “all about”. I both cherish and despise this type of discussion. As an admirer of cinema, there are times when nothing is able to satisfy me quite like watching a movie, and then sharing perspectives on that movie with a group of people whose opinions I value. However, as an admirer of cinema, there are also times when there is nothing quite as nauseating to me as attempting to define and categorise something, for the sake of conversation, that is ultimately a product of artistic expression. Vanishing Point is a movie I’m desperate to think about, but I’ve no desire to understand it. I like it, but I don’t wish to discuss why. So, instead, I shall write about it.
A brief scan of the internet between viewings of Vanishing Point alerts me to the fact that there are several interpretations of its narrative. Some believe the movie is simply a feature-length car chase accompanied by a compilation of well-selected music. Others believe it presents a road trip through a socially decaying America, where Christians are unneighbourly, and all you need to do to get your hands on some Class B drugs is ask politely. Few believe that Vanishing Point exhibits the continuing oppression present in the world, and demonstrates how freedom is being further limited in the approach of modernity. Personally, I give credit to all of these interpretations, and see no reason why they should not all happily co-exist. Though, if I may, I would like to throw my own reading into the hat. It’s possibly more existential than these others, and potentially further from the truth.
The title of the movie, and its prologue, establishes that there is a point in the narrative where our protagonist, named Kowalski (and performed by Barry Newman), will vanish. I wonder, with my chin atop my hands, is that not true for all of us? Are we not protagonists in our own realities, in which we will, at some point, vanish? Establishing the inevitability of Kowalski’s vanishing point, the movie then winds the clock back a few days, and we watch him make a bet on how fast he can deliver a 1970 Dodge Challenger from Colorado to California. I wonder, as I dip my quill in ink – like Kowalski, are we not all racing towards our own vanishing points, without the ability to stop or travel backwards? Though there are, of course, moments in our lives where we reflect or ruminate, and Kowalski does exactly that throughout Vanishing Point.
We watch the driver meet strangers, make friends and enemies, whilst listening to some great music along the way, but we also witness glimpses of pivotal scenes from Kowalski’s life as he briefly remembers them. Then, when he reaches his vanishing point, Kowalski embraces it with a smile. Now, could we not all learn something from that? I propose that Kowalski is a fictional reflection of ourselves, and the road he travels is life itself. I did say this may get existential. Of course, Kowalski may actually just be a character in a movie who abuses some illegal substances and then leads the law across a few American states without any real purpose. But like I said at the top of this, I’m not interested in learning the definitive intentions behind the narrative of Vanishing Point.
The assumption I made earlier that film-discussers everywhere think of Vanishing Point as being “well put together” is likely an understatement. I’d say it looks utterly beautiful from start to finish. In truth, I’ve never had much interest in cars, or in travelling through America, but Vanishing Point presents them both with such reverence, it’s hard for that interest to not increase exponentially with each viewing. The Dodge Challenger floats effortlessly through the foreground of frames capturing the majesty of American vistas, and Vanishing Point places the audience right there alongside them for every mile. There are, however, a handful of things I’ve found inside Vanishing Point that I don’t really like, and another few bits that might break the immersion for other modern audience members.
The soundscape of Vanishing Point doesn’t quite meet the present-day standard. Though, if you’re planning to watch a movie that’s now half-a-century old and are prepared to compare its audio fidelity to say, Baby Driver, I suggest you quickly re-evaluate. Beyond that, there are some scenes in the film that would certainly be handled differently if made today. A small number of sequences involve misogyny, racism, and homophobia. There is, however, the argument that Vanishing Point includes scenes relating to these issues to reinforce the audience’s perception of oppression throughout the narrative. Aside from my docking a point for this though, I’d say my writing about this flick instead of talking about it has been rather successful. I’ve done my thinking about Vanishing Point, and I understand it just as little as I did at the beginning of this whole process. Which frankly, feels wonderful.
Vanishing Point was first released on March 13, 1971. Click here to own it on BluRay and DVD.
WATCH VANISHING POINT (1971):
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