Vanishing Point

Vanishing Point (1971) movie poster

(1971) dir. Richard C. Sarafian
veiwed: 10/01/08

Vanishing Point was the film that Quentin Tarantino cited as the inspiration/touch point for him making his car race movie Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof (2007), and while Tarantino’s film sucked horribly, I was still curious to check out the film that he had liked.  One of the things about Tarantino is that he may be whatever you think of him as a screenwriter and director (and actor), but the guy has pretty good taste in both movies and music.  His soundtracks are sometimes better than his films, and for a while, when he was attaching his names to re-releases of films for distribution and DVD promotion, the things he liked were often worth the inspection.

Vanishing Point fits into the groups of films that I have seen that fell under Tarantino’s promotion.  Like Breathless (1983), Jim McBride’s misbegotten remake of Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle (1960), and Switchblade Sisters (1975), Vanishing Point is a crossing of the art film and the B-grade or lower genre or exploitation film.  Pop-culture muddled with art house aesthetics.  So you can have your fun and still contemplate it later.

Actually, Vanishing Point is pretty interesting in some ways.  It’s the story of a guy who is driving a car from Colorado to San Francisco as a delivery, but he drives the car like a maniac, racing up the long highways, running cars, people, and police off the road.  And the question perpetually is: “why?”

With snippet-like flashbacks, the audience is only given glimpses of the backstory, so there are a lot of holes to fill in.  At one point, he was a racecar driver, then a cop.  And then he lost his hippie girlfriend in a surfing accident.  So, what is his motivation?  Well, the other indicator that is given is the running hep commentary by Cleavon Little, playing a blind deejay in a small town radio station, who is tuned into the police scanner and is proselytizing about the rebel car driver, the last great individual, fighting against the system, against “the man”.  Of course, the police don’t take too kindly to this, and the radio station is attacked in racially-motivated violence.  But the connection between the two, the radio station and the driver…huh?

The driver, Barry Newman, is on a quest, and when he rides out into the desert, he meets with a snake-wrangler and some singing hippie born-again Christians who are quite unfriendly and meant to be read as kooky.  He also has an odd interaction with a gay stick-up couple.  I am guessing that there is social commentary or allegorical stuff going on here, but I’d be stabbing in the dark to say that I totally get it.

Like the other films that Tarantino champions, this moderately obscure cult film is more interesting than a lot.  The cinematography of the roads and highways and car chases and crashes is neat.  The use of the faces of the extras and crowds helps fill in a background world against which the action happens.  But much the rebel without a cause, it’s hard to sympathize with the driver.  The pointlessness of his actions, no matter that he doesn’t actually injure anyone, is merely reckless, selfish, and inscrutible.  And the film, for its style and its nihilism, isn’t all that amazing or moving.


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