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Vanishing Point returns to our screens as part of our Road Movies season. Before then, Curzon’s James King looks back at the film…
Vanishing Point falls into what I would describe as the post–Manson subgenre of American cinema. Superficially marketed as a car–chase thriller, like Easy Rider before it and Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2014 Pynchon–adaptation Inherent Vice, Vanishing Point exists as an allegory for the decline of the counter–cultural movement of the 1960s, the collapse of the hippie revolution and all its promises of free–love, utopian communes and the iconic Woodstock music festival.
The film follows Kowalski – portrayed by the then–relatively–unknown Barry Newman with an unnerving serenity – a Medal of Honour Vietnam War veteran and former professional racing car driver, haunted by the death of his girlfriend in a surfing accident five years previously, who is now reduced to working as a car delivery driver. Arriving late on a Friday eve at the delivery service to collect his latest vehicle, Kowlaski is tasked with delivering a souped–up 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T1 from Denver, Colorado to San Francisco. Although Kowalski has three whole days to make the 1,200–mile journey, he makes a bet with his Benzedrine dealer that he can reach the Bay Area by 3pm on Saturday. Quite literally jacked–up on speed, Kowlaski almost immediately falls foul of the authorities for dangerous driving. Rather than pull over and surrender to the highway patrolman, Kowalski accelerates and embarks upon a break–neck cross–country odyssey. Constantly chased by the police across multiple state lines, Kowalski’s high–speed pursuit quickly becomes a national media sensation, and he is hailed by the counter–culture as, what the blind–radio DJ Super Soul describes as: “the last American hero for whom speed is the ultimate freedom of the soul.”
Whilst Kowalski’s odyssey initially appears to be a rather stupid and meaningless bet between him and his drug dealer, a reckless display of machismo that is hard to sympathise with given the danger it could cause to innocent bystanders2, once he encounters disproportionate authoritarian resistance it quickly takes on a heroic status. Kowalski’s conflict is not with his drug dealer, it is not even with the highway patrolmen who ineffectively stalk him, it is with the unforgiving capitalist system3 that crushed the hippie movement and the promise of a fairer, kinder, more peaceful way of life. Or at least this is the meaning Kowalski takes on for those who adopt him as a hero. The calm ambiguity of Newman’s performance never allows us to truly penetrate his motivations. Unlike the traditional outlaw, there is no real financial gain for Kowalski – in the brief allusions to his past career as a professional racer it is noted that, despite his obvious talent, he never really progressed because he never really wanted to win; at least not in competition against the other racers. He simply wanted the thrill of the speed, even on a crowded racetrack Kowalski remained alone. His is a race towards oblivion – the titular vanishing point of the film.
Kowalski is not really headed for San Francisco – a city whose topographical construction almost completely inhibits any kind of drag racing, with the American grid system awkwardly imposed onto 36 hills. He is careening towards his own death, the death we sense he has wanted for a long, long time – still haunted by the guilt surrounding the drowning of his old lover. Although he was in no way responsible for the surfing accident (he wasn’t even present), she claimed she would ride that fateful wave in his honour. And so too do we sense that Kowalski’s last wave, speeding head–on, unflinchingly, into a pair of bulldozers being used as a road blockade, is an act of romantic reciprocity.
It can be no accident that Kowalski’s death is one of self–immolation. As his corpse and the wreckage of the Dodge Challenger burns over the end credits, one cannot help but recall the image of the Vietnamese monk Thích Quảng Đức, who notoriously burned himself to death at a busy Saigon road intersection on 11 June, 1963, protesting the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government. This was an image that became emblematic of all forms of anti–authoritarian protest throughout the decade, and is often mistaken as a protest against the Vietnam War that had not yet fully escalated. So too perhaps is Kowalski’s quest misinterpreted by his hippie champions as one of resistance and martyrdom. It is more than possible that he had simply succumbed to despair and wanted to kill himself doing what he loved best: driving as fast as physics would allow. But, as we all know, the author is dead. His personal intentions are irrelevant. As the 1960s turned into the 70s, the counter–cultural movement needed one last hero in its death throes4, and Kowalski’s demented voyage provided them with that. When hope fades all that is left is anger and protest, to stick two fingers up to the sky and spit in the face of an unelected dictator. And, given the current political climate, it feels like we could all use another Kowalski.
Word by James King, writer, director and film distributor at Curzon Artificial Eye.
Vanishing Point screens on Wed 16 Aug. Book tickets here.
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