Here are my film notes for Vanishing Point, which the International Arts Society screened earlier this evening:
Vanishing Point Richard Sarafian, director (USA, 1971)
When Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider crossed the line from B-movie to mainstream hit, studios couldn't wait to turn its novelty into formula. Suddenly the existential road movie was a hot commodity and the conventions of classic Hollywood cinema were left behind like a station wagon in the slow lane. Paradoxically, though, this leap forward was also a journey into the medium's distant past, to a time before the early "cinema of attractions" transformed into a narrative-driven form of art. Car chases took the place of plot twists. Characterization was reduced to the sparest of gestures. And style triumphed over substance so emphatically that film noirs seemed like soap operas by comparison. For many movie-goers, these developments were decidedly unwelcome. They turned to television in search of comfortingly familiar story arcs and in many cases never came back to the theater. Others regarded the changes more favorably. Indeed, some savvy filmmakers recognized that these existential road movies and their relatives in adjacent subgenres had cleared a path for a new approach to cinema, one that would shortly usher in the era of post-Studio Era "blockbusters" like American Grafitti and Jaws.
Watching Richard Sarafian's Vanishing Point, however, it's hard to believe that such audience-friendly fare was just around the corner. Devoid of the dialogue that humanizes the principal characters in Easy Rider, it is an astonishingly minimal film. Our protagonist (Barry Newman) has been reduced to a single name. Significantly, though, it is a last name. Both the authorities that pass on information about him from one outpost to the next and the protagonist himself note that he goes simply by "Kowalski." Once we are in the habit of calling someone "Jim" or "Linda" or "Dan," we have attained an intimacy that is hard to undo. Because of what happened in Kowalski's life prior to his decision to outrun the police in a white Dodge Challenger, though, he no longer communicates at that level. At one point, a police-radio voiceover identifies him as an early veteran of the United States's intervention in Vietnam. In one of the film's few flashbacks, we see him in a police uniform, risking his position to defend a young woman of the counter-culture who is being molested by his partner. Later, we are given reason to believe that this action led to a public scandal that drove him from the Force. Since the military and the police, its domestic double, are both institutions where individuals are typically addressed by their last names, both by their superiors and equals, Kowalski's lack of a first-name implies that these experiences have shorn him of the ability to be intimate with others. He can be given orders. He can be discussed in the third-person. But he can't be directly addressed outside of an implicit hierarchy.
Vanishing Point's other main character, the small-town black DJ called Super Soul (Cleavon Little), also lacks a private identity. And the relationship that develops between him and our protagonist is mediated by the distance that his words must travel over the airwaves before being tuned in on the white Dodge Challenger's radio. Although they eventually speak to one other – Super Soul begins to address the fugitive directly and Kowalski talks back to the disembodied voice intruding on his speed-fueled solitude – their conversation takes the form of two monologues. In this respect, our protagonist is the perfect stand-in, not only for all the lonely men who struggle to reintegrate into society after serving in a war, but for anyone who has lost touch with unmediated reality. The car he is driving may serve as an extension of his corporeal existence, but because it is not his car, it can't really be described as an extension of self. He communicates with the world through a steering wheel, but one to which he has no personal attachment. It is in this respect that Vanishing Point parts ways with other films in its subgenre, from Easy Rider to Two-Lane Blacktop to Smokey and the Bandit, all of which foreground the relationship between characters and the vehicles they regard as their intimates. If driving becomes a substitute for sex in the existential road movie, then Vanishing Point is a film about the emptiness of anonymous intercourse. In fact, the picture's greatest accomplishment is to give us the tools to perceive the connection between this sort of anonymity and our insertion in chains of command that reduce us to a last name and the identification numbers to which it is tied. As Super Soul makes clear when he rhapsodizes about Kowalski on the air, the white Dodge Challenger's flight may represent the last act of freedom in a modern world that has placed us all in the chains of government-sanctioned identity. The tragedy is that its course is bound to end in oblivion.
I wish I'd had more time to muse on the double meaning on the term "last name." Not only do last names locate us within a family tree, they are also bound up with death in interesting ways.