Monday, May 2, 2011

I'd Love to Turn You On - At the Movies #12 - Vanishing Point (1971, dir. Richard C. Sarafian)

Vanishing Point is what Easy Rider would’ve been if Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper had been unknown wannabes with nowhere near the clout necessary to get an unconventional movie made. Watching the two films back to back, you can almost hear the big-shot producer demanding changes to the classic hippy film. Like, the motorcycle thing is cool, but it’d be cooler if it were a hot rod. And why two male leads? Too gay. Make it one guy. Alone. Against the world. And all these pot smoking scenes, with everybody giggling and spouting gibberish about outer space and freedom -- lose that stuff. Make the main character a speed freak. That’ll keep the plot moving. All the road scenes in the West are great, too, but don’t have them hook up with some drunk country lawyer. I don’t care if you can get Nicholson to play him. Make it a naked chick on a bike.
Vanishing Point begins in Denver with a macho, curly-haired 70s dude named Kowalski (Barry Newman) taking a job delivering a white Dodge Challenger to San Francisco. For reasons that are never made clear, Kowalski has to make it to the West Coast in just 15 hours. He buys some speed and pushes the accelerator to the floor. Soon cops are on his tail in cruisers and helicopters, and a black radio DJ who goes by name of Super Soul (Cleavon Little) is calling play-by-play on a coast-to-coast broadcast. It’s fast-paced and wonderfully campy, perfect DVD brain candy, with a hard-driving soundtrack of B-list classic rock by the likes of Mountain, Eve and The Doug Dillard Expedition. But it’s also weirdly and accidentally kind of deep. Like Easy Rider, Vanishing Point offers a probing glimpse of America during a turbulent time, and its theme, such that it is, is in some ways truer than that of its predecessor. For example, it’s hard to ignore Vanishing Point’s racial undertones. Kowalski’s only friend is a black guy in Denver who supplies him with speed before he hits the road, and who he calls periodically from phone booths along the way for moral support. And Super Soul and his big-afro entourage serve as the Greek chorus for this tragedy, cheering on Kowalski in his white chariot, calling him “the last American hero,” wringing their hands as if he’s their only shot at freedom. In other words, it’s an angry white man drawing energy from the oppressed on a doomed quest for liberation, which is a pretty good allegory for the 60s. Along the way he stops at a tent revival in the desert to quickly expose religion as a scam, and then he stops by a commune to enlist the white counter culture on his crusade (and to score more “ups”). He’s Jesus on a 400-horsepower cross, an only begotten son of The Man — an ex-cop and war hero who’s been spurned by the Great Society he once fought to protect, a continuation of Fonda’s Captain America legend: a righteous, doped-out embodiment of the American Dream, a man so free he has to be killed.
- Joe Miller

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