Chasing Death in Vanishing Point (1971) – allegory?

vanishing9Vanishing Point (1971) is a cult classic, and worth seeking out if you like chase movies, existential crap, and weird symbolism.  Barry Newman plays a ex-race car driver named Kowalski, and he’s the kind of character who is very appealing to almost everybody, especially Americans who love a good freedom fighter and anti-hero.

Kowalski served in the military and he’s middle-aged, but he’s had plenty of personal pain in his life.   Some flashbacks remind us that his girlfriend drowned and he has gone through several jobs, all of them failures.  He’s been a race car driver, a demolition derby driver, and a cop.  At the opening of the movie, he only seems to want to drive, to maybe return to his reckless professional days, which are now only captured in drugs and cross-country speeding.  He doesn’t care much for the institutions of society and laughs in the face of conformity.  That’s right, he’s an anti-hero.

vanishing3The America seen in Vanishing Point has a ragged, dangerous edge to it,  as a place riddled by crime, prejudice and drugs.  There’s one flashback showing Kowalski working as a police officer, and he rescues an innocent woman from a brutish cop who is trying to force himself on her.  Later on, some of the media catches on to Kowalski’s cross-country police chase, but there’s no mention of his rescue of the woman.  He’s portrayed as having been run off the force.  It seems there is no solace for doing the right thing, so it’s no wonder Kowalski abandons society.

vanishing4There are tons of existential, rebellious movies like this one from the 70s, if anyone cares to watch such a thing.  I see very little analysis done of cult movies like this one, and that’s a shame.  I think they’re interesting from a historical point of view, and they also show cult filmmaking at its best.  Easy Rider also does the same job with more characterization, but the message is pretty much the same as in Vanishing Point.

The allegory is interesting.  Everything in Kowalski’s life has been a failure, or gone unrecognized.  I think that’s pretty common with a lot of people, which makes Kowalski easy to root for.  At the beginning, he takes a bet that he will reach San Francisco in 15 hours, and it seems improbable from New York.  We’re still rooting for him though, because he’s defiant of those expectations and seems confident in what could be done.  In a largely meaningless world that has abandoned him, Kowalski’s new world is the road, maybe like Mad Max.  In some ways, Kowalski is MORE of a hero than Max, because he has a greater imagination to accomplish something impossible and do it with reckless abandon.  Max is more restrained and hardened.  Like Kowalski, he has also abandoned society, but he doesn’t really want to accomplish anything.

vanishing6Mad Max and Kowalski are similar characters, but Kowalski seems more obsessed with death.  In fact, one scene where he picks up a hitchhiker is supposed to represent his discussion with Death itself.  Death warns him not to go to San Francisco because even the audience knows what could happen at this point.  That’s right, he could die.  Kowalski doesn’t seem to care.  There are plenty of symbols throughout the movie, mostly road signs and graffiti, which seem to indicate his journey and his quest to throw off society, but he accepts that his quest will end in death.  Kowalski smiles at this prospect.  He is almost daring the cops to do their worst, if they can.  The whole movie is one big long police chase, kinda like Smokey & the Bandit without the comedy and the stupidness.

What is the Vanishing Point?  Why does the movie have this title?

  1.  The Vanishing Point is the convergence of the road at the blurry horizon, where it becomes indistinguishable to the naked eye.  That’s where Kowalski is headed.  Meaning, he’s headed literally down the road, but really into oblivion at the end.
  2. The Vanishing Point is the point in the story where Kowalski ceases to be a person and becomes a symbol for optimism or freedom.
  3. The Vanishing Point is the many intersecting perspectives on society.

In all, this is a good movie.  It has a simple story, which has more meat on it than at first glance.  I mean, you can watch as a straightforward chase movie, or as an existential exploration of society.  EITHER WAY.  Kowalski is a great character, and this is definitely Barry Newman’s best movie.  I think the best scene is either the ending climax or his evening meeting with Death, who is a beautiful woman, of course.  Either way you like it, you get your symbolism and your action in this film.  And a muscle car too.  Such a deal.