Vanishing Point feels like the quintessential 70s movie. “Wait, isn’t that Easy Rider?” Sure, you could argue that (even if it’s from 1969) and there are similarities, but viewed without competitors this movie screams and shouts, “I’m from the 70s!” I picked it randomly for a 70s movie and it fits my parameters perfectly. It shows a lot about its time and has some interesting if extremely strange ideas. It’s not necessarily a good movie unless you like a basically non-story about a driver who wants to bring a car to San Francisco, is chased by the police and makes many police cars crash, while also meeting all kinds of 70s tropes. I can see how it has the potential for a cult movie (which it seemingly is), but that doesn’t make it good. Unless you like to see cars drive off the road or crash into something.
The movie in general has a feeling of change. The first scene seems to convey that something is happening, that people are worried about what happens to their world. It’s a desolate world, ruled by authorities that seem to panic and use every force they have (bulldozers, helicopters) to stop this one car that breaks through their barriers. It’s clearly him against the world. One problem of the movie is that its protagonist Kowalski (Barry Newman) only vaguely has any purpose for being so disruptive, so that this atmosphere doesn’t go anywhere. This works better in the scene where Super Soul (Cleavon Little) enters the town and everyone is clearly offended by his sheer presence. It works because he’s clearly the only black person and because he radiates a certain attitude of “You got a problem?” Both characters are connected because Super Soul promotes Kowalski’s escapes on his radio station and celebrates his escape, purely because it goes against an ignorant and racist society. It’s a bit silly, because Super Soul doesn’t know anything about Kowalski, which is not much less than the audience does. In a nice little moment, Kowalski even causes the lines on the street to be painted wrong, thereby literally upsetting society’s order.
In a flashback, we get a little background information about Kowalski and learn he was once a cop who stopped his partner from raping a witness. It criticizes the use of authority’s force, but the movie can’t help but focus on the poor woman’s exposed breast, even after the scene was squirmy enough. It doesn’t help that this flashback is triggered by him meeting an attractive woman at a fuel station, which is a little odd. And is the oil drilling metaphor intentional? Another flashback shows overly stylized romantic love scenes with him and a woman at a beach, showing him in the transition between quitting his job as a policeman and escaping society by becoming an illegal driver. This would be really be more powerful if it wasn’t so clichéd and corny.
There is another odd scene of a group of hippie Christians who sing for a long time on a stage in the middle of nowhere to an audience of about 10 people. They include black people, long hair, no clear family structures and therefore seem quite progressive. But their leader is very creepy, imitates a snake tongue and is very suspicious. He obviously had a deal of buying a basket of snakes, but now he says they don’t need them anymore because they have the band, “So, we are going to free the vipers!” he shouts in a very symbolic gesture of snakes flying to the ground. But what does all of that mean? That the ideals of the 60s are used for shady purposes? That they are good guys? It’s odd and then just cuts to two more minutes of singing.
In the second-oddest moment of the movie, Kowalski meets a pair of two men who are absolutely meant to be homosexual. We hear them talk and move in a very effeminate and exaggerated way before he meets them, one of them wears feminine clothes, they want to go to San Francisco and they bicker like a married couple. Oh, and their car has a “Just married” sign. It’s full of the worst clichés but, so I thought at first, at least the movies includes homosexuals. Once they’re in his car, a weird conversation starts:
First Hitchhiker: Is something wrong? Kowalski: No, why? Should there be? First Hitchhiker: Well, you’re so silent and moody. [They have been in the car for a minute and Kowalski hasn’t said anything, so ‘moody’ is quite a stretch.] Kowalski: Maybe it’s just part of my nature. First Hitchhiker: Why are you laughing? Kowalski: I’m not laughing. [He really isn’t.] First Hitchhiker: Yes, you are. Way down deep inside yourself. It’s because you think we’re queers. Isn’t it? Kowalski (shakes his head): Hey, hey… First Hitchhiker (pulls a gun on him): This is a stick-up. Kowalski: Stick-up? [Now he’s laughing!]
He throws them out, not without the second one saying: “No, no, please it hurts!” like a little girl and adding “You bitch!” when they’re left on the side of the road. What’s the point of this? To show that not only are homosexuals like all the clichés you know, but that they are also bad people? Why did they have to be homosexuals? I mean, Kowalski is cool about it, he really doesn’t seem to have a problem with them, but the movie clearly has.
Following that, Super Soul and his technician are attacked by a mob of angry white people. Their leader wants to show how racist he is by shouting: “Hey nigger, I’m gonna shut your big black mouth! Let’s get them.” Some long-haired white guy is attacked too, just for the hell of it. We don’t hear much of the fighting, but a song about Jesus and loving one another. Do you see how the movie’s intentions are in the right spot even if the movie isn’t?
Finally, the oddest scene in the movie features Kowalski following a biker because he wants some drugs (this comes out of nowhere), who shares his house in the desert with a nude girl who drives around on a motorbike. There are slow-motion shots of her face, coupled with rock music. The biker leaves and Kowalski and the girl have another weird conversation.
Nude Girl: You gonna stay with us? Kowalski: No, I don’t think so. Nude Girl: Is there something I can do for you? [cue slow romantic piano music] Kowalski: Like what? Nude Girl: Like anything you want. Kowalski: No, I can’t think of anything. Nude Girl: You don’t fancy me. Kowalski: Oh, yeah, yeah, very much. Nude Girl: Then why don’t we have some fun? Kowalski: Thanks. Thanks just the same. Nude Girl: That’s okay. (walks away) Isn’t there something you like? Kowalski: Yeah, how about a smoke?
She then shows him a collage of pictures she has of him to show she’s a fan of his protest against the police. I guess I see how the movie wants to show Kowalski being above all earthly pleasures (especially considering the ending), but there’s something about that scene again that feels really off. The music is probably the worst part. A couple of scenes later, Kowalski talks on the phone to a friend and in the background we see his bed with two nude women. The women are really only there for the men in this movie, no matter how free-spirited it claims to be. It’s a bit discomforting.
All in all, I really appreciate the movie’s attempt at showing some of the 70s atmosphere and ideals, but it didn’t age well and never makes clear what it’s actually about. It has its moments, but overall isn’t much more than a curious but somewhat entertaining 70s oddity.