By Sam Tucker
Summer vacation is ending, fall is coming, and the Independent Picture House is gearing up for a new series, Wanderers of the Lost Highways. The seven films that will screen over the next seven months are all road movies released in the 1970s, a tumultuous era of cultural change, rebellion and inspired moviemaking. The first in the series, Vanishing Point, is not only a fantastic jumping-off (or should I say driving-off?) point but a classic in its own right.
Directed by Richard C. Sarafian, the film stars Barry Newman as Kowalski. (According to him, it’s his first and last name.) The plot is simple: He’s hired to drive a (now iconic) 1970 Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco, and he bets his drug dealer that he can make the journey in 15 hours. As you can imagine, the highway patrol and federales of the various states he passes through seem not to love this idea, and he has various run-ins throughout his travels.
And honestly…that’s kind of it. The brisk 99-minute run time is punctuated with white-knuckle car chases and Kowalski’s interactions with counterculture types. It feels very much of a piece with one of my favorite movies, Drive. And you can see its influence on Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof. The group of women in that film even drive the same car. In another homage, the band Audioslave repurposed footage from the film for its 2003 “Show Me How to Live” video, which can be viewed here, but be warned that it contains spoilers!
Vanishing Point thrusts you into the action and expects you to keep up, filling the gaps with rapid-fire flashbacks to fill in Kowalski’s character and motivations. In some ways (maybe it’s a reach?) the film is a neo-noir: A somewhat nameless man on a nebulous mission, haunted by his mysterious past. It touches on social issues like policing, racial injustice and the marginalization of non-normative culture. But ultimately it’s about one hot-rod driver fighting against authority and the authorities trying to suppress him.
All that is to say it is truly a classic of the genre. Judging by the plethora of references and homages (even a TV adaptation), it has inspired filmmakers and artists alike. This will look great on the big screen at IPH, bringing you along for the ride through the stark desert and one man’s journey to run away from himself. As always, I recommend grabbing friends, enjoying a glass of your favorite beverage and indulging in an evening of something both foreign and familiar, while making sure your cell phones are fully turned off, of course.