Sunday, April 19, 2009

Super Soul Says "Get It Now! WOW!"

The Last American Hero

Vanishing Point


One thing I realised about carfilms, or whatever you might call them, is that a certain degree of monotony is always required (check out the wonderful Two Lane Blacktop to see what I mean). If you waste too much time with backgrounds, character development, story etc the really important stuff starts lacking (the car as an instrument of freedom, the road, the desert...). In this way Vanishing Point is the perfect carmovie: it's about the most monotonous, yet beautiful things i've ever seen! It's about:
1. The car
2. The road
3. The desert
4. The music
And nothing else! Some vague attempts are made to make a character out of Kowalski, but fortunely they're small in numbers. The car is the true main character of the film.
I recommend this film with all my heart.




"Vanishing Point" is an almost perfect artifact of its time. The story is heavy on weird coincidences, self-indulgent spirituality and the significance of insignificant events. But those were all defining elements of the early 1970s. Fortunately, so were big-engine musclecars. No one remembers the silly existential mysticism of "Vanishing Point," but the white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T that dominates the movie is unforgettable.
Forget the plot, it's stupid. The mysterious Kowalski, whose tragic history includes stints as a racer and cop (no first name is ever mentioned), is determined to win a bet with his Benzedrine supplier that he can drive the Challenger from Denver to San Francisco in 15 hours. Barry Newman, who plays Kowalski, and the great Cleavon Little, who plays blind radio disc jockey Super Soul, can only do so much with this clearly outdated script. Still, there are some speeches by Super Soul that are so freakish they have their own weird poetry.
Forget all that. What's great about "Vanishing Point" is the sight of that white Challenger barrelling along in the open desert. It crosses medians at top speed, leaps across rivers while running from motorcycle cops, and nearly collides with every moving object west of the Mississippi. Every time Kowalski reaches for the Pistol Grip shifter is a case study in why musclecars continue to have a death grip on America's automotive soul.
It's also obvious that director Richard C. Sarafian understood the importance of automotive realism. The film is never sped up to fake speed, and you can hear Kowalski bark the tires power-shifting the Challenger's four-speed several times. Plus, the Mopar's 440-cubic-inch V8 plays one of the sweetest automotive soundtracks in movie history.
Naturally, the real stars here are the Challenger, which begins the film as a perfect, even shiny, new car, and the stunt driver behind its wheel, Cary Loftin. Loftin piloted the Challenger through most of the action. As stunt coordinator he brought with him driver Bill Hickman and driver/fabricator Max Balchowsky. All three had worked together on 1968's "Bullitt" and, as a team, they were behind dozens of great chases. "Bullitt" remains a classic, but really the driving is even better in "Vanishing Point," where there are more blind cuts across traffic, higher speeds and fearless leaps down into ravines.
For no apparent reason Kowalski gets suicidal at the end of the film and decides to plow the Challenger into a roadblock of a couple of bulldozers rather than give himself up to the police. Infamously, the Challenger somehow morphs into a '67 Camaro before it hits the dozers, but it's still one of the most spectacular one-car crashes ever put on film. There's also something to be said for the iconic image of a bare-naked Gilda Texter riding around the desert on a motorcycle.