barry newman

Meditations in a Car Chase - VANISHING POINT


The strength of Robert Bresson’s films or at least the strength of his work is the absence of traditional style. Bresson placed a heavy emphasis on natural locations, settings and non-actors and that the lack of style in the film is the style. It’s style without style. While it may be safe to assume that director Richard Sarafian is not a disciple of Bresson and his transcendental style of work, Vanishing Point is the first and perhaps only American car chase film influenced by the French luminary. Working from a screenplay by Guillermo Cabrera Infante, a Cuban novelist, Vanishing Point captures the waning days of the love and peace movement of the sixties and the media’s forthcoming obsession with high-speed police chases. It’s rather strange how prophetic Infante was since his views of America were largely derived from Jack Kerouac’s epic beatnik tome, On The Road.  Infante must’ve assumed that when a young person in America becomes disillusioned, they hope into a car and drive away from their problems as fast as they can. Snort up and hop into that muscle car and escape the love problems, alienation, the war, and the failure of the American dream. 

Our hero, Kowalski (Barry Newman) has become a detached figure after witnessing the grim realities of war and law enforcement and seeing the crippling fade of the love generation. Kowalski has nothing to lose, so why not drive from Colorado to San Francisco in 15 hours after snorting fistfuls of speed? The American dream, the promise of the American dream has reached a vanishing point for Kowalski and that slick 1970 Dodge Challenger. The relationship between Kowalski and his Challenger is somewhat similar to the relationship between Marie (Anne Wiazemsky) and Balthazar, the donkey in Bresson’s au hasard Balthazar. Granted, it’s a bit of stretch and borders on becoming a type of film analysis that I absolutely detest, but there’s a strong bond amongst this  foursome of characters. There’s an unspoken, unconditional love between them, whether they know it. It’s clear that Balthazar and the Challenger require human interaction in order to survive and thrive; feeding and fueling, but these characters ask for very little in return from their one-time owners. Kowalski smashes the Challenger, gets a flat tire and of course, gets the machine dirty, but the Challenger does not give up or retreat in Kowalski’s greatest hour of need; fleeing from the entire Nevada highway patrol. Balthazar bounces from owner to owner in the French countryside and no matter how badly he is treat, Balthazar just plugs along with his tasks. Not to mention, that the Challenger and the donkey make the ultimate and perhaps greatest sacrifice in order for their human counterparts to achieve their own personal freedom.


In an essay by James Quandt, Godard claimed that au hasard Balthazar is the world in 90 minutes and  the same theory can be applied to Vanishing Point. It’s the decline and demise of the counter culture in 90 minutes. Richard Sarafian, whether he knows it or not has perfectly captured the wave crashing on the shoreline. The ubiquitous movie gods may strike me down for this, but I feel that Vanishing Point is a better counter culture film than Antonioni’s Zabriske Point. The protagonists of Zabriske Point drift from a Southern California locale to a Central California locale interacting and seeking meaningful experiences with other like-minded individuals; creating a mosaic of the counter culture. The counter culture mosaic that Kowalski experiences when he briefly steps out of the safe confines of the Challenger: the religious zealots, the weekend warriors, and the impending media fascination with high-speed chases.

For as much meaning and subtext as there is to Vanishing Point, it’s just a beautifully photographed and constructed car chase film. That’s where Bresson transcendental style actually comes into play. Compromised largely of wide shots of the open road, Vanishing Point hints at the insignificance of man against the backdrop of nature/mountain. Here we go into that brand of film analysis that’s cringe worthy and punch to the face worthy. The simplicity of the chase is what really sells this picture and makes it engaging. Granted, it’s probably more of a product of that particular era of editing and filmmaking that the shots in the chase sequences last for at least five seconds. It was a simpler era, but the ability for the audience to have an understanding of what car is where and smashing into what other car is vastly underrated amongst the current crop of action filmmakers. The audience is able to count the number of Nevada police cruisers tagging behind the Challenger in a single shot, as opposed to waiting for a split second wide shot to know the exact number of pursuers of our hero. 


In the ubiquitous retrospective documentary on the DVD release, Richard Sarafian mentioned that a few of the shot that cinematographer John A. Alonzo managed to get were happy accidents. However, Sarafian failed to mention that the success of the entire picture is a happy accident.