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September 26, 2008

Cinematic Denver: Vanishing Point

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Richard C. Sarafian - 1971
20th Century Fox Region 1 DVD

It took me twenty-eight years after seeing Vanishing Point but I did my own road trip between Denver and San Francisco. Actually it was the opposite direction, from Oakland to Denver. I wasn't chased by cops and I wasn't in that big a rush, but for a good part of the trip I was driving 80 on 80, that is 80 mph on US Highway 80. I also stopped for sleep along the way, in Elko, Nevada and some ugly little place in Wyoming. My car was a Volvo 240 DL, not a souped-up Dodge.

As far as seeing Denver on film, there isn't that much to see in Vanishing Point. What little I could recognize has been transformed by urban renewal in some shots filmed in the outskirts of the downtown area. The appearance by newscaster Bob Palmer was all that could connect the Denver of my memory with Denver as presented in this film. Probably the most fantastic element of Vanishing Point may be a simple lapse in what is essentially a plotless film, that Barry Newman manages to drive from Colorado to California through Nevada, but totally avoids Utah. As one who has been on the road between Denver and California more than once, the direct routes are all through Utah. Then again, if verisimilitude was the goal of Vanishing Point, there wouldn't have been Cleavon Little's blind disc Jockey name Super Soul with a radio station in a no-name town.

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Instead of watching Vanishing Point as a narrative film, it works better as a series of abstract images. What I liked were the long shots of open country and two lane highways, visual minimalism to compliment the minimalism of the story. Yes, there are flashbacks to give some kind of story to the character of Kowalski. Mostly what we get are hints. As Kowalski, Newman doesn't say very much, and much of the film is designed to let the audience either connect the dots for themselves. Contemporary audiences might be at a loss in dealing with Vanishing Point as there is little explanation for why Kowalski needs to be in San Francisco at a certain time. A scene deleted in the U.S. release version is emblematic of the disinterest in reality. Driving at night on some off the beaten path road, Newman comes across hitchhiker Charlotte Rampling. The two spend the night together in the Dodge. When Newman wakes up, Rampling has disappeared as mysteriously as she appeared. Like Dean Jagger's prospector, Rampling just seems to appear out of nowhere, as phantoms to remind Newman of his own remaining vestiges of humanity. Vanishing Point makes me think of questions raised by Girish Shambu regarding geography on film. Most films about journeys have the geographical aspects mirror a sense of self-discovery in the protagonist. Vanishing Point takes that well worn trope and gives it a nihilistic twist, with a man who realizes he has nothing more to live for and goes nowhere fast.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 26, 2008 12:38 AM