Saturday, August 9, 2008

VANISHING POINT (Richard C. Sarafian, 1971, USA) This existential drama shrouds itself in the pungent stench of gasoline and a Dodge Charger’s predatory roar. An infinite 4-barrel scream passes through this film that seems to trap the Last American Hero: it resonates at a primal level, pervasive, inescapable. Kowalski fights a war on war, chasing his own demons to the transcendental fiery conclusion. He is assigned to deliver this supercharged Dodge from Denver to San Francisco and bets his friend he can have it there by 3PM the next day. Kowalski is supercharged himself, his body fueled with a handful of amphetamines, as he sets out on his cross-country journey. The film begins as two bulldozers slowly crawl across the hot two-lane blacktop; their metal treads like talons, engines spitting guttural epitaphs, the mystic language of machines, tearing the silence of a forgotten rural town. The old-timers gawk apprehensively and await the oncoming destruction…the smell of blood and diesel fills the air. Kowalski sees this apocryphal roadblock and must choose to give up…or keep on trucking. We experience most of the film as a flashback: to the start of the chase hours before, and within this retrospective Kowalski relives past events predating the present narrative. We see him as a motorcycle and stock car driver, a police officer, and involved in a poignant relationship with a drug addled young lady who kills herself. Through his past darkly we gain insight into his spiritual pathology. We witness his struggle to free himself from the emotional bonds of his past, to escape this self-imposed exile. The car chase is only a metaphor for this malaise of despair as he rushes headlong towards salvation or self-destruction…or both. Kowalski’s travelogue brings him into contact with malignant and benign people. Like a lonely messiah, he loses himself in the desert and is found by an old man who collects rattlesnakes. Kowalski takes guidance from this simple but honest man and realizes that his life depends on himself and not some imagined sky pilot. Finally, as he hurtles towards the end credits, he is illuminated by self-enlightenment and with a wry grin rides 440 horsepower to spiritual liberation: his life is finally his own. (B+)

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