Thursday, September 26, 2013

Long May You Run: Vanishing Point (1971)

Barry Newman in Richard C. Sarafian's Vanishing Point (1971)

The movie director Richard C. Sarafian, who died last week, was a fascinating, immensely likable man with a long, mostly unlucky career. In the late 1950s, after bumming around New York University (where, as a lark, he took a screenwriting course while flaming out as a pre-med/pre-law student) and the army, he wound up in Kansas City, where he met Robert Altman. The two became drinking buddies and worked together in the theater and on industrial films, and for a while Sarafian was married to Altman’s sister. While still in Kansas City, he directed a shoestring first feature, Terror at Black Falls, and in the early ‘60s, he followed Altman out to the west coast in search of TV work.

In 1965, he got the chance to make another feature, Andy – a low-budget, Neo-realist-style character study about a middle-aged, mentally disabled man that he shot on the streets of New York, using money he received as part of a program by Universal to encourage new talent. The movie won some praise at Cannes, but Universal was apparently so unimpressed with it that, decades later, they turned down a request to allow it to be aired on Turner Classic Movies. In the 1970s and ‘80s, Sarafian devoted most of his energies doing the best he could with various hopeless action-movie projects, including The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing, The Next Man, the Farrah Fawcett vehicle Sunburn, and Eye of the Tiger (his final feature). The 1990 Solar Crisis, was officially credited to the notorious (and nonexistent) Alan Smithee. In the last twenty or so years of his career, he probably gave audiences most pleasure in his occasional acting appearances in other directors’ films. (His side career began in earnest when he played Willie Nelson’s brazenly crooked manager, Rodeo Rocky, who dresses like a stardust cowboy and talks like Brooklyn, in Alan Rudolph’s Songwriter. He also played the gangster whose violent degradation serves as an aphrodisiac to Warren Beatty and Annette Bening in Bugsy.)

Sarafian did make one classic, though –  the “existential,” “psychedelic,” and generally weird road movie Vanishing Point (1971), a film that the white-trash singer-songwriter Mojo Nixon once proclaimed would be on permanent display, as part of a continuous triple bill with Thunder Road and Two-Lane Blacktop, at “the amusement park in my mind.” Febrile, rapturously beautiful to look at, and cheerfully disreputable, it is a movie spawned by a remarkable confluence of talents: the screenplay is credited to “Guillermo Cain,” who was actually the great Cuban novelist G. Cabrera Infante. The film was shot by John A. Alonzo, who later shot Sounder, Conrack, and Chinatown. (He and Sarafian went way back; Alonzo had an acting role in Terror at Black Falls.) 

Cleavon Little as Super Soul, in Vanishing Point
Originally, Sarafian had wanted to cast Gene Hackman as the hero, Kowalski, a Vietnam vet and former cop – driven out of the department in disgrace, but for the right reasons – who, strung out on Benzedrine, agrees to drive a 1970 Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco in a single weekend. He had to settle for Barry Newman, and though it’s easy to salivate at the thought of what Hackman (who was busy giving the performance that earned him an Academy Award and made him a bankable star in The French Connection) might have done with the part, Newman’s solitary, hostile, unshaven grunginess merges with the movie’s mood: he’s the living embodiment of an adrenaline junkie perched right on the edge of the moment before he crashes. Sarafian had also hoped to hire Randy Newman to do the score, but had to settle for a mostly undistinguished set of R & B- and gospel-tinged rock anthems, highlighted by an appearance by Delaney and Bonnie & Friends at an open-air Jesus freak rally in the desert, presided over by Severn Darden. The use of music in the movie nicely sets Vanishing Point apart from Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider. The music in Easy Rider is a lot better, but Hopper slaps it and the images together in an indifferent way, using the music as a crutch to lend moods to the footage he wasn’t able to capture visually. The music in Vanishing Point works better as part of the movie, because it’s audio-visually all of a piece. When Newman is driving like a bat out of hell to his fate, and begins to smile enigmatically at the moment that Alonzo sets his face aglow, the song on the soundtrack about being caught up in a rocking, rolling, reeling feeling might be riding in on the rays of the morning sun. It’s pure cheeseball transcendence.

Vanishing Point has echoes of other counterculture martyrdom fantasies that came out around the same time – not just Easy Rider but Antonioni’s brain-dead Zabriskie Point. Clearly Sarafian and his collaborators were picking up on something in the atmosphere. But even with a blind, black disc jockey named Super Soul (Cleavon Little) cheering Kowalski on and turning him into a folk hero, they were more honest about the appeal of their fantasy than the makers of their other movies were. The hippie heroes of Easy Rider and Zabriskie Point never actually did anything admirable, but the audience was supposed to identify with them, and feel sorry for them, because they were in pain over America’s being so rotten. Kowalski has a real hero’s past, and it’s left him so alienated that he has nothing left but his belief in his ability to deliver, and the charge he gets out of the speed with which he does it. (Alonzo shot the film with light, highly mobile cameras and undercranked them, so that he could better deliver on what Sarafian called his mission to “physicalize speed.”)

The glory that Kowalski achieves by being the fastest man in the world, antagonizing the cops, and going out with a bang, is a cheesy, juvenile kind of glory; it’s the kind of fantasy people indulge in when they feel frustrated and underappreciated and what to believe that you can’t really do anything to make the world a better place. But the truth is, we all feel that way sometimes. Some moviemakers – Woody Allen in his self-serious mode is a glaring example – have embraced that feeling and tried to sell it as art that expresses a “realistic” world view. Vanishing Point was made by people who know better, but who recognized that taking that attitude as far as they could might carry its own kind of thrill. At the end, after Kowalski has cashed it all in, the crowds gathered to be a part of his heroic defiance just quietly disperse. They’ve had their thrill, and now the movie’s over.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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