Vanishing Point (1971) trailer
Caught this on Film4 a couple of nights ago, and loved it. The trailer predictably makes it out as a more action-packed movie than it really is (according to Wiki, it didn’t do very well on its initial US release, but received a lot of acclaim in Europe, and was brought back as a double feature with The French Connection). It’s still a ‘carsploitation’ film, as I’ve seen it memorably tagged, but most of the crashes are there in the trailer: the rest of the film is considerably moodier. And it has a great soundtrack (more on which perhaps later).
What caught my attention was the opening scene, which reminded me very strongly of the characteristic openings of Breaking Bad episodes. In Vanishing Point, the film begins where it ends - sort of - with two earthmovers rolling along the ground to form a roadblock in a Western town (later revealed to be Cisco, Utah). The camera is a low-angle shot, and initially there is no sound other than the rumbling machinery and caterpillar tracks, while silent townspeople stand around watching intently yet dispassionately. Operating in that same kind of desert or semi-desert landscape of Breaking Bad, the film seems equally content to observe people at its unhurried pace: for a movie that appears to be all about speed, it’s also about distance, and thus time.
It’s also “notable for its scenic film locations across the American Southwest and its social commentary on the post-Woodstock mood in the United States”, although it’s less ‘social commentary’ than conveying a mood somewhere between liberation, apathy and despair. Rather like a less articulate Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (less articulate in that the ‘last American hero’ is moody and mostly mute, although Cleavon Little’s ‘Supersoul’ DJ offers a verbal soundtrack) or the road happenings of Easy Rider, before it all comes crashing down. There’s a strong thread of existentialism (as pretty much every ‘cult movie’ blurb of it states), but hey, that was the time, you know?
The greater tragedy is probably that there was a terrible-sounding TV remake in 1997 starring Viggo Mortensen. It replaced “the lead character’s ambivalent image with a simpler and more palatable, wholesome lead character and motivations, in particular eliminating all references to drug use, rebellion or sexuality, all of which were hallmarks of the 1971 film”, and worse, gave him “a more clear and socially accepted background and reason to drive fast”. (In the remake, he’s driving to his pregnant wife. Which in a way is my problem with Breaking Bad, that its main protagonist’s motivation is a deeply conservative one of “providing for his family”, although to be fair the structure of the show is set up so that it displays the unintended consequences of economic gain. We can’t all be existentialist heroes.)