Saturday, March 14, 2009

3/10/09: Vanishing Point (1971)

Here's what happened: a few days ago, I polled my Facebook friends, asking them if they recalled the first R-rated movie they'd ever seen. To my astonishment, many of them named movies that were not rated R—which leads me to suspect that the entire MPAA ratings system is something that few pay very much attention to beyond yours truly.

One of my friends, Valerie, listed a movie, Vanishing Point, that was originally rated GP, but re-rated R in 1998 for some reason. Intriguingly, I'd never heard of the movie before, although I'd enjoyed its star, Barry Newman, in the mid-1970s TV detective series Petrocelli. "I recall that the entire front row of the theater was filled with 5th graders, and when the nude scene came on, we all were jaw-dropped and in shock—we did not expect that at all," Valerie wrote. "I still don't have any idea why all of those kids were allowed into the theater to see that show without our parents. The movie must have been filmed in our area or something...Probably a school field trip." (In fact, the movie was filmed in Austin, Nevada.)

Coincidentally, a several hours ago I noticed that a revival theater located less than two miles from my house had a midnight showing of Vanishing Point. I would be daft to pass up the opportunity to see it, if only for the fabled nude scene Valerie described. So I went.

Vanishing Point turns out to be the odyssey of Kowalski (Barry Newman), whose job is to deliver a white Challenger from Denver to San Francisco. After making a bet with his drug dealer that he can get it there in 15 hours, the movie turns into a long car chase, with some action-packed scenes of cops on his unstoppable tail and some flashbacks that enlighten us to his anti-establishment history. Along the way, he encounters a menagerie of fellow misfits who either help or hinder him on his journey. Cleavon Little plays a blind deejay named Super Soul, whose show Kowalski listens to on his car radio and who becomes a kind of spiritual guide in his existential journey—an ode to The Road. But the main character is really the car, and the movie will work best for those who like cars so much that they will be happy with a movie whose main character is...a car.

Apparently this was a big hit on the drive-in circuit in its day. It definitely has the look of a drive-in flick. I found the it plotless, overlong and fairly boring; the highlight was, as predicted, the prolonged scene where the nude motorcycle-riding hippie chick flirts with Kowalski. I could feel the collective pulses of the male audience members quicken. The entire movie should have been about her.

Postscript: I did enjoy discovering the revival house where this was playing: the Cinefamily Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax, which has the feel of being in someone's living room. The host gave an entertaining intro to the movie, and even gave out free cold beer! I'll be back—and jockeying for a seat on one of their leather couches (undoubtedly more comfortable than their regular seats...ouch!). Rating: 2/5.

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