Sunday, February 6, 2011
Movie within a Movie: "Vanishing Point"
In the new Green Hornet movie, Seth Rogen makes a joke about the considerable age difference between his character and Cameron Diaz’s. You look “kinda Cocoon,” he says.
Today’s movies are filled with this kind of stuff – movies talking about movies. It’s become so prevalent that IMDb devotes an entire section to “movie connections,” while TV shows like Family Guy are basically nothing but pop culture references. I thought the whole movie-reference game might be a fun way to write about classic/underground films. The rules are simple: I’ll take a fairly recent movie (released in the last 10 years or so), and then write about whichever classic film is being referenced. Appropriately enough, I’ll start with a filmmaker who thrives on this sort of thing…
Set in Lebanon, Tennessee, the second half of Quentin Tarantino’s underrated Death Proof covers a fateful day in the life of Zoë (Zoë Bell) and three of her friends. A Kiwi stuntwoman, Zoë believes “there’s no reason to be in America if you can’t drive a Detroit muscle car.” She wants to test drive a 1970 Dodge Challenger with a white paint job. Her friend Kim (Tracie Thoms), a fellow gearhead, recognizes the car from the 1971 cult classic, Vanishing Point; the other two friends, up-and-coming actress Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and makeup artist Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), have never even heard of the movie. (“Actually, Zoë, most girls wouldn’t know Vanishing Point,” Kim explains.) The girls eventually get to test drive the Challenger, culminating in a show stopping high-speed chase with Zoë riding on the hood of the car while a madman batters them with his “death proof” Chevy Nova.
Like Lee and Abernathy, I’d never heard of Vanishing Point before I watched Death Proof. While I’m not sure I agree with Zoë’s assessment that it’s one of the best American movies ever made, Vanishing Point is a standout among muscle car movies and an indispensable time capsule of the post-Woodstock era.
In his career-defining role, Barry Newman stars as Kowalski, a car delivery driver who plans on driving a 1970 Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco in record time. His motivation for doing this is left unexplained, and indeed we don’t really get to know a whole lot about Kowalski. This allows the filmmakers to portray him as a mythic figure: “the last American hero, the electric centaur, the demigod.” With its romantic outlaw hero, spectacular police chases and fuck-the-pigs mentality, the movie is an obvious descendent of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde. But Vanishing Point also brings to mind Terrence Malick’s Badlands, which combined an unmotivated crime plot with beautiful, contemplative scenes of rural life in the American Southwest.
By the end of the movie, Kowalski has achieved almost total freedom, literally smiling in the face of death. (Tarantino quotes this shot at the end of Death Proof, when Abernathy watches in awe as Zoë plays “Ship’s Mast” on the hood of the Challenger.) The film’s idyllic depiction of the flower child generation – there’s a shot of a beautiful woman riding naked on a motorcycle that today would look out of place almost anywhere but at Burning Man – makes you pine for that brief moment in American history when total freedom seemed within reach. Too bad the filmmakers’ vision of utopia doesn’t extend to the gay community; a totally unnecessary scene where Kowalski encounters two limp-wristed stickup artists is the only serious flaw in the movie’s otherwise gleaming exterior.