Last week, Richard C. Sarafian, director of Vanishing Point (1971), passed away at the age of 83. His fifty-year directing career was prosperous, but nothing else he made possessed the impact and allure of the cult classic Vanishing Point.
The film is about car delivery driver Kowalski speeding a 1970 Dodge Challenger from Colorado to the west coast. Kowalski takes a bet that he can deliver the car to San Francisco in fewer than 15 hours. The police take chase, but Kowalski is guided by Supersoul, a blind radio DJ with a police radio scanner.
Vanishing Point is one of the great "road trip films" - right up there with Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop, released the same year. Often referred to "existential" or "mystical" road movies, the 70s American road trip film may deliver some exciting chase-scene action, but the genre is really about the journey... and not just from Colorado to California, or whatever. The road trip film is almost always about a character's journey into himself - an exploration of that character's evolution (or the things that prevent him from evolving).
These films tend to be somewhat ambiguous at times. The car, the four tires, and the pavement provide the quickly recognizable trajectory of the film, but the motives, conclusions, and emotions of the character(s) along the way are often left up to the viewer's interpretation... so that the viewer may see himself or herself - their own ups, downs, challenges, confusion, and yearnings - in the on-screen journey.
I find road trip films fascinating... from Vincent Gallo's flawed but mesmerizing The Brown Bunny (2003), about a pro motorcycle racer on a collision course with his past, to Joseph Strick's seldom-discussed Road Movie (1974), which focused on the grimy underbelly of long-haul trucking.
I've developed and abandoned multiple road trip films of my own, starting about sixteen or seventeen years ago. Some of these projects never existed as anything more than conversations and small stacks of notes. Others actually spawned two or three screenplay drafts. I don't think any of these past road trip film ideas can be resuscitated... I'm sure if I went back and gave 'em another look, I'd be disappointed, and want nothing to do with them. If there is a road trip film in the future of my career, it will spring from fresh, more fertile soil.
It may be more difficult to make a road trip film today than it was in the 70s. Route 66, the "Main Street Of America" was the most famous and culturally impactful road of the 20th century in the United States, but it was in its death throes in the 70s. Dwight D. Eisenhower's Interstate Highway System was bypassing Route 66, choking off the mom and pop businesses that had flourished on the Mother Road, and providing easy access to corporate chains. Americans began to gravitate toward heavily marketed corporate brands and recognizable logos. This was a major shift in the way America purchased, sold, hired, and fired - the reverberations of which we still feel today.
Side note: While truckers, busses, and families were certainly permitted to use the budding Interstate Highway System, the construction project was authorized by the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956 as a national defense system - intended to provide US military ground transport for supplies and troops in case of an emergency, such as foreign invasion. It was based on Hitler's autobahn system. The evolution of America's highways is certainly one way to track a transforming country, and evaluate Americans caught in the whirlwind, in general or in a film.
The withering of Route 66, and all it stood for, is one ingredient in a thought-provoking and/or melancholy backdrop road trip films often had in the 70s. Furthermore, road trip films of this tumultuous era could really put An American in extreme isolation (as Kowalski was in Vanishing Point). Those characters didn't have cell phones or turn-by-turn GPS navigation. It's more difficult for a road trip film to peer into a character's inner demons when they are in constant contact with everyone via a smart phone, and there's a Starbucks, BP gas station, and McDonald's every half mile.
Perhaps it's time for a new breed of road trip film. Like the Interstate Highway System helped kill the American mom and pop businesses, the (to dust off an old 90s term) Information Superhighway has shaken things up again. The internet has contributed to the decline of brick and mortar businesses. Even huge corporations can't keep all their stores open. Malls are closing. Major retail chains have shuttered many stores or gone out of business entirely. Hollywood Video closed down, and Blockbuster Video is barely hangin' on. Many people once employed by these corporate giants hit hard(er) times, and countless communities now suffer.
Perhaps a road trip film set today can peer just as deeply into chaos, and ask just as difficult questions as a road trip film of the 70s. When we purchase, sell, hire, and fire over the internet, what is there to see out there in the physical world? What kind of America is on the other side of that windshield?
Thanks for reading.
- Eric Stanze