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“Vanishing Point Forever” hits shelves tktk. (Book jacket courtesy of Ride with Bob/Film Desk Books)

You might not take The Bridge owner and author Rob Rubin for an underdog-rooting kind of guy, but when it comes to the 1971 thrill ride car chase movie Vanishing Point, there’s no greater defender of the box office bust. 

The movie was dead-on-arrival when released, but emerged over time as a cult classic. Panned by Variety and the Los Angeles TimesThe Village Voice’s Robert Christgau was one of the film’s few defenders, and even he called it a “tacky … mostly ignored B-movie [whose] whole virtue … is visual rather than romantic.’ He said readers should smoke pot and just “go, no questions asked.” 

It’s said to be one of Steven Spielberg’s favorite films and it was the inspiration for Edgar Wright’s 2017 breakaway hit Baby Driver. Quentin Tarantino name-checks Vanishing Point in his 2007 film Death Proof calling it “one of the best American movies ever made.” Three years ago, Stephen Colbert asked Bruce Springsteen to name his favorite action movie. “I actually love a picture that no one is going to know, called Vanishing Point,” the Boss replied.  

Rubin has turned his passion for the flick into a new book called Vanishing Point Forever and will be signing copies of the at a special screening of the movie at the Sag Harbor Cinema tomorrow, May 25. 

The film centers around the main character, Kowalski, a war hero and ex-cop turned race car driver, delivering a 1970 Dodge Challenger for money across state lines at high speeds and high on speed — pursued relentlessly by police. On West Coast radio, a blind, Black disc jockey named Super Soul monitors police frequencies and urges Kowalski to evade the authorities —lionizing him as the ‘last American hero.’ In the film’s fiery climax, Kowalski runs out of road and races the speeding Dodge headlong into the last law enforcement roadblock between him and freedom — a pair of impassable bulldozers. The car explodes on impact into a ball of flames. Was the far-flung, cheaply-made flick meant to exploit current events and trends or was it simply a use of lurid content to cash in at the box office? Rubin has thoughts. 

(Robert Rubin is hosting a book release party and screening of Vanishing Point Forever at Sag Harbor Cinema May 25. (Photo credit: Thanassi Karageorgiou / Museum of the Moving Image)

Southforker: What drew you to this movie as a book project?

Rob Rubin: Well, Vanishing Point is a movie that I’ve always thought very highly of, and when I saw that the screenplay for this exploitation movie had been written by a celebrated Cuban novelist [G. Cabrera Infante] I thought that was an interesting angle to approach the story of the movie … it’s the first movie that John Alonzo ever shot — and he would go on to shoot Chinatown. There’s the look of the movie, there’s the backstory of the script. There’s the fact that [lead actor] Barry Newman is such a cipher that the movie invites you to project your own meanings onto it, and the story is very open-ended. We don’t really know what motivates Kowalski. It’s what I would call a messy movie in very interesting ways … It’s a movie about the coming surveillance society. It’s a goodbye kiss to the 60s. It’s a Western, you know? It’s just so noir.

SF: What is a vanishing point?

RR: Well, technically a vanishing point is the point at which two horizontal lines converge on the horizon. It’s an architectural term from the Renaissance. But it’s come to mean something broader than that. It’s the point in which something disappears. In Vanishing Point — it’s a great title for the movie — is the point at which human agency disappears, via an existential hero: you have to reach the vanishing point, and commit an absurd act in the existential definition.

SF: Barry Newman, who plays Kowalski, reportedly said that he felt the film was a treatise on existentialism.

RR: Yes, but what does that mean? I suppose it’s a treatise on existentialism if you think that his gesture of killing himself, for no reason, is an existential gesture. Because what did the guy do? He exceeded the speed limit and he resisted arrest. He committed no crime … He drives because speed is tranquilizing … the screenplay talks about speed having a tranquilizing effect. It’s like what [British race car driver] Stirling Moss said: ‘Motion is tranquility.’ So it’s an interesting idea. The richness of the movie is derived from the competing claims on the producers trying to make a cheap exploitation movie and [screenwriter Guillermo] Cabrera Infante wanting to make this kind of magical realist, modern-day Western.

It’s a movie about the coming surveillance society. It’s a goodbye kiss to the 60s. It’s a Western, you know? It’s just so noir.

Rob Rubin

SF: In reading about Infante’s life in Vanishing Point Forever, it seems as if it mirrored the sense of endless pursuit in the screenplay — he was on the run from Castro, tailed in the U.S. by the C.I.A. and denied asylum in Francisco Franco’s Spain. 

RR: Exactly … he’s included in this book of Latin American writers in their ’70s and he’s the only one of the seven guys who can’t go back to the country where he was born. The other six are still kind of riding on the fumes of 60s radicalism, but he’s done with that.

SF: What is Vanishing Point’s legacy? 

RR: Well, I think Vanishing Point is definitely a quintessential road movie, and the road movie is a quintessential American genre, starting with Grapes of Wrath or It Happened One Night or Wild Boys of the Road to name three movies from the ’30s that are kind of precursors. You have the road movie flowering in the ’70s with Vanishing Point, Two-Lane Blacktop and a few others. But it’s a broader concept than that — America is about the open road, and the frontier … the book On the Road is a kind of a road movie book, and there’s a certain romanticism to it, but Vanishing Point and Two-Lane Blacktop are more about coming to the end of the road… It’s a quintessential genre.”

SF: At the heart of the movie is the big question: What was going through Kowalski’s mind as he barreled into those bulldozers?

RR: Well, if you want to take it literally, here’s a guy who is an American every man. He’s been a race car driver, a policeman and a soldier, and he’s sort of reached the absurd limits of all of those battles he fought in. … he was a policeman who was disgusted with the corruption that he saw. He blew up his career by smoking a joint. He was an anti-war warrior. He was a great race car driver who lost his license and ended up being like a rodeo clown or whatever. He’s done everything. And he’s got a girlfriend who died in a tragic surfing accident. So he’s a guy who had nothing further to live for. So he was just driving … ‘He’s not running — just going.’ That snippet of dialogue … to me is the key to the whole character quality.