It’s Opening Night at the Derby Film Festival! Vanishing Point! The Driver!

by Elliot Davies

Vanishing Point - Derby Film Festival

It’s opening night at the Derby Film Festival! And this being a festival, there’s inevitably going to be a few clashes on the lineup.

So what to watch this bitter, soggy Friday night?

(I know I essentially announced which films I went with in the title of this post, but bear with me.)

Do we choose Florence Foster Jenkins, the heartwarming Meryl Streep vehicle about an aged heiress who dreams of becoming an opera star? I’m afraid we don’t. The organisers seemed pleased as punch to have secured a preview of this one, but it just feels a little too cosy for a Friday night.

Could’ve gone for Journeys to China: Wet Spell, “a beautifully shot meditative drama”, but…well. It started too early.

No. I’ve only got eyes for one screening tonight. It’s a double header! Vanishing Point and The Driver, two titans of 70s driving films, together at last!

Vanishing Point (1971) is one of those films that never stops doing things. Barry Newman is Kowalski, an ex-soldier, ex-cop, ex-motorace also-ran who’s tasked with driving a 1970 Dodge Challenger from Colorado to California. It’s a distance of over 1,200 miles, but on a Benzedrine buzz, he bets he can do it in 15 hours.

So he heads west at considerable speed, only stopping to refuel and to make sure that those who he runs off the road aren’t dead. He looks like a cross between Oliver Reed and Han Solo, and he’s got a voice like a driveway paved with kidney stones.

Naturally his expediency angers The Man, so it’s not long before he has a trail of vindictive cops on his tail. Within hours he’s a nationwide folk hero, thanks in no part to Super Soul, a blind DJ played by Cleavon Little. His impassioned monologues and his impeccable taste in funk and soul lend an air of defiant poignancy to Kowalski’s speed-addled odyssey. What’re you rebelling against? Whaddya got?

What indeed?

This is America. The Aquarius dream never stood a chance: We see an unprovoked racist attack on a black radio station and a grim flashback concerning a rapist cop. Kowalski’s motives are initially opaque, but these moments make it clear that his high octane lifestyle is an escape from a tragic past and a stiflingly unjust present.

Slow down for one moment and they’ll get you. The only way to go is forwards, at considerable speed. It’s no wonder he’s described as “the last American hero, to whom speed means freedom of the soul.”

The question is not when’s he gonna stop, but who’s gonna stop him.

Vanishing Point is vital. It’s a film that never stops doing things, which means that it’s a film that makes you want to do things.

To do something – anything – else. If you’re part of the system you’re part of the problem. A life spent catching snakes in the desert and trading them for beans seems quite appealing right now.

The Driver - Derby Film Festival

The Driver (1978) is not so romantic, and its characters are so far from being tragic heroes that they don’t even have names. But it’s precisely what this drizzly Friday night needs – a tough and gritty crime drama that never seems to take itself too seriously. This is pure cinematic escapism. It’s a gripping thrill ride that doesn’t demand too much from you that nonetheless never talks down to you.

It feels weird describing such a loud and brash film as “unassuming”, but that’s exactly what it is. It has no pretensions to speak of. It knows exactly what it is, and it knows exactly why you’re here. It tells its story with brutal efficiency. There is nothing in the way of storytelling fat. It’s lean, mean, yet seldom cruel. It doesn’t exactly have a warm beating heart, but at the same time, it’s obvious that everyone involved is having a great time.

Why did I find The Driver so comforting? A few reasons. First, it’s enthralling right from the start. It instantly draws you into its world with a stunning car chase sequence. And by the time your attention is hooked, you realise that you’re immersed in one of those beautifully grainy late-70s cinematic universes in which even the cold and unforgiving streets feel warm and inviting. The city depicted isn’t the nicest of places, but it’s somewhere else, you know?

Second, it sounds every bit as good as it looks. Michael Small’s soundtrack might be described as “funk noir”. The no-frills style of film-making and the naturally-taciturn characters means that every line of dialogue feels measured and considered. Heated exchanges feel like gravelly street poetry. It’s a joy to listen to. And on top of that, there are two common film sound effects that always have a calming effect on me – the deep metallic CLUNK of a closed car door, and the heavy beat of a glass set down on a hard wooden surface. Hardly a scene went by without at least one of these comforting sounds.

And finally, Bruce Dern. Bruce Dern! His character is only identified as The Detective, but everything about his performance speaks of fathomless depths of sleaze and amorality. He appears to do all his business from within a grotty dive bar, to the extent that he even conducts an identity parade in its dismal store room. He’s gone beyond being the archetypal Machiavellian sort who’s not afraid to bend the rules if it means getting the job done. He’s pretty far gone – totally unhinged, yet nonetheless impeccable in his dress, his deportment, and his delivery.

It’s unnerving, to say the least. And he’s ostensibly the hero!

Bruce Dern is worth the price of admission alone. That he’s not involved in a single one of the film’s many, many car chases says it all. The Driver is a gift that keeps giving.

Ultimately, the only things Vanishing Point and The Driver have in common are the decade in which they were made and, of course, the central motif of driving really, really fast. But as a double bill they worked perfectly. They joined forces to give a stirring reminder of the powerful redemptive qualities of cinema at its best.

Now I feel revitalised. What a perfect way to kick off the 2016 Derby Film Festival.