Thursday, April 23, 2015

Kowalski Part III

"Live life
Live a long life
Feel fine
In the sunshine
Good to be alive"

Welcome to the third and final installment in my examination of the 1971 cult road movie Vanishing Point. With the first installment I briefly addressed the curious backgrounds of several of the individuals involved in the film as well as its enigmatic opening moments. With part two I began to get into the film in earnest, and broke down the early symbolism associated with its two lead characters, Kowalski (Barry Newman) and Super Soul (Cleavon Little).

Effectively the former is a veteran and ex-police officer who had washed out of race car driving and has been coasting through life as a car delivery driver for the past few years. The latter is a blind African-American DJ operating from Goldfield, Nevada and a man with more than a few metaphysical leanings. Kowalski embarks upon what is seemingly a pointless cross country chase with police in Colorado, Nevada and California (Utah seems to have mysteriously vanished in this film) while Super Soul aids him via the airwaves.

Kowalski (top) and Super Soul (bottom)
For years this film has typically been dismissed as a "B-movie," but instances such as Super Soul referencing Brahman and his seeming ability to communicate with Kowalski telepathically in a film that largely goes for gritty realism tipped off the more astute viewers that there was something strange about this picture. This has led to a reevaluation of the film in recent years that hailed it as a classic of 1970s nihilism and existentialism even if it was allegedly "dated."

In point of fact, this film has aged remarkably well and even seems down right prophetic in parts (especially in how Kowalski's chase becomes a gross media spectacle, thus echoing the rise of reality TV). And while the film certainly has its fair amount of nihilism and existentialism, these labels are far to narrow to encompass such a sweeping film. In point of fact, this film is a kind of psychodrama in which many motifs of the most ancient myths are transplanted into a fairly contemporary American setting. I already began to delve into this a bit in the prior installment and shall continue on that particular course here. So let's get to it.

The chase begins at some point in Colorado when Kowalski refuses to pull over a for a motorcycle cop. This leads to a chase involving another officers that Kowalski easily wins. Soon other police officers join the chase and Kowalski finds himself using a construction zone and either lane on the highway to allude them. During this series of encounters he passes the exit sign for No Name, Colorado and even uses No Name Creek during one instance in the film. The use of No Name here is most interesting as Kowalski's first name is never revealed throughout the film. In the ancient world names were thought to hold tremendous power.
"It should also be observed that some aspects of the invocation of the Name derived from the symbolism of sound and language. In fact, in Indian teaching, the Name (nama) is no different from the sound (shabda). The name of something is 'the sound produced by the activity of the mobile forces which comprise it....' Furthermore, to pronounce a name is in some sense effectually to 'create' or 'present' it. Name (nama) and form (rupa) determine its nature. Hence it is simple to deduce that naming a person or thing is the same as taking control of them. For this reason the Ancient Chinese attached enormous importance to the correct designation since the universal order derived from them. The School of Names ... carried these consequences to their extremes. Genesis 2: 19 also states that Adam was entrusted with the task of naming all living creatures. This was to grant him power over them and this power remains one of the characteristics of the paradisal state.
"The ancient Egyptians believed that 'the personal name was much more than a means of identification.' It was an essential part of the person. The Egyptians believed in the creative and compelling power of the word. The name was a living thing.' All characteristics of the symbol recur in names. (1) They are 'full of significance'; (2) when writing or speaking the name of a person, that person 'is given life and survival,' which corresponds to the dynamics of the symbol; (3) knowledge of the name 'gives power' over that person, which corresponds to the magical aspects, the mysterious bond of the symbol. Knowledge of the name is part of the ritual of conciliation, casting spells, destroying, taking possession of and so on, and the phrase 'his name will no more be among the living' was the most extreme form of  the death-sentence...
"Belief in the power of the name was not something exclusively Chinese, Egyptian or Jewish, it is part of primitive thought-processes. To know a name and to utter it correctly is to be able to exercise power over a person or thing..."
(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, pgs. 694)

Kowalski's name is seemingly unutterable as well. A police officer reading out his background remarks "Christian name, Christian name my flat foot, what is that?" after searching for a first name. In a celebrated deleted scene featuring Charlotte Rampling as a mysterious hitchhiker, Kowalski states "first, last and only" when questioned about his full name. As with many things concerning the film, it drops no hint as to why Kowalski only goes by one name and how he has managed to conceal the full extent of his name. In our present society the knowledge of an individual's full name certainly gives authority figures a certain power over the individual, but Kowalski's record is largely open (aside from his time as a cop) outside of his name. Perhaps he does indeed put stock in the ancient notion that knowing something's true name grants power over it. But moving along.

In the midst of his initial confrontation with the police Kowalski flashes back to his time as a motorcycle racer. During this sequence the number 28 is prominently displayed on the back of Kowalski's jacket and is clearly his racing number. The number 28 is typically associated with the moon due to the 28-day, 13-month calendar that was in use during the ancient lunar civilizations. It does, however, have some interesting solar associations.
"That the Osirian year originally consisted of thirteen twenty-eight day months, with one day over, is suggested by the legendary length of Osiris's reign, namely twenty-eight years – years in mythology often stand for days, and days for years – and by the numbers of pieces into which he was torn by Set, namely thirteen apart from his phallus which stood for the extra day. When Isis reassembled the pieces, the phallus had disappeared, eaten by a letos-fish. This accounts for the priestly fish-taboo in Egypt, relaxed only one day in the year."
(The White Goddess, Robert Graves, pg. 381n) 
Osiris was very much a solar figure (at least in his latter incarnations) despite his association with the lunar calendar. His dismemberment and reassembly by Isis is a metaphor for the initiatory process that the candidate undergoes. As was noted in part two, Kowalski is very much a solar figure and one who seems to have undergone a kind of incomplete initiation. In this context his association with the number twenty eight is then quite apt.

Nor is the appearance of 28 in this particular flashback Kowalski's only link to the number as well. The license plate for his Dodge Challenger is OA-5599. The numbers 5599 add up to 28.

The appearance of the numbers five and nine are interesting here as well. Five is the number of balance and harmony as well as the symbol of humanity itself. It also stands for the phenomenal world, something Kowalski is attempting to escape. The associations with the number nine is even more interesting. Consider:
"Since three is the number of innovation, its square stands for universality. It is significant that, in so many folktales drawn from all over the world, the  supernumerary, infinity, is expressed by such  repetitions of the number nine as the 999,999 Fravashis who, the Ancient Iranians believed, watched over the semen of Zoroaster, from which all prophets were to spring. The ouroboros, the serpent which bites its own tail and the image of the return of the manifold to the one and hence of primeval and of final Oneness, is related geographically to the way the number nine is denoted in many alphabets such as the Tibetan, Persian, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Arminian and so on. The mystical meaning of nine relates it, too, to what the Sufis term haqq, the final stage of the way, bliss leading to fana, the annihilation of the individual and the rediscovery of the whole, or, as Allendy has it, 'the loss of personality in universal love.' Indian tradition defines more clearly the redemptive meaning of the symbol nine through the nine successive incarnations of Vishnu who, each time, offered his life for the salvation of mankind. Similarly, according to the Gospels, Jesus was crucified at the third hour; his death agonies began at the sixth hour (dusk), and he died in the ninth hour. Claude de Saint-Martin considered that in nine the physical body and all its properties were annihilated. Allendy concludes that Freemasons have made it the internal number of immortality, nine masters discovering the grave and body of Hiram...
"Nine being the last of a series of figures heralds both an end and a fresh beginning, that is to say, a removal to a new plane. This notion of rebirth and germination in association with that of death is, as we have shown, recurring in the concepts of symbolic properties of the number held in several different cultures. As the last of the numbers in the manifested universe, it starts the phase of transmutations. It gives expression to the end of the cycle, the completion of a journey, the tying of a knot."
(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, pgs. 705-705)

This is certainly most fitting for Kowalski's circumstances as the film opens and indeed he is in a cycle that serves as both an end and a beginning and one that will include both death and rebirth. In addition to the license's plate number, Kowalski also sports the closely related number three on his race car. But moving along.

At one point during Kowalski' trek in Colorado he is challenged by a fellow motorist in a Jaguar. Kowalski predictably wins in good order by beating the Jaguar to a one way bridge and forcing the vehicle into a near by river bed as his Challenger clears the bridge. A Dodge Challenger is of course a most apt vehicle for Kowalski as he is indeed a challenger and the presence of a Jaguar at this juncture is also interesting. The animal for which the car is anted has some interesting symbolic associations.
"The Maya... regarded the jaguar as being, above all, a god of the underworld, the highest incarnation of the internal powers of the Earth. The jaguar was the god of the number nine, a manifestation of the land 'below.' As lord of that Underworld he sometimes undertook the duties of conductor of souls. At dusk, the Earth is depicted as swallowing the sun, the letter within the open jaws of a jaguar. Lastly the jaguar became a solar deity corresponding with the sun's night journey. When the sun is depicted as a jaguar it is the black sun."
(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, pg. 551)
Kowalski racing the Jaguar
As was noted in part two, Kowalski bears many of the characteristic of the solar savior. And indeed the Jaguar did attempt to figuratively devour him, but he escapes from its clutches. But the moment does provide a key point in Kowalski's (the sun) journey for he still finds the humanity to stop and check on the driver despite approaching police cars.

When Kowalski arrives in Nevada things really start getting fun. After some more games with the police, Kowalski seeks refuge in the desert. He takes the Challenger off road and precedes to wander aimlessly for hours. The desert is of course littered with associations. It is both a place of demons and enlightenment, a concept incorporated into Christianity via Christ's forty days in the desert and the temptations of Saint Anthony, among others. In Egyptian mythos the desert was closely associated with Set, the revival of Osiris. As Kowalski is linked with Osiris, this is most apt.

As Kowalski wanders the desert, he retraces his path. The Challenger forms pristine X's against the barren backdrop. The represents a reoccurrence of the crossroads motif first discussed in the second installment of this series.

at the crossroads again
Eventually Kowalski comes upon a grizzled Prospector (Dean Jagger). He saves the driver from a rattlesnake and then assists Kowalski in hiding his vehicle from a police helicopter. The Prospector delivers his musings in a highly eccentric manner, at times hinting mental instability, but always making a certain kind of sense. This figure is a prototype of the "wise old man" archetype.
"The frequency with which the spirit-type appears as an old man is about the same in fairytales as in dreams. The old man always appears when the hero is in a hopeless and desperate situation from which only profound reflection or a lucky idea – in other words, a spiritual function or an endopsychic automatism of some kind – can extricate him. But since, for internal and external reasons, the hero cannot accomplish this himself, the knowledge needed to compensate the deficiency comes in the form of a personified thought , i.e., in the shape of this sagacious and helpful man..."
(The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, CG Jung, pgs. 217-218)
A few paragraphs later Jung further elaborates on the wise old man archetype, noting:
"Often the old man in fairytales ask questions like who? why? whence? and whether? for the purpose of inducing self reflection and mobilizing the moral forces, and more often still he gives the necessary magical talisman, the unexpected and improbable power to succeed, which is one of the peculiarities of the unified personality in good or bad alike. But the intervention of the old man – the spontaneous objectivation of the archetype – would seem to be equally indispensable, since the conscious will by itself is hardly ever capable of uniting the personality to the point where it acquires this extraordinary power to succeed. For that, not only in fairytales but in life generally, the objective intervention of the archetype is needed, which checks the purely affective reactions with a chain of inner confrontations and realizations. These cause the who? where? how? why? to emerge clearly and in this wise bring knowledge of the immediate situation as well as the goal. The resultant enlightenment and untying of the fatal tangle often has something  positively magical about it – an experience not unknown to the psychotherapist.
"The tendency of the old man to set one thinking also takes the form of urging people to 'sleep on it.' Thus he says to the girl who is searching for her lost brothers: 'Lie down:  morning is cleverer than evening.' He also sees through the gloomy situation of the hero who has got  himself into trouble, or at least can give him such information as will help him on his journey..."
(The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, CG Jung, pgs. 220-221)
the prospector
This is very much the role the Prospector plays in Vanishing Point. He appears just as Kowalski seems to have lost confidence in his actions and he does indeed give him a variation on "sleep on it": After becoming aware of an approaching police helicopter, the Prospector tells Kowalski that the best away to get away from something is to dig in.

Kowalski follows this advise literally, and uses the desert to camouflage the Challenger so that the police helicopter is unable to spot. Later on, as Kowalski realizes he cannot physically elude the police and society at large, he seems to opt for the Kingdom within, as the old 13th Floor Elevators song proclaims. But more on that in a moment.

After helping Kowalski avoid the police the Prospector takes him to a fringe Pentecostal sect holding a revival service in the desert so as to procure gas for the Challenger. The leader of this sect is referred to as "J. Hovah" (Severn Darden) and had previously worked his trade by speaking in tongues to poisonous snakes. But now the revival camp is no longer interested in the snakes as it has a rock band to perform for the congregation instead.

Superficially this sequence is clearly meant as a dig at the then-emerging Jesus freak movement, which was fast pushing the hippies out of California at the time. Many perceived the Jesus freak movement as a reactionary counter to the 1960s counterculture as well as a commercialization of Christianity. Both prospects are entertained in Vanishing Point. Despite peace and love symbols all over the revival and a multiracial band, J. Hovah chastises the Prospector for bringing a stranger to the revival, reminding him that their meetings are closed to the public. And while previously the congregation had expressed its faith by handling and communicating with deadly snakes, now they simply listen to the feel good sounds of the (highly fashionable) house band.

The Prospector naturally gives Kowalski a few final words of wisdom before they go their separate ways. From there Kowalski makes for the California border, but stops after he encounters a biker on the highway named Angel (Timothy Scott) who offers him some speed. The name of this character proves to be quite apt for he becomes a kind of guardian angel for Kowalski, guiding him past a police road block and into the Golden State.

But before all of that Angel takes Kowalski back to his groovy little hippie pad in the desert where his girlfriend (Gilda Texter) rides around naked upon a motorcycle. After hooking up Kowalski with more bennies he takes off on his bike to check on the road to the border. Kowalski is left with the naked rider, who offers him anything he desires. Kowalski of course turns her advances down but accepts a "straight" smoke. While they're conversing Kowalski is shown standing before the side of building with an ankh prominently painted upon it.

The symbolism of the ankh is quite apt for this juncture of the film. Consider:
"Gods, kings and Isis (almost invariably) are depicted holding the ankh to show that they command the powers of life and death and that they are immortal. The dead also carry it at the time their souls are weighed ... Or when they are aboard the boat of the Sun God, as a sign that they seek the same immortality from the gods. Furthermore the ankh symbolized the spring from which flow divine virtues and the elixir of immortality. Therefore to hold the ankh was to drink from that well. It was sometimes held upside down by the loop – especially in funeral rites when it suggested the shape of a key and in reality was the key which opened the gateway of the tomb into the Fields of Aalu, the realm of eternity..."
(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, pgs. 27-28)

And Kowalski is well on his way to immortality at this point -indeed, it is his only escape. By the time he reaches California he is obviously running out of West to elude the cops in. But beyond that, his escape has deteriorated into a gross media spectacle by this point. Reporters descend on Cisco, the location police have chosen for the final showdown, like locus determined to reduce Kowalski's run into another quirk of consumerism. He is thus fast becoming a parody of himself in addition to running out of physical space.

After some brief ruminations he choses the only path of escape left to him --either suicide or ascension, depending upon one's point of view. Kowalski finds himself surrounding by police, with the raod before him blocked by two bulldozers. As he speeds towards the bulldozers a crack of light appears between the vehicles. This makes Kowalski break out into a wide smile and speed headlong into the dozers, sending the Challenger into an air-born fireball. This ending has long infuriated and baffled viewers in equal measures for both its suddenness and the seeming senselessness of it. But astute viewers have long surmised that there was more to this sequence than a suicide.

note the light appearing between the two bulldozers, the actual "vanishing point"
of the film's titleCertainly director Richard C. Sarafian seemed quite certain that something more profound than mere death unfolded in the film's final moments. In an interview towards the end of his life the director stated:
"And so that was taken, again, from a concept that's maybe a little bit too esoteric, in terms of a German mathematician by the name of Möbius who wrote about time as a strip; he took a ribbon and twisted it and then tied the ends together; what you get is an elliptical band.  So that the end of it, that there is no end to the road, that we go on, and to another dimension maybe.  So it's very hopeful, maybe, very spiritual kind of--as far as that.  [Then studio head] Richard Zanuck said to me, 'Richard, does he die in the end?'  I told him, I said, 'Mr. Zanuck, it depends on your…your view.'  There was a second ending that was never added, which he wouldn't accept.  And that ending was that when Kowalski heads for the crack between the two bulldozers…it was soundless.  And visually it's the same, but Super Soul goes, 'Yeah,' and celebrates the moment.  So when he screened the picture, he said 'Oh, Richard, he's got to die.'  I said, 'Well, OK, Mr. Zanuck.' And I think the spirit, at least in terms of what I wanted to say was, you know, as Kim Carnes sings in the end credits, 'Nobody knows, nobody sees, till the light of life is ended and another soul goes free.'  Now, if I tried to explain that to the head of a studio, they'd throw a net over you. So for me it was like sneaking under the tent while the devil had his back turned. What I think is that maybe I've allowed the audience to see it through their own prism in terms of what it's about, you know."
Suicide, while rare, was occasionally practiced by Gnostics and Cathars and even Jainists and Buddhists. In the case of the former two ideologies, there was a perception of the material world as evil and death as relief from this earthly hell. The Cathars had a ritual known as Endura that was a kind of suicide trough fasting occasionally practiced, for instance. Kowalski himself has also reached such conclusions concerning the material world by this point and choses to depart his mortal coil. Tellingly, there does not appear to be a body in the Challenger when police are finally able to go through the wreckage.

And it is here that I shall wrap things up. Hopefully this series has inspired its readers to give this forgotten classic of 70s cinema another viewing. And don't stop there --the Primal Scream album inspired by the film that was mentioned in the first installment makes an excellent companion piece. And with that I shall sign off for now --Until next time dear readers.


  1. The road sign that states:

    "EXIT 119
    No name

    Is it from the movie?

  2. Jorge-

    Sorry for taking so long to respond. Yes, the Exit 119 image is from the film. Apparently it was a real road sign that was included for its unusualness. It was a rest area in Colorado but I'm not sure if it still has the same exit number. I just noticed the 9-11 bit when I saw your comment.


  3. :-) Thanks!

    Interesting that you noticed the 9-11 bit after seeing the comment!