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.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Kowalski Part II

"Rebels souls!
For the dreamers, rebels souls and future days
Be brave and strong, keep keeping on
be conscious in the chaos"
-"Star", Primal Scream

Welcome to the second installment in my examination of the legendary 1971 cult road movie Vanishing Point. The picture follows an enigmatic protagonist named Kowalski (Barry Newman) as he travels west in a supped up Dodge Challenger avoiding police obstacles along the way. The film is often described as "nihilistic" and "existential" due the seeming pointlessness of Kowalski's situation: he is effectively in an impossible race in which he has no chance of victory that is entirely of his own creation.

But, as I began to ramble on in the first installment, its rather narrow to dismiss this film as simply "existential" and down right criminal to knock it as "another B-movie." In point of fact, this film has a deep esoteric context that has rarely been explored by "serious" film fans. Also noted in the first installment was the curious background of some of the players involved in the film as well as its curious opening moments.

I left off with the celebrated freeze frame in which Kowalski seems to pass himself in the Dodge Challenger as an earlier version of himself in a black Chrysler crosses his path. From there the film, which opened on a Sunday morning in Cisco, California, cuts back to Friday night in Denver, Colorado as Kowalski is delivering the black Chrysler to the auto delivery service that he is employed by. Of special interest to the astute viewer is the name of this car delivery service: Argo's Car Delivery. The word "Argo" is of course quite mythologically loaded due to the tale of Jason and the Argonauts. The name of the ship that carried Jason and his merry band was of course Argo, and this brings up some interesting associations.
"The ship that would carry the band of fifty sailors, all the available heroes of the generation before the Trojan War, was, like the talking Ram, itself a piece of inspiration. It was the first ship of that size ever constructed, or if not the first, at least the second:  for some tellers recalled that the fifty Danaid maidens, who were pursued up from Africa by the fifty sons of Egypt, must  have had ships of similar size, to sail the narrow waters of the subterranean aquifer to the surface at the sacred Spring of Lerna, on the coast just south of Argos. Yes, what coincidence! Argos, the town that bears the name of the herder of the estrual cow maiden Io; and Argo, itself merely the feminine of the same name, for ships are female. And no ordinary ship was the Argo, for like the Ram, it spoke, resounding and offering counsel: Athena had brought a timber oak from Zeus's prophetic growth at Dodona to be fashioned into the masthead. A relic of it, as it was thought, still existed at the time of the Latin poets Martial, over millennium and a half later. And numbered amongst the crew was the prophet Orpheus, by all accounts an unlikely shipmate in such a company of athletic heroes, except for his experience as a shaman.
"The name of the ship was derived from argos, meaning 'glistening,' which could also describe something so fast that all you see is a glistening blur, a flickering of light, but glistening is the primary significance, reflecting light, sleek and plump white, amongst other things – a cow; or like the bright 'eyes' of the 'All-eyed' Panoptes, the epithet of the herder Argos, who is named for the this glistening vision, with his hundred eyes..."
(The Apples of Apollo, Ruck, Staples, Heinrich, pgs. 112-113)

The association of argos with glistening and white is especially appropriate for the Dodge Challenger that Kowalski departs from the car delivery agency with. And like the mythological Argo, the Challenger at times appears to talk to Kowalski via its radio, specifically through a (telepathic) dialogue he has with a blind DJ known as Super Soul (Cleavon Little).

Its also interesting to note that the above-mentioned Io had been a priestess of Hera in the town of Argos before she was seduced by Zeus and promptly turned into a cow after the goddess became aware of the affair. The radio station Super Soul operates out of is called KOW, pronounced "cow." But more on that in a moment.

Jason himself is especially apt for Kowalski as well for the chief Argonaut was closely associated with the sun.
"... The story of the Ark is probably derived from an Asianic icon in which the Spirit of the Solar Year is shown in a moon-ship, going through his habitual New Year changes – bull, lion, snake and so on; and the story of the Whale from a similar icon showing the same Spirit being swallowed at the end of the year by the Moon-and-Sea-goddess, represented as a sea-monster, to be presently re-born as  a New Year fish, or finned goat. The sea-monster Tiamat who, in early Babylonian mythology, swallowed the Sun-god Marduk (but whom he later claimed to have killed with his sword) was used by the author of the Book of Jonah to symbolize the power of the wicked city, mother of harlots, that swallowed and then spewed up the Jews. The icon, a familiar one on the Eastern Mediterranean, survived in Orphic art, where it represented a ritual ceremony of initiation: the initiate was swallowed by the Universal Mother, the sea-monster, and re-born as an incarnation of the Sun-god. (On one Greek vase the Jonah-like figure is named Jason, because the history of his voyage in the Argo had by that time been attached to the signs of the zodiac around which the sun makes its annual voyage...)"
(The White Goddess, Robert Graves, pgs. 480) 
As was noted in part one, Kowalski has undergone a kind of incomplete initiation at the onset of the film, one of the heroic variety. He is closely associated with the sun, making him a kind of solar savior, as was Jason. The solar savior myth has been present in Western culture for centuries now and has become especially prevalent in the post-WWII years in these United States. The great Christopher Knowles breaks it down thus:
"The defining hallmark of our modern mythology, and a theme we've looked at in depth on this blog, is the Solar Savior. Again, this is a theme taken from the ancient Mystery cults and midwifed into our modern culture through secret societies and occult groups.
"More precisely, the rolue of solar savior corresponds to the Age of Horus, announced by Aleister Crowley in the early 20th Century. His prophecies of the Age have been remarkably accurate in many ways, less so in others.
"As I wrote in Our Gods Wear Spandex, the solar savior theme burst back into the public consciousness via heroes like Superman and Captain Marvel, both explicitly and consciously modeled on Hercules, the most widely regarded solar savior of the pre-Christian world, a figure whose fame survived the Church and was acknowledged by groups as disparate as Egyptian and Phoenican pagans, Gnostics, and Medieval Alchemists. Hercules was a symbol of inspiration for Renaissance painters, a symbol of a reawakened Europe. 
"The Italian sword and sandal movies, which enjoyed a great deal of success in the late 50s and early 60s brought a tidal wave of pagan imagery and myth-themes to the mass consciousness and are under-valued in today's culture.  
"The rich and lusty paganism they invigorated postwar culture with was swamped by dreary, life-denying materialism and postmodernism in the mid to late 60s and 70s, but their influence simply fed into junk culture; heavy metal, sword and sorcery gaming, novels and comics and other pursuits unnoticed by the cosmopolitan mindset that dominated respectable discourse. Concurrent with the sword and sandal craze was the Tolkien revival. Needless to say these sword and sandal films were filled with solar saviors such as Hercules and Jason."
Hercules, easily the most well known solar savior
Vanishing Point of course came out right in the midst of this craze and it seems that on some level the creative team behind the film was well aware of the film's ties to some of humanity's most ancient story telling. Some may object to my linking Kowalski, who is often described as a thoroughly nihilistic protagonist (or even anti-hero) to the solar heroes of old, but I think this would be a mistake. It is not, after all, Kowalski who is nihilistic so much as the materialistic hell he finds himself trapped in.

The occupations that Kowalski has consistently sought out --soldier, police man, race driver --are all careers requiring ample amounts of heroism (at least in theory). And throughout the film, Kowalski is shown as a figure with a firmly entrenched code of honor --he blows this whistle on the corrupt police department he works for, he always stops to check on the well being of drivers who crash trying to catch him, etc. The problem is that the world he inhabits has no honor --the war he fights in is one driven by greed and corruption, as is the police department he works for. His career as an race driver is nothing but a gross consumerist spectacle in which the audience is only moved by the sight of crashing cars.

If anything, Kowalski is an old school hero driven by higher principals who is condemned to a world of nihilism and godless materialism. And this is the underlining factor that drives his endless search for more speed. And that brings up one final point that should be made about the mythological Jason before moving along.

Jason was also what researchers Carl A.P. Ruck, Blaise Daniel Staples and Clark Heinrich dubbed a "drug man" in their brilliant The Apples of Apollo due to the obvious parallels the Argonauts myths have with the ritualistic use of entheogens. Kowalski himself does not dabble in entheogens (outside one incident that occurs during Charlotte Ramping's deleted scene) but he is surely a drug man as the next sequence reveals. On his way out of Denver Kowalski drops in on his drug dealer for more bennies before embarking upon his journey to the "Golden State" (har har). The dealer in turn is operating near store known as the "Drug Center." It is only after Kowalski has re-upped on bennies that his journey begins in earnest.

From here the film shifts gears a bit and wanders to Goldfield, Nevada, where the film's other major character resides: "Super Soul," a blind DJ who broadcasts out of a local station known as KOW, as noted above. When we are first introduced to Super Soul, he is walking to work with the assistance of his trusty seeing-eye dog. A mountain is prominently displayed in the background as Super Soul makes his way through the sparsely populated streets of Goldfield. There is of course an air of the sage descending from the mountain a la Moses in this image. Nor is it the only curious symbol in this sequence.

Naturally his station is located at a crossroads in the former boom town of Goldfield. Crossroads are of course loaded with symbolism.
"The importance of the crossroads as a symbol is universal. It is connected with the essence of the crossroads itself, two paths intersecting to create the centre of the world, and the true centre of the world for whoever stands where they meet. Being the place of all places for revelations and manifestations, crossroads are haunted by spirits, generally terrifying, which it is in the interest of human beings to propitiate. Whatever the tradition, it was the custom to set up at crossroads obelisks, altars, stones, chapels and inscriptions, since they are places where people stopped to think. They are also places where one passes from one world to another, from one life to another and from life to death."
(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, pg. 257)

It is of course most fitting that Super Soul crosses a crossroads before his life intersections with Kowalski's, whom he will some become closely connected to. And the location of KOW at a crossroads where the station is used to aid Kowalski in his journey from one world to another is especially apt. The same could also be said of the presence of a dog at Super Soul's side during his introductory sequence and at other points throughout the film.

Dogs are associated with crossroads due to their ties to the Greek goddess Hekate. She was a threefold goddess and known as 'the Goddess of the Crossroads' among the Greeks. She was known to appear at times in the form of a she-wolf and dogs were frequently sacrificed in her honor at crossroads.

Super Soul's blindness is also quite fitting for his character as well. Consider:
"For some, blindness means ignorance of the real state of things, denial of the obvious and hence madness, stupidity and irresponsibility. To others,  the blind are those who ignore the deceitful shows of this world, and thanks to this are privileged to know its secret reality, too deeply buried to be discerned by ordinary humanity. The blind share the godhead, they are inspired: poets, wonder-workers, seers. Such, in short, are the two aspects, blessed and cursed, positive and negative, of the symbolism of blindness; and all traditions, myths and customs waiver between them. This means that blindness, which is often a punishment of the gods, bears some relation to the ordeals of initiation... Similarly folklore is full of blind musicians, bards and singers treated as inspired beings.
"This is no doubt the reason why sculptors portrayed Homer as a blind man and tradition made blindness the symbol of the wandering poet, the rhapsodist, bard, trouvere and troubadour. Yet here again we keep within the bounds of allegory. Old men are also depicted as blind: in their case blindness symbolizes the wisdom of old age. Prophets are usually blind as well, as if their eyes needed to be closed to physical light for them to perceive the light of the godhead..."
(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, pgs. 99-100)
Super Soul
Super Soul is very much in the seer category as far as blindness goes. There is also a bit of the poet to his character as well as an echo of Homer, for he is the one who transforms Kowalski's story into the stuff of myths. And as a DJ he is associated with music throughout, his bard-ness thus covered.

Despite being played by a younger actor the character bears many similarities to the wise old man archetype and is depicted as being very sage-like throughout the film. It is Super Soul, in touch with a higher reality, who guides our hero on his allegorical journey through the Valley of Death into the "Golden State" (which Super Soul mistakenly refers to as the Sunshine State as though the solar symbolism was not already obvious enough).

Super Soul is very much an initiated figure as his name implies. His seeming ability to communicate to Kowalski telepathically is but one sign of the higher plane he exists upon. The desk in his DJ station is littered with impressive looking volumes as though he is constantly in search of more knowledge. Probably the most quoted lines from this film is a brief monologue delivered by Super Soul littered with metaphysical significance:
"And there goes the Challenger, being chased by the blue, blue meanies on wheels. The vicious traffic squad cars are after our lone driver, the last American hero, the electric centaur, the, the demi-god, the super driver of the golden west! Two nasty Nazi cars are close behind the beautiful lone driver. The police numbers are gettin' closer, closer, closer to our soul hero, in his soul mobile, yeah baby! They about to strike. They gonna get him. Smash him. Rape... the last beautiful free soul on this planet...
"But, it is written, if the evil spirit arms the tiger with claws, Braham provided the dove with wings. Thus spoke the super guru..."

The researcher is unaware of where it is specifically written that Braham provided the dove with wings to counter the claws the tiger received from the evil spirit, but certainly there were not many road movie from around this time (or afterwards) in which Braham was invoked. Super Soul's description of Kowalski as "the electric centaur" is most interesting as well within symbolic context of the mythological creatures.
"Iconographically, centaurs are generally depicted with an expression of sorrow on their faces. They symbolize lust, with all the brute violence which can reduce mankind to the level of beasts unless it is counterbalanced by spiritual strength. They are a striking image of the twofold nature of mankind --half god, half beast... They are the antithesis of the horseman, who tames and masters the elemental forces, while the centaurs, with the exception of Chiron and his brothers, are ruled by wild, untrammelled instinct. They are also an image of the unconscious, an unconscious which gains mastery of the personality, subjecting it to its own impulses and eliminating inner conflict."
(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, pg. 173)

Kowalski is certainly a creature of instinct, driving the Challenger as though it were the lower part of his body. In a way then he is a true "electric centaur" and in desperate need of spiritual strength which Super Soul attempts to broadcast to Kowalski's "Soul mobile." And what of the golden West? Cerainly it has been at the heart of much speculation.
"... the Mohave desert, which is, for the Freemasons, the cosmic graveyard of the West, the final destiny of Anubis, the celestial jackal, otherwise known as Sirius."
 (Secret Societies and Psychological Warfare, Michael A. Hoffman II, pg. 54)
We have already noted allusions to Sirius earlier. And of course Kowalski ventures into the Mohave later on the allude the cops. Is this then a trip into America's "cosmic graveyard"? These answers and more in the enxt installment dear reader. Stay tuned.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Kowalski Part I

"If you could see what I can see
Feel what I feel
When my head is on fire
When I'm a burning wheel"
--"Burning Wheel," Primal Scream

The 1971 road movie Vanishing Point is easily one of the most enigmatic films to spring from an especially fertile era. Your humble writer first became aware of it some time around 1997 when the Primal Scream album named after the film was released. This particular record would go on to become one of my all time favorite albums and it probably goes without saying, but I became most curious concerning its inspiration. It would be several years until I tracked down the film to which the Scream album was intended to be a kind of alternative soundtrack too, but I was not disappointed and have only gained more reverence for the film as the years have gone by and my tastes have become more esoteric-leaning.

Superficially the movie is a kind of revved up take on Easy Rider, with ample doses of counterculture angst to supplement the film's legendary chase sequences. But while Rider still maintains a certain degree of reverence from aging baby boomers due to its (largely dated) social commentary, Point is usually dismissed as a minor cult movie mainly appealing only to B-movie fans and gearheads. This is a truly tragic state of affairs as Vanishing Point is not only better made and far more adrenaline inducing film, but also a far deeper one.

Given the pedigree of some of the individuals behind Point, this is hardly surprising. Consider screenwriter "Guillermo Cain." This is actually a pseudonym for the legendary Cuban author Guillermo Cabrera Infante. Infante's parents had been founding members of the Cuban Communist Party and during his youth had clashed with the Batista regime. After the Communist revolution, Infante was appointed head of the Instituto del Cine as well as Lunes de Revolución, a supplant to the Communist newspaper Revolución. By 1961 his star was beginning to fade, however. Infante was removed as head of the nation's film institute and Lunes de Revolución was shut down by Castro himself. From 1962 until 1965 he served as a Cuban cultural attache in Brussels before finally going into exile at the end of 1965.

 A year later he published the experimental, Joycean novel Tres Tristes Tigres that received extensive critical acclaim. Thus, by 1971 Infante was a prominent Cuban exile in addition to an emerging literary talent who had generated much respect and praise from "serious" cultural connoisseurs. That he would, at this point, opt to pen this bizarre, Kerouac-derived road movie has baffled many. Reportedly drastic changes were made to the film after filming began that greatly diminished the allegorical nature of the script. An old article from Car Review in which star Barry Newman had been extensively interviewed noted:
"[Newman:] 'I was in Austria filming The Salzburg Connection while they were editing Vanishing Point, and I received a call from my agent in New York. He had just seen a screening of Vanishing Point and said they cut it up and made it look like a "B" movie. They cut out the Rampling scenes because they were afraid the audience wouldn't understand what happened to the girl in the car; why was she suddenly not there? That was their explanation.'
"In its final form, Vanishing Point bears little resemblance to the Guillermo Cain screenplay, which was loosely based on two real life events. The movie was released without the Rampling scenes, and the 107 minute version was never shown. Vanishing Point premiered in late January of 1971 in an edited state that bore little resemblance to the original version."
Regardless, what ended up on screen still leaves the attune viewer with much to ponder.

In addition to Infante, the film features another major curiosity behind the scenes: Its executive producer, Michael Pearson. Pearson's full name is Michael Orlando Weetman Pearson, 4th Viscount Cowdray. He is presently believed to be worth about half a billion dollars (apparently the old boy has fallen on hard times of late as his estate was valued at nearly a billion only a few years ago) and is approximately the 65th richest person in the UK. Pearson has apparently worn many hats over the course of his life. He dabbled in farming and finance, having worked in the City of London. He also found the time to enlist in the British Army before he took up the mantle of film producer.

Viscount Cowdray
As the head of Cupid Productions he bequeathed to the world two films of note: Vanishing Point and Sympathy for the Devil, a documentary featuring the Rolling Stones and directed by the legendary French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. The Stones have of course been the subject of much controversy and speculation during the heyday in the 1960s. They were of course linked to the notorious Laurel Canyon scene, as David McGowan explained before here.

After 1971 Pearson seems to have retired from film all together, and has apparently focused on whatever interests extremely wealthy nobles may pursue. Reportedly he is a non-practicing Buddhist and has been a trustee of the Tibet House Trust for more than 20 years. Certainly the Viscount seems to have a keen interest in metaphysics, one of which he passed on to his children. In this context we may partly discern what would have drawn such a figure to what many perceive as a B-grade chase movie.

Besides the enigmas of Infante and the Viscount, the film featured a highly skilled crew. Stunt coordinator and driver Carey Loftin is justly regarded as a legend. He first made waves with his work on Bullitt and would contribute his talents to a host of films such as The Getaway, The French Connection, Diamonds Are Forever, Big Trouble in Little China and many more. Then there was cinematographer John A. Alonzo, who would go on to be nominated for an Oscar several years later for his work on Chinatown. He would also shoot Scarface.

Loftin (top) and Alonzo (bottom)
But while Loftin and Alonzo went on to bigger and better things, director Richard C. Sarafian and star Barry Newman were not so fortunate despite the stellar work of either on the film. Sarafian, a longtime associate of Robert Altman who married the famed director's sister, would see his career fade away into irrelevancy with a slew of mediocre genre pictures during the late 1970s and 1980s. Sarafian, an Armenian, never seems to have tackled an esoteric film again.

Star Barry Newman did not fair much better. A stag actor, Newman would first gain acclaim for the 1970 film The Lawyer before taking the leading role in Vanishing Point the next year. Newman was not Sarafian's original choice, but rather Gene Hackman. The studio preferred an unknown, however, and Newman got the call. His turn as Kowalski is easily the actor's most iconic role, one of which he never came close to emulating. Newman would continue to appear in film's sporadically for the next few decades in between work on the stage and television. Its telling that his most well known part outside of Vanishing Point is in The Limey, a role that consciously played homage to Newman's work on Vanishing Point.

Barry Newman sporting his Kowalski shades in The Limey
So while Sarafian and Newman would never be able to catch lightening in a bottle again, they were certainly the right individuals for the time and place in which Vanishing Point was brought to life. And lightening it is.

The picture concerns Kowalski (Newman), a veteran, former cop and race car driver now reduced to working as a car delivery man. One day he seems to suffer a breakdown and takes off on a high speed chase that eventually encompasses three states before his final showdown with police in California. The iconic ending of the film has both startled, perplexed and angered viewers in equal measures for years and has spawned much ruminating. Superficially it seems utterly senseless, but then again, so is everything about the film.

After all, Kowalski doesn't even need to make the run in the first place. He arrives in Denver around midnight on Friday dropping off his latest charge. His boss, Sandy, begs him to take the weekend off and come back on Monday, but Kowalski insists on immediately heading out on another run. Sandy gives in and hands over the keys to a supped up Dodge Challenger and a Monday deadline for delivering the vehicle to San Francisco.

This is of course ample time for the run, but then Kowalski drops in on his drug dealer for some more bennies. In the process he makes a bet that he can deliver the vehicle in San Francisco by 3:00 PM the next day --roughly fourteen hours for a drive that is apparently close to twenty in this day and age. Kowalski's drug dealer is not especially enthusiastic about the wager and tries to talk him out of it but to no avail --Kowalski sets off on a voyage in which his objective can only be accomplished by driving like a bat out of hell. The stage is thus set for the epic chase that follows, even though Kowalski is seemingly the only one who understands the logic of the whole ordeal.

Kowalski scoring some speed
At least, on a practical, materialistic plane. But when one begins to analyze the symbolism and commentary present throughout the film, a profound esoteric meaning becomes evident. The viewer is tipped off to this from a very early on.

The picture opens at the literal ending, in the town of Cisco, California where a roadblock is being prepared for Kowalski. Spectators are gathering as are the media. Amusingly a CBS news van is prominently displayed at this juncture --CBS of course having a logo that bears some resemblance to the All Seeing Eye. This may be intentional as the All Seeing Eye is closely linked to the Third Eye, the symbolism of which in its Hindu form is especially appropriate for Vanishing Point.
"Unifying perception is the function of the 'third eye,' the eye in Shiva's forehead. If the two bodily eyes correspond to the Sun and the Moon, the third eye corresponds to fire.  Its glance reduces everything to ashes. In other words, simultaneity, its expression of a non-dimensional present, destroys manifestation. This is the 'Eye of Wisdom'  (prajnachaksus) or  Buddhist 'Eye of Dharma' (dharmachaksus) which is set on the bounds of unity and multiplicity, of emptiness and non-emptiness, and is therefore able to apprehend them simultaneously. It is, in fact, an organ of inward vision and, as such, an exteriorizationof the 'eye of the heart.' This unitive vision is expressed in Islam by the 'breaking of the barriers of the two eyes' of the letter ha, it's two curlicues being symbols of duty and division. The third eye is indicative of a superhuman state, one in which clairvoyance has achieved its perfection as well, at a higher level, as a share in the properties of the Sun."
(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, pgs. 363)
the CBS van
Kowalski seems to exist in a kind of superhuman state in which he forgoes virtually all material needs --food, drink, rest, sex --save for bennies. He also displays a telepathic connection with another illuminated soul (har har) as the film unfolds. What's more, Kowalski is very much linked to the Sun throughout the film and is thus a kind of solar hero. But more on that later.

After witnessing the massive road block California police have set for him in Cisco, Kowalski briefly tries to allude the pursuing patrol cars before retreating into the desert. There he briefly stops in an abandoned auto yard to contemplate his options. This setting effectively doubles as a graveyard and it is thus quite fitting that Kowalski appears to accept his fate here amongst these tombs of chrome. The tomb, of which these abandoned cars certainly evoke, has at times been associated with rebirth.
"Jung related the tomb to the female archetype, like everything which embraces or enfolds. It is a place of safety, birth, growth and comfort. The tomb is the place in which the body either changes into spirit or prepares for its rebirth. Yet it is also the abyss in to which the being is swallowed up in ineluctable and transitory darkness. The mother and her symbols are both loving and fearful.
"Dreaming of tombs betrays a graveyard within – repressed desires, lost loves, failed ambitions, memories of happier times and so on. They seem dead but, in psychological terms, are not completely dead, they lead a twilit life in the tombs of the unconscious..."
(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, pg. 1014) 
While Kowalski does not dream of tombs, here he surrounds himself with symbolic ones. They quite aptly allude to the back story that will unfold over the course of the film detailing Kowalski's lost love, failed ambitions and happier times. In a sense this sequence thus represents Kowalski's final break with his past. He is now ready to move on to the next stage and returns to the Challenger in preparation for it.

Kowalski contemplates his options in the junk (grave) yard with the rising sun prominently in the background
From this point he races back to the road block, his final destination set. As he closes in on it a black Chrysler approaches from the other direction. The screen freezers and contrasts Kowalski's white Challenger as it prepares to pass the black Chrysler. There is of course the obvious foreboding of death that the black vehicle proclaims as well as the black and white symbolism of the two cars.

Reportedly the color white was chosen for the Dodge Challenger purely to make it stand out and  easily visible to the audience and has no symbolic significance. And yet Kowalski is shown in a white shirt (along with blue jeans) throughout the film as well. This is in keeping with the theme of rebirth present throughout the film --candidates for an initiatory rebirth were frequently outfitted in pure white garments.

Kowalski approaching the black vehicle at this juncture also echoes the alchemical conception of putrefaction, which was frequently symbolized by black.
"In alchemy is found again the perpetuation of the Universal Mystery; for surely as Jesus died upon the cross, Hiram (CHiram) at the west gate of the Temple, Orpheus on the banks of the river Hebros, Christna on the banks of the Ganges, and Osiris in the coffin prepared by Typhon, so in alchemy, unless the elements first die, the Great Work cannot be achieved. The stages of the alchemical procession can be traced in the lives and activities of nearly all the world Saviors and teachers, and also among the mythologies of several nations. It is said in the Bible that 'except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.' In alchemy it is declared that without putrefaction the Great Work cannot be accomplished. What is it that dies on the cross, is buried in the tomb of the Mysteries, and that dies also in the retort and becomes black with putrefaction? Also, what is it that does the same thing in the nature of man, that he may rise again, phoenix-like, from his own ashes (caput mortuum)?"
(The Secret Teachings of All Ages, Manly P. Hall, pg. 506)

Presumably Kowalski had discerned the answers to these questions before his own immolation. In this context then the black Chrysler is not just an omen of his pending death, but also the rebirth that shall soon follow it.

The film adds a further layer of subtext to this image by making the Challenger disappear before the Chrysler and then cutting to Denver on Friday night just as Kowalski is getting into town with his prior charge. It is thus revealed that Kowalski is also the driver the Chrysler and that in the freeze frame he was confronted with both his past and future. One is reminded of the symbolism of the ouroboros in this instance as Kowalski seems to be consuming his own tail in a closed cycle of development in which his flight never ends, but is repeated over and over gain for all eternity.

the two cars approaching one another
There is of course an element of the legend of Sisyphus in this image as well and this is no doubt one of the chief reasons why this film is often described as "existential." Is Kowalski, like the protagonist of the famed existential comedy Groundhog Day, condemned to repeat his cross state chase over and over gain for eternity, or till he at least gets it right? I suspect not, with this image chiefly symbolizing what Kowalski is escaping from. Thus it is a kind of final goodbye to the life he knew and the material plane on the whole.

It is also the inevitable end of an initiatory journey. And Kowalski himself is very much an initiate, though he almost surely did not intentionally set out to be one. Throughout the film it is implied that Kowalski's life changed decisively because of his time in Vietnam, where he was wounded in combat. Clearly this was a transforming moment and one that lead to a certain kind of initiation.
"...  It follows that we find a gap analogous to that which exists between initiation and  investiture. Investiture corresponds to what in the West was knightly ordination and to what in other areas was the ritual initiation typical of the warrior caste; initiation (a realization of a more direct, individual, and inner nature) corresponds to heroic action in a traditional, sacral sense, which is connected to doctrine such as that of the 'holy war' and of the mors triumphalis."
(Revolt Against the Modern World, Julius Evola, pg. 79)

In other words Kowalski has inadvertently undergone what is known as a heroic initiation, one of which typically brought about by combat and much revered by left-hand path practitioners such as the vile Baron Julius Evola. But in this case Kowalski realized the conflict that brought about his initiation was anything but holy, leaving the process incomplete. Since that time Kowalski seemingly attempted to recapture the moment he experienced in war over and over again --as a police officer, as a race driver, an "auto clown" and finally as an outlaw.

This has led many critics to dismiss Kowalski as simply a thrill junkie trying to replicate the high he experienced in Vietnam. And this explanation may well have sufficed had the film been a mere "B-movie" and not littered with the allegorical symbolism that it is. But these signs point to something far deeper than speed that Kowalski is searching though speed is certainly his preference for achieving what it is he is searching for.

And it is here that I shall wrap things up for now. In the next installment I shall begin to breakdown Kowalski's journey in earnest. Stay tuned dear reader.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Stoner Rock Mysteries: Shrinebuilder

As regular readers of this blog are aware, your humble author is quite taken with a genre commonly referred to as "stoner rock," something of catchall term that includes styles such as doom, sludge and drone metal, desert and retro rock, post-metal, occult rock, heavy psych and so on. This genre has shown itself to be especially synchro-mystical, what with its allusions to metaphysics, mythology, entheogens and litanies of pop culture references to sci-fi, fantasy and horror. For a more in depth discussion on these points, check here.

The band for consideration in this discussion is very much a part of the stoner rock universe, effectively constituting a kind of super group (or at least as super as a group can be comprised of largely underground musicians). While so much of mainline heavy rock was bogged down with teenage mopping and faux Satanism for the past few decades, the artists who comprise Shrinebuilder were busy exploring a host of sophisticated esoteric topics in the same time frame. They include:

Guitarist/vocalist Scott Kelly of Neurosis...

Guitarist/vocalist Scott "Wino" Weinrich of doom pioneers Saint Vitus as well as the numerous "Wino bands" (the Obsessed, Spirit Caravan, the Hidden Hand and Premonition 13)...

Bassist/vocalist Al Cisneros of Sleep and Om...

And drummer/some time vocalist Dale Crover of the Melvins (and parts of Nirvana's Bleach album).

from left to right: Cisneros, Wino, Kelly and Crover
Regular readers of this blog should recognize a few familiar names above. Neurosis' mind-bending and highly influential catalog was already considered at length before here while a run down of the Wino bands can be found here. Most recently I considered Cisneros' work with Sleep and Om. So, tackling Shrinebuilder at this point is a natural progression.

The band originates from some time in the early 2000s, just as Al Cisneros was beginning to get back into music after an extended layoff spanning from the late 90s into the early part of the next decade. Originally Shrinebuilder was conceived of as a power trio with Cisneros, original Sleep and Om drummer Chris Hakius and Wino on guitar and vocals. Apparently the group's name derived from an Om song called "Rays of the Sun/To the Shrinebuilder" that was released as a split with Current 93 on Kelly's Neurot label in 2006. At some point in the middle of the decade Cisneros approached Kelly about signing on. Then, just as the group was set to begin writing in earnest, Hakius retired from music. Thus, the way was paved for the Dale Crover to step in as the group's drummer shortly before they began recording their debut album.

Unsurprisingly, Cisneros was the guiding visionary of the band. His metaphysical bent is evident across the board, but especially in the group's lyrics (reportedly Cisneros and Kelly, who also regularly deals with esoteric themes, wrote the bulk of the lyrics on the debut). However, Cisneros largely shunned the spotlight over the course of the group's self-titled debut: His lead vocals are limited to album's second and fifth tracks while his bass only occasionally rises above Wino and Kelly's monolithic guitars (excluding "Blind For All to See," the one really bass driven track on this album).

This left plenty of room for the other band members to put their own signatures onto the group's debut (and likely only) studio album. While Kelly doesn't seem to have contributed much musically, his vocals grace every song on the album and his trademark bludgeoning riffs are ever present. Wino seems to have written a fair amount of the music, including the oh-so Om-like "Pyramids of the Moon", as well as contributing heavily to the "Architect" and "The Science of Anger". He also splits lead vocals with Kelly on the latter to two tracks, as well as opener "Solar Benediction," and contributed much of the lead guitar (at least as far as this researcher can tell). Crover was a late addition, but his trademark polyrhythmic drumming is present throughout and his chant-like backup vocals (often in conjunction with Cisneros') provide an exotic layer to the proceedings

The final lineup had yet to play with one another until literally the night before the group was set to enter the studio to record the self-titled debut. At the onset of the recording sessions the group only had vague outlines of most songs and used the previous night's rehearsal to begin constructing song structures in earnest. This, combined with the general failings of super groups, would spell disaster for most records. Everything about the album seemed to cry out "Rush job!"

And yet it worked. Certainly few who listened to Shrinebuilder for the first time were blown away by the album as they likely were by records released by the outfits whom provided the nucleus of the band. Indeed, many listeners seem to have found the album rather underwhelming: while Shrinebuilder had certainly avoided embarrassing themselves, there was nothing especially groundbreaking to the album. Each member stuck within their respective comfort zone and the sound that emerged reflected each aspect of the contributors without altering anyone's signature sound.

the much anticipated debut album
So, novelty was not much a factor in the success of Shrinebuilder other than the obvious novelty of this particular lineup playing together. But while the album offered up nothing especially new, it showcased four of the best musicians in their respective genres at the top of their craft. While these songs may not grab one by the ear right off the bat, repeated listening reveal a strong batch of epic-length songs with any number of subtle layers surrounding them.

Note, for instance, the gorgeous acoustic picking (courtesy of Wino) that appears during the final minutes of "Solar Benediction" or the otherworldly chants that appear midway through "Pyramid of the Moon." These are the types of little details that help push these songs over the top while also illustrating to total mastery of their respective crafts these four musicians possessed at the time this album was recorded. But moving along.

The album opens with "Solar Benediction," a track largely composed by Cisneros and which appears to be one of the earliest Shrinebuilder songs. Driven by a lumbering groove the invokes Sleep, Om and Neurosis in equal measures, Wino and Kelly trade verses in striking contrast before the song settles into a tranquil instrumental section. The track details a journey through initiation, a theme many of the musicians of Shrinebuilder have addressed at length before. Specifically, the song proclaims a journey of the soul spanning "Jericho onward through wailing gods and barren scapes of flesh." This echoes the Gnostic disillusionment with both the flesh as well the illusionary nature of the world.

From here comes "Pyramid of the Moon," the group's first single. The song opens with a deliberate groove over which Wino and Kelly layer various effects-laden guitars. The song slowly builds, and is especially punctuated during its midsection by the chant-like backing vocals of Cisneros and Crover. The last section of the song is possibly the most Om-like moment on the album, and it is fitting that Cisneros takes the mic for the album's climatic groove.

The song title of course evokes numerous conspiracy theories concerning bases on the moon and certainly the song's chief songwriter, Wino, has a penchant for the sort of thing. But the lyrics were primarily the work of Kelly on this track and he shuns ancient astronaut musings. Instead, the song becomes a kind of ode to the destruction humanity has wrought upon the Earth in its quest to reach the stars. Dryly Kelly intones: "The walls of crows spread seed/To the earth for our feast of withering souls and reason/ We turn to the moon/ Sets upon sea of light."

At this point Cisneros takes up the vocals and offers some musings about "Ascend freedom/Transference/Fuse the watcher at Jericho" and so forth. But in the context of the song, this transference rings hollow. I suppose this warranted the inclusion of Jericho. But moving along.

the legendary city of Jericho is referenced twice on Shrinebuilder
Track three, "Blind for All to See," is the most mellow and atmospheric song on the album. The track is driven by a rolling Cisneros bass line over which Kelly and Wino subtly layer trippy leads. Lyrically this track seems to deal with the suffocating militarism in American society and the spiritual waste land it has left in its wake. Kelly sneers "They're leading on to the warship plane/On to the light/ Give us solitude/Give us in the reign/Watch the bow reach/ To the glowing gods/Through the astral plane/Blind for all to see." Perhaps then as technology becomes interchangeable from magic, it threatens to totally consume the gods and all planes as well?

Next comes "The Architect," one of the most compelling songs on the album. The song title of course echoes the Masonic notion of God as "the Great Architect" and is also consistent with the stone mason imagery evoked by the name Shrinebuilder itself. This was another Wino-lead song and is the closet the album comes to sounding like one of the Wino bands. It also takes up the theme of initiation first introduced in "Solar Benediction." Over a dragging groove Wino opens up the song moaning "From labyrinthine dream be released/Apprehends state, form, and time/Rise Farid."

"Farid" is likely a reference to the Persian Sufi poet Abū Ḥamīd bin Abū Bakr Ibrāhīm, better known by his pen name of Farīd ud-Dīn. Farid's most well known work is called The Conference of the Birds. Cisneros named the second Om album after this work and has made reference to it at times.

Farid ud-Din
From here the song goes on to the path the initiate seeks so as to escape the Demiurgic world, Wino stating: "The astral field's perceived/And permutations feed/The Initiate set free/The rising entropy/That wields the freeing blade/And asks of Mercury... /When is the waking hour?" Mercury is of course the god of magic and was especially revered within the Mysteries in his Greek form of Hermes. After a few more "when is the waking hours?" it fades out into an effects-laden bass solo that would do Geezer Butler himself proud.

The album closes with "The Science of Anger", another Wino track. Apparently this song was partly inspired by Wino's then-failing marriage (he was divorced shortly thereafter) but part of the lyrics were provided by Kelly. The song seems to become an ode to how a poisonous relationship can derail the spiritual path one has set out upon.

Or at least this is my interpretation of the lines that come after the more personal opening verse: "Psyche binds to the golden host/Exhortations O Solaris/The heirophant rite begins/Translucent jewel of Osiric line/Distant tide surging through my soul/Stirring the blood of my fathers pain." A heirophant was a priest in ancient Greece charged with interpreting sacred mysteries (in Attica this was the title of the chief priest of the Eleusinian Mysteries) while the Egyptian god Osiris had his own highly popular Mystery School in the ancient world. Thus, this would seem to indicate the narrator is back on the path of initiation.

Fittingly, the song and the album itself ends with another Cisneros dominated-section with chant-like backing vocals. As though rising above some warped monestary, Cisneros concludes the album by observing "For warmth I'm yearning/The destroyer's touch/Blackout til dawn/Absolution/Toward the sun I send/Purified and wash errant perception." And indeed, one certainly feels purified by album's end.

And so concludes Shrinebuilder's debut and essentially the band's brief run. The debut was released in late 2009 and after playing sporadic shows in 2010 and 2011 the group went on hiatus. With the busy schedules of all four members, fans assumed this was merely a break so that the various members could refocus on their main groups before a sequel was forth coming. But by 2012 uncertainty began to emerge as to the future of Shrinebuilder. Then in 2014 Wino seemingly announced the death of the band when he stated during an interview; "...Cisneros is insane so Shrinebuilder is not going to happen..."

Thus, the band ends as mysteriously as it began. After years of rumblings in the underground of its existence the group briefly emerged like some mythological creature of old, performed wonders and then disappeared back into the ether under a cloak of even more mystery. I suppose this is as fitting a conclusion as such a group could hope for. And with that I shall wrap things up for now. Until next time dear reader.