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.

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