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.


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  2. I share your appreciation of the Primal Scream soundtrack-still one of my favourite cd's. I'm now 59 and remember seeing Vanishing Point on tv as a kid. It was a big cultural touchstone for many in my age group although we didn't understand what the hell it meant. I think it was more the cars and speed and coolness of Kowalski that hit home. A mild synchronicity- I just had a Vanishing Point/Kowalski t-shirt made up as I couldn't find one anywhere. Soon after I received I randomly found your series on the movie while browsing through your site