The cult movie Vanishing Point and the existential odyssey of Kowalski, a defiant American hero
Existential criticism, as formulated by the English philosopher and novelist Colin Wilson (1931–2013), can be applied to performance texts, such as those of cinema and theatre, taken as sub-divisions of literature, as well as to fiction — as was Wilson’s original intention — despite the fact that unlike a novel or a poem, they are not the products of a single author’s mind but the creations of a large number of individuals, from directors, writers and actors through a whole range of technicians and other contributors.
When I first published this article at Colin Wilson World in 2002, I doubted if existential criticism had been applied to a movie before — and that doubt remains — but Vanishing Point (1971), because of its notable existential temper and director Richard Sarafian’s subtle flair, lends itself rewardingly to an application, and an illumination, of Wilson’s approach.
The movie also happens to be one of my all-time favourites, not least because of the above — no way is it simply a ‘car chase movie’, even the ‘ultimate’ one! For Medium readers unfamiliar with Wilson’s works, I have amended this ‘imported’ essay slightly from the original version at Colin Wilson World.
Notwithstanding some minor continuity flaws, Vanishing Point is a successful ‘road movie’, with plenty of exciting stunts and a fine contemporary music soundtrack. It tells the story of Kowalski (played by Barry Newman), a car delivery driver who, high on benzedrine, and at the wheel of a supercharged Dodge Challenger, leads police on a chase across four western US states. He’s made a bet that he can make the trip from Denver to San Francisco in 15 hours. Catching Kowalski turns into a massive police operation that attracts the gaze of the national media.
Through a series of flashbacks, it is revealed that Kowalski is a Vietnam war veteran with a Medal of Honor for bravery, but that his girlfriend drowned, and that his subsequent careers as a twice-promoted police officer, a motorcycle speedway rider and a stock car driver all ended in failure. After that, he was reduced to being a demolition derby driver and even an ‘auto clown’. The movie ends with Kowalski’s death as he appears to deliberately ram a roadblock.
On one level, the film can be seen as a straightforward thriller (with plenty of exciting stunts and a fine contemporary music soundtrack), but on a deeper level as depicting the existential odyssey of the protagonist, whose ultimate gesture of defiance is typical of the Romantic outsider — a gesture which few indeed would be prepared to give, but one against which there can be no recourse.
It is reminiscent of the Poet in Thomas Gray’s The Bard who hurls himself into the abyss after cursing the royal line of Edward I. Kowalski is an anti-hero, a misfit, a solitary, defiant in the true Romantic sense that he is prepared to die rather than give in to the establishment. A laconic loner, he rejects the norms of both culture and counter-culture. As an example of popular cinema, although having gained cult status over the years, Vanishing Point presents itself as particularly accessible to the existential critic, whose first consideration is to know exactly what a book, poem or movie is saying; being ‘true to life’, artistically satisfying technically, or telling a story convincingly are secondary matters. Vanishing Point is also a good example of how Romanticism remains unique among artistic forces in that it retains perennial vigour and youthfulness, as well as audience appeal.
Existential criticism wants to know what concepts of human purpose are concealed in the basic assumptions of the work of art in question, and asks how much it strives to move beyond the values and limits of the ‘natural standpoint’ to probe the question of existence itself.
Most importantly, Vanishing Point examines how profound loss of meaning leads to a radical questioning of existence, and in so doing emphasises the corollary that profound perception of meaning, as in the ‘peak experience’ identified by the American existential psychologist Abraham Maslow, validates existence, and anticipates the evolutionary direction. The movie shows what happens when the natural peak experience — achieved by Kowalski in motor racing — is lost, and an attempt is made to recapture the feeling artificially through the use of drugs and fast driving on the highway: both kinds of ‘speed’.
It is speed that gives Kowalski a sense of release from a world he seems to see as largely meaningless, and in the latter part of the film, the blind DJ Supersoul announces that his radio station is to be renamed ‘KOWalski’, ‘in honor of the last American hero, to whom speed means freedom of the soul’. Supersoul, incidentally, seems able to tap into those latent powers of the mind that Wilson describes as ‘intuition raised to a higher level’ in his (Supersoul’s) apparent telepathic contact with Kowalski on at least two occasions.
Ultimately, of course, Kowalski’s release is shatteringly final. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, his peak experiences having forsaken him, turned to opium in greater compensatory quantities. The tragedy at the heart of Vanishing Point is that, similarly, Kowalski is unable to regain that naturally optimistic state which can lead to the peak experience.
Wilson, in The Books in my Life (1998), during a discussion of what he describes as the ‘bird’s-eye view’ of existence, as opposed to the normal ‘worm’s-eye view’, says that in the former state it is as if ‘our minds cease to plod along on the level of material reality, and seem to soar up into the air. The result is an odd sense of becoming what we really are’. Describing how he thinks Wordsworth and Van Gogh achieved this state, he then adds, suitably for Kowalski: ‘A racing driver probably achieves it driving at 100mph.’
At the moment in Vanishing Point when the media seize on Kowalski’s story, there comes a telling exchange between a television reporter and Sandy, the man in charge at Argo’s Car Delivery, for whom Kowalski works — TV reporter: ‘But as a professional driver, he never really made the grade, did he?’ Sandy: ‘Well, you know why? He never really wanted to. So far as I’m concerned, he was number one then, and he’s number one now.’ (My italics).
That Kowalski ‘never really wanted’ to make the grade seems particularly significant. It implies a certain element of defeatism, reminding us of Wilson’s concept of ‘the age of defeat’, set out in his book of that title which is part of his ‘Outsider’ cycle.
Indeed, Wilson’s original introduction to The Age of Defeat is entitled ‘The Vanishing Hero’, and in the introduction to the 2001 edition, after mentioning Shelley, Goethe and Hoffman, Wilson says: ‘. . . all these romantics were overwhelmed with a sense of the authenticity of their ‘bird’s-eye views’, even when they had to admit defeat in translating them back into terms of everyday life. This was the cause of that romantic despair that led to so many premature deaths.’ And: ‘The vanishing hero is not simply an intellectual or literary problem. For better or worse, it is one of the consequences of this Western society . . .’
Heroism, in its purest definition, says Wilson, is an appetite for freedom, a desire to live more intensely. Kowalski possesses both these traits. But the realisation of heroism ‘depends upon the liveliness of the potential hero’s imagination, upon how far he can understand his own latent needs, and devise an outlet for them’. And Kowalski seems to be one of those romantics who cannot translate his ‘bird’s-eye views’ back into everyday life — hence his penchant for fast driving on the public highway and his use of amphetamines.
As a fictional character, Kowalski at first glance may seem to represent Wilson’s ‘vanishing hero’, reflecting the negative and defeatist world in which his creators live. It is tempting even to see in the title Vanishing Point the eventual and complete cultural exit of the ‘vanishing hero’ after a long process of literary attrition. But in actuality, in his own way, Kowalski rebels against the unheroic premise, the ‘hypothesis of insignificance’, by setting his individuality against the system, whether it be the prevailing culture, or the counter-culture, of the time.
It is supremely ironic that, ultimately, he decides to pay for this stance with his life. But as Wilson points out, the authors of 19th and 20th century literature had no qualms about loading the dice against their heroes and heroines. In a sense, the character of Kowalski is related to this literary ‘tradition’, yet his moral perception indicates that he is in no way merely defeatist, but that, true to romantic type, he is unwilling to play by the established rules, to perform what (any) society expects of him.
For example, he stands out against police corruption, to his own personal cost; he checks to ensure that drivers he outruns are not injured in various road accidents, risking capture as he does so; he takes only the amount of ‘bennies’ he needs, despite being offered more; he resists the offer of casual sex from the girl on the motorcycle.
The questioning of existence which pervades the theme of Vanishing Point is symbolised during an aerial shot in which we see Kowalski’s car tracks create a giant ‘X’ in the desert sand of Death Valley. Primarily, ‘X’ indicates the Unknown. It is the ultimate ‘sliding signifier’, equating anything with nothing, and it is under the shadow of ‘X’ that Kowalski moves, all the way from ‘point zero’ to ‘vanishing point’.
The narrative of the movie is all about crossings — X-ings — literally, as Kowalski crosses the central reservation, the railroad line, the state lines, No Name Creek; figuratively, as he ‘crosses the line’ between what the authorities/establishment will and will not tolerate, especially as he ‘crosses’ the police, appropriately driving a Dodge Challenger, dodging the cops and challenging the system. Kowalski also crosses the line between optimism of the past and pessimism of the present, and ultimately, the point of no return at Cisco, where he becomes resigned to his doom, his own personal vanishing point.
All this is underpinned by an ironic sub-text, comprising some 40 captions including road and other signs, ads, graffiti and newspaper headlines, which runs throughout the movie. A telling contrast of focalisation is created between this sub-text and the main narrative which is shifted, in a balance of opposites, towards placing emphasis on terms not normally given precedence in Western culture, destabilising or subverting the traditional hierarchy, thus: law-breaking over law-enforcement; defiance over compliance; non-conformity over conformity; speed over caution.
Much of the sub-text attempts to weight the balance the other way in a contrapuntal sequence which continually warns of the precariousness and danger of what Kowalski is doing. For example, the road sign ‘Stop’ appears prominently no less than ten times; ‘End speed zone’ suggests an anti-drugs message as well as giving a wry commentary on a police chase. Ironical comment is a key function of the sub-text; for example, a police roadblock is shown clustered around a sign saying ‘Welcome to California’.
Yet the sub-text also indicates the synchronic values which Kowalski appears to be rejecting in American society by force of his own individuality, repressive aspects of society which the Romantic seeks to shake off , eg, ‘Coca Cola’, ‘Mobil’ (big business, materialism), police insignia (the establishment, authority), ‘Jesus Saves’ (religion, dogma), ‘Love’ (the counter-culture). The juxtaposition of these static images against those of the fast-moving action demands the active interpretative engagement of the viewer who is called upon to make the imaginative connections. Meanwhile, Kowalski himself seems to evade the signifying system.
Argo’s Car Delivery alludes to the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, the crew of the ship Argo who sailed in search of the Golden Fleece, and who had various adventures along the way, and obstacles to overcome, just as Kowalski does. But if the Dodge is Kowalski’s Argo, en route (via the ‘Drug Center’) to the Golden State, he finds no equivalent of the Golden Fleece, only X-the-Unknown, and oblivion, beyond his crossing point between life and death.
The movie’s title is, of course, crucial, and functions on a number of different levels simultaneously:
- The point where the sides of a highway converge at the horizon through the action of perspective — the point towards which Kowalski is always and inevitably heading; where the sightlines converge, itself an illusion.
- The point at which Kowalski ceases to be a person and becomes a symbol — hero or villain, depending upon viewpoint — created by the DJ Supersoul.
- The “vanishing point” of any stable or ultimate meaning.
- The point at which Kowalski “deconstructs” himself in a deliberate act of self-immolation — the suicide crash; the point at which he vanishes from the world. At the beginning of the movie, in a kind of ‘flash-forward’, after we see Kowalski drive out of the symbolic “graveyard” of rusting hulks of old vehicles and head back towards Cisco on the Sunday morning, the Challenger and a black Chrysler pass each other on a stretch of road; the scene freezes and the Dodge disappears. This may represent Kowalski’s point of no return, his own last ride and ‘vanishing point’. As the action then proceeds analeptically from the Friday night, Kowalski is shown delivering the black car in Denver.
So, then, how does Vanishing Point score with Wilson’s existential critic? The answer is, I think, quite highly. The movie does attempt to get beyond the values and limits of the ‘natural standpoint’, and to investigate the question of existence itself — what human existence is for — through the character of Kowalski whose actions, past and present, seek an intensity or fullness of experience, but which are acutely contrasted with the content of the sub-text, representing the restrictive forces operating against him. In this way, one may assert that the film is successful in revealing existence as potentiality.
At the same time, however, it raises the spectre of what Thomas Hardy called the ‘Immanent Will’ (what today, less grandly, we would call ‘Murphy’s Law’), that impersonal and unconscious purpose which works itself out through history and is indifferent to the welfare of humanity in its thwarting of aspiration, revealing the disparity between the possible (the desired) and the actual (what the Immanent Will wills) — bringing in the inevitable element of pessimism, or defeatism, one of the ‘consequences of Western society’, which Wilsonian criticism detects as endemic in the literature of the 19th and 20th centuries.
That an evolutionary expansion of consciousness should be able to ‘inform’ the Immanent Will, so to speak, and thereby gradually overthrow the defeatist attitude, the ‘fallacy of insignificance’, is implicit in Wilson’s philosophy of the new existentialism.
At the end of the movie, the chorus of the gospel-influenced Kim Carnes song Nobody Knows is repeated several times as the camera tracks away from the crash site to a panorama of desert and sky. It seems to be saying that it takes death to make us see the actual potential of life, of existence — as does the Dr Johnson quotation to which Wilson was fond of referring: ‘When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight it concentrates his mind wonderfully.’ But we always slip back into everyday consciousness (which Wilson, in a famous phrase, maintains is a liar) and let the ‘robot’ take over so many aspects of our lives, drawing a veil over that potential.
Kowalski, who decides that he will not return to the ‘robotic’ life, takes an escape route which his pursuers cannot follow and, in the words of Nobody Knows, his ‘soul goes free’, suggesting a kind of metaphysical victory over the world. This, of course, cannot be valorised in existential terms, but it is nevertheless the impression created by combining the film’s concluding images with this particular song.
As a whole, however, the movie depicts graphically how the realisation of human potential, and the validation of human purpose, are frustrated not only by the very institutions which we create, but also by the very way we think, as the American psychologist George Pransky, much lauded by Wilson, has pointed out. One could say that Kowalski sacrifices himself in order to bring this powerfully to our attention.
* Regrettably, the 1997 made-for-TV remake of Vanishing Point is devoid of existential quality and the context of ‘outsiderism’. Displaying the lamentably inevitable 1990s political correctness, this version has Kowalski’s long-distance delivery of a vintage Dodge Challenger (identical to the one in the original film) go haywire when his pregnant wife is suddenly hospitalised in danger of losing their unborn child. Mistakenly vilified, a desperate Kowalski eludes the FBI and police of four states as he races to cover 1,200 miles separating him from his family.
Originally published at www.colinwilsonworld.net.