Vanishing Point (1971): Kowalski and the happy ending

Roger Ebert, in ‘The Great Movies’ (Broadway Books, 2002), praises Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ for not being about a character with a goal and, because of this, it is a rarity among film, it is “transcendent” and works “upon our minds and imaginations like music or prayer or a vast belittling landscape”. I suspect it may be some kind of blasphemy to discuss 1971’s ‘Vanishing Point’ in reference to the much revered ‘2001’, but, first of all, ‘Vanishing Point’ made as much of an impression on me as any film I’ve ever seen – definitely a once-seen-never-forgotten experience – as well as having, akin to 2001’s Dave Bowman, a main character it isn’t necessary to identify with. Whatever Kowalski’s goal is, that ending would imply it is one we’d not be too eager to emulate.

Kowalski does have a goal – to get to ‘Frisco by 3pm the following day – a feat deemed so improbable that his friend, Jake, is willing to bet the price of the speed he’s just provided to keep Kowalski awake enough to keep going. We know the driver – but only by his surname – we know the destination and the schedule. What we don’t know is the reason. It seems imperative that Kowalski keep going and, though he never seems desperate, he must keep going at speed if he is to meet his self-imposed deadline. The car he is delivering to San Francisco isn’t actually due until the Monday, so it isn’t an imposition from without.

Whatever Kowalski’s goal, if we take the film at face value, isn’t our goal. In fact, if we look at this film as little more than a prolonged car-chase with an overly dramatic ending, it hardly deserves the honour of ‘cult classic’, which it must be to get a mention by none other than Quentin Tarantino in ‘Death Proof’ (2007) – a film, incidentally, that made absolutely no impression on me, whatsoever – but, then, no Tarantino film has since ‘Pulp Fiction (1994).

I re-watched ‘Vanishing Point’ years ago while in seminary. At its end, one of the other students, who was going to be a Franciscan monk, asked what it was about. Of the two of us who’d recommended we watch the movie, neither one of us was able to supply a satisfactory answer. The air of disappointment was probably heavier than the entire audience.

The obvious approach to ‘Vanishing Point’ is the one presented to us by the movie itself. DJ Super Soul (Cleavon Little) quickly dubs Kowalski ‘the last American hero’ or, more hyperbolically, ‘the last beautiful free soul on this planet’. Clearly, it is Super Soul’s role to ensure the audience has at least something to grasp hold of, giving some meaning to the action. The question is whether we are supposed to be satisfied with his interpretation, whether we should be willing to simply accept what we are told in a story whose main character refuses to accept he should just stop because he’s told to?

The almost supernatural manner in which Kowalski and Super Soul connect, the way they are almost able to converse across the ether will, either, give the whole film a spiritual dimension or, as I tend to think, make clear that the Director, Richard C. Sarafian is having a little fun at the expense of those who might still be clinging desperately, with one hand, on to the ideals of the previous decade and the flower in their hair with the other.

But, if this be the case, how do we explain the bright light and Kowalski’s beatific smile at the end of the film?

Well, I certainly don’t think we’re supposed to believe Kowalski is about to be transported to some heavenly realm, for such would seem to fly in the face of the counter-culture and all it stood for. Or against.

It isn’t Super Soul’s flowery religious language that should hold our attention but his emphasis on Kowalski being alone: “…there goes the Challenger, being chased by the blue, blue meanies on wheels.” The Challenger – the car and its driver – are noticeably singular against overwhelming odds – even the colour is repeated to emphasise the disparity in numbers.

But what exactly is Kowalski challenging? Does he, in any way, even metaphorically, lay down a challenge to those in authority? It is easy to see why there are those who might interpret his actions in such a grandiose way. In reality, Kowalski isn’t playing catch-me-if-you-can – would he stop to check on the cop, or the speed-racer, he forces off the road if it was merely a case of his being out to prove himself somehow superior? This is not just a hack speedway driver out to show the world that he is better than they ever thought. This is not a man out to show the world anything at all.

This is why Kowalski’s motivation is never explained. Whatever it is that drives him is not what drives each of us – that we will have to find for ourselves. That bright light and smile at the end of the film is Kowalski’s recognition that he has accomplished what he set out to do. His is a happy ending.

Wheeler Winston Dixon, in a review for Film International, claims that Kowalski is driving to escape his past and that he is bound to fail – as we all must. Wheeler goes on to describe a sequence in which Kowalski stops to pick up a hitchhiker – Charlotte Rampling – with whom he shares a brief romantic moment after she tells him she’s been waiting for him “[e]verywhere and since forever”. Wheeler claims that without this seven-minute sequence – which was cut from the original U.S. release – the film is incomplete and that its inclusion raises ‘the film to a much more thoughtful level of introspection’.

The Rampling character is seen to be ‘a metaphorical vision of the angel of Death’ thus giving the film a more overtly Freudian reading. Well, if it works for you, then fine. It just seems to me that a Kowalski engaging in risky behaviour and self-destructive acts at the risk of his very life lessens the film – if for no other reason than any foreshadowing of that ending will diminish its impact. The first time you watch this film, that ending has to come as a shock – it is, after all, what the whole 1 hour 38 minutes (of the version I watched recently) builds towards.

I would argue that, rather than seeking to fulfill some Freudian death wish, Kowalski is not so much running from his past as trying to put it in some perspective. When he looks back he sees but through a glass darkly – or, at least, through a mirror with bleary eyes. We only see brief glimpses of Kowalski’s life before the events of the movie, enough to know he’s an okay driver and a decent man, treated unfairly by that bitch called Life. It would be perfectly normal for him not to understand why a guy who only ever tried to do the right thing received the treatment he did. Kowalski’s life isn’t a mystery to be solved – it is a question to be answered.

Kowalski’s goal is not our goal, but his question is our question – how do I give meaning to this life over which I seem to have no control?

For Kowalski, that answer will not be found by giving himself up to some outside or higher power – hence his refusal to stop for the law and his wry amusement upon encountering J. Hovah’s Pentecostal meeting out in the desert. (Tell me that name is not Sarafian having a little fun at someone’s expense!!!) Kowalski’s only recourse is to be satisfied with those things he can control – and no one can doubt that he is in full control of that Challenger.

Something has changed for Kowalski. He is no longer being chased. During that final stop in the wasteland a decision is reached. When Kowalski gets back in his car, he is no longer running away from anything – he is heading, clear-headed (probably for the first time in the whole movie), towards the answer to his question.

Indeed, his is a happy ending.

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