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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Last Great American Hero

Last name Kowalski, first name too difficult to pronounce. What is to be made of an American hero with an un-American name? Richard C. Sarafian’s Vanishing Point is super charged road film with enough under the surface to leave the audience completely mystified.

Road trips always head West. Since the days of the Oregon trail, the West has become the symbol of the open range, the daring explorer and the final frontier. The last place for men to be men, for nature to rule over societal laws, the only place for American heroes to lament in their final days. Kowalski is, “the last American hero, the electric centaur, the, the demi-god, the super driver of the golden west!” Kowalski leaves Denver on a Friday night to reach San Francisco by the next day at three o’clock because he has made a bet with his drug dealer. At first Kowalski’s reasoning seems that trivial. Then the first two cops arrive, and instead of pulling over, Kowalski runs one off of the road and ditches the other. From then on madness ensues. The viewer, who saw the first scene of the movie and assumed Kowalski had done something to break the law, is left to wonder what is fueling Kowalski. Something, other than Johnny Law, is breathing down his neck.

Through flashbacks Kowalski’s character is revealed. Former police officer, former motorcyclist, former professional driver, former war veteran, formally head over heels in love and able to enjoy life. Every one of his flashbacks end in a crash, a death or in confrontation. Kowalski was once a straight edge that believed in his country, at least enough to fight for it overseas and then on the streets of San Diego. He soon learned that the law had nothing to do with justice. Kowalski once loved; you get the idea that it was a young silly love because the girl was a surfer who actually got Kowalski to smoke marijuana, something he abstains from elsewhere in the film. That part of him is dead now. Gone is the naiveté that allowed him to fall in love with America, with a girl, with himself.

Sarafian populates Kowalski’s world with a perfect ensemble of 1970’s characters. Racists, homosexuals, hippies, bikers, druggies, soulful black men, sage snake charmers and free-love advocates. Kowalski becomes the champion of the counter culture, embraced by a culture that he rejects, but has more in common with than the mainstream. And that’s just it. He’s running from himself. He is a man guided by his own moral compass, he is neither square nor hippie, he is simply Kowalski. He does what is right by him and no one else.

As the film races on, Super Soul provides the commentary. Somehow he and Kowalski are communicating, one of the many mystical aspects of the film. Super Soul is the voice that the man doesn’t want anyone to here. The law does not like his sympathies towards Kowalski and they aim to shut him up, but when they do the change is too noticeable. This is another indication of what it means to conform to a lie, it changes your soul. Kowalski is running to keep his soul alive. They, the law, want to crush the spirit of the man, like they’ve crushed the spirit of so many men before him. Catch Kowalski and you have destroyed the last vestige of hope for an emaciated people.

So Kowalski races on, swallowing speed and revving his engine. At precisely 10:02 AM, as seen in the opening scene of the film, Kowalski’s car disappears. At 10:04 AM his car is speeding towards the barricades put in place by the law. The barricade consists of two tractors, the buckets of which form parallel lines, a reference to the title. Kowalski crashes his car right into the tractors, presumably killing himself. End of the movie. When I saw it I jumped off of the couch. I assumed there were fifteen minutes left of the film. I assumed that something was at work that I hadn’t pieced together, I assumed that the vanishing point was a literal one. The ending, by its nature, has been a source of debate since the beginning of the film. In the UK version, there is a scene before the final one where Kowalski meets up with a girl, that likely represented death, and smokes marijuana for the first time in the film. With that information I developed my own theory:

At 10:02 AM, Kowalski transcends. He resigns himself to fate, and like a truly spiritual being, he is taken to that higher plane of existence. Strengthening this argument is the fact that we never see his corpse at the end of the film. Of course we do see him in the car as he speeds towards the tractors, so maybe he is in the car. Either way, the idea of a vanishing point is an illusion, vanishing points appear when to parallel lines look like they touch, but in fact they do not.What is curious about the buckets of the tractors is that they are lined up in a way that mimics what a vanishing point looks like, but the buckets are not actually parallel. We have to assume that Kowalski knew all of this, but surged forward anyway, allowing himself to believe the illusion: between those tractor lines there was a vanishing point which meant there was a way to get through; a way to save his soul. The outcome didn’t matter because he had already transcended this world, at the very least figuratively, and was finally ready to stop running from himself.

I have to say that I was enthralled by Vanishing Point. It reminded me of Easy Rider and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Roughneck poetry of the United States with a soulful twinge. Super Soul was brilliantly written and brilliantly cast, and the soundtrack was amazing. Tarantino called it one of the best American movies and I can see his point. No matter what anyone thinks of the ending or the meaning of the film, no one can deny the lyrical picture the film paints of not just 1970’s America, but the America of all time. As I watched the film I couldn’t help but be saddened by the true lack of American heroes in modern film where a car and the open road have come to symbolize only that which is negative in our culture. What defines a hero now has definitively changed which means Kowalski was truly the last of a dying breed.

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