Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1970 film Zabriskie Point, his second of three English language films for producer Carlo Ponti, and the MGM studio (the first being 1966’s Blowup, and the third being 1975’s The Passenger) is not the masterpiece its champions claim, nor is it the piece of schlock that its greatest detractors, especially those at its release, claim. At first glance, one might easily assign it the all style, no substance label. Yet, it’s the sort of film whose images grow upon the mind. Seeing something a second or a third time, in a film like this, enhances the impact, and allows for one to piece together seemingly loose threads that are missed in a single viewing.
That said, the film still is seriously flawed, and the basic problem is that there really is not much of a tale to tell. The screenplay is a patchwork that was cobbled together under the pressure of studio executives, based upon an initial story premise from Antonioni. The director, Franco Rossetti, Antonioni’s lover Clare Peploe, longtime Federico Fellini and later Theo Angelopoulos screenwriter Tonino Guerra, and a then unknown playwright named Sam Shepard, all share the blame because, had the film actually had a coherent plot, and had the main characters had some actual depth, the film would have been truly great. As it is, the film has only two main characters- a dissatisfied white hippy rebel, Mark (Mark Frechette) who is sickened by the all talk, no action rhetoric of a group of SDS-like college kids, and an anomic, sexy young secretary, Daria (Daria Halprin), to a wealthy land developer, Lee Allen, played by 1960s film star Rod Taylor (The Birds, The Time Machine). The only other casting notables are veteran character actor G.D. Spradlin as Allen’s unnamed business crony, and an unbilled Harrison Ford as a cop.
What lifts the film up beyond the disastrous claims of its detractors is Antonioni’s great visual eye (and that of his cinematographer Alfio Contini) and the film’s intriguing musical score (which is used sparingly throughout), which enhances even the most banal scenes. The most memorable songs are provided by the mostly pre-David Gilmour Pink Floyd, and their Interstellar Overdrive era sound is far more intriguing than the corporate sellout druggy crap they produced in the 1970s. A few other songs of note are provided by The Grateful Dead and 1950s songstress Patti Page.
Here is a synopsis of the film: after a great opening montage mix of rock music and camera movement at a student rally, Mark decides they are all talk and full of bunkum. He then buys a pistol, after convincing a gun shop owner he lives in a bad part of town, and then does or does not shoot a cop during a hippy demonstration (mixing staged and real documentary footage) at his Los Angeles, California area college (he denies it and the viewer is never certain), becomes a wanted man, then somehow steals a small airplane (which, of course, due to the contrived nature of the script, is owned by Lee Allen), and flies it out into Death Valley- in shots reminiscent of Antonioni’s bravura shots from L’Avventura, where he buzzes Daria (Allen’s secretary), in a car, headed toward her boss’s business meeting in Phoenix. The scenes of the plane loop-de-looping, and headed toward Daria, are spectacular, and a huge improvement over the rear projection technique from another MGM film a decade earlier, Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest. She then pulls off the road to greet him, when he runs out of gasoline, after he drops a red shirt down to her. The two then go off to Zabriskie Point, and frolic and have sex in the desert. As they are doing it, we see the naked bodies of other couples about them, also copulating, as a moody guitar solo plays on. The actors were from the Open Theatre of Joe Chalkin, an experimental acting troupe of that era. Visually, it’s a stunning image, and clearly the ‘ghost lovers’ represent either past lovers at the Point, or symbolize some deeper connection the fornication conjures.
Regardless, when they are done, Mark and Daria paint the airplane in all groovy colors- although where they get the paint is a good question. The old man whose dilapidated ranch the plane is on is unlikely to have such psychedelic colors. He thus flies the plane back to L.A., and is shot dead by clearly triggerhappy and psychopathic L.A. cops. As Daria drives toward Phoenix, she hears of Mark’s death, and when she arrives at her boss’s palatial home, embedded in a Cliffside, he treats her with kid gloves, after she douses herself in a small natural waterfall. Their interaction could imply more than an employer-employee relationship, but this is never pushed any further, for as he is in the middle of a soulless deal to try and build suburban developments, she drives off, and then looks back at the house, and imagines blowing it up. For several minutes this is replayed, and then we get closer details of televisions, refrigerators, and other household appliances being blown to smithereens, and seemingly suspended in the fluid of midair, as slow motion is put to excellent use- far more so than the banal uses it has in most action films which revel in the minutia of destruction. Daria is leaving materialism behind, but while potently filmed, the actual decision is rather trite. Then the film ends with Daria driving off as a bad Roy Orbison song, So Young, ends the last twenty or so seconds.
The film is at its best and worst as a political document. Its takes on the folly of mass consumerism, as well as the utter vacuity of the hippy movement, is potent. This is especially odd since Antonioni clearly intended the former, with brilliant and almost hypnotic montages of billboards flashing by as Mark and a pal drive around Los Angeles, but was clearly simpatico with the hippies. However, in the film’s opening scene of a campus rally, underscored by a terrific Pink Floyd song, the utter banality and childishness of the things the hippies say is apparent. They don’t stand a chance against the merciless likes of Lee Allen and his wall of faceless old white male corporate mercenaries. Then there is a gratuitous shot at the police department, who falsely arrest Mark when he goes to bail out a friend, after an earlier protest. A cop asks him his name, and he replies Karl Marx, but the cop types, Carl Marx.
While illogic can tie together and form an anti-narrative of sorts (see John Keats’ ideas on Negative Capability) this film never fully coheres, and things that would link it- outside of a narrative (say, a politically coherent message or a visually recurring symbol, etc.), never do. At one point Daria muses on the beauty and silence of Zabriskie Point and Mark counters that that is because it’s dead. Ok, interesting posit, but there is nothing that leads up to that statement, nothing comes of it, and it just sits naked, an empty apothegm straining for profundity, as the film clearly shows, via Daria’s peregrinations and observations within, that the desert is anything but dead. So, is Mark just spouting off a rich white suburban boy’s idea of depth in relation to Death Valley? We never know, for both he and Daria are dead, as characters. Or, more properly, they are never truly animated. Granted, Antonioni may have wanted this quality when he hired the two non-actors. But, does that poor decision exculpate their zombified and hollow performances, especially since there is not an ounce of humor in the film- not even in scenes showing old desert rednecks? Antonioni felt that boredom was a legitimate feeling to display onscreen, which it is. However, the trick to doing so lies in not being boring as you depict the boredom of the characters, and Antonioni occasionally falls off the precipice at points in the film, if not in totality. Compare this film, as example, to Antonioni’s earlier, and superior, L’Eclisse. In that film, the narrative follows similarly zomboid characters, in a relationship, who are stolid and withdrawn, but the difference is that the characters were portrayed by professional actors, Monica Vitti and Alain Delon, and their portrayal of ennui, while technically ‘phony,’ were much ‘realer’ than the ‘real’ ennui of the borderline incompetent non-actors. This is a good example of why the whole ‘art is truth’ ideal is nonsense; because the ‘real.’ in Zabriskie Point, is not as emotionally able to be well portrayed as the ‘unreal’ in L’Eclisse.
In many ways, Zabriskie Point is very recapitulative of what Jean-Luc Godard did in Breathless, save for the fact that Antonioni had far greater mastery of his art’s skills than Godard did. It also is very mindful of Antonioni’s own earlier L’Avventura, a film whose first half was great, but whose second half descended into dull and mindless soap opera. While an equal percentage (50-50) of this film is great and dull, unlike his earlier film, the great and dull parts of this hour and forty-five minute film do not neatly divide into halves. They are scattered randomly throughout the film. Also, there is a fairly neat halving of the relevance of this film. The great parts are, of course, still relevant- the technique, the political criticisms, but the dull parts- the characters and their hippy-era jargon, the idea of soulless white males, alone, being the bad guys, really dates this film in a way Antonioni’s prior great film, Blowup, does not date, even with its manifest influence of the mid-1960s Mod movement.
The DVD of the film that I got is from Film Prestige, and is in a stylish blue cardboard Russian DVD case, with Cyrillic lettering on the box and the DVD menu. It has no features, and I had to fiddle through several combinations to get the unsubtitled, English language version alone. as this DVD package is the only one available in a Region 1 DVD. The Russian voiceover is just that- there is no attempt at lip to lip synchronization. There are no special features at all- no trailer, no commentary, just a few Russian screens of biographical information. The quality of the picture, too, is not top quality, but rather at the level of a solid VHS tape- with some graininess, and darker and murkier than intended blue skies. The film alternates between early 2.35:1 and 1.33:1 aspect ratios. Overall, though, as it is the only available version currently in release, I can recommend one getting it, at least until a better company like Anchor Bay, Criterion, or Kino decide to release the film in a Region 1 DVD.
In Googling about, some interesting trivia on this film came out, such as star Frechette’s joining a commune with Halprin, then robbing a bank and dying in prison in 1975, at the age of 27. Halprin, after breaking up with him and leaving the commune, married and divorced actor Dennis Hopper, then quit acting. Also, it was interesting to look at some contemporaneous reviews of the film. The notably facile Pauline Kael wrote, 'Antonioni has given us his contempt. We give it back.’ Well, while there is clearly a disdain for consumerism, and although the message does not succeed as well as it should have, clearly Antonioni ends the film on a positive note, that there is hope for America, with the youth of people like Daria.
The normally stolid Vincent Canby, however, wrote: ‘The main problem with Zabriskie Point is that Antonioni has done nothing with his physical production to illuminate in any meaningful way the emotional states of his two principal characters—if, indeed, they have any.’ This is true, as, along with the divide between the great and the dull, Canby unwittingly points out the utter lack of Negative Capability in the film, that ability to join two seemingly unrelated things in a way beyond logic. Then tyro critic Roger Ebert wisely echoed Canby’s plaint in this manner: ‘The director who made Monica Vitti seem so incredibly alone is incapable, in Zabriskie Point, of making his young characters seem even slightly together. Their voices are empty; they have no resonance as human beings. They don’t play to each other, but to vague narcissistic conceptions of themselves. They wouldn’t even meet were it not for a preposterous Hollywood coincidence.’
This is all true, yet the film does have a seductive power, enough to make one watch it again. That Antonioni was this radically experimental with his art at such an age (55) says much for the restiveness of his being. Yet, the fact remains that emotion is a relatively hermetic thing, and those who love this film do so mostly for reasons they cannot communicate, and likely never will be able to, save for bon mots like, ‘It’s beautiful.’ On the other hand, intellect is not a hermetic thing. It can be experienced in a wholly transferable mode, whereas emotion cannot. The beauty of the film can be rationally integrated into other facets of the film- some which work, and others which do not, and this is what makes such cool detachment preferable in reviewing such an artwork as Zabriskie Point, for the interior detachment of the characters within can be deemed a failure, even as an exterior detachment in assessing that interior detachment, can be seen as the best and proper way to approach the film.
Emotion is hermetic. Intellect is not. That Antonioni got the former, but missed the latter is another bit of evidence as to why the film, as a whole, fails to cohere. Despite its incoherence, or perhaps more properly, its decoherence, the film is still an interesting, if minor, part of Antonioni’s canon. That, however, means it still has far more relevance than all but a few dozen of the films released in the intervening years. Zabriskie Point is not great art, but even lesser works of a great artist can reveal things the works of lesser artists cannot.
Although he divided audiences into those who found his mysterious works pretentious or fascinatingly enigmatic, this celebrated Italian writer and director was always interesting and stylish. L'Avventura in 1960 was his international breakthrough although he'd been directing since the forties, and he followed it with La Notte, L'Eclisse, The Red Desert, Blowup (perhaps his most famous film), Zabriskie Point (with its explosive climax), The Passenger and Identification of a Woman among others. He even continued working after serious stroke, Beyond the Clouds being his best known film from his later period.