Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Zabriskie Point

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2009)

I wrote a couple of years ago about Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1975 film The Passenger, one of my very favourite films. When I first saw it, as a teenager, I was enchanted by its sense of mysticism, encapsulated by a long final shot that seems to transcend physical laws (starting inside a hotel room, moving through the barred window, and then circling round the courtyard outside to observe from the other side of the bars). Over time though, I react as much to the film’s geographic and political specificity, and the more I see it as a particular reaction to a particular time, the more I marvel it remains so resonant.

Extraordinary Disaster

Every four or five years, the record shows, I also return to Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, his last narrative film before The Passenger. Zabriskie Point was intended, broadly speaking, to illuminate something about late 60’s America in the same way that his Blow-Up seemed to encapsulate “swinging London.” David Fricke, in an article available online, sums up the story as well as anyone:

…”just about everything that could go wrong with the project did go wrong, and Antonioni's great dream would prove to be his worst nightmare. Released in March 1970 after nearly two arduous years in production -- a period that included long, exhausting shoots on location in the California desert, pitched battles between Antonioni and M-G-M executives, and a protracted, frustrating search for the perfect musical score -- Zabriskie Point was one of the most extraordinary disasters in modern cinematic history. The arithmetic alone was astonishing. Reeling from severe management trauma yet eager to capitalize on the booming counterculture youth market, M-G-M…poured $7 million into the film, an extravagant figure for that time and nearly five times what Antonioni spent to make Blow-Up. But where Blow-Up…had taken in more than $20 million at the box office, Zabriskie Point made less than a tenth of that -- a mere $900,000 -- in its humiliatingly brief theatrical run.”

The plot, such as it is, brings two young people from LA, Mark and Daria, together in Death Valley – on the run from police after getting mixed up in violent strike activity, he’s stolen a small plane and flown out there; she’s a secretary driving out to meet her boss in Phoenix. They hang out in the desolate rocks, and make love, which we see extrapolated into an image of dozens of couples, peppering the valley in make-out sessions. They go their separate ways, he eventually to his death, and Daria to a spectacular vision of the Phoenix house exploding, one of the most astonishing spectacles of beautiful destruction ever put on film perhaps.

Cry Of Despair

The film is, no doubt, slow and overblown by almost any narrative standard, and can certainly be judged pretentions. Many writers on the film find it hard to get past the limited performances of the two leads (neither did much more acting - Mark Frechette died in prison a few years later; Daria Halprin married Dennis Hopper for a while). I’ve always been fascinated by it without necessarily knowing why. But watching it again recently, now that it’s out on DVD, it seemed more diagnostically precise than it has ever before.

It opens in the midst of a student meeting, the kind of fervent debating and strategizing that eternally comes to nothing in the big scheme of things: Mark gets up and walks out. Switching to Daria, Antonioni emphasizes the depersonalization of the corporate architecture around her (sure, it’s a cliché); we see her boss planning one of those land development deals that have come to symbolize the grandiose excess of the American middle-class; subsequent scenes study a city whose aesthetics rely increasingly on billboards and corporate logos; when Mark and his friends want a gun, they get one easily. Deliberately strung out and rather laborious, it’s like a cry of despair.

On her trip, Daria stops in a small town and finds herself in a Lord Of The Flies-tinged situation with some menacingly rambunctious children..so much for the next generation. With almost nothing left to salvage beyond the inherent possibility of beautiful youth, Mark and Daria meet in the desert, and Antonioni allows us the fantasy that the youth movement, and maybe the new world beyond, might find its roots here. But it can’t last. Mark returns to civilization with a defiant symbol of renewal, painting the plane like a psychedelic album cover, but his return flares out. Daria hears the news on the radio and for a while it seems she might just snap into place, but the movie has one astonishing coup ahead of it.

That makes it sound much more schematic and coherent than it really is – the movie (which has five credited screenwriters, including Sam Shepard) is often described as virtually plot-less, and the glue of it is much more intuitive and aesthetic than overtly thematic. You can still feel Antonioni’s excitement (albeit filtered through his immensely elegant psyche, and fighting the logistical challenges Fricke mentioned) at this messy society, in many ways still working out its basic rules of engagement; freer and more affluent than anywhere on earth, and yet already showing signs of devouring itself.

Sense Of Possibility

Taken just as a cinematic creation, Zabriskie Point is astonishingly rich – a feast of haunting images, bracing choices, the passing visual glories of the commercializing human project and the overwhelming wonders of the landscape outside it. It always makes me think of Hitchcock a bit: some of the business with the plane in the desert recalls North by Northwest and Rod Taylor from The Birds plays Daria’s boss, but more subliminally I’m thinking of Topaz, made around the same time, which also had a more diffuse plot, relatively anonymous performers, a somewhat self-conscious political relevance, and moments of intense visual stylization. Hitchcock didn’t really achieve his best work there, but Antonioni’s film still benefits from the echo, as if confirming how the establishment was crumbling within the cultural vortex he depicted.

Despite the gloomy subtext of Zabriskie Point, you still felt the sense of possibility, its desire that the human project surmount its worst instincts. But virtually every negative harbinger in the film just went on getting worse, and now California itself, debt-ridden and virtually ungovernable, seems increasingly like a lie or a delusion. At the end, there’s something almost supernaturally commanding in Daria’s stare as she conjures up that vision, as if proving there really was a way all along to unlock the dream of expanded consciousness and revolutionary action. Watching Antonioni’s film, even now, I still almost believe it myself.

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