Zabriskie Point

(Michelangelo Antonioni, USA, 1970)


They were trying to lay a reality trip on me”. So speaks, laconically, Mark (Mark Frechette), the male hero of Zabriskie Point. He’s referring to what we’ve witnessed at the movie’s opening: a rowdy political meeting of radically-minded students. Black activists (including Kathleen Cleaver and fellow Black Panthers) criticise the half-hearted tendencies of their white hosts, especially when it comes to the matter of armed confrontation with the cops; a white woman marks another kind of change in the air when she puts down a guy casually asking her to put on some coffee for the group. It has the air of a half-staged, half-improvised cinema-vérité happening – except in colour, and after the appearance of an MGM logo.

However, fiction is already seeping into this event – via the reaction shots of bored Mark. He heads out the door, as the rest make jokes about the (justifiable) need for this political community to keep talking. Mark is in sympathy with their progressive goals, but he’d rather be a man of action, not words. So – impulsively, not entirely sure of what he’s doing or why, in the manner of many an Antonioni character – Mark gets himself a gun, goes straight to where the riots are happening on campus, and aims it at a cop … only to see, in an obscure and deliberately underplayed plot moment, this same cop felled by somebody else firing from off-screen.

Then it’s time for Mark to run, escape … and, eventually, literally take flight in a small plane that he manages to borrow without getting stopped. As Antonioni said at the time, this character needs to be above the fray, elevated beyond it. Intriguingly, his opposite number in the semantic map of the film – not the activists, ultimately (because we never see them again), but the malign, soulless corporation headed up by Lee (‘Australia’s own’ Rod Taylor) – also sits atop a steep hill/cliff face. Detachment – from oneself (misread, eternally, as ‘alienation’), from society, from the earth – is a constant theme and sensibility in Antonioni, as a necessary condition for any kind of interesting survival, no matter what pursuit or ideology you’re into.

Zabriskie Point today is – probably always was – a beguiling film. Its honour has slowly been won, across the roll-out of years and decades. It was a difficult experience for Antonioni: the second volley in his deal with Carlo Ponti and MGM, the film marked the trough (in box-office terms) between two international triumphs, Blow-up (1966) and The Passenger (1975).

One hardly need consult the archival record to imagine the kinds of shitcan-talk it got from all sides of the socio-political fence in the ‘70s: a dangerously ‘subversive’ film to some sensitive souls, no doubt, but to others, a non-engaged, know-little, fantasy reportage by a foreigner more into arty, sensual abstraction than the delineation of issues and urgent strategies. Nothing like Easy Rider (1969), therefore; nothing like Robert Kramer’s various American film-essays, fictional and non-fictional. Nothing much like anything in the vicinity, in point of fact. Why should it be like anything else? It’s an Antonioni movie.

Zabriskie Point – as one gathers from the fascinating 1992 memoir-account offered by Beverly Walker, who worked alongside the director – is, in truth, a palimpsest of different layers of intention. Antonioni invited inputs from diverse sources: Sam Shephard’s draft focused on the corporate politics of land grabbing and spoiling; activist Fred Gardner (quickly disillusioned with the so-called collaborative process) brought in another radical perspective based on his participation in burgeoning radical communities; Tonino Guerra assured the continuity of Antonioni’s familiar themes and outlook; Clare Peploe provided a bridge between Anglo cultures (American and British) and the director’s Italian language and shooting methods. The lives of the central actors – counter-culture denizens Frechette and Daria Halprin became a real-life couple during the shoot (he died while incarcerated at age 27 in 1975; she married and divorced Dennis Hopper, and is today an author and creative arts therapist) – also fed into their roles, and the story they fill. Meanwhile, the old-school American crew dug in and resisted the Master, and MGM execs got increasingly colder feet about the whole deal.

In the end, the resulting film has a clear, simple structure and a very clean line – as Antonioni’s work invariably does. Mark abandons the reality trip that he encounters at the start for a trip of the imagination: first in his nicked plane, and then down in the desert with Daria – their lovemaking prompting the performance-art vision of a Living Theatre-type crew all frolicking around in the sands (this spectacular sight is what apparently prompted MGM to give the project such a big budget in the first place, even though the actual filming of the scene triggered a local moral panic). It’s not the characters’ subjective vision or dream; it’s the film’s own projection, the ‘acting out’ of its own (known) unconscious. Something that so many reviewers never seem to get.

Even after the worst reality-trip brings Mark down – he’s shot and killed (again, the plotting of exact cause-and-effect action is willfully obscure) by the cops as he tries to land and return the aircraft – imagination will reign in the justly famous finale: Daria glares at the corporate HQ/home and seemingly wills it into a destruction-by-explosion caught once-only in slow-motion by 16 or so cameras. Again, Antonioni glides in a heartbeat from ‘free indirect subjectivity’ (Pier Paolo Pasolini’s criterion for a ‘cinema of poetry’) to the film’s own direct reverie. Satisfied with that, Daria drives off – and an unbelievably nutty ‘love theme’, “So Young” sung by Roy Orbison (!), surges over the final credits – “Zabriskie Point is anywhere”, indeed. (For some viewers I know, the presence of U2/Eno’s “Your Blue Room” at the end of Beyond the Clouds [1995] raises the same earbrow – and duly gets blamed on Antonioni’s contractually-obligated collaborator on that project, Wim Wenders – but the choice is fine by me).

All the way along its line, very characteristically for Antonioni, what might seem (at any stage) to be the plot intrigue of Zabriskie Point is shuffled sideways, deliberately overlooked and forgotten. Sam Rohdie’s Antonioni (his first and best book) has helpful things to propose about this special way of narrating. (1) The film serenely floats away from it all: from the storyline, from the ‘collective struggle’, from any assumed obligation to documentary realism … On this level of mood and (in a good sense) posture, there’s an affinity between Zabriskie Point and Jacques Demy’s hauntingly ephemeral, deliberately de-dramatised Model Shop (1969), or Agnès Varda’s later Documenteur (1981) – foreign reports on the USA, one and all. Other elements of Zabriskie Point – its pictorialism, sense of landscape, occasional undertone of menace – are pulled into a tighter (in fact, up-tighter) format by Bruno Dumont in his American shock-fiction-essay, 29 Palms (2002).

For Antonioni, at any rate, ellipsis rules: what could be the initial hook-up of Daria and Lee in the eerily technocratic work setting may or may not lead to some sticky intimacy between depicted episodes. Another example: in a curious scene that I found myself winding back over repeatedly, what might be taken, at first glance, as a sleight-of-hand ‘cheat’ of continuity – the gun shop that Mark and his companion enter is clearly not the same as the one they exist a minute or so later – could, on further pondering, suggest, in a single cut, a brilliantly minimal iterative montage sequence, signifying: they stockpile firearms from many such shops. Critic-filmmaker-programmer Brecht Andersch opened my eyes to how the scene really works: the iterative cut comes inside the shop; two different interiors are shown. It’s as if Antonioni counts on us as spectators to process such things fuzzily, dreamily – exactly as his central, gorgeous hunks of character do. One, two or many shops: any perception, any dream will do.

Americana according to Antonioni’s eye is not at all the usual playbook, whether going by Easy Rider, David Byrne’s True Stories (1986) or Kramer’s Route One/USA (1989). A disquieting, otherwise unexplained scene between Daria and a bunch of delinquent kids (apparently abandoned by their erstwhile emancipatory teacher, whom we never see) anticipates the deep-dish oddities of Harmony Korine, just as it recalls the sudden collision between Monica Vitti and the hungry eyes of a random pack of men in L’avventura (1960). Neither rednecks nor hippies, duly stereotyped, are the centre of the show here.

Strategies of abstraction – Antonioni had a hundred of them – rise up and devour the flow of representation at the least likely triggers: during a drive; as Mark flees the protest; and as the explosion is replayed over and over, turning up the most surreal details (such as an entire library of destroyed book pages and spines). Antonioni’s panning shots, minutely calculated, give the impression of an idle wandering off-topic; they are splendid. The music, too, is (for the most part, The Big O notwithstanding) an intriguing collage of Pink Floyd and John Fahey, Jerry Garcia and Patti Page; Antonioni often goes for the strangest gurgling and twanging sounds (rather than prominent genre-types of music), whether electronically or folk-produced. According to the lively memoir of the music producer (not the dreadful film critic) John Simon, Antonioni auditioned The Band for duties on the score, but (I’m guessing) they weren’t weird enough for what he sensed he needed.

Above all, Zabriskie Point is, shot for shot (cinematography by Alfio Contini [1927-2020], who returned for Beyond the Clouds), moment by moment, wonderful. Everything from the parade of shop fronts and roadside signs to the wild pastiche of corporate video advertising is amazing, once you pause, isolate and savour each bit – Antonioni’s œuvre ideally suits both uninterrupted analogue screening and digital fragmentation. That’s before even getting to the open roads and landscapes – for an informative meditation on the film’s crucial use of Death Valley (outside California) as “suspended in an unstable state between the man-made, the natural, and the potentially supernatural”, I recommend Benjamin Mercer’s essay in the book America: Films from Elsewhere. (2)

And has the widescreen format ever been better used, whether to capture the chaos of impinging glass surfaces in modern architecture, or the shape of a mountain at a carefully graded distance?


1. British Film Institute, 1990. back

2. The Shoestring Publisher, 2019. It’s worth pointing out, however, that Mercer incorrectly describes Mark as killing the cop during the campus protest; and that he takes the mass love-in sequence at Death Valley to be “presumably all Daria’s hallucination, her hopeful projection onto her surroundings” (p. 268). The presumption is invalid, and tying it to Daria (rather than, say, both her and Mark) has no textual justification whatsoever – there’s no screen ‘cue’ for it to be read as such. Character-based subjectivity and anthropomorphism rule, at all costs! back

© Adrian Martin 8 & 9 May 2023

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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