Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Remembering "Zabriskie Point" 40 Years On

By Steven Rosen

There are many questions to ask concerning “Zabriskie Point.” “What’s the point of it, exactly?” “How did it get made?” How much money did it lose?” (About $6 million.) “What was Antonioni’s reputation up to this point – and after?” “How dusty did all those naked people get?” “Who did the great music?” “Did they really blow up the house?”

Good questions, all. And we’ll get to them, plus whatever else about the film you want to discuss. But, first, because “Zabriskie Point” is the inaugural selection of the Cincinnati Art Museum’s Reel Art series, I wanted to address a few ways that it compares with what was going on in the other visual arts of its time. And after.

First, it is pure cinema in communicating through a visual language – Michelangelo Antonioni, the director, is using film as a canvas to present what interests him about his subject matter, America. Like an abstract painter, he internalizes – he is not beholden to anyone else’s expectations of how narrative “realism” should unfold.

And it shares an aesthetic with Minimalism: In those widescreen shots of a small plane in the blue sky, or an old car cruising a desert highway, it’s looking for beauty unencumbered by decoration or “prettiness.” That’s similar to what Donald Judd or Carl Andre were doing with sculpture, or how California “light and space” artists like Robert Irwin and Larry Bell worked. And the film shares with Earthworks artists, especially Michael Heizer and James Turrell, a love for finding reward in the harsh and remote, sun-baked Western landscape.

Antonioni also uses some very artistic still-photography techniques in the film’s editing – the montage of advertising signs in L.A.; the use of freeze-frame and close-up in the exploding house. Here, we see everything from Look magazine to a raw chicken free-floating in space in slo-mo. Even Wonder bread.

In its scenes of cluttered, sprawling L.A., “Zabriskie Point” seems one with, say, some of Ed Ruscha’s projects documenting Sunset Blvd. buildings, or the photography of Robert Adams who pessimistically observes the suburbanization of the West. There’s a show coming here in February, “Starburst: Color Photography of the 1970s,” where you’ll see work by still photographers interested in similar subject matter – William Eggleston, although he’s a Southerner, Richard Misrach, Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld.

One other thing – Andy Warhol has said the massive billboards of L.A. helped inspire his Pop Art. He loved them. Antonioni, it’s pretty clear, doesn’t. To him, they represent the capitalist wasteland that is America. And nobody would call “Zabriskie Point” a pop film – although I suspect the studio, the venerable MGM, was hoping it would get one.

Antonioni, after all, was coming off a tremendous success for MGM with “Blow-Up,” which had been released in 1966 and was a sexy, provocative, visually spectacular existential mystery set in post-Beatles swinging London. David Hemmings played a photographer – loosely based on Mod-era photographer David Bailey – who may or may not have seen a murder. The film was especially notable for being the first major release with full-frontal nudity; and for featuring the Yardbirds smashing their guitars while playing “Stroll On,” a variation on “Train Kept A-Rollin’,” a song first recorded by King Records artist Tiny Bradshaw.

Until that time, Antonioni had made all his films in Italy – and in Italian. Born in 1912 in Ferrara, so already middle-aged by the 1960s, he was the product of a well-off, landowning family that valued art and education. He studied drawing and violin, became interested in film as a teen, and got his break co-writing a screenplay with Roberto Rossellini for a 1942 movie called “A Pilot Returns.” Working as an assistant director during the war, he was involved in the predominant style of Italian cinema of the era – semi-documentary, naturalistic Neo-Realism. (You can see remnants of that in the campus scenes in “Zabriskie.”)

But once he started directing in the 1950s (his first fictional film was 1950’s “Story of a Love Affair”), he moved toward a way of showing – rather than explicitly explaining – the kind of alienation, ennui and confusion facing people (often educated, bourgeois people) in the post-war Modern Era. He developed long takes – the equivalent of a blank, unemotional stare back at the world – and enigmatic narrative as a way to get that mood across, and it resonated with a worldwide audience. And once he started using color to connote his characters’ psychological state, as he did in 1964’s “Red Desert,” he added a very painterly approach. He even painted the trees and grass gray and white to fit into his portrayal of a polluted industrial landscape.

His first international success was 1960’s “L’Aventura,” featuring his early-1960s muse, Monica Vitti, as part of a group of beautiful people on a yachting vacation. Her friend goes missing, but it’s no conventional thriller; no conventional narrative. It also introduced to the world Antonioni’s dialogue-free poetic endings – which you also see here.

I found these excerpts from Antonioni’s speech at Cannes about "L'Avventura," when it won the top prize, protesting that in a modern age we live with "a rigid and stereotyped morality which all of us recognize as such, and yet sustain out of cowardice and sheer laziness. We have examined those moral attitudes very carefully, we have dissected them and analyzed them to the point of exhaustion. We have been capable of all of this, but we have not been capable of finding new ones."

This can be a discussion topic, but it sounds to me at home with the “God Is Dead – What Now?” moral argument of the 1960s.

By the time he was looking for a film to follow “Blow-Up,” one possible answer to the “What Now?” question was the American counterculture. It seemed to be capable – to idealists, anyway – of bringing about fundamental societal change in an otherwise-troubled nation, and perhaps for the world at large. Revolution, even. He thought it a good place to make a movie – and was attracted to a news item about a young man who stole a plane and was killed trying to return it.

That sounded pretty good to MGM – not that they wanted revolution, but they knew that films about rebellious young people were good box office, since they tended to feature sex, rock ‘n’ roll and sometimes drugs. “The Graduate,” for instance, or “Easy Rider.” I wonder if this film was explained to MGM, by producer Carlo Ponti, as Antonioni’s “Easy Rider?”

But Antonioni was no hippie. It’s pretty clear he found America at some kind of low – and chose Zabriskie Point as a metaphor for it. That spot is an overlook at Death Valley National Park, named for Christian Zabriskie, whose Pacific Coast Borax Co. developed the twenty-mule teams to get the precious mineral out of there. It is indeed a beautiful spot – I’ve been there. It looks out over the Furnace Creek Lake bed and surrounding bad lands and is like seeing where the earth began. At 282 feet below sea level, Death Valley is the lowest spot in North America. Maybe, Antonioni saw it as the bathtub drain that needs to be pulled, to let out all the dirty water, as part of a cleansing process. Or maybe he just saw it as the blessed opposite of the uncontrolled sprawl and squalor of consumerist L.A.

The trailer for the film, which one assumes he approved, phrases it like this: “Zabriskie Point: A remote and barren blister of land in the American desert, as isolated as the face of the moon, where a boy and a girl meet and touch and blow their minds.”

I found an excellent interview with Antonioni, done by critic Guy Flatley in London shortly after the film was released, on a site called moviecrazed.com. Antonioni was traveling with his companion of the time, Clare Peploe – one of the film’s screenwriters and later the wife of Bernardo Bertolucci. The director speaks very plainly about the filn, not something he always did. I’ll excerpt portions during this talk:

"'My basic reason for making a film in America was that I love this country,' he says in urgent, fluent English. 'I love the landscape – that’s why I chose Death Valley, because it’s so beautiful and not because it’s dead. This is also the most interesting country in the world at the moment, because of what’s going on here: the contradictions, many of which exist everywhere but which are already crashing against each other here. That’s what I tried to show in ‘Zabriskie Point.’'"

And he says this about the Los Angeles scenes: “In ‘Zabriskie Point’ I suggest that the material wealth of America, which we see in advertisements and on billboards along the roads, is itself a violent influence, perhaps even the root of violence. Not because wealth is bad, but because it is being used not to solve the problems of society, but instead to try and hide these problems from society.”

From the very start, people have complained about the performance of the film’s actors – non-actors, actually. Why use them? As critic David Denby has pointed out, there have always been directors who believe one way to get at “truth” is to strip the performances of artifice – the stylized professionalism that comes with trained actors. In a movie ostensibly about discovering the truth of America, one could see where Antonioni would find that important.

He found Daria Halprin by watching a documentary about San Francisco flower children, “Revolution,” and was taken by her striking looks. But she was hardly a Haight-Ashbury runaway – her father was landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, whose many environmentally sensitive projects included San Francisco’s Ghiradelli Square and the FDR Memorial in Washington. He just died in October. And her mother was Anna Halprin, founder of San Francisco Dancers Workshop, and a pioneer in the use of the creative arts, especially movement, as healing therapy. Daria was at UC Berkeley, studying anthropology, when Antonioni came calling.

Mark Frechette was a little different. The legend is that one of Antonioni’s casting directors found him in Boston, standing at a bus stop cursing at someone in a nearby apartment window who had thrown a flower pot. The casting director reported back that “He’s twenty and he hates.” Frechette also was already married and a father, doing odd jobs and living in a commune under the influence of a strange cult leader/musician named Mel Lyman, a former member of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band who published a newspaper called Avatar.

So maybe Antonioni wanted some kind of yin-yang chemistry with these two, a melding together of love and hate into some higher energy plain. But to work with non-actors, you have to gain their trust, be open to them, and make them feel confident. That didn’t happen – that’s not something Antonioni was known for.

There’s an uncomfortable interview on YouTube with the actors from a 1970 "Dick Cavett Show," where they’re ostensibly promoting the film but already seem alienated from it. Film critic Rex Reed, a guest on the show who earlier had reviewed their performances as awful, asked what it was like working with Antonioni. He pointed out that he had interviewed the director once and was told: “Actors are like cattle – you walk them through a fence.”

“I felt very close to him personally, but it didn’t come through in the film,” Halprin says. Frechette: “I wanted to learn something, but he wasn’t teaching so I got mad…He’s a very distant man.”

Without strong central acting, the music becomes more important than ever to the movie. Here, “Zabriskie Point” really excels – but it wasn’t easy to get there. Antonioni hired a deejay at a Pasadena freeform station, Don Hall, as a music supervisor. He wanted the soundtrack to be like a very cool radio station of the era, and I think he succeeded. But Antonioni also wanted a score – “Blow-Up” had a jazz score by Herbie Hancock. Hall at first suggested Procol Harum for the job, but Antonioni liked Pink Floyd, who he had seen in London while making “Blow-Up.”

At the time, the band was arty in a pop-psychedelic way, because of the influence of trippy singer-songwriter Syd Barrett. But Barrett had departed by the time of “Zabriskie Point’s” production, and the band had turned into a more rigorously, intellectually musical outfit, using extended instrumental passages and sound effects to make a kind of classically influenced, druggy-spacey, art-rock. They had also already scored a movie – Barbet Schroeder’s “More.”

Antonioni was as hard on musicians as actors. In writer David Fricke’s accompanying booklet for the “Zabriskie Point” CD, where a lot of my information about the music comes from, Floyd leader Roger Waters recalls being stuck in Rome for a month with the director, who rejected one track after another as not perfect. “It was hell, sheer hell,” he said.

The guitarist John Fahey, whose “Dance of Death” is heard on Daria’s car radio as she learns of Mark’s death, told a similar story. He was asked to have a go at the desert love scene. But he said he and the director got into a fight at a Rome restaurant – Antonioni was decrying America – and he decked him.

Anyway, Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia had the good fortune to record his beautifully melodic “Love Scene” without Antonioni present. He did so in the MGM studio alone, with Antonioni out of town, composing and improvising as the scene played. He did several versions.

Pink Floyd also tried several “Love Scene” takes. And they also did an alternate approach to their very effective opening-scene music, their ominous, industrial-sounding “Heart Beat, Pig Meat.” It’s reportedly a lovely six-minute piano piece that became the basis for a “Dark Side of the Moon” song called “Us and Them.” Pink Floyd’s famously effective, screaming closing number, “Come In Number 51, Your Time Is Up,” is just enough of a rewrite of their “Careful With That Axe, Eugene,” which by then had been released on the album “Ummagumma” and included in an earlier movie, to constitute an original composition. So “Zabriskie Point” could advertise its prominent use of original rock music, even though it lacked a score per se.

The closing song, Roy Orbison’s dippy ballad “So Young,” was added by MGM because it had Orbison under record contract and had no idea what to do with him – his career was as dead at that point as anything in Death Valley. Antonioni hated its inclusion in the film – and it does seem almost comically inappropriate. By the way, the song that cost the most to use was “Tennessee Waltz” – which in 1965 had become one of Tennessee’s state songs, so the publisher and the state were wary about using it in a hippie movie. (It, too, was first recorded at Cincinnati’s King Records, by Cowboy Copas.)

The screenplay – itself pretty Minimalist and vague – suffers from a sketchily detailed scenario and dialogue that sometimes seems to be justifying the visuals. (Sam Shepard was involved in the writing.) It can be confusing on certain important plot points, such as Daria’s relationship to her boss, Rod Taylor’s Lee Allen. It seems pretty clear she’s a temp working for his development company when we first see her, yet there are scenes at the desert house where he treats her with an intimacy that could be either fatherly or romantic.

Taylor, it should be pointed out, was probably the film’s most famous cast member, having starred in Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and in an adventure TV series called “Hong Kong.” Next in reputation would be Kathleen Cleaver, one of the black militants, who was married to Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver. And Harrison Ford supposedly can be glimpsed in the jail scene – is that him, bandaged and bloodied, at 16:34?

The most crucial confusing plot point is whether Mark killed the policeman. This was pretty radical stuff for a youth-culture film – students didn’t kill cops – and it probably had as much to do with the negative reaction as anything else. It was OK to do that in foreign films, like Godard’s “Breathless,” but not on American campuses.

Mark confesses to Daria that he is innocent, but he sure seems ready to during the campus scenes. Yet if we freeze-frame this, I think you’ll see that the shot rings out before he gets the gun from his boot. So he’s an innocent man. Yet it’s strange – it doesn’t matter. The film really doesn’t care. It seems to echo Daria’s comment, “Oh a cop did get killed and some bushes were trampled,” before giggling. And, of course, if he didn’t, who did? If it was a student, it’s still pretty bad. And he did bring that gun on campus.

The two mind-blowing scenes, of course, were the love scene at Zabriskie Point and the house and contents blowing up at the end. I think most filmgoers, now used to David Lynch, realize these are manifestations of Daria’s subconscious – although at the time people wondered where all those naked people came from all of a sudden.

The love scene involves The Open Theatre of Joe Chaikin, an avant-garde performance group that was an offshoot of the Living Theater. There were additional people brought in; I’ve found one report Antonioni used as many as 200 in the overhead shot. And it’s beautifully choreographed and, I think, not chauvinistic compared to so many sex scenes from youth movies of this period. I especially love the family that shows up at the end, with the travel stickers on their vehicle and the guy who says they need a drive-in at the spot. That’s the most authentic piece of Americana in the film.

The scene caused a lot of trouble. A district attorney in Sacramento investigated whether it violated the federal Mann Act – transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes, which had been passed decades ago to help fight prostitution. But that came to nothing.

Going back to that Antonioni interview, he said this of the investigation: “I understand that a girl said that I had asked her to do oral intercourse in the film, which is absolutely ridiculous. I’m not crazy, after all. And there was no violation of the Mann Act in the love-in scene, either. What I wanted were the attitudes, the gestures of love. Those people from Joe Chaikin’s Open Theater were acting, not doing.”

There’s some indication Antonioni had something else in mind originally, back in 1968 when planning on the film began. A story I found by Bryan Gindoff, an MGM executive at the time, said the director wanted him to round up 20,000 kids for a desert rock concert, possibly with the Stones or the Beatles. This was before Woodstock, Altamont or Burning Man.

If the love-in represents the release of “positive” energy once Daria gets high and makes love, the blown-up house is the release of “negative” energy after she learns “they” (society) killed Mark. It’s sort of like the line in that Springsteen song, “Promised Land:”

“Blow away the dreams that tear you apart
Blow away the dreams that break your heart
Blow away the lies that leave you nothing but lost and brokenhearted.”

The house, according to the Movie Locations website, is on the outskirts of Phoenix, and was designed by an Arizona Modernist architect named Hiram Hudson Benedict. In that interview with Flatley, Antonioni describes how it was blown up:

“We rented the original house, the one in which we shot the interiors and some of the exteriors, but naturally the owner was not going to let us blow it up. So we built another one just like it not far away. I believe that the owner sat on his terrace and watched as we blew up that house that looked exactly like his own. We used 17 cameras. It was so difficult to organize the explosion, with all the wires and cameras – like a war operation, and I was the general, giving instructions for one cameraman to shoot now, and then turning quickly to another and signaling him to shoot next. I was so concerned with the practical things that I didn’t have time to feel anything else as the house exploded.”

After “Zabriskie Point” bombed, Antonioni finished his three-film deal with MGM with 1975’s The Passenger,” a very good existential thriller – what else? – starring Jack Nicholson that nobody at the time saw. In the 1980s, he made several Italian films but suffered a stroke and lost his power of speech. He received a Lifetime Achievement Oscar, given by Nicholson, in 1994. His last film, “Beyond the Clouds,” and the only one shot after his stroke, needed to have Wim Wenders direct several scenes. However, Wenders has said Antonioni rejected all his footage. He died in 2007 at age 94.

Halprin fell in love with Frechette and for a time they lived together in Lyman’s commune. She left, tried an acting career that included the Hollywood production “The Jerusalem File,” and married Dennis Hopper. They had one daughter before divorcing and she returned to the Bay Area to work with her mother on healing therapy. They founded the Tamalpa Institute and she has written “The Expressive Body in Life, Art and Therapy.” She continues to run it, after her mother has passed.

Frechette, sadly, didn’t turn out so well. After a couple obscure foreign films, he took his money and returned to Lyman’s commune. In 1973, he and two other members decided to stage a bank robbery to protest Watergate-era politics. One of the others was killed by police; Frechette dropped his gun – which had no bullets – and surrendered.

At the time, he said in a statement, “We just reached the point where all that the three of us really wanted to do was hold up a bank. It would be like a direct attack on everything that is choking this country to death.” Seems like the kind of thing that might inspire an Antonioni movie about America. Sentenced to prison, he died in 1975 while bench-pressing in jail. A 150-pound set of weights fell on him, the bar strangling his throat. It was considered an accident – he had been depressed and not eating at the time, and thus weak. He was 27.

‘Zabriskie Point’s” reputation has slowly been growing – partly because everyone recognizes how important and singular Antonioni’s career was, partly because it was a film about America in turmoil as seen by an outsider. It’s a flawed movie, but an unforgettable one.

(This is adapted from a lecture, after a screening of "Zabriskie Point," presented at Cincinnati Art Museum on Jan. 17, 2009.)

1 comment:

  1. Great post on a great and under appreciated film. Thank you