(I am reposting this 2009 story in memory of Rod Taylor, who died this week. While he did much fine work, his participation in this movie stands as a highlight to me. -- SR; 1-9-15)
Zabriskie Point: A Fever Dream of a Movie
Zabriskie Point: A Fever Dream of a Movie Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni Warner Home Video By Steven Rosen
(Published 7-31-09 in SonicBoomers.com) During what most people consider Hollywood’s last golden era -- the early to mid-1970s -- so many good movies true to their times came out they couldn’t all be assimilated by the culture at the time.
Like America, they were hip, sexy, druggy and rebellious, but also downbeat, violent, soul-searching and (fitting for the Watergate era) political.For every celebrated All the President’s Men, Five Easy Pieces and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, the New Hollywood also gave us an unjustly overlooked Cisco Pike, Blume in Love or Friends of Eddie Coyle.
In today’s active retroculture, we’ve been kept busy with rediscoveries, restorations and revivals of films of that era that got missed the first time around.But Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, which has just been released by Warner Bros. Pictures on DVD, is a different case. It got plenty of attention upon its 1970 release -- and was so roundly rejected by audiences and critics alike that it has become one of the New Hollywood’s most celebrated turkeys, like Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie or William Friedkin’s Sorcerer.
The movie went into hiding.Yet seeing it today, one realizes Zabriskie Point’s bad rep is largely a bad rap. Cinematographically, it is a visionary, hallucinatory interpretation of the fever dreams of the era’s counterculture. It finds poetry in the California of desert road-trip lore, while also finding ugliness in the Los Angeles (any city, really) of industrial clutter and sprawl. Seeing it now, with America struggling with a recession so deep many doubt the possibility of a return to normalcy as we know it, one realizes what the film is: a requiem for our lifestyle, ahead of its time.
One with great music, by the way -- as an expanded soundtrack put out by Rhino in 1997 already proved.
Today, Antonioni’s ideas of the America of that time seem artfully sharp if intellectually dispassionate. He saw the country locked in a war of ideas and values, maybe a shooting war. But he was more interested in looking at it as in creating a polemic about it. The resultant film is fascinatingly original yet mysterious, like a David Lynch movie.
It would be dishonest, however, to call it a masterpiece -- Antonioni wanted unknowns for his leads, and their lack of acting experience shows in their stilted line deliveries. This was the first American movie for Antonioni, the Italian director whose films had a sexy, existential flair and who in his 50s had discovered youth culture, rock ‘n’ roll, swinging London and full-frontal nudity in his previous film, 1966’s classic Blowup. Like Blowup, Zabriskie was an MGM release, and the company had high hopes for it.
The principals are an alienated college student, enamored of revolutionary ideas, named Mark (Mark Frechette), and the cheerfully beatific hippie Daria (Daria Halprin), who works among “straights” as a secretary at a development firm. They meet in the desert and make love at Zabriskie Point, which overlooks an ancient lakebed in Death Valley National Park.
The symbolism seems evident -- however empty America had become, youth could still find beauty in its “death” throes. Kids may have thought Zabriskie would be Antonioni’s Easy Rider, but they had never seen his earlier Italian films, especially Red Desert and L’Avventura. So they were confused by the enigmatic way he let his camera, rather than his characters or his story, be the film’s star.
There was also a political problem. The film begins with protests at “California State College” in L.A. in which a policeman gets shot and killed by a student. It appears that Mark is the student who shoots the cop, although it’s not absolutely clear. Antonioni doesn’t seem to care much about it, one way or another -- it’s just a way to get Mark out of L.A. and toward Daria. It gives the film (and Mark) a coldness the hot desert just can’t melt.
Antonioni got credit for the spare, minimalist screenplay along with fellow Italians Franco Rossetti (aka Fred Gardner) and Tonino Guerra. American playwright Sam Shepard and Clare Peploe, Antonioni’s assistant who later married Bernardo Bertolucci, also contributed.
Some of the dialogue is pithy. For instance, when police book college activists after a violent confrontation, one arrestee identifies himself as an associate professor of history. “That’s too long,” a cop says. “I’ll just put down ‘clerk.’”
Plenty of movies that have been set in Los Angeles see the city’s beauty: the beaches, the hillside homes that overlook the glittering lights below, the Hollywood neon and the glamorous people it attracts. Antonioni and cinematographer Alfio Contini see, however, the mundane clutter and detritus. There’s a revealing montage of industrial-related signage and junkyards. The film does feature a lovely view of the Richfield Tower, a black-and-gold downtown L.A. Art Deco treasure demolished at about the same time as the film was made. Seeing it makes one bemoan all that has been lost in L.A. -- or any American city where “progress” trumps preservation.
Zabriskie Point follows two parallel stories for awhile. Daria, on a mission to deliver material for a conference at the desert retreat of her boss (Rod Taylor), gets waylaid en route. The sun is bright and the people and buildings are both colorful, folkloric relics -- an old-timer in a roadhouse smokes as “Tennessee Waltz” plays on the jukebox.
Mark, meanwhile, flees the campus shooting by hijacking a pink airplane, lifting off over the traffic-clogged, smoggy sprawl as a snippet of the Dead’s “Dark Star” jubilantly plays. In the desert, he sees Daria driving and goes down low to buzz her, again and again. The widescreen cinematography turns this into a maniacal mating ritual, plane over car, that provides a rush both scary and erotic.
But it’s nothing compared to the Zabriskie Point lovemaking. The dusty, dry landscape suddenly sprouts a mirage of young people, in various couplings and stages of undress. The fight, claw, laugh, and have sex to a dreamy guitar piece by Jerry Garcia. (The Open Theatre of Joe Chaikin provides the bodies for this site-specific “performance.”) It’s a poetic way of externalizing the internal -- when in love; Daria and Mark feel as if the whole world is, too. Even in the desert.
It’s a pretty radical scene for a movie that appears, up to that point, to be naturalistic. But there’s more to come. Mark flies back and is promptly, matter-of-factly shot to death by police. Antonioni films it as fait accompli, not worth romanticizing. Daria learns of it while driving in the desert; the radio interrupts John Fahey’s “Dance of Death” to announce it.
She then arrives at the company retreat, a modernist home nestled into rocks on the side of a cliff, while executives are planning a new subdivision. She goes outside, looks back and -- boom -- the house explodes. Not once, but repeatedly, from different vantage points. As the camera studies in slow motion the “dance of death” of all the material inside it -- a newspaper, lawn chairs, even a loaf of Wonder bread -- Pink Floyd’s screaming “Come In Number 51, Your Time Is Up” (also known as “Careful With That Axe, Eugene”) plays.
The explosions are apocalyptic and mesmerizing, mournful and beautiful. They leave you stunned and weirded-out. And then the movie is over with a long gaze into the Western sunset.
Incidentally, MGM tacked on a kitschy romantic ballad, “So Young,” sung with soaring heartache by Roy Orbison. His career was stone cold at the time, and MGM -- his label -- may have wanted to give him a hit. According to the liner notes of the Rhino soundtrack, Antonioni hated it.
Today, even given its faults, Zabriskie Point is invigorating. And it leaves you wondering, after all these years, if Antonioni looked at America at that time and found hope…or hopelessness. Whichever, was he right? — 07/31/2009