Wednesday, April 8, 2015

From the Archives: Ken Burns on How He Handled the Holocaust in his World War II Documentary

By Steven Rosen
Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

Ken Burns knew from the start that he didn't want his seven-episode, 14 1/2-hour documentary on World War II to be associated with any notion of "The Good War." And yet in its final episode, as now elderly ex-GIs recount the lessons learned from liberating German concentration camps, it illustrates exactly why wars sometimes can be noble causes.

But Burns wanted to get to that point without cloaking his documentary in the feel-good heritage of "The Good War" -- a term originating with Studs Terkel's 1984 oral history -- or Tom Brokaw's 1998 "The Greatest Generation," about the GIs who fought in that war.
"It was being smothered in this bloodless myth called 'The Good War,' when in fact it was the bloodiest of all wars," Burns said by telephone, en route to an advance screening in Minnesota. He said the war cost 60 million lives -- a fact too easily forgotten by history buffs coldly studying the various armies involved and their military campaigns.
"The War," as his resultant documentary is simply titled, will begin airing on PBS stations on Sept. 23. It will be on for four nights the first week and three nights the second. Burns' previous PBS films about the American experience include "The Civil War," "Baseball" and "Jazz."
"We used the words 'bearing witness' for what we wanted to do," he said of his initial proposal for the documentary. "We wanted to use four [American] towns as examples to get to know people -- those who fought and those who stayed at home -- and to get to their experiences as it happened."
The result is Burns and co-director Lynn Novick seeing the war as it was unfolding through the eyes of soldiers from Mobile, Ala.; Sacramento; Waterbury, Conn., and Luverne, Minn., to show, in so many ways, the ongoing hellishness of even a necessary war. 
Since World War II unfolds the way American soldiers -- and friends and family at home -- experienced it, the Holocaust is only cursorily brought up before the final episode, "A World Without War," when the soldiers enter the camps. But it then becomes the center -- "the beating heart," in Burns' words -- of that episode.
That episode covers immense ground, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt's death, the battle for Okinawa, the final collapse of Germany, the atomic bomb, Japan's surrender and the end of the war. But its solemn, powerful concentration camp scenes, which involve his soldiers bearing witness against Nazi atrocities, are the ones with deepest impact. 
Three of the hometown soldiers recall entering different concentration camps during the fall of Germany in 1945. And, as they still vividly remember, they saw something worse than war: the Holocaust. 
In fact, they came to realize war could be good, if it could stop or punish those willing to commit such evil, organized mass murder. The episode pairs their recollections with often horrifyingly graphic footage from the actual camps they entered.
Also during this passage in the episode, war historian Paul Fussell, who fought in World War II when he was just 19, begins to quiver and cry when explaining how discovering those camps made it clear to the American soldiers the war "was conducted in defense of some noble idea."
Burns called that a "searing, incredible emotional comment. I assumed Fussell would be an avuncular commentator. But the questions put him back in the moment."
The episode begins with a black-and-white photo of a German SS soldier about to execute a Polish Jew at the edge of an open mass grave in Ukraine in 1942. Then one of the "The War's" ongoing witnesses, former Marine pilot Sam Hynes, makes a comment that indirectly addresses the meaning of religion in a world where the Holocaust can happen. 
If there were no evil, he says, people wouldn't need to "construct" religions. 
"No evil, no God," he says. "Of course, no evil, no war. But there will always be evil. Human beings are aggressive animals."
Burnett Miller from Sacramento recalls how starving survivors at Mauthausen in Austria, in their hunger for the GIs' concentrated food, died from "overwhelming their systems." He also describes, and accompanying footage shows, bodies in rigor mortis awaiting cremation in the furnaces. Miller's comments also touch upon a key Holocaust theme -- the complicity of nearby civilians and the church. 
"They could smell the camp in town," he says. "The villagers said they knew nothing about the camp; the priest said he knew nothing about the camp. I knew that was a lie." 
In another scene, Dwain Luce of Mobile, Ala., recalls forcing the presumably complicit German townspeople of Ludwigslust, near a liberated camp, to collect the bodies and give them proper Christian and Jewish burials in the park. "So they would never forget," he says.
He also has this to say to Holocaust deniers: "These people in this country who say it didn't happen, it did happen; I saw it."
The third of the hometown soldiers who helped liberate the camps is Jewish, Ray Leopold of Waterbury, Conn. He was at Hadamar in Germany, where he found not only camp victims but also survivors of Nazi medical experiments inside an insane asylum. 
"No apology will ever atone for what I saw," he says.
"At the end of the day, nothing is more powerful in our film than Ray fixing the camera with a 92-year-old's fury when he says that," Burns said. 
A narrator in the film provides voice-over context, as images of the bones and skulls of victims are shown, of the Holocaust's scope. Some two-thirds of Europe's 9 million Jews were murdered, along with 4 million Soviet prisoners of war, 2 million Poles and hundreds of thousands of homosexuals, Gypsies, political opponents, handicapped persons, slave laborers and Jehovah's Witnesses. 
In this final episode, with death and destruction unfolding on a global scale virtually every minute, there is the question of how much time the Holocaust can command. After all, when the Americans enter the camps in 1945, there is still a long, difficult battle ahead in the Pacific. 
In the end, it doesn't get that much time -- about 10 minutes. But it makes a long-lasting impact. "It sought its own length," Burns said. "I always say the greatest speech ever made was the Gettysburg Address. That was two minutes long."

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Forgotten Films: The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra


By Steven Rosen
(2004; previously published)

LOS ANGELES – When people saw the weird and hilarious trailer for “The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra,” they assumed it was a joke. There was no such movie, they thought – which could have been one reason this strange movie did so poorly in theaters earlier this year.

After all, how can clips from what looks like a forgotten low-low-budget black-and-white sci-fi movie from the early 1950s be promoting an alleged new movie? And one “from the company that brought you ‘Lawrence of Arabia?’” This has got to be a put-on, right?

Now that “The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra” is being released on DVD on June 22 in a special edition, people will see it is a joke. The movie is a loving spoof of clumsy but inadvertently inspired sci-fi movies of the 1950s like “Robot Monster” and Ed Wood’s “Plan Nine From Outer Space.” The kind of movies kids used to spend Sunday afternoons seeing at neighborhood-theater triple-bills.

The plot, according to the production notes, features “foil-covered aliens, space toys and a Fay Wray-esque heroine who actually feels for the misunderstood mutant.” And that’s just the start – there’s also an evil skeleton and a woman who is actually a human incarnation of several wild animals. (And she eats dinner like a wild animal.)

The trailer takes the overall spoof one step beyond. Michael Schlesinger, a Dayton native who as vice president of repertory sales for Sony Pictures discovered the independently made film, is responsible for that. And he’s proud of it.

He licensed music from 1940s-era Universal Pictures horror movies to give the trailer a sense of nostalgic gravity. And he wrote a self-consciously portentous voice-over script that promises “a cast of thousands” and “cost of millions’’ even as the trailer itself pictures four actors in a plywood space ship.

The trailer also says the film was shot in the non-existent camera process known as Skeletorama. And, since Sony is releasing the film under its Tristar banner, Schlesinger felt free to promote “Skeleton” as coming from the same company that brought audiences “Lawrence of Arabia.” (That was from Columbia Pictures, now part of Sony.)

The result? “Some people aren’t sure from the trailer if the movie is real,” Schlesinger said. “I went to see ‘Triplets of Belleville,’ and four people in front of me were watching the trailer and a woman asked that.”

He helpfully leaned over and told her “Skeleton” was indeed a real movie. “I told her the rights to Skeletorama alone cost a fortune,” he said, laughing.

But others get the goof and consider it a riotous exception in a field – movie trailers – that usually seeks to portray its product as a virtual shoo-in for Oscars. Even if the film is a dead-on-arrival stinker.

“Matt Groening said the trailer was the funniest thing he had ever seen, which is now officially the best compliment I’ve ever had,” Schlesinger said.

Schlesinger, a 53-year-old film buff, is the chief studio backer of “Lost Skeleton.” The movie was made independently by writer/director/star Larry Blamire, producer F. Miguel Valenti and a game if small cast in various Los Angeles locations. Schlesinger saw it at a Thursday-night independent-film screening at Hollywood’s American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theater, where he is a board member. “I get in free,” he said.

He found the movie amusing. “One thing I like is that it’s good-natured, not mean-spirited in the way so many spoofs are these days,” Schlesinger said. He also liked the way the premise is played straight-faced, like a Christopher Guest movie.

The crowd at that screening also loved the film, and the discussion that followed was enthusiastic. And when Schlesinger learned during the question-and-answer period that “Skeleton” had been made for about $100,000, he really flipped.

“That’s when I said to myself, I’ve got to have this movie,” he said. “It’s guaranteed to be a cult classic, and maybe it could be something more. And since it only cost $100,000, how could it lose? I went to Sony, and they said, ‘Sure,’ but I’d have to do all the work on it myself.”

Schlesinger was ready. He had moved to Los Angeles in 1981, having previously booked in the mid-1970s an experimental Cincinnati repertory-cinema program while working in Dayton for the theater’s owner. That earned him a job with a Cincinnati film-booking agency – eventually he became a part-owned of The Movies art houses in Cincinnati and Dayton. Since arriving here, he has handled theatrical bookings of classic films for several studios. (For the past 10 years, he has been at Sony Pictures.)

He was involved in the 50th anniversary re-release of Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” and the subsequent green-lighting of “It’s All True,” a documentary about Welles’ aborted film project in Brazil.

That documentary filled in a crucial missing episode in film history. Welles was in Brazil, working on a never-finished project also called “It’s All True,” when his studio butchered his follow-up to “Citizen Kane,” “The Magnificent Ambersons.” Many say Welles never regained his standing in Hollywood, or his confidence in his work, after that experience.

“Lost Skeleton” is hardly Wellesian in its ambitions or accomplishments. But it is a lot of fun – and Schlesinger is having a lot of fun trying to market it. “So far, everybody who sees it seems to love it,” he said.

And he’s talking about the film, not just his trailer.

(Steven Rosen’s E-mail address is

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Is It the Best or Worst of Times for Film Restoration?

Is It the Best or the Worst Time for Film Restoration?

By Steven Rosen | IndiewireMarch 11, 2015 at 11:05AM
Some good news on the film restoration front: Satyajit Ray's "Apu Trilogy" is getting a 4K restoration and Janus Films is planning a theatrical release.
Satyajit Ray
image courtesy of Janus FilmsSatyajit Ray
Charles Dickens could have been referring to the current state of film restoration when he wrote, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."
For, as was made clear – literally – at the recent Cinema Revival: A Festival of Film Restoration at Columbus, Ohio's Wexner Center for the Arts, proponents of digital restoration believe the high quality and clarity of 4K (4,000 pixels per horizontal scan line) resolution is making it the new aesthetic standard. 
Its rise has been recent. But it comes at a time of falling sales for DVDs, and also when many people are more interested in the convenience of watching movies anywhere – on their smart phones and in cars – than in seeing them in optimum conditions. 
Lee Kline, technical director for The Criterion Collection, told festival attendees that with the growing adoption of the 4K standard, "We can finally call these (true) restorations." 
That's because 4K digital scanning of source material, preferably but not always old film negatives, comes close to the same image quality as traditional 35-millimeter film prints. And it is twice that of the previous (and still prevalent) high standard for digital restorations, 2K. Criterion's first 4K release, "A Hard Day’s Night," came just last year.
"If you're trying to preserve something with the highest quality restoration, you have to be working with 4K," Kline said.
"Pather Panchali"
Image courtesy of Janus Films"Pather Panchali"
One point made at the festival was that the term "film" is becoming a misnomer – new film negatives of digitally restored titles are not always made now.
Kline had arrived in Columbus via a 16-hour flight from Mumbai, the latest international trip in his current project to supervise a 4K restoration of the three films comprising the late Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s classic "Apu Trilogy"– 1955's "Pather Panchali," (1955) "Aparajito" (1956) and "Apur Sansar" (1959), also known as "The World of Apu."
Kline screened brief clips showing how the ongoing restoration is helping save Ray's films, since parts of the source material had been damaged or lost. The odyssey to restore the film began with Ray's lifetime achievement Academy Award in 1992. The following year, the films, en route from India to Los Angeles to be preserved, were ironically damaged in a fire at Hendersons Film Laboratories in South London. Despite being damaged, the films were shipped to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles, where they were stored in vaults for the next 20 years (Read Kline's essay on how he pulled off the restoration here).
Janus Films is planning a theatrical release of "Apu Trilogy,” presumably using many theaters (like the Wexner’s) with 4K digital projectors. Criterion will follow with consumer discs.
But if all this is positive news for restoration, there's a downside. The time and money increases with 4K scanning – as does the "writing" of information to hard drives. Yet while regular DVD/Blu-ray players and high-definition TVs can play 4K discs, it's only at their standard resolution (although the quality of what they’re showing is much better). There is a growing market for 4K ultra-high definition televisions, especially for home theaters, but they are still expensive.
"The plan is to have people see things and buy things – so there are marketing concerns," said Grover Crisp, Sony Pictures’ executive vice president in charge of film restoration and digital mastering, during his festival presentation. "And the market for DVD and Blu-ray has gone [down] in recent years, so they're not putting out so many titles." 
Still, Crisp expressed hope that the existing cinematheques equipped with 4K projectors – such as the Wexner and Indiana University's Cinema in the Midwest – will help build a growing theatrical circuit for such restorations.
"Days of Heaven"
Paramount Pictures"Days of Heaven"
At the festival, Sony provided two recent 4K restorations of black-and-white classics – Luchino Visconti's "Sandra," which stars Claudia Cardinale and debuted at the 2013 Venice Film Festival, where the then-new film won the Golden Lion in 1965; and Howard Hawks' classic 1939 "Only Angels Have Wings," with Cary Grant, Rita Hayworth and Jean Arthur. 
The former, Crisp said, was restored photochemically about 12 years ago, but all the prints were unsteady – the originals were made on unsteady printers and couldn't be corrected. Now, with digital restoration, "We were able to stabilize these images," he said. 
And "Angels" partly needed to await digital restoration to repair damage to its negative, since Crisp could recreate missing frames by "stealing" information from the surrounding ones.
Kline shared some fascinating "war stories" about working with the creators of films that Criterion had restored. He recalled that Terrence Malick insisted on reducing the color saturation of "Days of Heaven" during a digital restoration. 
Because the film had been hailed on its 1979 release for its brilliant color, Kline questioned him. Malick refused to reconsider. "I realized he was right – the film has a better look without it," Kline said.
And on last year’s 2K restoration of Liliana Cavani’s 1974 "The Night Porter," Kline said he wanted to remove a production mistake – a hair that got on a lens during a key shot. "I said we probably have the technology to remove it. She said, 'You know what? It's part of the movie,'" he said.
THIS ARTICLE IS RELATED TO: Satyajit RayCriterion CollectionCriterionRestorationJanus Films

Monday, March 9, 2015

Film Review | Fifty Shades of Grey

Entertainment Voice

I Am Curious--Grey

How’s this for a red-hot color scheme? Start with a kinky romance plot as your base, daub in “9 1/2 Weeks”, and a streak of “Secretary,” add on a tony veneer of “Jane Eyre,” and you’ll likely churn out “Fifty Shades of Grey,” a bastardized S&M stew pot that’s equal parts icky, drippy, and sticky.

Birthed from the runaway 2012 erotic best-seller by British author E.L. James (actually 40-something mom Erika Mitchell)“Fifty Shades” was slyly delivered into theaters on Valentine’s Day. It should have been stamped Return to Sender, borne out by the U.S. box-office jilting since its opening week. “Girl meets boy, girl falls for boy, boy ties up girl,” isn’t exactly the old-fashioned formula for screen romance, but then you must bear in mind that we live in a luridly blue world in which Internet-delivered porn has metastasized into the mainstream.

Whereas James’ sensationally steamy novel—now trilogy—had readers bound up tightly in all-in-your-head erotic fantasy, this turgid screen version is hung up firstly by a casting palate that’s strikingly bland, if not totally vapid. In light of the controversial sex, nudity, and raunchy talk, it’s no surprise that name actors were shrinking violets when it came time to signing on. Perhaps they haven’t forgotten the case of one Elizabeth Berkeley, whose short-lived “Showgirls” notoriety quickly dropped a curtain on her film career.

From a self-published book hatched from the vampire-fiction “Twilight” saga, it’s no earthly surprise that James’ erotica follows the footsteps of a virginal (but hot) girl who’s romantically captivated by a mysterious, even sinister (but hot) outsider with a terribly big secret. This particular U.S. Northwest lady in waiting is Anastasia (Dakota Johnson), a graduate English student whose small world is instantly lit up with bodice-bursting fireworks upon meeting Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), the inscrutable young tycoon behind Seattle’s Grey Enterprises.

If Ana is searching for love and romance a la any bookish Jane Austen heroine, the enigmatic Mr. Grey harbors desires that merge the Marquis de Sade with Howard Hughes. Christian has not only created a Telecom empire, he’s also set up a high-rise headquarters staffed with so many curvaceous females that even Mad Men would be green with envy.

Despite the supposed Seattle-area settings, Ana’s torridly up-and-down romantic adventures have almost nothing to do with the known world—except perhaps for the sort of folks who fancy “Game of Thrones” as realistically medieval. This is paint-by-numbers hack erotica, crudely drawn with crayons and mascara.

It’s telling then when the gentlemanly Christian escorts Ana to his pulpy-red S&M dungeon he calls it his “playroom.” Though coyishly reluctant and naive, Anna enters and quickly warms to her role as submissive girl-toy because, hey, the sex is awesome. With Mr. Grey in executive control of his armoires of whips, ropes and silk ties, Anna lets herself go. Naturally, this liberates her from the ties that bind her to her fuddy-duddy sexual morals. No longer the mousy grad student in plaids and ponytail, Ana is transformed into a walking G spot.

Ana’s orgasmic liberation is echoed in her high-flying trips aboard Mr. Grey’s fleet of helicopters and gliders, as well as in his chauffeur-driven luxury cars. There’s nothing like being seduced by a hunky, filthy-rich and single CEO to make a girl want to get down and dirty. Jose (Victor Rasuk), Ana’s earthbound classmate and suitor, pales in comparison to the splendidly expensive hues of Christian’s phallic hi-rise world.

James, director Samantha Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel want their fantasy both ways, serving up kink and ample horizontal nudity—almost all Johnson—on a plate while at the same granting their heroine a girlish willfulness that rebels against Christian cocksure dictates. The burning question is whether Ana will sign his ridiculously explicit, X-rated contract laying out, as it were, their binding relationship in black and white. As she dithers, she toys with him outside the playroom, leaving him on pins and needles. James’ pseudo-feminist ruse is designed strictly to lend a patina of independence to her heroine’s regression into a living, heavy-breathing sex doll.

Will these two live happily ever after, bound together by lust, transgression, and Italian ties? Shades of the interminable “Twilight” and “Hunger Games” series, captive audiences may have to slog through 49 more colorless shades of Grey before they’re let out of this dungeon.

Fifty Shades of Grey opens nationally Feb. 13

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Film Review | Unbroken

To Hell and Back

by Thomas Delapa, Entertainment Voice

While film crowds across the U.S. have practically given “American Sniper ” a ticket-tape parade, the producers of “Unbroken” must be asking themselves why audiences for their valorous World War II drama are in retreat. Cynics might say that trigger-happy screen violence is always a sure shot, while a simple, disarming story of wartime heroism and endurance is likely to miss the box-office bull’s eye. Both pictures recoil from the non-fiction world, but it’s Angelina Jolie‘s directorial breakthrough that merits the longer salute.

What informs Jolie’s deft direction is her obvious passion and empathy for the subject matter—one of the great, if still largely unfamiliar, wartime U.S. survival sagas. Not only did the 26-year-old U.S. track star Louie Zamperini live through 47 dire, shark-infested days clinging to a tiny raft in the Pacific, but his “rescuers” were the Japanese navy, who promptly sailed him off to a succession of some of the most horrific POW camps in the Pacific War. Commendations for bringing Zamperini’s incredible exploits to a new generation’s attention first went to acclaimed author Laura Hillenbrand (“Seabiscuit”) with the 2010 publication of her best-selling biography.

Over the years, a squad of screenwriters made a run at Hillenbrand’s 500-plus page book, the baton ending up with the unlikely team of Oscar winners Joel and Ethan Coen. Serving their source with honor, the Coens zero in on the human drama and jettison their characteristic ironic ballast. Universal also joined up to the tune of a reported $60 million, certainly one of the biggest budgets ever commanded by a female director.

“Unbroken” has taken on some fair flak for echoing a volley of inspirational POW dramas—from “Bridge on the River Kwai” spanning to the uncelebrated “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.” However, it rises above the potshots, primarily because Jolie keeps her hand steady as she goes towards the truth. She’s also brave in her casting, ditching Hollywood brass in favor of talented unknowns.

Of course, the critical role is Army Lt. Zamperini himself, and the young Brit Jack O’Connell valiantly executes the arduous physical scenes demanded of him. However, there’s an intangible weapon that Jolie brings in, and that’s a wrenching sense of empathy that Louie displays for his battered brother-in-arms. “Lucky” Louie is no beefy John Wayne—or Clint Eastwood—packing a Spartan detachment from the pain of others. He winces when he sees (and hears) his comrades suffering their injuries and imprisonment, even more so than when his own scrawny body is on the line.

Jolie and company can be forgiven for humanely limiting the atrocities they actually portray, and surely worse were meted out in the camps. However, further turns of the screws might have been warranted to counterattack our own superhuman penchant for burying the atrocious shrapnel of the past. As Louie’s whispering Grand Inquisitor camp commander, the Japanese musician Miyavi strikes a memorably savage note (his sadism has a sexual charge) that ranks with the Oscar-winning Sessue Hayakawa in “River Kwai.”

Broken up by flashbacks to Louie’s checkered past as both Italian-American delinquent and 1936 Olympic star, structurally “Unbroken” is nothing to write home about, and might have been sturdier had the supporting characters been built up. There’s no doubt that this is Louie’s epic story, to a fault, while his band of brothers generally stand at attention in the background.

In a Hollywood so incestuously devoted to over-the-top action and the girls-not-allowed club of blockbuster digital effects, Jolie charts her own course, delivering a heady sense of both realism and humanity, ably served by the veteran Roger Deakins’ pristine photography. That “Unbroken” was only decorated with a few minor Oscar nominations is at least a little heartbreaking.


Friday, January 9, 2015

For Rod Taylor: Zabriskie Point: A Fever Dream of a Movie


Zabriskie Point: A Fever Dream of a Movie 

(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

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