Zabriskie Point (1970)

Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni

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“Disastrously in between are the absolutely wretched youngsters Frechette and Halprin, who cause a fatal rupture when their bedraggled, inexpressive drama fails to feed life into a brilliantly lyrical documentary.” – The Village Voice, 1983

“It clearly constructs a negative image of authority and materialism, but its converse handling of revolutionary students is not especially exciting or engaging.” – Senses of Cinema, 2002

”I’d never had any formal acting training, as you can tell immediately when you watch Zabriskie Point… It’s unfortunate that it wasn’t a silent film. I would have been better off.” – Daria Halprin

“Actor James Caan considers this to be the worst film he has ever seen” – according to IMDB trivia, for what that’s worth.

After the first hour of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point I was sure I loved this movie.  Then the second hour happened.

I’m not sure if I enjoyed it or hated it, but I’m sure as hell still thinking about it.  The 1970 film is set right in the midst of counterculture thinking.  It bares certain similarities to Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1967), and the co-lead of this film, Daria Halprin later married Hopper for a year.  Not that such a thing matters, but hey I found it kind of interesting.

Well no, why am I defending myself on this, it is interesting.  Zabriskie Point is immersed in the world it tries to depict, and I think that both works for and against it.  This isn’t just a studio movie that tries to capture a certain zeitgeist like, say, Reality Bites did for Gen X.  It’s a film steeped in the world it wants to portray onscreen.

The leading actors, Halprin and Mark Frechette, were both non actors.  Antonioni found Frechette somewhere in Boston when the soon-to-be actor threw a potted plant at someone.  He cast the 21 year old kid as his lead and allowed Frechette to play what I have to assume is a version of who he already was.  The leading man had been living in a commune to which he donated the entirety of his salary from the film, and a few years after the film’s release he would be arrested for his part in a bank robbery.  This mirrors his run from the police which composes most of his character arc in the film.  In 1975 Frechette died in prison when a 150-pound weight fell on his throat.  He was only 27 years old.

As I mentioned, Halprin went on to marry Hopper, though only for a year.  Her IMDB page is very thin, just as Frechette’s was, and I think it’s partially the fact that their fame burned bright and quick that makes this film feel more like a moment in history.  These weren’t professional actors brought onboard to temporarily inhabit a world before moving on to something else, something wildly different.  It’s a film made with people who more or less lived the way of life the film means to capture.  Though perhaps a bit less extreme, in Halprin’s case, the film is a heightened version of a similar essence.  It also helps that Halprin and Frechette were romantically involved soon after the film, and it appears that they ran in the same circle as Andy Warhol.

So somewhere in the last few paragraphs I’ve decided I love this film.  It’s not exactly entertaining, but certain long, silent sequences do demand your attention.  The film does struggle somewhere in the middle as the young non-actors fumble their way through poorly dubbed dialogue.  Still, I found something appealing about this makeshift section of the film, like you could feel what it was like out there ‘on set’ in Death Valley, making a movie.  So much of Antonioni’s film feels like it was assembled on the fly, and there’s something somewhat revolutionary about this, just as with Easy Rider.

It’s the style of filmmaking I’m assuming went into the production that feels as important to the time as the story itself.  And yeah, maybe this makes for a less appealing picture, less polished and workshopped, but sometimes it’s kind of beautiful to follow someone’s rambling madness, like listening to the ranting and raving of someone on the street.

For all the criticisms of Zabriskie Point, you can’t say that Antonioni doesn’t have something he wants to say.  He has a very anti-authoritarian point of view, loaded with familiar images of 1960s counterculture, and he packages it in a sometimes challenging, certainly abstract and uncompromising point of view.

Also, if you’re watching this film then you’ve likely already seen Antonioni’s much more well-received film, 1966’s Blow-Up, a similarly slow story.  That film, remember, ends with two people miming a game of tennis with an invisible ball which our hero picks up before literally disappearing.  It’s important to remember who we’re dealing with here because in a film like this the person behind it all is as important as the film itself.

Mark and Daria both reside in Los Angeles, but they won’t meet until a chance encounter in Death Valley.  Mark is an activist, more radical than the rest we meet.  He’s introduced at the back of a protest group meeting, and he finally speaks up when he remarks both that he’s willing to die for the cause and that the group bores him.  He antagonizes the group around him, but this doesn’t mean he disagrees with them.  Later on he flips off a cop and not long after that he taunts an officer and gets himself thrown into prison where he says his name is Karl Marx.  The meaning is lost on the officer who types “Carl Marx” into the arrest report.

Mark has no problem buying a gun, and during a protest turned violent, he pulls out that gun to shoot a cop but it is then unclear if he shot him or if someone else did.  Either way he flees the scene, and just as easily as he purchases a gun on credit, he sneaks into an airport and steals a plane.  Apparently he knows how to fly a plane.

Mark heads east, and he meets Daria when he begins taunting her from the sky in a scene similar to the famous one in North By Northwest.

Daria works for a corporate executive who is trying to construct a new development of some kind in the area near Joshua Tree.  We are only briefly acquainted with this man, Lee Allen (Rod Taylor), but the juxtaposition between his skyscraper office and Mark’s down and dirty rebel activity is striking, even if a bit on the nose.

There’s not much to know about Lee other than that we’re supposed to be against him, just as Mark is and Daria will be.  The film very clearly sides with Mark and Daria, and Lee only exists as a symbol of what they’re reacting against.

The middle portion of the film, once Mark and Daria have met, follows them on a march through the dusty desert, like some scene straight out of the Bible.  They are headed nowhere in particular, but soon they find themselves taking part in a dusty orgy with people who just sort of appear out of thin air.  *Apparently the state of California had an eye on Antonioni in case this rumored scene was to involve legitimate sexual acts.  Some people believed he was going to film the scene with 10,000 extras.  If you were to have heard this rumor it would make the final scene, with maybe fifty (?) extras much less spectacular.  As it is, with no personal awareness of what was to come, it was bizarre, unexpected and pretty amazing for its sheer audacity.  Still, I imagine if I had heard the 10,000 extras rumor I would be sorely let down.

After they part ways, Mark returns to LA where he is shot by the cops upon landing, and Daria meets her boss at some desert retreat that she imagines blowing up.  The film ends with a long, beautiful series of slow motion shots of explosions and various items flowing through mid air.

So the story concerns two people meeting and one spreading his radical ideas to the other.  They part ways, but she is forever changed, sure to pick up the torch the other left behind.

I love that people hate this film.  Those are the best movies to think about, even if they don’t make for the most immediate enjoyment.  A movie about radical ideas and behavior should feel radical and thus a bit divisive.  Were Zabriskie Point to be released to wide acclaim, the effect would be lost on us.

In fact, any movie received to such wide acclaim, particularly a more experimental film such as this, should attract suspicion.  It’s similar to how you can’t watch The Shining without knowing that other people love that movie.  The same goes for Vertigo, which many people now consider the greatest film of all time.  I love both of those films, but I know that I’m influenced by what I hear by both friends and critics.

Any important or good movie should be about something, and that “something” shouldn’t have the same relationship to every member of the audience.  Basically, more arthouse movies, in my opinion, should be divisive.  We can all agree that The Incredibles is a fun and entertaining movie, but we shouldn’t all agree that, let’s say… Taxi Driver is a masterpiece.

Shouldn’t a masterpiece be divisive?  Anytime someone labels a film a masterpiece, it seems to say as much about them as about the film itself.  Such a term is incredibly subjective, and such a willingness to use that term feels egotistical.  I have films I adore that I know others can’t stand.  Hell, I loved La La Land, and following initial critical praise that film received a lot of backlash.  I similarly love A Ghost StoryFirst Reformed and Frances Ha, a film I remember receiving a lot of criticism during its release for being too self-indulgent.  The same could be said for Mike Mills’ Beginners, another of my personal favorites.

Your favorite movies tell us something about you, and I think that can only be the case because we know that movies (like all art) don’t have the same appeal for everyone.  And that’s good.  So movies should at times be divisive, just to remind ourselves that we all see things differently.

This is a long, rambling, perhaps ranting and raving, way of saying that I enjoy thinking about Zabriskie Point even if I didn’t enjoy watching the whole thing and particularly because I know others do and will hate it.

Up Next: The Incredibles 2 (2018), Fedora (1978), The Iron Giant (1999)

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