Movie Review – Zabriskie Point

Zabriskie Point (1970)
Written by Michelangelo Antonioni, Fred Gardner, Sam Shepard, Tonino Guerra, and Clare Peploe
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni

Michelangelo Antonioni experienced his first commercial failure with Zabriskie Point. I never really thought of his movies as something that sought mass audience approval. His work in Italy felt extremely niche, but that could be because today, popular media is often so broad & so shallow that we aren’t used to seeing thoughtful, challenging works shown in the cineplex. The United States in 1970 was an incredibly different time than now, especially with film. Influenced by the revolution in filmmaking making happening in Europe, American directors and studios were trying to crank out fare that would appeal to the youth counterculture. Easy Rider crafted the mold, and everyone else chased it. Zabriskie Point is a movie that’s part of that shift, but it’s still Antonioni’s particular perspective on existence in the modern world and once again follows two people adrift in this strange new world.

Describing the plot of Zabriskie Point is tricky as it spends a lot of time wandering, maybe even more so than your average Antonioni story, but not too dissimilar. The picture focuses on two central characters: Mark (Mark Frechette) and Daria (Daria Halprin). The film opens in a room of students engaged in an intense debate about a pending student strike on their college campus. The meeting is led by a group of Black revolutionaries, and the conversation becomes one where the Black students express that they think most white students are just playing pretend and don’t have a real dedication to the cause. Mark gets fed up with the circular arguments going on and leaves.

Driving his beat-up pick-up truck to a nearby police station, Mark asks to bail out his roommate, who has been arrested as part of the protest. He finds the backdoor into the lockup area and enters, which gets him arrested by the cops who are processing all the other students. When asked for his name, Mark says he’s “Karl Marx,” which the cop on duty types as “Carl Marx.” Once he’s released, Mark and a friend go to a gun store where they lie to the clerk, implying they live in a dangerous Black neighborhood. The clerk allows them to bypass the state laws on background checks and sells them guns, which the young men intend to use on cops at the protest.

Meanwhile, there’s Daria, a young woman who isn’t involved in the protest but enjoys smoking pot and being a free spirit. She works in a real estate office as a secretary, and it’s implied that she has a romantic relationship with her boss. She’s driving from Los Angeles to Phoenix to meet up with Lee. She stops in a small town and asks about a man who works with emotionally disturbed children. She’s told about a man in this town who does that and runs into his charges outside, a swarm of aggressive and ill-intentioned little boys. They begin grabbing at Daria and making lewd comments. She runs to her car and drives away.

Mark has gotten into trouble and is being blamed for the shooting of a cop at the campus protest. He takes a bus to suburban Hawthorne, California, steals a Cessna from the local airport, and flies it out into the wilderness. From the air, he spots Daria, a stranger to him, but lands anyway. They meet shortly and decide to travel together for a bit. This brings them to Zabriskie Point, a neighboring area to Death Valley. This is where the film fell apart for me narratively as it delves into what I call “stupid hippie bullshit.” It is all gorgeous to look at, but it fails to coherently convey a theme or message during this sequence. Lots of young people rolling around naked on the ground, having simulated sex.

After a tense encounter with a highway patrolman, Mark agrees he must fly the plane back and face whatever awaits him. Before he takes off, he and Daria paint the aircraft with bright images and popular hippie slogans. When Mark arrives at the airport, the authorities are waiting for him, but as he lands, a cop shouts that he’s pulling a gun, and Mark is killed. Daria hears about the shooting on the radio and is heartbroken. She eventually arrives at her destination, a luxurious desert home built into a rocky crevasse. Her boss and his rich friends are already there, and she is clearly uncomfortable. She stands under a waterfall that is a part of the house and lets the water camouflage her tears over Mark’s death. On her way out, Daria spies a Native American cleaning woman. They exchange knowing glances. Outside, Daria imagines this expensive house exploding.

Antonioni struck upon this idea when he came across a newspaper article about a man who had stolen a plane and was shot to death by police upon landing it. Drafts didn’t go anywhere, so he hired a young, up-and-coming playwright named Sam Shepherd to help work out the script. Additionally, he brought in some old friends from Italy whom he’d collaborated with. One thing I noticed while reviewing the films of Fellini, Leone, and now Antonioni was that scripts having six or seven writers was a relatively normal thing for these artistic movies. Contemporaneously, we associate long lists of writers on modern American movies as a sign of studio interference or a lack of cohesive direction. One of the auteur theories’ adverse side effects has been to push the idea of a singular vision when all filmmaking is a collaborative venture.

Blow-Up had been a complete surprise for MGM, a massive box office hit in 1966. So it made sense they would promote the next Antonioni film even more, and he gave them something that was truly of the time. Zabriskie Point poetically touches on the youth counterculture and the sense of rebellion in the United States at that time. People were rightfully angry at mountains of injustice piled up for two centuries. Yet, Antonioni did not push revolutionary thought in his films. He was a virulent antifascist but not necessarily a communist. His work was concerned with the psychology of the individual, so here, he doesn’t spend much time with the revolutionaries but much more with his avatars of masculinity and femininity in this confusing world.

Zabriskie Point pivots between coherence and abstraction throughout its runtime, starting more concrete but becoming an expressionist picture by the end. Antonioni’s focus on the psychology of the individual brings with it the idea that there is no subjective interpretation of reality. People are trapped inside themselves, struggling to communicate the impact of the world on them. Mark wants to do something, and he does lots of things, but none amount to much. They are the futile gestures of an incoherent mind attempting to rend a scar upon the world. Daria is awakened throughout the movie to think beyond herself, but even then, she’s relatively helpless. All she can do is imagine the destruction of the wealthy and all their beautiful things.

Antonioni is engaged in a conversation about the merits of reverting to a more primitive way of living. It’s a highly romanticized take centered on ideas of utopianism. He’s right that modern existence is perilous, leaving individuals alienated and detached from their reality. But, like so many, he probably got caught up in that revolutionary energy of late 1960s America. The film is poetic to a fault, never developing its characters to feel like anything more than objects the director uses to explore these lofty ideas.

Where Zabriskie Point remarkably redeems itself is with its cinematography. The camera was operated by Alfio Contini, who is an absolute genius. If you aren’t into the characters or extremely loose narratives, you will still be won over by the images on the screen. Images here, particularly when we get out into the wilderness, are absolutely gorgeous. There’s one moment during the orgy sequence where we get a wide-angle shot of Zabriskie Point, the landscape is dotted by couples entangled that are so small you might miss them, but it looks like an oil painting.

Early in the movie, we get a scene where real estate executives in Los Angeles discuss developing regions outside the city. The camera is low and moves so fluidly. Antonioni has had the camera operator lay track, but it’s a wavy pattern that we don’t often see and gives the moment an extremely modern touch, elevating it above many of the era’s films. The most stunning sequence comes at the end, during Daria’s imagined house explosion. Using what had to have been cutting-edge high-speed cameras of the time, we get a drawn-out sequence that focuses on all the objects within the house being exploded. A book resembles a fractal as its pages unfold and become spherical. Through the explosion, all these objects, sought after by consumers, are abstracted into a million shiny pieces of nothing. In my opinion, despite the previously mentioned “stupid hippie bullshit,” these images are miles beyond what we’re sold as the best digitally altered cinematography of today. The fact that all of this is practical should put CG cinematography to shame.

Zabriskie Point is not Antonioni’s finest narrative work, but visually this is pushing boundaries, opening up doors to what a movie can look like. If you tune out the lack of substantive commentary on social issues of the day and instead see this as a stream-of-consciousness reflection, you will find something to enjoy. As I said above, it makes me look down on many modern movies that look less than half as good as this with the plethora of available tools. 

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