Zabriskie Point Review

In 1966, MGM had a worldwide hit with Carlo Ponti's production of Michaelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up. Consequently, the studio was keen to bankroll the next film by their winning team and the result was Zabriskie Point which took three years to make, cost seven million dollars and grossed less than a million at the box office. In retrospect, it's not difficult to see what went wrong but a distance of forty years means that Zabriskie Point is now a fascinating period piece and, despite manifest flaws, plainly the work of a major director.

The film doesn't really have much of a plot. Mark (Frechette) is a student drop-out in California who drifts along with revolutionaries and commits himself to the necessary inevitability of violent revolution. He buys a gun with the intention of killing a cop at a student protest but narrowly fails to do so. Nevertheless, he goes on the run, stealing a private plane and flying over the desert. In the desert he meets Daria (Halprin), a student who is driving to Phoenix to meet her lover, real estate tycoon Lee Allen (Taylor). They wander through the vast plains, talking and making love. But their fates, having briefly intertwined, ultimately run a separate course.

It's not really difficult to see what went wrong with Zabriskie Point. Like so many follies by great filmmakers, it's wildly ambitious and doesn't have a hope of fulfilling the expectations of either the audience or the director. Having skilfully placed a scalpel through the heart of Swinging London in Blow-Up, Antonioni obviously wanted to do the same thing to America in Zabriskie Point. But America is too big and his themes are too massive to cohere on any level other than the very simplest. So we're left with a very straightforward left-wing diatribe in which America is represented as a corrupt, consumerist nightmare where people can never hope to connect and the dream of love and peace woke before it even got started. The hippies seem to be associated with a dream of freedom, wallowing naked among the bounties of vast, untrammeled nature while the student radicals are the hapless victims of authoritarian brutality. None of this was particularly radical in 1970 - numerous films made similar points at the time - and it now looks more quaint than probing, perhaps because we've come to take consumerist materialism and government corruption for granted. Nor is the film helped by the blank central performances of Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin which make it very hard for the viewer to become emotionally invested in their fates - a particular problem in the case of Mark since what happens to him is meant to be both shocking and the cause of the final conflagration.

And yet, and yet.... None of these problems really seem to matter while you're watching the film. Certainly, they niggle endlessly once the movie finishes and the whole experience isn't entirely satisfying on an emotional or intellectual level. But as a sensory experience, Zabriskie Point is unforgettable because Antonioni knows the power of images to compel the viewer's attention. Time and again, Antonioni draws us to a telling or unusual image; the gleaming engines of a private jet; a child plucking disconsolately at the strings of a broken piano; the bloodied heads of student protestors; a plane chased by its shadow across the vast expanses of the Mojave Desert. Colour is used to great effect - red, blue and orange in particular - and the framing constantly creates a contrast and sometimes even a dissonance between the characters and their surroundings. He also stages some beautiful miniatures; a love play between Mark and Daria as his plane repeatedly buzzes her car; a series of endlessly tedious business meetings where a lot is said but nothing meant; a student protest seen only in its beginning stages and its bloody aftermath. The dialogue, fairly sparse to begin with, is always downplayed in favour of the visual. Even during the verbose opening, which seems to owe much to Godard, the looks of the people are far more interesting than the revolutionary platitudes they spout. We're caught by a pair of sideburns, the angle of a head, a ludicrous afro hairstyle. Although the film seems to espouse a rhetoric of violent revolution, Antonioni is much more interested in observing than preaching. He also sees the comedy in the situations - the endless arguing over whether blacks or whites are more radical for instance - and puts together a wonderfully funny set-piece in a police station where the police are comic-book thugs, nobody seems entirely sure why anybody has been arrested and an Associate Professor of History has his profession put down as a "Clerk" because it fits in the space on the form.

Throughout the film, characters are portrayed on a very broad level and because Antonioni sees them as types rather than individuals, it's perhaps unfair to complain too much about the non-acting of the leads. They look right and that's what the director is chiefly interested in. The story behind the casting is perhaps more interesting. Mark Frechette was discovered shouting "Motherfucker" at a bus stop - or so the well known story goes - and went on to not only star in this film but make two other Italian films in 1970. However, Frechette was a troubled man who belonged to the Fort Hill commune in Boston run by Mel Lyman, a sort of low-rent Charles Manson. After filming Zabriskie Point, Frechette took co-star and lover Daria Halprin back to the commune but she soon left and became a dance therapist. Frechette later took part in a bank robbery and died in a bizarre prison accident involving a set of 150lb barbells. Mark and Daria were clearly not star-crossed lovers but for a time, they dominated magazine covers and seemed to represent the turn-of-the-decade youth movement - which is exactly what Antonioni intended.

The film is very much a series of dialectics which are intended to take the place of standard narrative; materialism/nature; violence/peace; space/urban sprawl; talk/silence. Many of these are summed up by the use of the central location, Zabriskie Point in Death Valley. It is here that Antonioni stages his famous orgy sequence as Mark and Daria's lovemaking is replicated by multiple couples who gradually blend in with the sand and the rocks. It's a great scene, backed by Jerry Garcia's solo guitar improvisations, but I'm not sure it says a great deal beyond celebrating the sex act and the freedom of going back to nature. There's an obvious sense of release here and perhaps a breaking of taboo but it's a show-off scene which works beautifully without meaning much. Zabriskie Point, an endlessly shifting landscape of sand, wind and emptiness, may also mean more than simply the power of the natural. It seems to me to express a basic emptiness in human beings and to symbolise the vast distances between us which must be surmounted if we are to communicate. Mark and Daria perhaps make the leap and become one with this landscape but only after they have abandoned their possessions and clothes and become a part of the natural scene themselves.

The other famous set-piece in the film is the conclusion where the camera observes, in loving slow-motion and from multiple angles, the destruction of a building and its contents. The metaphor is obvious - the futility of materialist capitalism - but the filmmaking is gorgeous. The scene seems to lasts forever, an orgasmic explosion which we don't want to end. It's the greatest moment of the film and perhaps of Antonioni's career. The message that he leaves us with is one of contrasts. The destruction is nihilistic and anarchic but it's also potent, sensual and exciting. Through violence, Daria finds freedom and satisfaction. It's perhaps ironic, therefore, that it leaves her with nothing. She ends the film without Mark, without Lee and without love. The only thing left is the sun, burning deeply, its glare one of pitiless and blank intensity. What message is left for the revolutionaries is a moot point. But if we want to identify a moment when peace and love died on screen and violence became the only way out, this is as good as any.

The Disc

Long awaited by its many fans, Zabriskie Point makes its American DVD debut at the hands of Warner Brothers.

The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. The transfer is generally gorgeous with only some over-enhancement in places to mar the overall beauty. The colours are, quite simply, to die for, and the level of detail is compelling. Zabriskie Point needs to be seen on a vast cinema screen to be fully appreciated - it's an overwhelmingly visual experience - but this is a fine DVD. The mono soundtrack is also good, although there is a slight hiss throughout the scenes which are not backed by a music score. There is the option of a French track which has the not unwelcome effect of making the performances of the two young leads seem rather better.

The only extra is the original theatrical trailer, presented in non-anamorphic 2.35:1. Optional subtitles are offered for the main feature.

Zabriskie Point was a huge flop at the box office and roundly condemned by most critics. But time has been kind to it and it's now possible to see the genius at work in every frame. This DVD looks and sounds fine and is well worth buying.

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