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by Bill Gibron

5 Jul 2009


There are literally dozens of fanboy feuds in the realm of MST3K, fights as futile as Joel vs. Mike, Sci-Fi vs. Comedy Central, Crow T. Robot Mach 1 vs. Crow 2.0 - heck, even Rifftrax vs. Cinematic Titanic gets the cowtown puppet show geek juices flowing. Yet the one subject that seems almost lost in the entire compare and contrast dynamic is the participation of one Josh “Elvis” Weinstein. Perhaps it’s because he was gone before the series went mainstream - meaning he was around for the KTMA and Comedy Channel years, but left before the rest of the media made the show into a cult phenomenon. As a participant in the founding days of what remains one of the funniest things ever to grace an analog television screen, he seems misguidedly ill-considered. Of course, new fans haven’t had much of a chance to monitor Weinstein’s skills…until now.

That’s right - as part of their continuing desire to bring as much Mystery Science Theater 3000 to the digital age as possible, Shout! Factory is releasing Volume XV of their bravura box sets. This time around we are treated to surefire classics like The Girl in Lovers Lane (two drifters land in a small town and stir up some powerful hormones), Zombie Nightmare (voodoo and body building meet the living dead) and the immortal Racket Girls (spinsters put on unflattering togs and grapple like your grandma). Also included is one of the best episodes from the first season of the series - The Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy. As Mexican macabre goes, it’s all flashbacks and K. Gordon Murray mandated exposition. But as an example of what Weinstein contributed to the mix, it’s eye-opening, especially when you toss in the Scrapbook bonus features which trace the show’s seminal UHF roots.

Of course, this isn’t the first time that the original parameters of MST have been available on DVD. Rhino released a volume (#9) which offered up episode 104 - Women of the Prehistoric Planet, and last time around, Volume XIV presented the oddball offering Mad Monster (episode 103). But with Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy, we get one of the greatest between-movie skit selections ever - the arrival of the menacing (and poorly house trained) demon dogs. Riffing on everything from Land of the Lost (the main “intelligent” pup is known as Enoch) and Star Trek (the cosmic cur suggests a toast of “Tranya” as a symbol of friendship) there is a whole Alien/Aliens vibe going on which transcends the trip into easy toilet humor (remember, these bow-wows have squirrel like space bladders).

As for the movie - well, that’s another story entirely. It seems that whatever original director Rafael Portillo was trying to accomplish with all the slipshod science and ersatz folklore in this scary movie, the Americanization of such falderal created an even more incomprehensible mess. What many fans don’t realize is that this particular goofiness was actually part of an ongoing series featuring the title terror, the villain known as The Bat, and the attempts by both to thwart the good people of Mexico. Perhaps that’s why this material is so reliant on flashback and explanations. Instead of action, we get inert explanations of things that happened so many years ago that the characters should have heard of them by now. By the time we’ve reached the 60 minute mark, we are still waiting for the automaton part of the mix to make its appearance. It’s not worth it.

As for the remaining features, Girl provides the kind of Joel-based cracks that made his eventual retirement (three episodes later, with Mitchell) all the more meaningful. He is excellent here, leading compatriots Trace Beaulieu (Crow) and Kevin Murphy (Servo) through a plethora of exquisite gags, including takes on actors Brett Halsey, Joyce Meadows, and, best of all, Jack Elam (“what is that ODOR???”). The skits are sensational as well, especially the cracking train ditty “What a Pleasant Journey”. It matches perfectly with the maudlin melodrama of the film, a potboiler filled with homoerotic ridiculousness, rampant brotheling, and enough pie-eyed puppy love to give those notorious demon dogs a run for their interstellar kibble. Between the fey father figure who immediately warms to the concept of vigilante justice and the bare-assed babe casting entendres from a sitting room bathtub (?), there’s enough strange surreality to keep the rather limp premise at bay.


Similarly, Zombie Nightmare lingers long in the memory for reasons that have very little to do with the faux frights onscreen. The actors are so incredibly arch, everyone from nice newcomer Frank Dietz to the media-hardened hilarity of Adam West and rocker Jon Mikl Thor, that it’s hard not to fall into this movie’s misguided machinations. Perhaps more memorable is Shawn Levy - yes, THAT Shawn Levy. The future director of such unbridled dreck as the Pink Panther remake and those two nauseating Nights at the Museum shows why he’s a wholesale hack with his turn as the freewheeling Id-case, Jim. With hair that would make New Jersey mall rats blush and a build that suggests one too many Slim-Jim dinners, he’s anti-sex personified. That he is considered a menace in this movie says something about the script’s overall ineffectualness. As for the MST material - it’s aces, as usual.

But neither of these nuggets can match the matron-on-matron gag reflexing of Racket Girls. Originally entitled Pin Down Girls, we are treated to a proposed inside look at the tumultuous and tantalizing world of female wrestling, highlighting the potential criminal element hiding within. In actuality, the only thing revealed is the spastic anti-athleticism of the thick-thighed models passing as competitors populating Scalli’s gymnasium as jiggle show. And that includes the immortal Peachy Page, whose R. Crumb carriage becomes the main cinematic focus as she tumbles, tousles, and teases the audience with her various “skills”. Mike and the ‘bots have a field day with this dreary dames as doormats exposé, especially when real life wrastlin’ champs Clara Mortensen and Rita Martinez show up to prove that Ms. Page isn’t the only one with limited ‘thespian’ tendencies. 


As for the added content included with these titles, Shout! Factory has gone all out. Both The Aztec Mummy and Girl feature material lifted from the MST Scrapbook (an old compilation of behind the scenes and early KTMA clips). Zombie Nightmare has actual cast members Frank Dietz and Jon Mikl Thor traveling down memory lane in updated - and very funny - interviews. There is also an odd “sneak peek” at something called Hamlet A.D.D. The animated material, featuring Trace, Kevin, and Majel Barrett Roddenberry is quite peculiar…and quite entertaining. Along with a few promos and a collection of MST mini-movie posters, Shout! certainly signals their intentions of keeping their announced commitment to all this amazing in-theater spoofing.

And in the process, here’s hoping that Weinsten gets the recognition he so richly deserves. Granted, Kevin Murphy did make Tom Servo solely his, so much so that any other version of the character seems simplistic and half-hearted. In addition, Frank Conniff’s turn as Beaulieu’s beleaguered sidekick, TV’s Frank, is such a sublime supporting effort that Weinstein’s Erhardt does pale in comparison. But you can’t have comic greatness without a foundation of funny business, and those in the know argue that there was more to this teenage whiz kid that bad glasses and false bravado. J. Elvis is an important part of the MST3K legacy. The more exposure he can get (and Season One definitely deserves it), the sooner fans will see what purists have known for all these years. 

by Bill Gibron

5 Jul 2009


Consider the short film. Actually, consider the concept of the short film first. When people hear the label, they automatically think of a couple of completely different and competing conceits. The main one is the surreal student project where creative dreams and aesthetic leaps are captured on celluloid for all the insular intelligentsia to see - and for the most part, they’re right. Gone are the days when mini-movies actually attempted things like narrative, character, or theme (the other ideal, by the way). Instead, they tend to represent the very fringes of filmic art - visual collages that challenge and chuckle at the very mandates of the medium. That is not to say that such approaches are wrong. Indeed, some of our greatest auteurs (David Lynch, Martin Scorsese) got their start fashioning big, brassy ideas into tiny formats.

But if the recent compilation from Cinemad is any indication, very little has changed in the land of the self-indulgent (and deluded) cinematic short. In 1998, the Xeroxed ‘zine by Mike Plante was dedicated to discovering new and unusual talents in the world of outsider filmmaking. Published intermittently and now found almost exclusively online, this waystation for the experimental and the avant-garde has championed some of the most earnest and unusual talents in the entire field of underground art. Now, with the help of DVD distributor Microcinema, Cinemad celebrates its recent 10th anniversary with an “almanac” - an anthology of titles chosen to represent the best, the brightest, and the most mindboggling of the many filmmakers featured - and it truly is an odd bunch.

Along with an accompanying 60 page booklet covering the individuals represented, Cinemad starts out with the amiable Edge-TV with Animal Charm by Animal Charm. It then moves on to Above Below by Cam Archer, Letters, Notes by Stephanie Barber, Valse Triste by Bruce Conner, Pictures from Dorothy by Kevin Jerome Everson, and The Sun by James Fotopoulos. One of the longest pieces in the collection, the startling Lot 63, Grave C by Sam Green is next, with three efforts by Jake Mahaffy - War (trailer), Wellness (trailer) and Motion Studies #3: Gravity - putting in an appearance. We are then treated to Light is Calling by Bill Morrison, Viscera by Leighton Pierce, and The Time We Killed by Jennifer Reeves before a final triptych from Deborah Stratman - How Among the Frozen Words, It Will Die Out in the Mind and The Magician’s House.

As stated before, the term “film” should be used loosely - or perhaps only literally - when dealing with these often frustrating fragments. Granted, they are all the product of some very powerful and strong-willed individuals, creators with clear visions of what they think they are doing and how it comes across visually. Sadly, only a few offerings here make a real lasting impression. Letters, Notes offers nothing more than a series of sentences animated over the top of some iconic images. But Stephanie Barber’s approach provides the kind of depth and determination that other entries here lack. Similarly, Jake Mahaffy gets three chances to shine, but only War manages to maintain our interest. In fact, Motion Studies #3 is an example of gallows’ humor so obvious it seems almost juvenile. The same could be said for the shock value silliness of Edge-TV.

In fact, almost every wannabe cineaste here could take a lesson from Sam Green. His memorable and moving Lot 63, Grave C takes a well known subject (the death of Meredith Hunter at the Rolling Stone’s Altamonte Free Concert in 1969) and mixes in some investigative journalism and filmed flashback perspective (from the seminal documentary Gimme Shelter) to try and locate where the man is now buried. Though it skips over much of the behind the scenes seriousness of what happened that fateful December night - Hunter did brandish a gun before being stabbed to death by a member of the Hell’s Angels - there is a poignancy to following the fate of one of history’s many cultural footnotes. This makes Lot hard to shake. Indeed, by the end of the 10 minute exposé, we are convinced that the Maysles should contact Green about companion piece status to their own amazing movie.

It’s just too bad then that few of the remaining films leave a similar impact. Many, like The Time We Killed are thwarted by a simple creative choice (a nearly whispered voice-over narration) or a failed concept (Bill Morrison’s failed Decasia redux Light is Calling). Others, like Viscera, struggle to get their message across due to an oblique, almost insular perspective. The overlapping of images and editing styles may seem like a solid way of illustrating your optical ideas, but not every cut and paste production yields some manner of universal truth. More times than not, art is like beauty - totally in the eye of the beholder and wholly reliant on some decent lighting.  No one is questioning the talent of the individuals celebrated by Cinemad. Perhaps this is a case where the ability can’t find its way into reality, or visa versa.

Frankly, the enclosed booklet is far more fascinating. Given an opportunity to speak, these filmmakers find ways of coalescing their thoughts in intelligent and insightful ways. They don’t doddle over shot selections or budgetary constraints. They frequently uncover ways of working out the issues seemingly lost in their films. Of course, there are the occasional glimpses of outright arrogance, examples of ambition far outweighing a sense of skill set proportion. Yet even in the most annoying cases, some clear information comes across. For everyone involved in Cinemad - both behind the scenes and in the actual pages of the publication - movies are a labor of love. They represent dreams deferred and sometimes realized, an entire lifetime filtered into a single roll of film stock.

As a result, Microcinema should be praised for picking such an obscure and profoundly idiosyncratic subject to commemorate. There are literally dozens of short film compilations floating around the DVD format and this one contains some of the most difficult and dense material of the lot - and maybe that’s the point. After all, all art is not freely recognized in its era. Sometimes, it takes preservation, and a latter reconsideration, before someone’s work manifests into an iconic tableau of talent. Anyone looking for material far outside the mainstream knows that Cinemad is a tag to trust. Others will need to come at this compendium with the requisite amount of skepticism. Being alternative and underground doesn’t automatically make you cool. For all its ambitions, this Almanac is rather inconsistent - just like most so-called examples of art.

by Bill Gibron

4 Jul 2009


What, exactly, happened to Renny Harlin? How did he go from hotshot newbie with an entire career before him to a cinematic afterthought left to helm horrid hackjobs like The Covenant and Cleaner? After three films in Finland, the foreign visionary landed on our shores and immediately made his mark with the excellent convict creepshow Prison. In quick succession, he then delivered one of the best Nightmare on Elm Street sequels and the definitive Die Hard installment. But then came the craptacular Ford Fairlane, the attempted comeback of Cliffhanger, and one of the biggest of all box office bombs, the pale pirate movie Cutthroat Island. Such a cruel career rollercoaster is not unusual in Tinsel Town, but with solid follow-up features like The Long Kiss Goodnight and the silly shark romp Deep Blue Sea, one assumes a little artistic amnesty is long overdue.

Yet now here we sit, in 2009, with Harlin helming the latest Vince McMahon tax dodge, 12 Rounds. With star wrestler John Cena in the lead, a capable cast surrounding him, and a script by first timer Daniel Kunka, it would seem like the former A-lister is still doing time for some manner of motion picture crime. And that’s too bad - because this is actually a perfectly acceptable, quite accomplished action film. Sure, Harlin’s $1.50 budget shows through now and again, and the entire clockwork plot tends to implode around the 90 minute mark, but what remains is a perfect example of a rehabilitative resume builder. Still, the star vehicle stink for a less than noted athlete and the additional b-movie vibe will leave many thinking that, in terms of slumming, it’s the rest of the company that’s catering to Harlin’s dwindling reputation.

During an FBI sting of an Irish arms dealer named Miles Jackson, police officer Danny Fisher steps in and saves the day. Sadly, he also causes the accidental death of the criminal’s beloved gal pal. One year later, Jackson escapes from prison and kidnaps Fisher’s girlfriend. He intends to play a game, engaging the recently promoted detective to 12 rounds of cat and mouse comeuppance. Our hero must do everything the villain says or lose the chance of ever seeing his woman alive again. Luckily, Fisher has best friend Hank Carver and two nosy government agents, Aiken and Santiago along for the ride. All he has to do is complete Jackson’s tasks and he will avoid the vengeance the talented terrorist seeks. Of course, payback may not be the only thing Jackson is interested in. A big payday might be another.

With its wonderful post-Katrina NOLA setting and the standard stunt spectacle as only Harlin can deliver, 12 Rounds is actually quite good. It’s no masterpiece, but then again, few post-millennial adrenaline rushes have been. Instead, when viewed inside its maker’s inconsistent canon, it falls somewhere between Stallone’s rock climbing cheesiness and Bruce Willis’ airport bad-assery. Sure, there is a superficial quality to what it going on, a “don’t go over budget” border that Harlin never crosses, and the quality of talent both in front of and behind the lens leads to sequences that don’t really pay off like they should (the trolley chase, the helicopter finale). Yet with what he had to work with, and how he managed to maneuver and manipulate same, Harlin is clearly doing some definite work. It may not be enough to bolster him back into the big time, but it’s clearly a motion picture means of rebuilding his sodden celluloid character.

As for Cena, he doesn’t have to be good. He just has to show up, and he does so admirably. He lacks a certain magnetism that makes his obviously pumped up responses feel a little less than intimidating, and his devil may care attitude toward danger (one he clearly picked up in the ring) undermines the basic needs of an edge of your seat thriller. Still, he’s a lot better than many athletes turned ‘actors’ and along with The Marine, he shows real promise as a part-time steely man of action. As for his support, The Wire‘s Aiden Gillen is good, if not very menacing, as Jackson. He’s more of a ‘toy with his target’ kind of criminal than an outright horror. And Tyler Perry regulars Steve Harris and Brian J. White are amiable as African American lawmen with different agendas regarding the situation.

Granted, at 108 minutes (closer to 110 in the “extreme” Blu-ray cut), it’s overlong and under-stuffed. There’s not enough set-up with Cena and his babe before things go kinetic, and when we do see some attempt at flashback feeling, the movie steps in and dispenses with it pronto. There are times when we wish Harlin would pull out all the stops, when he would offer up the inventive, in your face sequences that characterized Die Hard 2 and The Long Kiss Goodnight. There’s also the lack of a truly memorable presence, someone like Samuel L. Jackson who can carry a set of sequences through on the strength of his star power personality only. Still, you can’t deny that this is an above-average effort from a man who, until now, has been chided as existing somewhere far below the favored Tinsel Town talent.

Perhaps this new Blu-ray release from Fox will help. The amazing image and sensational sound surely can’t hurt. This is one of the best looking and best sounding home video releases - especially when you consider the source. The movie is mastered in a 1080p MPEG-4 AVC transfer the captures the theatrical feel of this film flawlessly. There is an incredible amount of detail and a real scope to some of the sequences. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is also stellar, delivering the kind of sonic panache a picture like this requires. This is especially true of the numerous chase scenes. The speakers spark into overdrive as the vehicular mayhem travels around from channel to channel.

As for added content, Fox really delivers. Aside from the now mandatory digital copy of the film (on a separate disc), there are two excellent audio commentaries (one from Harlin, one from Kunka and Cena), a pair of alternate endings (minor, not mandatory), a trio of featurettes, including a Making-of and a look at the various stunt work involved, and a Cena gag reel. Toss in the two versions of the film (original and slightly longer edit), a pair of viral videos, and a look at the musical score (with composer Trevor Rabin), and you’ve got a solid, must own title - at least from a technical point of view.

And believe it or not, the movie’s not bad either. While it won’t win any awards (Oscar or Razzie) it certainly is a step up from the so-called thrillers making the direct-to-digital rounds nowadays. Maybe Harlin will finally get the reevaluation and respect he so richly deserves - all Jolly Roger ridiculousness aside. What’s clear is that, in a business which often rewards outright mediocrity as long as it doesn’t diddle with the bottom line, a movie like 12 Rounds will be a likely non-issue. It was not a big hit when it played in theaters and even those who usually champion anything the WWE does put this squarely in See No Evil territory. Actually, both commercial and critical evaluations are rather harsh. Just like its maker, 12 Rounds deserves reconsideration. Ignore the flaws and you’ll find a rather entertaining film - and filmmaker. 

by Bill Gibron

3 Jul 2009


As writers, we are taught to avoid clichés. Avoid them like the plague. Avoid them like red-headed step-children at a reunion. As a literary shortcut they supposedly show sloppiness and a lack of imagination. In movies, we criticize them as an easy out to what are typically tough interpersonal or narrative problems. In fact, any film or filmmaker that relies on said truisms to tell their tale is usually raked over the coals, read the riot act, and run out of town on a rail. But not Giuseppe Andrews. As a multitalented hyphenate who can seemingly master all media - written, visual, aural, philosophical - he’s perhaps the only auteur working in independent cinema that could take the tried, the tacky, and the sometimes true and work it into a wonderful dissertation on the usual family struggles and strife.

Tired of living under a bridge like a troll, middle-aged homeless man Ronzoni decides to reconnect with his roots. Buying a bowling ball as a Christmas gift, he heads out to visit his retired father and distant sister Agatha who live in a local trailer park. Unfortunately, they both think he’s a wholly worthless bum. When a large box lands on his chest, Ronzoni is stuck behind his dad’s double wide and no matter how hard they try, they just can’t seem to get the empty cardboard container off his body. Wanting to escape his incessantly whining, the pair head off to a hotel. There, Agatha meets Nicholas, an in-room escort who opens her eyes to the joy of music and the fun of making anti-porno. Eventually, the duo checks out and heads back to the park, only to discover that Ronzoni has been freed. While his fate is more than uncertain, father and daughter agree - their relative was a real piece of sh*t.

With its groovy gimmick and visual experimentation, Long Row to Hoe reminds the Andrews’ purist of just how amazingly gifted this gonzo filmmaker can be. From his simple storytelling approach to his constant narrative counterpunches, he can take the most menial material and make it into a masterpiece. With his always solid cast including the reliable Vietnam Ron, Ed, Marybeth Spychalski, and Walter Patterson, and the relatively new location of a local park to accent his typical trailer towns, Andrews offers us a theater of the absurd masked as the everyday grind of a biological back and forth. Ronzoni clearly has issues with both of his relatives. His father has nothing but foul words for his wayward son, while Agatha blames him for everything odd and unruly in her life - including a strange piece of frozen meat she finds in her freezer.

Both would rather see him gone for good rather than part of their life, and when he ends up wailing away in the backyard, they can’t wait to escape. When they return from their trip to the hotel however, their nonchalant reaction to his apparent disappearance marks their true, unfettered feelings. Andrews clearly understands how most kinfolk interact. Holidays are horror films where false fronts have to be prepared and put on just to get through the difficulties of the day, and with Ronzoni and his apparent lack of legitimacy, such an act is even more difficult. Ed’s aggravated responses to Ron’s sheepish apologies argue for how deep this hatred runs, and this is one of the reasons Long Row to Hoe is so potent. We rarely see families in such a full on mode of hatred. Sadly, there’s a lot of bile built up over the years when it comes to this tragic trio.


As a storyteller, Andrews loves the obvious symbol. Ronzoni is crushed by an empty box, something that should be simple to remove. No one can, however and it tends to confirm his reportedly useless nature. The sheer futility of such a set-up mirrors the attempts by Agatha and Dad to get the hopeless hobo out of their life. Similarly, when the pair rent a room for the night, the arrival of an in-room escort offers the eye-opening reaction to the outside world that our heroine has rarely had the opportunity to experience. The entire anti-porno sequence, filled with repeated visual jokes and silly sight gags, also offers its own unique perspectives. For a couple of young people, including one paid to act as the other’s consensual companion, to simply aim their camera and manufacture superficiality says a lot about the interpersonal skills and passion of all involved.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Giuseppe Andrews film without its freak show element, but this time, it’s the words that act as oddities. Hearing Dad talk to his chair-bound buddy in a series of senseless chestnuts, one well worn maxim after another tossed freely into the air, we begin to sense a clear cut creative purpose. Andrews is visibly striving to show how communication without truth is just that - an endless string of pointless words that lack a legitimacy and a meaning. This happens many times in Long Row to Hoe - characters will break out in cliché couplets, their thoughts now clouded by a phraseology that suggests something while literally saying nothing. It’s not all that novel for Andrews. He’s used curse words and scatology in a similar manner before. But with clichés, the message becomes even more consequential. All the admonishments about using such communicative shorthand are true. They honestly add nothing to the tête-à-tête.

If art is life reflected in a wholly original and unique manner, then Long Row to Hoe is a piecemeal Picasso. It’s a Vermeer minus the brilliant use of light, an avant-garde gemstone in a showcase filled with carefully cut glass. Andrews continues to author one of the most amazing cinematic oeuvres ever, a day-in-the-life briefing of the most meaningful bits of life’s fringe findings. From the homeless to the housed, the sensible to the strange, he has long since taken his place as the troubadour for the downtrodden and the champion for their challenged. As clichéd accolades go, he’s as good as it gets, and there truly are none better. But beyond such simple sentiments, Giuseppe Andrews continues to shock and amaze, not only with his growth as a filmmaker, but with his seemingly endless fount of creative fuel. On paper, Long Row to Hoe sounds superficial, perhaps even silly. In execution, it’s electric.

by Bill Gibron

2 Jul 2009


Legend has it that when Italian maestro Michelangelo Antonioni came to America to make his second English language film (after the monster success of Blow-up), he was shocked by the backlash his production received. There was never any doubting of his ideals - the filmmaker famous for such seminal cinematic statements as L’avventura, La note and L’eclisse was as left leaning as the turbulent times allowed - and his planned film was to take on all aspects of the debauched Western (read: US) culture. But with local law enforcement accusing Antonioni of everything from inciting riots to corrupting the morals of youth, the counterculture’s latest auteur was heading for a face off with the most conservative of stateside Establishments - and it really wasn’t a fair fight.

As a result, many consider Zabriskie Point to be a failure. They see it as a kind of compromise, a version of Antonioni’s philosophies foiled by a time when the ‘60s was dying and no one was around to eulogize the corpse. The Manson Family had killed, the War in Vietnam (and the battle at home) raged on, and politics preempted freedom and common sense for the sake of a slipping nation. Antonioni wanted his ethereal encapsulation of the entire Peace Generation to be a strong and unswerving statement, a view of a land corrupted by consumerism and corporate greed. What he got instead was a tantalizing tone poem, a masterpiece that makes its point in symbols so obvious and complaints so calculated that one just can’t imagine his message would be so simple.

When we first meet out hero, Mark, he is storming out of a student strike rally meeting. He is tired of all the talk and wants to act - and act NOW. Sadly, during the resulting confrontation with police, an officer is shot and killed - and Mark is targeted as the likeliest suspect. On the run from the law, he steals a small airplane and heads out into California’s Death Valley. There he runs into temporary secretary turned CEO mistress Daria. A fertile example of free love flower power, she’s off to help her middle-aged man secure a deal to exploit some local land.

The minute they meet, the coquettish Daria woos Mark with her earnest and easy sexuality. She connects with his need for rebellion and revolution. They make their way to Zabriskie Point, where they continue to discuss politics both social and personal. There, among the various mineral deposits and dusty dunes, they express themselves physically. Mark decides to take a risk and return to campus. He is sure his sense of innocence and justice will pay off. Daria simply goes off to meet with her boss, hoping for a happiness that, sadly, will probably never come.

It is often said that foreign filmmakers do a far better job of capturing the American zeitgeist, no matter the era, than their US counterparts. A perfect example of this proverb arrives in the form of Zabriskie Point. You will not see a better distillation of the entire 1960s and everything it stood for - good, bad, indifferent, insightful - than this uncompromising artistic overview. As a modernist, a moviemaker noted for his disconnected ideals and luxuriant long takes, Antonioni was still capable of contravening expectations. Zabriskie actually tells a rather linear story, settling on Mark and Daria’s escape from society as the basis for all that follows. Unlike some critics who’ve claimed the film is all outdated screeds and sand dune canoodling, Zabriskie Point actually builds, offering multiple layers of meaning. It may not always succeed, but when it does, it’s magical.

In essence, this is a story about sin, and the sacrifice of two human beings toward the betterment of mankind (make that Western mankind) in general. All throughout the opening of the film, Antonioni counters the high minded pronouncements of the student radicals with the ever-present pulse of materialism and advertising. We see billboards promoting the good life, and sale pitches poised to get would-be “suckers’ to buy their unnecessary desert dream homes. As Mark rides around LA, railing against the apathy he sees, the source of said indifference bombards us from all angles. Antonioni also tosses in the necessary mood music of the time, giving Pink Floyd, the Youngbloods, and The Rolling Stones (among others) a chance to air their always intriguing sonic dirty linens.

But it’s the finale that will stay with you long after Mark and Daria finish their fateful meeting. Using a high tech home in the side of the mountain as an icon for all that’s wrong with America’s economic inequality, Antonioni systematically blows up all the trappings of such a sour post-modern philosophy. We literally see piles of clothing, refrigerators loaded with foodstuff, library shelves larded with books, and various iconic bourgeoisie settings explode in a slow-motion dance of disintegration. For these moments alone, Zabriskie Point deserves to be revered. But there is more to this movie than criticism. Antonioni also wants to celebrate the purity that could have come from such a realized rethinking of the typical communal norms. When Mark and Daria eventually make love, their spirit of passion is so strong that it calls up the dusty ghosts of all young lovers of the era. It’s a sequence that Antonioni visualizes with all the musk and meaning he can create.

It’s not wonder then why this movie was challenged - before, during, and after its making. Our country comes off as cold, cruel, callous, calculated, controlling, contrived, and in the end, committed to the stagnant status quo. Antonioni may be anguishing over the lack of true extremism in the actions of student groups and unions, but his answer seems obvious from the moment Mark and his buddies hit the gun shot - arm yourself and take down the Man one bullet at a time. Even the ending uses the infamous bombings of the era as an inference on how to rid the structure of such harmful board room robber barons. In many significant ways, Antonioni is pissing on both the peaceniks and the powers that be. Neither deserves his ultimate approval and neither get it.

As a result, Zabriskie Point can feel incomplete and ambiguous. Instead of staying with its obvious leftist leanings, it chastised the audience for believing to readily in their own peace, love, and harmony pronouncements. Our leads may seem naïve, walking directly into traps that almost any ‘right’ thinking individual would see a million miles away, but that’s part of this movie’s before-its-time charms. By 2009 standards, such a declaration would seem silly. Back almost four decades ago, it was prophetic. Antonioni could see the end of the era in signs more sensational than acceptable, and many coming to his celluloid table weren’t happy with the creative dishes being served. Sadly, that’s their loss. Today, Zabriskie Point plays actually as it should - slyly, uncompromisingly, masterfully.

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