[2 July 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
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.