ReFramed No. 19: Michelangelo Antonioni’s ‘Zabriskie Point’ (1970)

I can’t really remember any specific dialogue from Michelangelo Antonioni’s ‘Zabriskie Point’ at all, but its images are seared into my brain for life.

Calum Marsh: As you know, Jordan, the films we tend to gravitate toward in this column are mostly obscure or neglected, like forgotten late-career coups by otherwise canonical directors or great films considered “minor” by the high guard. Zabriskie Point, an English-language drama by legendary Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, represents a different sort of case altogether: widely available as an inexpensive, reasonably high-quality Region 1 DVD and unforgotten by anyone who’s seen it, Zabriskie Point‘s major problem isn’t that it’s lost or unseen–it’s that it’s hated. Other than perhaps Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and some of the most difficult Godard projects, no film we’ve written about in these pages is as intensely reviled or rejected as this one, which has been considered a definitive, irredeemable failure since its release in 1970.

Coming just a few short years after his commercial and international breakout Blowup, and only the second of a three-film deal with producer Carlo Ponti, Zabriskie Point had more hype and hope resting on it than that Lana Del Ray album. And it was received about as angrily: American critics tore the poor film to pieces, launching one scathing tirade after another until every last bit of Antonioni’s critical credibility was depleted. The movie was a box-office dud, which is especially disappointing considering the profitability of his previous effort, which pretty much derailed his career (the last installment of the Ponti arrangement, 1975’s outstanding The Passenger, would be Antonioni’s last major work).

Despite its reputation, Zabriskie Point is actually quite a remarkable film, and though it is not my favorite Antonioni film (the man-made some of the finest films in the history of cinema, so that’s probably unsurprising), it is certainly worthy of this kind of reappraisal. It looked for a while that Zabriskie Point might make something of a critical comeback, with writers like Jonathan Rosenbaum endeavoring to reclaim it (it even received a glowing review right here in Popmatters when it was released on DVD). But that legacy of revulsion is a damn hard one to erase, and there’s a lot more fighting left to do on its behalf.

Jordan Cronk: I agree that Zabriskie Point isn’t necessarily among Antonioni’s very best work, but to me his post-Blowup work remains the most interesting period of his career to reevaluate. For my money, this isn’t even the best of his late-period work—that title would go to The Passenger which you mentioned; I also slightly prefer 1983s Identification of a Women—but it’s easily the most misunderstood and unfairly maligned. In some respects, I can see why people reacted the way they did at the time. After all, coming off one of the great art-house successes of all time with Blowup, expectations were high. Also, this being an American production about a major American countercultural movement, it’s understandable that some folks may have been looking to Zabriskie Point as an American answer to the thematically similar British production, Blowup.

What’s become more clear with hindsight, however, is that Blowup represented the end of a certain period in Antonioni’s career. Everything he made after this was more difficult by half, as he set about accentuating all the stylistic idiosyncrasies—extended takes, molasses-slow pace, picaresque locales offset by spiritually adrift characters—that critics of Antonioni always felt pretentious and labored. These films really feel of a piece to me, though, variations on themes and aesthetics that Antonioni seemed possessed with deconstructing. But in the case of Zabriskie Point, Antonioni almost set himself up for disappointment by not only utilizing his comparatively grand budget to enlist Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia to contribute music, while also choosing to shoot on location in Los Angeles and Death Valley, but also by recruiting two unknown, untrained leads to headline the follow-up to his most popular movie to date.

Indeed, the performances by Daria Halprin and Mark Frechette—the latter basically playing himself—are many critics’ pet peeve about the film. I personally don’t mind the performances as they mostly gel with Antonioni’s disaffected pace and thematically laissez-faire gait, but there’s no denying that the odds were stacked against this film from the start. But no matter one’s opinion on the film as a whole, I can’t imagine anyone not fully conceding to the fact that Zabriskie Point features a handful of Antonioni’s most visually transcendent sequences. On simply an aesthetic level, this film deserves considerable recognition, and I can personally set aside imperfections if it means once again experiencing these frequently stunning set pieces. Zabriskie Point falls into a category of films that I find very fascinating: certainly not a masterpiece by any logical standard, but just as certainly the work of a master.

Marsh: I agree. On a strictly aesthetic level, Zabriskie Point is among Antonioni’s greatest achievements, and its strongest sequences are just completely staggering to behold. Although he wasn’t shooting on Technicolor (a format he essentially resurrected for use in his sumptuous Red Desert, his best-looking film by a mile), Zabriskie Point is still one of the richest, most full-bodied color films of the period–an even more impressive feat considering that it is shot and set in Los Angeles, the colors of which often look muted and drained on screen. The satirical bent of his approach here–he takes aim at corporate America and the clash of values between commercial culture and the budding counterculture movement–feels slightly dated, as most satires become over time, but the application of its criticisms are as vibrant and exciting as ever.

Of course, the acting throughout will be a hurdle for most viewers, but for me, this doesn’t exactly represent a failure on Antonioni’s part. The case has been made that Antonioni used actors much the same way Bresson did, framing them as models rather than performers in the traditional sense. And I’ve read an even more interesting theory that the poor performances of the leads were tacitly encouraged by Antonioni, who wanted to undermine the self-seriousness of their cause–perhaps by reducing the effectiveness of its delivery, Antonioni intended to apply a further layer of insight and critical evaluation to the message at the center of the film. In any case, I feel that there’s generally far too much emphasis on acting in mainstream criticism, and even if the poor performances here were strictly incidental it doesn’t negatively affect my opinion of the film as a whole. It’s regrettable that it was such a sticking point for nearly every critic in the country when this thing came out.

Cronk: There’s a quote by Jonathan Rosenbaum that sums up my feelings about late-period Antonioni quite well: he states that “Antonioni isn’t a storyteller, but a composer/conductor of images,” and that plays into your notion about the performances in Zabriskie Point. I mean, I can’t really remember any specific dialogue from this film at all, but there are surely images that are seared into my brain for life. The actors in many Antonioni films and in Zabriskie Point, in particular, are oftentimes just symbols or physical objects for Antonioni to weave into his expansive mise-en-scène. Here, they even become part of the landscape itself. No one could shoot outside sequences better than Antonioni, and the extended desert sequence in the middle of the film is quite simply enveloping in its warmth and tone of sensuality.

The centerpiece dream sequence at Zabriskie Point and the climatic visualization of Halprin’s anti-consumerist and nascent violent attitudes are two of the most stop-dead beautiful moments in film. And that, I suppose, is what I mean by the work of a master; these sequences are obviously not the renderings of an amateur, but a seasoned veteran in total control of his surroundings. Thematically, the film may have been instantly dated, as you suggest, but just as Godard skewered consumerist culture with Masculine Feminine, Two or Three Things I Know About Her and Weekend, among others, so too does Antonioni—if a bit more abstractly—indict a generation’s dependence on the makeup of a society fueled by-product and unattainable outward standards. In this sense, the transcendent finale is both abasement and cleansing, and Antonioni’s persistence in documenting the scope of the incident is as spiritually admirable as it is viscerally powerful.

Marsh: And the film’s unforgettable ending is the one thing even its harshest credits concede is masterful, which is saying something. It’s such a jarring, substantial finish, totally unlike what precedes it and, in terms of scope and vision, unlike anything in movies before or since. Some critics find it fundamentally hypocritical that a film about the superficiality of consumer culture should itself be so gorgeously rendered, but that potential contradiction deepens the film’s meaning. That ending, in particular, aestheticizes the destruction of consumer goods in a manner that seems difficult to reconcile with its countercultural conceit, but I think that might be part of the point: the surface pleasures of these images are immensely seductive, but, because that pleasure can supplant or even undermine meaning, there’s danger in their appeal.

The impulse to reject or destroy consumerism once visualized or acted upon, becomes every bit as immediately satisfying as the way consumer goods are packaged and sold — the film is sort of an advertisement for its own contempt for advertising, and I think Antonioni, sharply aware of the risk of hypocrisy in that, embraces it fully rather than trying to sneak around it. I mean, despite its arthouse pedigree, this is essentially a big-budget Hollywood production about a movement against precisely that sort of industry, and even if it’s sympathetic to the cause it’s still potentially exploitative. That it becomes a sort of meta-commentary on itself makes it much headier and involved than it initially seems (and it makes it more intellectually robust than most critics give it credit for).

Cronk: That’s true. And a pattern of criticism emerges with films that play as meta-commentary. We touched on similar notions a couple of months ago with Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls, which is similarly beyond reproach with regard to aesthetics but is equally reviled for its questionable acting and apparent surface-level simplicity. I seem to remember reading somewhere that Antonioni, at this point in his career, was exercising a method of successive and overlapping thematic and aesthetic idioms. Meaning that each of these films, from Zabriskie Point to The Passenger to Identification of a Woman to Beyond the Clouds, is not only, as I mentioned earlier, of a piece, but also a continuation and successive refinement—at least theoretically. Most of these films are flawed, but as we’ve continually attempted to argue through ReFramed, certain filmmakers’ mature or veteran work can and often times is more interesting than their objectively flawless films.

We talked about this with late-period Hitchcock, but it seems an especially egregious oversight in the case of Antonioni, who still had such an ambitious and uncompromising approach. He’s one of the few filmmakers who left his native country, graduated to Hollywood, and proceeded to make his most difficult films, oftentimes with big stars and large budgets at his disposal. It makes these films especially interesting and even evasive. There’s just so much to explore in these films, and Zabriskie Point remains arguably the most curious and thorny of the bunch. When a film provokes such reactions and proposes such questions over such a prolonged period of time, however, there is oftentimes more there than initially meets the eye. ReFramed isn’t necessarily about retroactively labeling maligned films as misunderstood masterpieces (at least not solely), but hopefully more often simply dialogue to stoke reconsideration of films with underserved critical baggage. Zabriskie Point can’t stand toe to toe with L’eclisse, but as further evidence of Antonioni’s perseverance and undaunted (if vain) pursuit of perfection, it may be just as essential to understanding one of the most elusive figures in the history of cinema.