Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Starring: Mark Frechette, Daria Halprin, Paul Fix
Release Date: 5th March 1970 (UK)
Literary critics have long debated whether an author can write a novel for the sole purpose of winning an award, the general consensus being if such a novel was written, the result would be unreadable aside to the few critics the book was designed to impress in the first place. For film nowadays, the reverse is true, with risk-averse studios puffing up any new film not featuring superheroes or giant robots as possessing the solemnity, intellectual appeal and mild quirkiness as worthy of an Academy Award (yes, I’m looking at you, Birdman (2014)). Today, it seems unthinkable a major studio once invested a large budget to a film advocating no less than the end of capitalism, and hand over the project to a fashionable and highly-regarded foreign director, in the hope of creating a film critics would admire and send the hip youngsters who took to the streets to protest against Vietnam into the cinema. Yet just this scenario occurred in the late 1960s. The studio: MGM; the director: Italian-born Michelangelo Antonioni; the film: Zabriskie Point.
MGM were in the middle of a bad run. Alfred the Great (1969), Goodbye Mr Chips (1969), Brewster McCloud (1970), The Strawberry Statement (1970, also a pro-youth protest movie) and, sad to report, The Last Run (1971), had either bombed or were awaiting detonation. Antonioni’s first film for MGM, Blow-Up (1966), filmed in the UK, had proved a big critical and commercial hit. Revered for his classic Italian trilogy, L’Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961), and L’Eclisse (1962), Antonioni was presented with a budget of seven million dollars (nearly forty-four million dollars in 2016 terms) by MGM for the esteemed director to commit his vision of the USA to celluloid. Confident of a hit, MGM sat back and waited for the finished product. And waited, and waited…
Even as Antonioni began work on Zabriskie Point, time was running out. The counterculture audience MGM targeted in 1967 had begun to burn out by 1970, with the film delayed by a troubled production not helped by its controversial left-wing subject matter of revolution against capitalist society. The critics scented blood and when Zabriskie Point, preceded by months of speculation regarding Antonioni’s use of MGM’s money, and his casting of two non-actors in the lead roles, was finally released, it became open season on the Italian. Every critic enjoys a turkey shoot, and they gave Antonioni and company both barrels.
Leading the charge, the ever-dependable Pauline Kael, writing for the New Yorker: “a pathetic mess…Zabriskie Point is a disaster but as one might guess, Antonioni doesn’t make an ordinary disaster…this is a huge, jerry-built, crumbling ruin of a movie.” Time magazine described the film as “incredibly simple-minded and obvious”, Newsweek adroitly dismissed it as “bad enough to give anti-Americanism a bad name”, while the New York Times labeled Zabriskie Point “one of the ten worst of 1970”. Eight years later, the stink remained strong enough for the film to claim a prize place among Harry & Michael Medved’s The Fifty Worst Movies of All Time (1978), alongside Z-grade clunkers like Robot Monster (1953) and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1963). Another six years later, the Medveds gave Antonioni’s work a further kicking in The Hollywood Hall of Shame (1984), noting Zabriskie Point as a “pretentious piece of pap” which “immortalized all the most idiotic cliches about 1960s flower children.”
What caused the critics to experience this collective convulsion? Nothing Antonioni had done before or since created this level of hostility; could the director of L’Avventure really produce a monster on the level of The Ambushers (1967)? A film can grow when no-one is looking, and find a time and a place away from the milieu of its gestation; perhaps this is the case for Zabriskie Point.
We open on a confused scene of students planning a protest at their college. The camera jerks from one out-of-focus face to another, as voices blur and drown each other out until the credits are through and both picture and sound resolve into clarity. Students, and remarkably to modern eyes, some of their tutors, are discussing the violence they’ll meet from the (hated) police at the college strike; almost the first sentence we hear above the general din regards the use of Molotov cocktails. As so often in America, there exists a racial divide even in a group sharing a common purpose; one young white woman talks up the potential of whites as revolutionaries as well as blacks, and there’s a debate on the level of white support for the next day’s campus strike. The black members of the assembly, during what seems a largely improvised sequence (Zabriskie Point at times feels like an older, radicalized cousin of Shadows (1959)) discuss their treatment at the hands of the police and the need to meet kind with kind: “you have to use his language,” states one black man, “the language of the gun.” “Are you willing to die?” asks one student. “Black people are dying all over,” comes the reply. One young white man stands up and announces “I’m willing to die – but not of boredom,” then walks out of the room.
After he leaves, the assembly discusses how anarchists and revolutionaries can work together and one voice labels individualism as bourgeois – individualism, as we’ve seen many times before, is one of the great tenets of American life. Yet here, we have an individual maintaining his right to be so, even among a group who may share his ideals; in short, we have a rebel rebelling against a group of anti-conformists. Right from the start, Antonioni challenges the idea of the American rebel, and of the oppression latent in both society and his peer group.
The young man is Mark, played by Mark Frecette, a street discovery of Antonioni’s and like fellow non-professional and co-lead Daria Halprin, the subject of much critical scorn for his performance. If nothing else, Frecette looks the part, with hints of James Dean and a young Elvis Presley in his appearance, and he looks good alongside Halprin (the two had such chemistry a romantic relationship soon followed). True, Frecette is no great actor and like Dalprin, can’t save a bad line of dialogue, although his natural, self-conscious tone suits the feel of the film. Frecette, an activist in real life, would disown Zabriskie Point and after his relationship with Halprin ended, Frecette robbed a bank for ‘political reasons’, and died in a prison accident in 1975.
We meet Daria at the imposing offices of Sunnyvale Corp., where she’s working as a temporary secretary. There’s an odd scene where Daria asks a security guard if she can return to the roof level where she left behind a book she was reading at lunchtime. The guard refuses her permission and we might refuse to understand what’s supposed to be happening, yet we must remember narrative is not always as straightforward as it appears in cinema, and especially in Antonioni. Perhaps we might ask why the youngster requires permission of an authority figure to go somewhere off limits – do activists require permission to rebel against society? Does society frustrate youth by offering them a view (from the roof), or a form of learning (the book), then challenging their access to such matters? Not only must we dig to find answers in Zabriskie Point, but we also need to dig for the questions.
A company executive, Lee Allen, passes by and chats to Daria. Allen is played by Zabriskie Point‘s one star name, Rod Taylor, a piece of casting as odd in its way as that of the two young leads. Taylor, a rugged old-style Hollywood leading man, looks entirely convincing as the everyday American executive, a 1970 precursor (contemporary?) of Don Draper of Mad Men and yet surely the point in having a member of the Hollywood establishment appearing as a ‘ordinary’ character in an experimental film, is as a subversion of viewer expectation. Wilfrid H Whyte’s influential 1956 book The Organization Man accused America’s Lee Allens, men of the corporate ethic, of going against America’s tradition of the creative individual who forges his own path. Instead, Whyte argued, American executives were concerned only with toeing the line, intent on comfort over personal risk. We are asked to compare Lee Allen with Mark, and wonder who conforms most to the traditional role of the American male. It can’t be a coincidence that Antonioni cast the Australia-born Taylor in the executive role, an actor whose natural accent creeps through more noticeably here than his other Hollywood appearances. Can it be that Mark is more typically American than the Organization Man? Who is the real outsider?
Allen isn’t portrayed as a cigar-chewing corporate monster, however. In fact, Allen, who appears to have met Daria before, is friendly towards the young woman and asks what brings her to Sunnyvale. Daria replies: “I’m doing secretarial work for someone else. It’s not what I dig to do, I only do it when I need bread.” It wasn’t until I watched Zabriskie Point for the first time I considered how strange the word ‘bread’ became slang for money; even rebels must earn money to eat, and this poses a problem to Mark later on. Everyone needs bread…
The next day, Mark and fellow student Morty (Bill Garaway) drive to the campus. The background music is wiry and severe as Antonioni fills the screen with corporate logos, on billboards, on the side of trucks, or as signs outside branches of Bethelhem Steel, Pacific Motors, and Heller Machinery. Mark almost causes a collision as he drives across a junction without stopping; a woman waves at him from one car brought to a halt. This was “a girl from my long-gone past.” “What’s her name?” asks Morty. Mark replies “my sister.” Woah! Mark is such an individual, even family doesn’t concern him. Ayn Rand would be proud were Mark not helping to dismantle capitalism, though his detachment suggests disinterest in the project beyond his friends’ involvement.
Morty (mortuary?) is filling in a form to help him get an early release from the anticipated police custody. Mark dislikes this defeatism: “the day you don’t count on losing is the day I join the movement,” he tells his friend, who reminds Mark that for some, the movement is a matter of survival. Mark drops Morty off at the main entrance to the college, where students have formed a picket.
Some time later, and arrested protesters are booked in at a police station. A Professor Pollit is logged by a cop at a typewriter who asks Pollit’s occupation. “Associate professor of history,” comes the reply. “Too long,” says the cop. “I’ll just put ‘clerk'”. And who said getting a history major is a waste of time? On a serious note, this shows how the system can demean, through a technological ‘limitation’, anyone who rebels against it. In a similar vein, we hear brief radio news reports on the college strike throughout Zabriskie Point, all delivered without context in bite-sized pieces by announcers using the same tone of voice as if delivering a story about a kitten rescued from a tree.
Mark appears at a side entrance and offers to bail Morty out, but succeeds only in antagonizing a cop who violently drags Mark into the station, to the outcry of the other students, and gets him booked in as arrested. Asked his name, Mark replies “Karl Marx.” Such is the police ignorance, the reference passes over the cop’s head who logs Mark in as ‘Carl Marx.’
Time to take arms. Mark and another student friend, Bill (Bruce Neckels) visit a couple of gun stores and at the first, buy .38 pistols on the recommendation of the store keeper, who is told the boys need to protect their women in a rough neighborhood. The second gun store owner provides a tip: if you shoot someone just outside your property, drag them indoors and the law is more lenient. Excellent customer service, yet you’ve only to imagine how shocking this would be to us in 2016, to see students arming themselves against police, to get some idea of the tumultuous political environment that formed the backdrop to the counterculture movement.
Sunnyvale executives watch a promotional film for their proposed marina and holiday complex, a project dependent on a land sale. The complex is an ersatz postmodern house of horrors, a place where men can hunt in the ‘wilderness’, while the women stay behind to cook and look after junior at ‘home’. There are no actors in this all-too-believable infomercial, only mannequins, the ideal patrons for an artificial environment carved out of nature – we later learn the complex is set in the Mojave Desert, a fine place for a marina! The commercial promises life in this version of the great outdoors is better than “the miserable, crowded city” we see outside the office windows, in a slick form of the self-hatred typical of Antonioni’s USA.
Daria hits the road in a 1952 Buick Special De Luxe with the air conditioning comfort of a Brazen Bull and a similar MPG; presumably the 1952 Buick non-Special was just a gas stove on wheels. A free spirit, Daria throws her map into the back of the car (I bet it’ll never fold up properly again) and puts her foot down, passing a billboard with a monumentally contrived ad for a savings and loan company; a picture of a salad bowl filled with cash and the tagline ‘You Are What You Eat. Try Our Salads…Save With Desert Springs’. For some companies, the 1980s couldn’t happen soon enough, but as a brief, wordless summary of the emptiness of corporate America and the soul of an optimistic young woman, this scene gets it spot on.
Returning to his office, shot by Antonioni like an Edward Hopper painting, Allen asks his secretary for Daria’s whereabouts, as they’re due to fly to Phoenix. The secretary is unable to find her, and so Allen phones Daria’s home number, which is answered by a male voice with the novel opening gambit of “goodbye.” Allen learns Daria left, taking the man’s car, earlier that day. With that, the young man wishes Allen “hello” and hangs up.
Bemused, Allen lights up another cigarette, and listens to a recording of a business meeting with representatives of the company owning the land Sunnyvale wishes to purchase, with Antonioni providing a remarkable shot from underneath Allen’s desk, showing the tape recorder, the seated Allen, and the sterile view from his office window, with the Stars and Stripes hanging limply to one side.
The students are on the wrong end of the law on campus, now the scene of batons and smoke bombs. We see bloodied youngsters nursing their wounds as the cops take out their dislike of progressive rock on anyone in their path. Students hide from gun-toting cops, while others are smoked out of the main building and told to hit the deck. “He’s got a gun!” cries a cop of one black youth, who is shot down without warning. Mark sees this from behind cover, pulls out his pistol, takes aim at a cop – who falls to the ground, dead. Mark runs from the battleground.
Taking a bus to the suburbs, Mark walks past street benches sponsored by a local mortician before entering a grocery store. One side of the store’s exterior is covered in a huge ad for 7-Up and the interior isn’t much better, with every available surface covered with advertising of some form or other, though there’s also racks of cool Marvel comic-books including, naturally enough, Captain America. Mark telephones Morty, who informs Mark he was seen on campus in a TV news report.
Disturbed by this, Mark asks the storekeeper to trust him for the price of a sandwich (Mark has no bread for bread), but as the storekeeper points out, if he trusted Mark, he’d “have to trust everyone in the whole world,” and America, let alone the world, is a place where no-one is trustworthy of the price of a pastrami on rye.
Mark seats himself between the feet of the local smog inspection station’s mascot as we take in the sights and sounds of suburban LA: road signs, billboards, motels, car lots, sirens, gas stations, and ads, ads, ads. Watching an airplane fly overhead gives Mark an idea.
Over at what I’m reliably informed is Hawthorne Municipal Airport, Mark ‘borrows’ a private light airplane named Lily 7 and takes off for the smoggy blue yonder. It’s at this point viewer credibility is strained, for as the Medved Brothers note, “Mark flies the plane flawlessly – he makes it look so easy that every boy and girl on the block will want to jump into a plane.” They have a point, yet Antonioni is a director who leaves space within his films (the system’s claustrophobic use of space, and the freedom of nature, are important themes in Zabriskie Point) for the viewer to move beyond the images he presents on screen. Somehow – perhaps it’s his direction, or the trippy soundtrack, or the gleaming force of the visuals – we as viewers can give Mark a more symbolic role within the narrative than is normally applicable. As one IMDB commentator puts it, Antonioni presents “scenes that represent the landscape” and if one oppressed young man is seeks freedom in the sky, maybe we should just fly with him.
Talking of the soundtrack, there are some big names providing the background music for Zabriskie Point, including Pink Floyd, Jerry Garcia and The Rolling Stones, and when Daria finds only Country & Western on her radio, we hear the likes of Patti Page and Roy Orbison. Regardless of your political stance, Zabriskie Point is a great film to listen to, as well as being a visual treat, even when the script isn’t all it could be.
Daria reaches a diner and phones Allen to ask him to locate the town she’s heading for; it has a ‘ville’ or a ‘hill’ in its name, possibly. “Why go to a town you don’t know the name of?” asks Allen, not unreasonably. Daria, the godmother of Manic Pixie Dream Girls, cares not for boring notions of names, order, or logic, and tells Allen she’s heading for wherever she’s heading as “it’s a great place for meditation.” In a way, Daria is right – there’s nothing to do in this particular town but think, and you might yet wish to avoid doing even that.
Allen asks Daria for the diner’s number, but Daria is wary of being dragged back into corporatism: “you’ll call out the helicopters and bring me back,” she jokes. “See you in Phoenix!” Arizona’s state capital is to host the conference deciding whether the land sale for the Sunnyvale complex will go ahead or not, and Daria thought she’d skip the plane flight and give her psyche some fresh air.
Daria asks around in the diner, populated by elderly men in stetsons who knew Tom Mix when he was knee-high to a ten gallon hat, if they know of such a town with an ‘l’ or a ‘v’ in it or whatever. “Hallister?” asks the cafe owner (Paul Fix). “You’re standing in it. You didn’t come here looking for a James Patterson?” Daria confirms she is. “You look the type,” says the cafe owner, in what might not be a compliment. “He’ll be the death of this town,” the man continues, “he’s going to ruin a piece of American history.” The only historic quality to this town is the diner’s clientele. One Methuselah informs Daria he’s no less a figure than Johnny Wilson, the world boxing middleweight champion of 1920. “That’s great!” says Daria. “Thank you,” replies Mr Wilson. We don’t learn why the esteemed Mr Wilson is in Hallister, but that’s the point; he’s doing nothing aside from telling strangers he was somebody, fifty years ago.
The barman tells Daria her friend Patterson brought a bunch of emotionally disturbed kids to town from Los Angeles and abandoned them. Just as he says this, a stone is thrown through a window, but when the barman and Daria go outside, no-one is around. The town looks desolate, flat, and dried out under the relentless sun. Country and western music plays across the soundtrack, with its sentimentalizing of love and of the past; Hallister is a town haunted by voices of the olden days.
Daria finds the children hiding inside an old car wreck, all boys under the age of ten. They run away while one boy, a cool-looking kid who I think grew up to be Beck, twangs the strings of a broken up piano and ignores Daria’s questions; the young woman will find no answers in Hallister.
The kids surround Daria, who asks about Jimmy Patterson. “Can we have a piece of that?” asks one forward little tyke, pointing at Daria’s groin. The children grab at Daria, molesting her until she runs for her car and drives out of town. Antonioni closes in on one elderly man, sitting on his own, smoking and drinking beer (a neon sign reads ‘Olympia Beer – It’s The Water!’) in mechanical fashion. We’ve seen Big City USA, and now stagnant small town America can offer no salvation, with its aimless old folk and sexualized children, and no idea of escape.
Continuing on her way to Phoenix, Daria becomes aware of a light aircraft in the sky above; at first it follows, then buzzes her car, making low passes until Daria stops and writes a message in the sand. Mark sees this (we don’t) and drops a red night shirt out of the plane, recovered by Daria, who displays an open sense of humor over the incident. Doesn’t she remember what happened to Cary Grant in North by Northwest (1959)?
Further along, Daria spots Mark’s plane at a desert airstrip looked after by an old man with a remarkably high boredom threshold. The two youths discuss where they’re heading: Mark to nowhere special, Daria to Phoenix, and Mark considers this same difference. Daria, having heard the news reports, asks if Mark stole the plane (Zabriskie Point conforms with more conventional Hollywood films in regard to radio news reports giving characters useful updates on each other). “I needed to get off the ground,” he explains, and accepts a ride with Daria.
The pair reach the titular Zabriskie Point, part of Death Valley near the California-Arizona border. Zabriskie Point doubled for the planet Mars in Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), and the landscape does indeed look alien, with immense grooves and gullies. Antonioni milks this unworldly environment for all its worth, aided by some stunning photography from Alfio Contini.
Mark talks Daria through his somewhat checkered college career, which included stealing library books (boo hiss!), stealing the chancellor’s credit card (meh) and rigging the college computer system so all the engineers were enrolled onto art classes. Now, I’m as liberal-artsy as they come, but even I wouldn’t want to live in a world populated solely by art college students. Not only that, as Woody Allen puts it, but try getting a plumber on Tuesdays.
The pair discuss the college strike as they walk down to the valley’s dried-up river bed. Mark grumbles the news media only reports such events if enough students are injured. “One cop got killed,” remarks Daria, “and some bushes got trampled,” her tone as if one is of equal importance as the other. Daria offers Mark some pot, but he turns it down; Mark is unwilling to undertake any sort of artificial, chemical escape (“you’re pretty tolerant of someone not turned on” he tells Daria). Possibly Mark senses freedom in this new environment, though he cannot find true freedom as he needs the human company of a woman, and it’s clear there is a mutual attraction between Mark and Daria. “Do you think we can get rid of them, there can be a whole new scene?” she asks Mark as they talk of the downfall of capitalism. Mark isn’t interested in any ‘scene’: “It’s just you and me, baby.”
For now, the pair find some happiness and liberty as they talk and play in their dustbowl Eden. Their discussions turn into riffs and mock-profundities of the sort guaranteed to annoy a certain type of critic or viewer, although Mark and Daria are only engaging in the verbal freedom inspired by their vast surroundings and so express their freedom by letting their thoughts run wild. Mark, perhaps more the realist than Daria, asks if she’ll go with him on his journey. “Are you really asking?” says Daria. “Is that really your answer?” comes his reply. OK, so that was pretentious and annoying, but the point is freedom and peace may not always be how we believe it will look or sound. The dialogue becomes almost dream-like, as Mark and Daria drift into a different type of existence in the ethereal, ugly beauty of Death Valley.
The ultimate physical human expression of sex is where Mark and Daria were heading since they first met, and now they are nude and rolling around in the dirt, finding freedom – if it’s possible – within each other’s bodies. Love comes from love, and we see dozens of men and women writhing in the dust in twos, threes, and fours. These actors are from Joseph Chaikin’s Open Theater, an experimental group very open with each other indeed, if this ‘orgy’ sequence is anything to go by. Unfortunately, they are too obviously ‘acting’, and resemble paleolithic troubadours going through some intense warming up exercises. The sequence, though striking, comes across as indulgent and of the director getting carried away with his own ideas.
A sudden change of pace sees a family of three arrive at Zabriskie Point in a camper van. The husband and wife take in the view, dressed in the florid garb for which American tourists are infamous around the world: the man in gleaming plain white t-shirt tucked into red baggy leisure shorts worn with long white socks, a look unfashionable since around the “five or ten million years” Death Valley formed. Their child remains in the camper van shoving an ice-cream into his face, as the camera pans around a collection of window stickers from various US states, most featuring cartoon female figures in their scanties, as if the family have not so much traveled around America as simply added to a collection of places visited.
“They should build a drive-in up here,” says the husband, “they’d make a mint!” His wife suggests he should set up the drive-in. “Me? Nah.” Fail! A true-blue American would set up that drive-in and sell Death Valley hot dogs and Death Valley candy to those wanting the true Death Valley experience. However, this family represents what foreigners would consider as typical Americans, including an Italian such as Antonioni. Who are the truly most American, the free spirits of Mark and Daria, or the tourist family with bad dress sense? I guess it’s a question of who we celebrate, and in cinema we celebrate the risk-takers.
Their love-making over, Mark and Daria (who both must surely need a shower) walk until they reach two rather forbidding stone latrines by the roadside. Mark seeks sanctuary in the ‘gents’ as a police car pulls up. The patrol cop (Lee Duncan) is suspicious of why Daria is out in this unlikely spot on her own, but the young woman goes into her Manic Pixie act and the patrolman, who’s more of a girl-next-door type, leaves Daria to her own devices. A wise decision, as Mark had drawn his gun, ready to shoot the cop if he caused trouble.
Mark empties his gun of bullets once the cops departs. Daria asks Mark if he shot the cop at the college strike. He denies this, claiming someone else beat him to the draw. Do we believe him?
Daria wants Mark to join her and suggests he gets a haircut to fool anyone out looking for him. “Do I need one?” “No,” Daria tells him, “you’re beautiful.”
However, the system is inescapable, just like the country and western music on Daria’s car radio. Mark’s rebellion against both the system and the college activists simply implicates him further in the American Way; the more a man reinforces his individuality, by striking out against the system, the more an American he becomes, and Mark is the archetypal lone wolf howling in the desert, with his affair with Daria proving his red-blooded credentials. The smartest move the American capitalist system made in opposing Communism was to invent the concept of ‘cool’ and to make young rebellious males the coolest figures of all. That way, rebels prove the concept of freedom in attempting to remove themselves from it, and attract others into doing the same. Everyone can feature on their own protest placard, little knowing they look exactly like Uncle Sam.
Once Mark and Daria leave Zabriskie Point, the film slows to a snail’s pace and it wasn’t exactly dynamic to start with. They return to the airfield and repaint Lily 7, covering it with grass and fire motifs, an elongated penis along the side and breasts on the front wing either side of the propeller. To Daria’s disbelief, Mark intends to fly back to LA and return the airplane. “Why take the risk?” she asks. “I want to take the risk,” he replies, speaking like a true pioneer. Daria waves as Mark flies off into the distance. Both are seen travelling on their way and despite the groovy soundtrack, by now we’ve seen enough footage of Mark flying and Daria driving her Buick to get the message about freedom.
Talking of consequences, Mark gets his in no uncertain terms as he returns to an airport crawling with cops and news reporters. Various Lyndon B Johnson lookalikes watch grim-faced as police cars attempt to surround the landed Lily 7. The young man attempts to evade the cars, but is brought to a halt by police gunfire. The cops open up the airplane and find Mark dead inside. If all this sounds unlikely, it’s worth remembering Antonioni based Zabriskie Point on a genuine 1967 incident in Tucson, where a young man was shot dead by police after returning a stolen airplane.
The ever-helpful radio news carries a bulletin on Mark’s death at the hands of “an unidentified policeman” (and what’s the betting he remains unidentified?). Daria hears this news, and stands by the roadside desert, surrounded by phallic cacti representing the pain of their brief love. Driving on, Daria arrives at a ostentatious house set like a giant saucer in the rocky hillside. This is Lee Allen’s’country home’, where he’s entertaining company representatives in the hope of closing the land sale. A trio of wives indulge in poolside gossip as Daria weeps under water flowing from a rock formation, a nicely played contrast between happiness and shallow artifice, and a more meaningful, yet sorrowful, connection with nature.
Allen is pleased to see Daria and directs her to her room. However, Daria soon leaves on seeing the home is staffed by Native American women, perhaps the descendants of those who first lived on the land now haggled over by corporate white men.
Daria flees the house. Turning back, she watches the house explode, again and again in slow motion, as we enter Zabriskie Point’s final and most famous sequence. Pink Floyd’s ‘Careful With That Axe, Eugene’ screams on the soundtrack as various artifacts are detonated in slow motion: a refrigerator, a clothes rail, a television, and a patio set all go up like the fourth of July, as Antonioni enacts the end of capitalism by reducing some of its most potent symbols to fragments, and creates beauty in so doing. One especially pleasing moment sees a box of Kellogg’s Special K float gracefully across the screen as a food cabinet blows up.
All this has taken place in Daria’s mind. Returning to the car, she drives off into sunset of furious red, and Antonioni’s vision of the US ends, though not as he intended, as MGM executives vetoed a climactic scene of an airplane skywriting the message ‘FUCK YOU, AMERICA’. Fair enough I’d say, as flipping the figurative bird to the audience by way of goodbye isn’t the wisest idea, and the symbolism would have been too overt, to say the least.
Not that it mattered, for America gave Zabriskie Point a big ‘FUCK YOU, ANTONIONI’. The film proved a critical and commercial disaster, raking in less than one million dollars at the box office. What went wrong appears to have been a willful loss of trust in one of Europe’s most revered directors, known for his unorthodox use of narrative, for as the more learned critics would have known, Antonioni used film to analyse an idea rather than just to tell a story and there’s little in Zabriskie Point intended as literal in the standard conventional sense. Instead, Antonioni analyses the counterculture’s concept of a post-capitalist society and its effect on the American nation. Given how fervently pro-capitalist Americans in general tend to be, the film’s critical savaging comes as no surprise (Michael Medved, for example, went on to become a conservative media commentator). As for the students, had Zabriskie Point been released a few months later, after the Kent State shootings of May 1970, perhaps it would have found a more sympathetic audience.
Given the film’s rotten reputation, I was pleasantly surprised by Zabriskie Point, and pleased to discover its healthy ratings on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes. Some films need to find their right moment, and eight years after the crisis that almost brought the world’s major economies to their knees, perhaps that time has at last arrived, as people search for political alternatives and dream of a different kind of society. If nothing else, Zabriskie Point shows how brave mainstream cinema once was, for as Danny Peary puts it in Guide For the Film Fanatic (1987): “it is still astounding that Hollywood would make a film with a pro-revolutionary theme.” That it would be yet more astounding if a film like Zabriskie Point were made in 2016, when it is most needed, is a sad indictment of our times.