Monday, June 01, 2009

"Zabriskie Point is Anywhere"

This month saw the DVD debut of Zabriskie Point (1970), which is a major event for Antonioni fans and lovers of the Woodstock fall-out cinematic era, or anyone who ever stuck up for Vincent Gallo's Brown Bunny. I'm a big fan of the pristine, shimmering Criterion DVDs of L'Aventura and L'Eclisse but can imagine hating them just as much if they were on crappy "Genius Entertainment" like La Notte (pixelated picture with burned in subtitles! Dude!) or didn't have Monica Vitti or weren't in black and white. In its isolation and contrasted moments of meaningless capitalist sound and fury, Point is practically a gender reversed L'Eclisse with Los Angeles instead of Rome and the emptiness of Death Valley instead of a corner near a rain barrel. The motif of Monica Vitti digging the wind rattling the flagpoles like a song is repeated with the sullen kid playing the ruined piano strings at the desert commune; the stockmarket hullabaloo is replaced by Rod Taylor's pervy real estate dealings, explosions instead of eclipses. Rod "Time Machine" Taylor presumes he's here to work, and does in a very modernist office and in the hay with hippie temp Daria Halperin. Soon she's driving off into the desert, where Rod's eyeing space for a real estate development. Meanwhile the young radical of her dreams is maybe killing a cop and stealing a pink plane. If he can fly a plane, you'd think he could get a real job.

All the rock stars who contributed songs get star billing early in the credits, which roll over multiracial revolutionary arguments at the UCLA student union in a semi-documentary commune style reminiscent of Billy Jack but with a Godardian edge of disbelieving cynicism. The bands are all good: Pink Floyd, Jerry Garcia, Roscoe Holcomb singing "I wish I was a single girl again." I had this LP decades before seeing the film and the film doesn't do it justice, then again there is no justice in an Antonioni film.

Before meeting our cop killer hero, Daria pulls over at an obscure town to locate hippie guru James Patterson, who has been turning a peaceable desert terrain into a David Koresh-ish playground of burnt out cars --"he's gonna ruin a piece of American history," warns the grizzled cafe-owner. Kids throw rocks through the windows, echoing our hero's own rock tossing and hinting Antonioni is more than a little worried his free love generation is one boar's head on a stick away from Fliestown.

Gradually all the harshness and industrial "Red Desert"-style offenses -- red cans, black trailers and malevolently inexpressive hick faces-- lead to epiphany, freedom and "nothing's terrible anymore" ("far out") revelations which are then dissolved in the simple grace of a beautiful Jerry Garcia guitar solo and the sex/orgy scene to end all desert sex/orgy scenes, an ecstatic release into mellow gold after all that nerve-wracking industrial clatter. Daria's dress and costume changes in a quick montage and she looks like the ghost of an old settler; the interchange of actors hips us to the mythic ego dissolve of groovy love. They are no longer themselves but man and woman in the primal sea of masks and derivations; a long shot of the orgy resembles a Bosch painting or what the final scene in the Beyond would look like if Fulci had the same budget. It's Antonioni trying to be open-hearted even as he recognizes this new paradise is just the old inferno with a forced smile. The "nothing's terrible" mantra is spoken by Daria but then--even by her--forgotten and so revealed as an elitist vanity clique high. If nothing was terrible then the by-now very sandy hippie chick should bless and show love to the ugly tourists Antonioni satirizes. She also fails to show love to a cop who pulls up near her probably just to see if she's all right.



For Antonioni then, it's really a matter of (r)evolution rather than the acceptance Daria preaches (but doesn't practice); even the revolutionaries seem stuck on the hateful caterpillar trip. The butterflies awaken and are usually shot down by the sheriff within a few reels (this time one gets to literally soar in a stolen plane) during which they may or may not love a lifetime's worth. The wild destructive children of the wrecked car playground are just the end point of the revolutionary edge of butterfly, the sort for whom a lifetime of caterpillar misery is preferred to the deadly brevity of transformation. Cocoon phase is the long journey in the plane or on the car and the gradual shedding of inhibitions and clothes (but nothing is terrible - far out, yeah right). Drugs too, maybe, though Frechette doesn't turn on, just like his alter-ego Travis Bickle wouldn't and like Travis, we're never sure which of any of Frechette's exploits are real or vividly imagined.

(SPOILER ALERT) Sandwiched gloomily between the Woodstock idealism and the casual Romeo-Juliet murder sprees of the early 1970's, Zabriskie Point has no way to get attention except to blow up for real a zillion different ways for the notorious climax. While crazy Pink Floyd music builds to a thunderous scream we see books, tons of them, blowing up like beautiful sea anemones and octopi and fireworks all made of pages of print. It's an apocalyptic rejection of language, maybe, but Daria Halperin is just not in the same league as Monica Vitti and when she stares emptily off at this real or imagined spectacle we're not transfixed by her. The dew is off the lily. It's only later with Sissy Spacek and her glowing like beautiful golden wheat fields hair in Badlands (1973) that the transfixing spell of "hellion next door" beauty is restored and the modern artist as outlaw role play can sally forth. Malick knows better than to hold back tastefully on color saturation during a once in a lifetime natural sunlight-hair combination. Halperin's hair isn't even considered as a means of reflection and natural beauty.

If we too feel a little excluded from the party of Zabriskie Point its perhaps because Antonioni seems to be coming to terms with the realization he'll always be an exile, even in the post-post-modernist cultural landscape he's helped shape/destroy; he doesn't know what to say, only how to look at the items on your shelves, like an apartment party wallflower. The new world is for the young and tripped-out and he has no clue how sit around paradise playing games; all he can do is help blow up the old world, then just keep the camera rolling while he whispers like a proud parent to the corpse by his side: "That's my daughter up there!"

6 comments:

  1. A long time ago my local library had this on VHS and I borrowed it mainly because I had heard about the desert orgy scene. That didn't live up to my lubricious expectations, and I was too immature then to get most of the rest of the film -- I believe I actually turned it off before the end. But I remember the radical rap session quite vividly. As a history buff it intrigued me. Your review re-intrigues me, and I'm now hoping the library will have the DVD.

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  2. Can't believe I still haven't seen this. Someone shoot me.

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  3. How about someone loan you the damned DVD instead? Hippies never carry guns (except for the dude in Zabriskie Point, natch)

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  4. A rather silly movie with the greatest ending in cinema.

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  5. jervaise brooke hamster02 October, 2012

    I want to bugger Daria Halprin (as the bird was in 1966 when the bird was 18, not as the bird is now obviously).

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  6. Joel, the greatest ending in the history of cinema is the ending of "Electra Glide in Blue" (1973) ! ! !.

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