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. Similarities include: the contrast of frenzied stock market moments and the peaceful silence of a small motor plane ride; 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, and so forth.
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 it doesn't do it justice, either way.
After the credits we find Rod "Time Machine" Taylor as the breadhead with a modernist office who shacks up with a hippie temp Daria Halperin. Soon she's driving off to meet him at some potential desert community location. Meanwhile the young radical of her dreams is maybe killing a cop at the campus demonstration, then stealing a pink plane. Dude! He can fly a plane, you'd think he could get a job.
Before meeting our hero, Daria pulls over at an obscure town to locate hippie guru James Patterson - "he's gonna ruin a a piece of American history," warns the grizzled cafe-owner. The unseen Patterson has been turning a peaceable desert terrain into a David Koreshy playground of burnt out cars. From the cagey abstract hedonism of 1967's Blow Up to the empty space of Zabriskie Point, from thence onwards to even more alienated deserts in The Passenger... it's all just musical wreckscape to wander aimless and impressively. Language never being Antonioni's strong suit, the alienation must have been increased by the fact that he was filming in English not by choice but by contract for these three films (and also to make them in color).
And probably, he had to add a little sex and violence: the scene with the wild children ends with her almost being gang raped by the lot of them. All they need is some tall corn to be children of. Still she sticks up for them as a matter of habit when they're badmouthed by that weary old denim-wearing diner owner. While the childrens' savagery belies any notion of good intent--which she herself must realize when they randomly break a cafe window--these wild children seem to be Antonioni's idea of counterculture's end product. They the long-term result of hippy revolutions' short-term goals; Antonioni isn't dismissing them as just dumb kids; he's looking beyond the callow idealism to the end game of such strategies and just seeing the same cycle repeat itself over and over, and he's looking for a better way forward, and finding only empty space, so that's, um, what he films. But you can't use movies to show a world beyond media, and Antonioni can't stop trying, and those who don't fall asleep or walk out half way through come to thank him for his efforts, perhaps later.
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, and multiple partners randomly appear in a hazy orgiastic group love scene freakout. 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, baby, and the scene keeps going until even that gets weird, 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's brave move towards becoming open-hearted but even that seems like another circle of the inferno. The "nothing's terrible" mantra is spoken by Daria but then--even by her--forgotten. Antonioni satirizes the vacant materialism of the ugly American tourists who show up to stare, horrified, at the by-now very sandy hippie chick and she judges them, and later she also fails to show love to a cop who pulls up near her probably just to see if she's all right. Free love, indeed, to those her age or younger, if they're not fat and ugly.
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 caterpillarism, 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 is, too. He 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 watch the new--which he helped form--rise up and sail away without him while he whispers like a proud parent to the corpse by his side: "That's my daughter up there!"