Because the screen is the only well-lit mirror in town

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, i.e. anyone who ever stuck up for Vincent Gallo's Brown Bunny. But that's not me. I'm a big fan of the pristine, shimmering Criterion DVDs of Antonioni's L'Aventura and L'Eclisse but can imagine hating them just as much if not for drugs and Godard to prep me on how to appreciate them, and they weren't so beautifully restored-- anamorphic, shimmering like mirages. If were on crappy "Genius Entertainment" like La Notte (pixelated picture with burned in subtitles! Dude!) or didn't have Monica Vitti. In other words, if they were Zabriskie Point. 

In its isolation and contrasted moments of meaningless capitalist (and/or socialist) 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 taking a moment to vibe on the wind rattling the flagpoles outside her friend's apartment house in L'Eclisse, finds Point parallel 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 occur instead of eclipses; optimistic California hippies replace the 'too smart to be vapid like everyone else, but trying to fake it for lack of a better option' Rome jet setters. But the center cannot hold. Without ennui and old European architecture to ground him, Antonioni just .... floats... away.

There is some architecture, of course, and more to come, designed by Rod "Time Machine" Taylo, who presumes he's here in Antonioni's America to work, and so he does, in a very modernist office, and in the hay with hippie temp Daria Halperin. Soon she's driving off into the desert for notation and tryst, where Rod's already working, eyeing empty desert space for a real estate development deal. 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.

In an unusual touch, all the rock acts 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, just us...

Before meeting up with our young cop killer hero, Daria pulls over at an obscure town to locate hippie guru James Patterson (!), who has been turning a peaceable desert scrub wasteland into a David Koresh-meets-Hills Have Eyes playground of burnt out cars and unruly children--"he's gonna ruin a piece of American history," warns the grizzled cafe-owner. Kids throw rocks through the cafe windows, echoing our hero's own rock tossing and hinting Antonioni is more than a little worried his free love generation is just a pig's head on a stick away from Fliestown.

But that's just one stop on the road out into the wasteland, and gradually all the harshness and industrial "Red Desert"-style offenses to the utopian ideal-- red cans, black trailers, 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 (they wish), 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, dig? A long shot of the orgy goes for mid-Elysian 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 California smile masking a sense of weariness (the lovers all spread out on a skin-colored hill are barely visible, and probably sick to death from dehydration). The "nothing's terrible" mantra is spoken by Daria but then--even by her--forgotten minutes later, and so revealed as an elitist vanity clique high when she wrinkles her nose at some ugly tourists. She also fails to show love to a cop who pulls up near her probably just to see if she's all right. She looks like she's been wandering for days and maybe he just wanted to offer her some water.

Love everyone, man... indeed.

For Antonioni then, it's really a matter of (r)evolution rather than the acceptance Daria preaches (but doesn't practice --in true poor little rich girl fashion); 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, painted in paisleys to drive the metaphor home) during which they may or may not love a lifetime's worth (how can they possibly know?).

The wild destructive children of the wrecked car playground are just the the revolutionary wingtip edge of butterfly, the sort for whom a lifetime of caterpillar misery is preferred to the deadly brevity of transformation. 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. Just as we can't know if his reticence to try drugs is a result of fear (he's never tried), anger (he's never been offered), or experience (he had a bad trip once - and is now a pussy).

Sandwiched gloomily between the Woodstock idealism and the casual Romeo-Juliet murder sprees of the early 1970's, Zabriskie Point winds up with no other way to get attention than to blow up a bunch of books, filmed at a zillion different angles and speeds 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 transfixion. 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 setting sunlight-halo / red hair combination. Halperin's hair isn't even considered as a means of reflection and natural beauty. She's almost more like Jeanne Moreau in La Notte, just a tan little brunette goblin loose in the world, judging everything she sees like she's all that.

If we too feel a little excluded from what little of there is of a party in Zabriskie Point its perhaps because Antonioni seems to be coming to terms with the realization he'll always be so excluded from this scene, always an exile, outside every cause, cursed, like Godard, to be too smart to ever fall for his own idealism. Even as the guest of honor at the wake for the post-post-modernist cultural landscape he's helped destroy, Antonioni doesn't know what to say as far as small talk or adult conversation, only how to look at the items on the young people's book shelves, the unexploded titles, like an older guy apartment party wallflower. This new world is for the young and tripped-out and he has no clue how sit around in paradise pretending he's having fun playing games he's long ago mastered; all he can do is blow up the old world, then just keep the camera rolling while he whispers like a proud parent to the corpse by his side, gesturing at the girl blazing up in the smoldering wreckage: "That's my daughter up there!"


  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.

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

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

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

  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).

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


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