Only in the 70s: Zabriskie Point (1970)

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ONLY in the 70s is a feature where we take a look at films that could not have existed in any decade, as true products of their time. This instalment focuses on a film about counter-culture America made by an auteur Italian.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Successful arthouse director makes a big studio film and gets savaged. This wasn’t strictly true of Michelangelo Antonioni – the L’Avventura director received huge acclaim for the London-based Blow-Up – but it resonates in the failure of Zabriskie Point, a big-budget dissection of the American counter-culture that crashed at the box office to the collective polemic of critics and political commentators alike.

We’ve visited the hippie dream before on Only in the 70s, but whereas Amos Sefer’s “wonderful feelings” were transposed with mesmerising incompetence, Antonioni had already established himself as a darling of international cinema. A Palme d’Or nominee, the Italian director had proven himself a master of capturing the alienating effects of post-war dissonance, as well as the crackle of emergent zeitgeists with Blow-Up; a film on the American counter-culture seemed like a natural progression.

For a while, it is. Zabriskie Point begins in cacophony, as impressionistic students loudly squabble amongst themselves in a seminar room, debating the best way to combat The Man. Filmed with documentarian technique, almost exclusively in close-ups, this opening drowns the voice of the individual with communal yelling. The first ten minutes of the film are incredibly disorienting, showing us disparate characters and settings without adequate introduction, pointing to the confusion and uncertainty at the heart of both the movement itself and America at large. We are here introduced to the proactive idealist, Mark (Mark Frechette), who walks out after stating his willingness to die for the cause.

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Antonioni contrasts the militant conviction of Mark with the callous indifference of American culture at large. The mannequin-lead Sunny Dunes commercial, watched by silent, furrow-browed businessmen (among them G.D. Spradlin), is a clinical, surreal moment that draws on the hollow lifelessness of smiling commercialism. It’s immediately followed by said businessmen passionlessly discussing stock investments and marketability. The banality of evil, one might say, but it is also a clear comparison of youthful indecision and ageing decisiveness; the young are too unfocused, but the old are too boring.

We then cut straight from the board meeting to a charged protest on the campus, further reinforcing the divide between the establishment’s monotony and the angry impulses of the counterculture, responded to in kind by the assembled police. Anyone growing up in the 60s would be, perhaps uncomfortably, familiar with this kind of imagery, as blood-soaked students stumble through the greens and bleachers of campus grounds, as Vietnam stoked the fire of anti-establishment feelings.

The imagery resonates just as strongly now. As I wrote my notes while watching the film – the BlackLivesMatter movement gaining momentum and regular reports of police brutality appearing with depressing routine – a pair of black protesters emerge from a tear-gassed building. A policeman yells, “He’s got a gun!” They shoot him dead; immediately after, one of the other cops is shot. It’s all too, eerily, familiar.

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Zabriskie Point‘s confrontational, politically volatile atmosphere in its opening half hour makes it supremely engaging, grounding itself in the reality of the time and transposing its tension onto the screen. That social anxiety is also mirrored in the fractious editing and restless framing of Antonioni’s camera, which positively lurches from shot to shot as the protest descends into chaos. The film-making on show is powerful, effective and as visually potent as any contemporary news reel.

Then it all gets a bit lopsided.

We’re introduced to Daria (Daria Halprin), who’s on her way to a meeting with her boss somewhere in the Arizonan desert. She drives a Buick, and tells creepy, sexually-inquisitive children, “Are you sure you know what to do with it?” in a monotone. Mark, having stolen a plane, encounters Daria on the road (via Hollywood bullshit) and the two talk life and love and jejune philosophy.

Antonioni is more interested in drawing naturalistic performances out of his actors than making them, well, performative. For a time, it’s impossible to tell whether these are really good performances or really bad ones. Initially, the muted stares and lackadaisical delivery from Frechette indicates the former; the vacant tonelessness of Halprin suggests the latter. “How do these plants grow in the sand? They’re so beautiful,” she says at one point, missing out the comma and the question mark in the process. This is the exact moment where the “naturalism” conceit falls apart and we realise, with dawning horror, that all her flat, airless delivery is just that, and she’s going to be the protagonist for the rest of the film.

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Putting Halprin and Frechette together on-screen (and, indeed, off-screen) seems like a recipe for disaster, but it is strangely engrossing. There’s a sense of intimacy and coy sensitivity to their relationship, especially from Frechette. His face is impassable, as if he pre-emptively managed to channel Robert Pattinson’s Twilight constipation and make it soulful. There’s something of the Ryan Gosling in him, and it’s not merely the helmet hair or the pornstar sideburns – it’s the unshakeable image of doomed youth, made all the sadder by Frechette’s own fate five years later.

Halprin, for her part, is adorable in spite of her lack of acting ability. Whether the audience is aware or not of the real-life relationship between the two – which lead to them being dubbed the first “counter-culture couple” – it’s difficult to avoid the chemistry they share, even as they unconvincingly speak unconvincing lines at each other’s faces. It bleeds into the rolling dunes of Death Valley where, as their characters engage in wild love-making, the land itself (in the form of dancers from the Open Theatre) rises from the dust and joins the sweet, sweet copulation.

It’s a strange sequence that literalises the earthy, grassroots notion of free love and natural co-habitation, and is a daringly naked take on the idea. Earlier, after Daria drives away from a seedy bar, the camera moves from the truck to the window, peering in on a man silently drinking a beer. It lingers there for a reason; it’s a slice of quiet, serene introspection that counters the chaos and money and anger of the city from before. The love-making scene in the desert is the culmination of the metaphor; they’re literally going back to the Garden.

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Antonioni captures the desolate beauty of Death Valley in stunning fashion. The claustrophobic intrusiveness of the opening half hour gives way to long, sweeping shots of the American desert. Watching Mark pelt down the slope of Zabriskie Point, whooping his enjoyment the whole time, the dust kicking up at his feet, the camera showing the full span of the landscape, is one of the most perfect, beautiful shots I have ever seen. No hyperbole. That he collapses in a heap at the bottom even makes it funny.

When the two lovers aren’t speaking, Antonioni simply shows us more panoramas, bathing us in the frontier spirituality of the open land. (That might be the acid talking.) “That’s why I chose Death Valley,” Antonioni stressed in a 1970 interview with the New York Times, “Because it’s so beautiful – not because it’s dead.” If anything, the landscape is the true star of Zabriskie Point, and it’s the thing that haunts us long after the credits roll.

Words, meanwhile, are sparse and, more often than not, overshadowed by violence. The dialogue between Mark and Daria is secondary to the consummating act of love-making; this is also the case when they paint the stolen plane in psychedelic colours. It’s a trendy film that’s bolstered in trendiness by the big-name soundtrack, including Pink Floyd. Even then, Antonioni refuses to play ball – the film boasts a large number of dry, diegetically-scored scenes, with the songs mainly filling the empty air in driving sequences or otherwise action-less swathes. Few words are spoken when Mark and Daria part, and fewer still when Mark is shot dead upon his return to Los Angeles: “Stop, or we’ll shoot!”

The words of the estate moguls that Daria eventually meets are used to satirise the commercially-minded meaninglessness of what they’re actually saying, their speech peppered with buzzwords and jargon. Words ultimately blend into the background as Daria, fuelled by rage at The Establishment, imagines the house she’s staying in blowing right the fuck up. A re-worked ‘Careful With That Axe, Eugene’ plays over this climactic explosion; as consumer products and timber fly in tandem, Antonioni rather labours the point, cutting between seemingly endless shots of the same thing happening, from various angles, in various stages of motion.

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Lord knows how much of the budget went on this emphatic excess, but it’s hauntingly, maddeningly surreal, and Daria merely drives away from it all. Antonioni would later say that he didn’t want the film’s final image to be the mushroom cloud of the mansion’s smoking ruins; it’s appropriate that he, instead, focuses on Daria’s powerlessness. It’s a sobering understanding of the counter-culture as a whole, and a beautifully understated one at that.

Antonioni’s self-professed “love” for America, and his take on it, was met with hostility and patriotic rebuke from contemporary critics, and it’s not difficult to see why. Beyond the offending political ramifications, it’s also pretty boring for lengthy spells; once we leave the fury of the college protest, we’re met with Daria wandering aimlessly through the desert and the film loses its way for a while as a result. The acting is, by and large, hilariously bad; the script is laboured and burdened by the polemic of its sensibilities, and the pacing is stunted by long stretches of listless wandering.

Nevertheless, Zabriskie Point is a love letter from a then-57 year-old man to the passion of youth, capturing the essence of the hippie dream and a burgeoning youth culture at its apogee. It’s a disjointed but ultimately rewarding journey, serving as a fascinating snapshot of a culture and a nation in spiritual and generational turmoil, even offering us a brief insight into just how little has changed in the ensuing 46 years. It certainly doesn’t deserve to be mentioned on Wikipedia’s “List of Films Considered the Worst” in the same breath as Myra fucking Breckinridge. Pick up the Electric Kool-Aid and see for yourself.

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