1970s, Auteurs, Drama, Political, Thriller

Zabriskie Point (1970)

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Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Screenwriters: Michelangelo Antonioni, Fred Gardner, Tonino Guerra, Clare Peploe, Sam Shepard

By Roderick Heath

History often moves in cycles of irony, and sometimes this rewards movies. Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point was dealt harsh dismissal by both critics and audiences at the time of its release, and spent intervening decades regarded largely as an oddity and by-product occasionally revisited by omnivorous wannabe filmmakers, aging hippies, and scattered auteurists, only to slowly gather a fresh reputation amongst some as one of Antonioni’s major achievements. These past few years have made Zabriskie Point feel immediate again, for its evocative description of disconsolate anger and disgust with aspects of modern life, with institutional power and the fragmenting of shared reality. Antonioni had been vaulted to international filmmaking stardom thanks to his string of cool, allusive tales documenting people squirming within their environment and sometimes committing perplexing acts of destruction on self or others, or simply vanishing from their own lives, in a style commonly dubbed ‘alienation cinema.’ Antonioni initially charted this terrain in relatively modest works like I Vinti (1952) and Il Grido (1957). L’Avventura (1960) met an initially divisive response but quickly became the definition of art movie chic along with its follow-ups in a loose trilogy, La Notte (1961) and L’Ecclise (1962). Red Desert (1964) saw Antonioni reaching the heights of his artistry but also dividing viewers once again in achieving a register of expression near-subliminal in suggesting cognitive stress and injury through systematised exterior signs.

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The surprise box office success of Antonioni’s first English-language film, Blowup (1966), opened up great new vistas for him as Hollywood came knocking, although some critics would accuse him of exporting his cinematic style more as a brand than an artist, looking for venues to make the same works over and over. That wasn’t true: Red Desert had broken new ground and Blowup was a very different film in story and method to Antonioni’s previous four films, even whilst maintaining a distinct aesthetic. But Antonioni faced a genuine problem with his art, one that would soon see his once-titanic cinematic will freeze up. After Zabriskie Point he would only direct another three films in the next fifteen years, before a stroke he suffered in 1985 left him severely crippled, although he did manage one final work, Beyond the Clouds, in 1995 in collaboration with Wim Wenders. Part of the reason behind Antonioni’s wane might simply have been the problem of money: Antonioni’s films were hard to make without the muscle of intelligent and interested producers behind them, and these became scant as his moment in fashion ended. It might also have been a product of his own evolving artistry, which eventually reached a point of psychological and spiritual negation with The Passenger (1975), one he could not move beyond without betraying some vital part of himself.

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For Zabriskie Point, MGM gave Antonioni a big budget and free rein to turn his eye on America. Antonioni took his theme from a newspaper story he read about a young man who stole an airplane and was shot by police when he tried to return it. In the months after the incredible success of Easy Rider (1969), a flailing Hollywood desperately wanted to reproduce such a feat with the countercultural youth audience, but contended constantly with that audience’s cynicism over official attempts to replicate their zeitgeist, as well as rapid shifts in general audience mood, which quickly went back to wanting stuff like Airport (1970). Antonioni had tapped hip interest in artistic games with perception and social commentary with Blowup, and his distaste for the plasticity of post-war life in Italy found ready analogues beyond those shores, And yet his sensibility remained crucially at odds with the earthy and idealistic aspect of the counterculture. Antonioni tried to tap a compensating authenticity by casting non-actors in crucial roles. For a male lead he cast Mark Frechette, a fiery young man often in trouble with the law but blessed with movie star looks, when Antonin saw him engaged in an argument on the street.

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For the female lead he chose Daria Halprin, a former anthropology student and bit-part actress. It proved a rather fateful pairing: Frechette and Halprin became a couple after making the film, and moved into an experimental community. After they broke up Halprin married Dennis Hopper. Desperate for funds to keep the community going, Frechette joined other members in staging a bank robbery with unloaded guns. Frechette was sent to prison and died there, in a peculiar weightlifting accident. This tragic piece of Hollywood folklore now is an aspect of Zabriskie Point’s strange aura, the feeling that it charted some underground river most people didn’t or couldn’t follow. The script passed through several hands, including Antonioni himself and his regular screenwriting collaborator Tonino Guerra, and some young Americans writers, including the up-and-coming actor and playwright Sam Shepard. Working on the film was particularly consequential for Shepard, who would revisit many of its images and ideas in later work, including the script he would write for another fusion of European and American sensibilities, Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984).

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Zabriskie Point opens with a lengthy sequence depicting student radicals engaged in debate over an upcoming student strike, with some black activists (including Eldridge Cleaver’s wife Kathleen) presiding. One young man, Mark (Frechette), listens to the boiling arguments and conflicting perspectives and leaves after declaring he’s willing to die for the cause but not of boredom, and begins looking for more applied and practical actions to take. When he tries to bail out a friend who’s arrested on a demonstration and nags the cops a little too forcefully, Mark finds himself arrested and roughed up as well: Mark mocks the cops by giving his name as Karl Marx, and the charge officer doesn’t cotton on. After they’re released, Mark and his friend decide to buy guns. Hearing on the radio that the police have vowed to clear out the striking students on campus, Mark drives to witness it, only to see a cop gun down a black protestor when a colleague thinks he has a gun. Mark pulls out his pistol with a clear intention of shooting the cop responsible, only for someone else to beat him to it. Mark flees the campus and, after a brief spell of fraught indecision steals a light airplane and flies inland.

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Antonioni alternates Mark’s experiences with those of Daria, a woman of the same age but detached from the radical scene, one who works only when she needs money. Daria temps at a real estate company and encounters the middle-aged executive Lee Allen (Rod Taylor), who seems taken with her, and eventually asks that she head out to his house near Phoenix, Arizona, to be his secretary whilst he tries to finalise a major deal, a new estate his company, the SunnyDunes Development Co., has built in the desert. Daria heads out into the desert but before going to Lee’s house wants to visit the hamlet of Ballister, out in the Mojave Desert, because a friend of hers recommended it as a great place to meditate. The friend is trying to build a refuge there for troubled youths from Los Angeles, and Daria encounters a gang of those imported hellions wandering around the sparse Ballister surrounds. Driving on, Daria is repeatedly buzzed by Mark in the stolen plane, dropping a dress he found in the cockpit to her, before coming in for a landing. The two wander around the environs of Zabriskie Point, a lookout spot in Death Valley and the lowest point in the continental United States, where they quickly form a bond and become lovers.

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Zabriskie Point took four years from conception to release, a fatally long amount of time for a movie trying so crucially to tap an urgent and rapidly evolving socio-political moment. And yet, against all the odds, Antonioni and his screenwriters achieved from today’s perspective the rare task of taking on a such a specific moment and yet locating essential issues that continue to dog modern America and beyond. Listening to the lengthy opening argument of the student radicals is nonetheless today a surprisingly vigorous and revealing experience, as the same issues, divides, and points of contention are still prevalent, particularly in the online world: the only thing that’s missing is the sense of palpable immediacy and communal experience that defined the period, the clamour of voices in dialogue supplanted by the click of a million keyboards. Even Mark’s irritable rejection of the meeting highlights another eternal problem – it’s much easier to talk tough and jockey for moral high ground than actually achieve a political goal. The barbed comments of the black activists, who claim a leadership role because they face systemic oppression that obliges them to be revolutionaries rather than turn to it out of radical chic, lay down an axiom, and one of the white student girls raises the question, “What will it take to make white people revolutionaries?”

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Zabriskie Point proceeds to try and answer that question in the case of Daria, the more ordinary of the two pivotal characters. Daria is presented as a free spirit type intrigued by hip concepts and lifestyles, but detached from the politically engaged world Mark is all too immersed in. Her appeal to Lee as she breezes past him in the SunnyDunes office building is plain, represents something that’s profoundly absent within the confines of his daily life, and he becomes highly solicitous towards her, perhaps out of desire or simply to have someone so young and energetic around, a force from beyond the boundaries of his known world. As familiar as jabs aimed at corporate culture seem now, Antonioni did his admirable best to try and avoid the more obvious reflexes even whilst delivering it some cruel shiv wounds. Antonioni films Lee in his office, the LA skyline and a flapping American flag framed in glassy, commercial-like brightness behind him, as he tries to get in touch with Daria by phone, a sense of glazed and waning torpor slowly registering as the imperial trappings around him become monumental and immoveable. Meanwhile it’s signalled Mark himself comes from well-to-do circumstances, waving to a woman in a sports car he says is his sister, “a girl from my long-gone past.”

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Mark’s decision to stop being passive is articulated as he decries that he’s tired of “kids rappin’ about violence and cops doin’ it,” and contemplates meeting the authorities’ violence with his own. Antonioni indulges some sidelong vignettes that score satirical points, as Mark and a friend talk a gun salesman into waiving the usual legal niceties by explaining they live in a rough neighbourhood and “need to protect our women.” A college professor who’s been arrested at the protest with his students and the cop processing him puts his occupation down as clerk because it’s shorter. The plot, such as it is, is motivated by Mark’s readiness to commit violently to his cause only to rediscover joy and affection before becoming the target of the same cold and punitive force he tried to escape and transcend. The question as to whether he dooms himself in taking up arms or in failing to commit properly to the choice lingers on. Antonioni courts the paranoid echoes of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in the key sequence of the campus shootings, with Mark’s vengeful intention to shoot beaten by another sniper somewhere in the bushes – a collection of gun-wielding radicals has already been noted lurking nearby. This also revisits the enigmatic assassination of Blowup. At the same time Antonioni’s long-simmering affinity with Hitchcock is nudged again as Mark, gun in hand and innocent in deed if not mind, recalls the schmuck hero of North By Northwest (1959).

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Antonioni’s protest scenes lack the still-potent immediacy of Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969) and the film as a whole resists that work’s air of livewire exposure before the tumult of the age, at least in its superficial action, even as the opening scene betrays a great interest in its rhetorical texture. Antonioni regards both the square and countercultures as momentary figments of a much greater and longer drama than they know. Antonioni’s exacting sense of visual context as a means of communication is as much in evidence as it was in Red Desert and Blowup, but in a different key: where the first film pivoted on the heroine’s sense of a poisoned mindscape matched to a poisoned environment and Blowup saw its hero chasing his ideals of truth captured into a dissolving mass of film grain, Zabriskie Point maps out a drama of freedom and entrapment rooted in the way social values and psychic space battle upon the American shore. Environs rendered in pale cream and grey hues and dully prismatic glass are broken up by electric patches of blood red and bright green, elements in the psychic drama of omnipresent conformism disturbed by eruptions of violence and nature worship.

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Antonioni near-obsessively charts the omnipresence of advertising and garish décor around the city, at once dazzled and mortified. Antonioni contrasts Mark and a comrade and Lee and his fellow executive (G.D. Spradlin) as the two polarised duos drive through the city: Antonioni stops paying attention to them to film modernist structures and advertising billboards in zooms shots that collapse space and image into a diorama of capitalist messaging disguised in pretty colours, as pure in their way as the renaissance sculptures of Italy in conflating function in declaration with form, the stamp of the new doges upon their republic. Painted visages instruct the onlooker in what normality looks like. In a more overtly satirical and surrealist manner, Antonioni has the SunnyDunes executives gather to watch an advertisement for their new development, in which the roles of the people enjoying their idyllic new lifestyle are filled by mannequins, glimpsed in colourful and rigid approximations of the supposed suburban dream, starkly contrasting the later vision of polymorphous flesh emerging from the earth itself.

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Once Mark takes off in his stolen plane, the film becomes a remake-cum-lampoon of the closing minutes of How The West Was Won (1962), inverting the triumphalist flight in keys of Cinerama and Manifest Destiny to the coast and out to sea, this time turning away from the sprawl of LA’s infrastructure to the vast, rugged inland and contemplating the refuse of the pioneering dream. The glittering rooftops and cyclopean highways, all are viewed on high with a sense of punch-drunk wonderment, the geometries of human design and the primeval patterns of geological upheaval revealed in distant perfection. The visual texture here is the essence of the film, working up a near-hypnotic glaze of attention to the shape of the world and Mark and Daria as entities within it. Daria’s visit to the desolate township of Ballister is a delicately strange and eerie vignette, as she encounters an assortment of old-timers, including the manager of a roadhouse (Paul Fix) who complains about the imported problem cases her friend has imported to the town (“He’s gonna ruin a piece of American history.”), and a couple of incredibly old men at the bar, one of whom introduces himself as the middleweight boxing champion of the world in 1926.

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The other is an aged cowboy who sits calmly and silently in solitude as Antonioni’s camera gazes at him in profile with painterly pretence, turning him into living iconography, as Patti Page’s “Tennessee Waltz” warbles nostalgically over speakers. Somewhere out in the desert’s deep reaches the old America subsists on its last nerve of memory and muscle, whilst the inheritors flail. Stones through the window glass cause the manager to dash outside and bellow at the marauding tykes. Daria sees them hiding behind a hunk of refuse, their eyes glimpsed through gaps. These the manifest spirits of a discarded quarter of the nation, one plucking on fractured piano innards to make sonorous music, another demanding “a piece of ass.” “Are you sure you’d know what to do with it?” Daria questions, unfazed, before fleeing these fine young cannibals. Travelling on, the lonely old grey car sliding along a ribbon of blacktop below attracts the white-winging plane, and Mark sets down in the midst of a great salt pan to meet the fawn-legged traveller after buzzing her a few times with bratty glee. Here Mark and Daria are, in their way, artists engaged with landscape as much as Antonioni himself, at spree in air and earth, with inevitable symbolic dimensions, Mark with his lofty ideals and exile from society forced to meet Daria down on the ground.

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One irony of Blowup’s success was that it hit big with an audience it teased and parodied – hipsters, artists, bright college freaks, recreational drug users, and vicariously thrilled normies. The Swinging London vibe Antonioni nailed down so well was painted in bone-dry sarcasm, as he surveyed London’s boles filled by barbarian rock bands and rooms full of stoned posh bohemians with a sense of curiosity grazing disdain, seeming to diagnose it all as a further symptom of, rather than cure for, the anomie and cultural ossification he analysed. In turning to the American wing of the youth movement he was nominally seeking out a genuine resuscitating force, and he even seemed to be trying to avoid the problems Easy Rider and Arthur Penn’s Alice’s Restaurant (1969) had analysed, the blind spots that would narcotise it. Blowup had proposed the ultimate dissolution of reality in the age of technology whilst Zabriskie Point’s interiorised, neutral tone invokes not the outwards-directed energy of bohemia but the problem of the interior self, one reason why the film’s twinned, key sequences are, crucially, moments of imagined psychic liberation. Whilst avoiding any of the ways of portraying psychedelic experience that became so quickly clichéd in films of the period, Zabriskie Point nonetheless attains a dreamlike sense of space and texture, as if the characters are both inside themselves and watching themselves.

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And indeed they are, because all young people tend to be doing both. Mark and Daria are deliberately nebulous entities because Antonioni feels that’s a basic description of youth itself, individuals reacting to stimuli and opportunity to accumulate character. The basic narrative pattern also returned to the motif of Il Grido, in following a character who describes a great circle during the course of his wandering, fleeing his life in one place only to arc back to a virtually predestined end. Il Grido, a fascinating if overlong and grimly slouchy work, had mediated Antonioni’s steeping in neorealist concerns and those of his mature artistry. One important difference in Zabriskie Point is that when he chooses to fly the plane back to LA and face consequences it’s an act of hope, returning as jester of the skies with the plane he, Daria, and an old-timer of the desert painted in lysergic colours and jokes. Daria suggests to Mark he simply abandon the plane and ride with her to Phoenix, but he tells her, “I wanna take risks.” A death wish might lurk within Mark’s makeup, but his determination to actually experience existence as a profound phenomenon, not coddled or swerving from all the echoing consequences of being born, represents one of the few positive gestures of consequence any character makes in Antonioni, even if it’s ruthlessly punished.

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At the heart of Zabriskie Point are the two fantasy episodes, both perhaps projected out of Daria’s mind. The first comes as she and Mark screw in the desert sand under Zabriskie Point, whereupon other lovers, some couples, some in masses of three or more bodies, seem to well out of the ground and start copulating passionately, bodies swathed in dust and sand, wet lips and caked rumps squirming in the parched soil. Authorities purportedly dogged the shooting of this scene, which utilised performers from a radical theatre group, ready to swoop in and arrest everyone for shooting pornography. As it was the orgy was simulated, but it’s still a startling interlude to see in such a prestigious Hollywood film, and one the least neurotic and purely celebratory erotic scenes in mainstream cinema. Passionate bundles of flesh viewed only with a friendly sense of sexuality in many forms, but achieved again with a strong note of surrealism, these dust-born creatures evoking Biblical myth as they fuck en masse. Most vitally for the film’s driving theme, it offers the sense that Mark and Daria aren’t alone even when they seem to be at their most separated from the rest of humanity: their experience connects them to the species as a whole. The sexual high quickly gives way to a brute reminder of actuality as Mark hides from a patrolling cop car whilst Daria goes to chat with the officer, shocked when she realises Mark lurks with his gun ready to shoot the cop. Antonioni delivers one of his visual cues as Mark hides behind portable toilets painted screaming red, blazing synapses of distress in the midst of an ahistorical zone.

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The chief stymie in appreciating the film stems ironically from Antonioni’s push for legitimacy in casting Frechette and Halprin. That might have seemed a move in the great tradition of neorealism, and as a filmmaker Antonioni never seemed greatly focused on his actors, observing them more as studies in behaviour than in a traditional dramatic manner. But Antonioni had made very deft use of star performers like Monica Vitti, David Hemmings, and even Steve Cochran, and would so again with Jack Nicholson, leaning on actors who could readily suggest and transmit the yearning and existential unease of their characters, using their descriptions of distress and foiled energy to lend specific gravitas to his psychologically inferring shots. By contrast, the two young stars of Zabriskie Point instead seem blandly emblematic, although Halprin handles the late scenes depicting her character’s disconsolate state effectively. The air of turbulence that made Frechette appealing to Antonioni translated on camera to deadpan aloofness, ironically proving more plastic than any number of young ingénues might have seemed. That said, their blankness at least resists any feeling of calculation either, offering themselves simply as people within Antonioni’s world, not extraordinary embodiments of human and Hollywood bravura.

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Despite its initial failure, Zabriskie Point’s influence has proven deep, particularly for foreign directors shifting their attention Stateside, with images and strategies referenced and recycled in films like Paris, Texas, Emir Kusturica’s Arizona Dream (1993), Percy Adlon’s Bagdad Café (1988), Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms (2003), and Wong Kar-Wai’s My Blueberry Nights (2007). More recent native surveys of the period like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice (2014) and the TV series Mad Men have made it a significant point of reference, as well as more contemporary takes on its preoccupations like Fight Club (1999). American New Wave filmmakers internalised aspects of Antonioni’s vision: Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), Francis Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), and Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974) and All The President’s Men (1976) all betray the imprint of Antonioni’s textures, his contemplation of fractured personality amidst sensory bombardment and the isolating glaze of modern architecture. More profane genre fare from Vanishing Point (1972) to Thelma and Louise (1991) took Zabriskie Point and mined it for more familiar variations on its ideas. Even the likes of Mad Max (1979), as a tale of renascent barbarianism hinging around grandiose destruction fantasies and desolate spaces, bore the imprint. George Lucas, who had clearly shown himself to be an Antonioni acolyte on THX 1138 (1971), repurposed the theme of youth rebellion and destructive catharsis for Star Wars (1977).

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Nor was the traffic to sci-fi one way, as at least one critic has noted: Antonioni’s lexicon had much in common with the alien desolation and domestic unease Jack Arnold had often evoked in his 1950s works like It Came From Outer Space (1953) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1956). Such oddball children point to the way Antonioni managed to dig to the essence of something about the nature of modern society, locked in a state of forward motion and clinging to familiar things, perpetually poised between order and a will to anarchy, constantly provoking people to jarring psychic leaps from peace-seeking to eruptive destruction. Which might well point to the artistic problem Antonioni eventually fell prey to. Antonioni had begun as a filmmaker interested in case studies illustrating social and psychological quandaries, trying to bridge the great chasm between the systems of Marxism and the vagaries of consciousness, and Zabriskie Point had been conceived in the same vein. The protagonists of both Zabriskie Point and The Passenger halt at the edge of the desert but fail to go forward and so are destroyed by the social forces pursuing them, although one is felled in making a hopeful gesture and the other reaches the end of his will. To go into the desert, literal and figurative, would be to enter the realm of the mystic, something Antonioni felt himself too hard-headed to contemplate, even as his films constantly urge towards a sense of the sublime. Or, rather, whether he was or wasn’t, that would demarcate the edge of his own concern, which was the problem of modern western society and the individuals who comprise it.

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Tellingly, following Zabriskie Point, Antonioni went to China to make a documentary about the nation at it was just starting to step back into the world at large to contemplate possibilities for other methods of social organisation, whilst his last handful of films would be much-mocked for their copious and regressive sexuality, but perhaps that was the only place he could retreat to. Mark’s flight back to LA is met by waiting cops, and when he tries to take off again they start shooting, a bullet hitting Mark and killing him. Daria, still driving eastwards, hears the report of his death on the radio and pulls over in shock. The report suggests another cruel sarcasm, that Mark wasn’t wanted for killing the cop but for stealing the plane as an “attempted hijacking”: Mark was punished not for his attempt at political violence but for an imagined one. Daria reaches Lee’s modernist mansion, perched on the side of a bluff amidst the grand desert surrounds. She wanders around the chic, elegant, yet impersonal forms of Lee’s house, the very bastion of smugness, experiencing each portion of the building as a trap goading her grief, and even Lee’s solicitous greeting rings hollow. Daria finally leaves the house.

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Cue the famous final scene, one even detractors of the film find brilliant. Daria stares at Lee’s house, imagining the executives and their inane wives inside, and envisions the house exploding, shattered to millions of shards of wood and stonework. The explosion occurs again and again, from different angles and distances, the sheer pleasure of destruction as an act charged holy awe. Antonioni then gets closer to the issue as he films the explosion of various household items in the house. A TV shatters into a shower of misty crystal. A refrigerator disgorges foodstuffs in a mucky shower. Books flap open like flowers blooming in time-lapse or jellyfish squirming through water. Violent spectacle becomes languorous, beautiful, protoplasmic, Dali-like in the depiction of hard commercial material rendered liquidinous and weightless, the act of desolation containing discovery, mesmeric dolour that also bespeaks the clarifying of the senses.

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The eruption resolves in a huge mushroom cloud of smoke billowing up into the blue sky, clarifying the relationship of Daria’s private revenge fantasy with the overall anxiety in the world, the threat of nuclear war, perpetually poised to erase the settled bourgeois life. Given Antonioni’s cinema had long suggested an intense distaste for modern architecture as the environmental signature of the age of alienation, the fact that he acts out his apocalyptic fantasia on it makes for a fitting, rather bratty coda, a moment of seeming potent rejection of a material world that is actually onanistic fantasy. Antonioni doesn’t offer any shot of the house still intact and boding after the fantasy is done, refusing intrinsically to castrate Daria’s newly potent and angry willpower. Instead Antonioni has her ride off into the sunset to the elegiac strains of Roy Orbison. Like the often misinterpreted ending of Blowup, which actually depicts the birth of a true artist, the ending here sees Daria heading back into the world armed, if not necessarily for destruction, but certainly with great power. A revolutionary of the mind born.

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4 thoughts on “Zabriskie Point (1970)

  1. Hi 10SFN. Yeah, it’s an idea that could be very rank and yet the way Antonioni films it transforms it into something grandiose and mysterious, trying to reach beyond mere cynicism to that zone where our need for things and our need to do without them both stem.

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  2. Fantastic review. ZP is an Antonioni film I’ve been circling for years but have been put off by its rep as being something of a pretentious bore. Hell, I finally got around to seeing THE PASSENGER this year, which, along with your review, has whetted my appetite to watch this one. I find the three films he did for MGM to be a fascinating period for the filmmaker – his dabbling with Hollywood and the frission and friction when his sensibilities met theirs. Your review has certainly sparked my curiosity.

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  3. Hi JD. I’m shocked — shocked! — you haven’t seen this. Can’t imagine Vanishing Point or Two-Lane Blacktop without it as well as the films mentioned above. Plus the great soundtrack — the use of a version of Careful With That Axe Eugene in the climax is superlative. The Passenger is an interesting film but also easily my least-favourite Antonioni from what I’ve seen, but it’s true Antonioni seemed to be activated rather than foiled by working with MGM.

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