"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

March 21, 2012

"Zabriskie Point" (1970) by Antonioni

Zabriskie Point, made by Michelangelo Antonioni in 1970 when he received a large budget and a lot of freedom to do as he wanted from one of the major Hollywood studios, is named after the eroded badlands in Death Valley, an old lake bottom and the lowest point in the U.S. (Zabriskie Point in its turn received its Polish sounding name from the manager of the borax company that mined the area in the early 20th c.)

The strangely eroded badlands and barren mountains of Death valley look great in Antonioni's film and that is saying it all: it has been superbly filmed, with striking color combinations, great "on location" landscapes and sweeping choreographic movements. It is pure eye candy, not to speak about the explosion at the end which is the most beautiful filming ever of such an event, with a blooming fire and a scattering of interior things into the stark blue sky.

For the rest, the film is an indictment of American consumption society, from the viewpoint of the student demonstrations taking place in 1968 all over the developed world. The film is full of colorful billboards advertising products nobody needs. There is a lot of jargon talk among the students, Marx was still seen as a viable road in those long ago days. One student, Mark (Mark Frechette), decides action is needed and buys a weapon. When the police break into the university campus where the students are squatting down, an officer is shot. It may have been a bullet from Mark's gun.

He steals a small plane and flees, flying into the desert. There his path crosses that of Daria (Daria Halprin), a young woman working for a real estate company and on her way to the desert home of her boss Lee (who may be her lover) for a conference about a new housing development. She drives a wonderful 1952 Buick. He teases her by flying low over her car, then lands. They travel on in Daria's car because Mark has to buy gasoline for the plane. When they reach Zabriskie Point, they get out excitedly for some sightseeing. Finally they make love in the desert, almost merging into the sand - you have trouble discerning whether a certain round shape is Daria's hip or a desert hill. And their love bears fruit for all of a sudden the whole desert is filled with embracing couples, an orgy of strange flowers.

Mark decides to return the stolen plane. When he lands, the police shoot him dead as a cop killer. Daria hears the news on her car radio and is shattered. In the meantime, she has reached the futuristic place in the desert where her boss lives and stands at a distance. That resort is also part of consumption society, sullying the clean desert. With disgust, Daria "wills" an explosion (I have no better word, but this can't be anything else than a fantasy in her head) and there the fire blossoms into the sky...

Antonioni films the same blast repeatedly in close-ups. We see refrigerators spilling their contents, clothes flying from closets and books fluttering in the breeze, this all against the background of a deep blue sky. Never has an explosion been filmed in such detail, as if it were a ballet, accompanied by music from Pink Floyd. Antonioni has created the most beautiful, extended explosion ever (and that says something as there are lots of blasts in Hollywood pictures). This finale alone is worth seeing the film...

This is an art film. It is beautiful, but don't look for a story. Also don't look for any acting capabilities in the Adam and Eve of the story - Antonioni had enough budget to get big stars, but he must have wanted unknowns with innocent faces as his protagonists. As director he keeps the reigns tight enough to make it work. It is the lights and shapes that count, and the shifting desert sands...

My evaluation: 8 points out of 10 for Antonioni's shapes and light. The film was both a critical and a box office failure (how could it be otherwise?) but has since been rehabilitated and now has become a cult film praised for its stylishness and for the stark beauty of its cinematography and innovative use of music. The political ideas are now antiquated, but interesting as a document of the sixties. 
Senses of Cinema. Pop Culture Addict article about the two protagonists.