Saturday, 28 October 2017

Zabriskie Point

Cast: Mark Frechette, Daria Halprin, Rod Taylor, Paul Fix, and Kathleen Cleaver

Director: Michelangelo Antonioni

120 minutes (15) 1970
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Warner DVD Region 2

Rating: 8/10
Review by Andrew Darlington

“When it gets down to it, you have to choose one side or the other,” says Mark.
“There’s a thousand sides. Not just heroes and villains,” counters Daria.
And that’s the dilemma Zabriskie Point poses. There’s restless dissatisfaction, streams of unease, wired strung-out times, something’s happening but you don’t know what it is, do you…? In the jargon of the time, be part of the problem, or be part of the cure. The soundtrack splices Pink Floyd with sampled media news-blurts. ‘Bullshit and jive’ Black Power agitators harangue a counter-culture student debate, exploiting white liberal guilt, “you keep getting busted for grass and that makes you a revolutionary.”

First time I caught this on the small-screen, it’s on a German-language DVD, adding an extra level of dislocation. A radical Angela Davis lookalike, who is actually Kathleen Cleaver – partner of Panther activist Eldridge Cleaver, sits immaculately aloof and argues articulately as they rant back-and-forth dialectic about Molotov cocktails, guerrilla confrontation, conspiring strike action to shut down the campus. “If the man’s language is the gun, talk to him with a gun.” It’s all done hidden-camera, documentary-style. What else can a poor boy do…? Mark calls their bluff, stands up and stalks out. Yes, he’s “willing to die, but not of boredom…”

Driving a dirty red pick-up truck past lurid sequences of street-scene hoardings, the real and the garish exhortation images fold in together, ‘federally inspected meats’ against startles of electronic music, proto-industrial machine-sounds, until it all blurs into flashing hidden-persuader shapes. There are ‘Sunny Dunes Development Co’ ad-clips with idealised plastic Barbie-people. “Forge a life of your own, like the pioneers who moulded the west,” with antiseptic hygienic modern-appliance ‘Sunny Dunes’ kitchens for moms. There’s soft-core muzak (Don’t Blame Me), a huge costing-office cactus and an American flag furling in the breeze outside the wall-window. A pop art collage of commercials, American Airlines, a huge wristwatch straddles the freeway. Freeze any frame and it’s a gallery-print. Jasper Johns or Warhol. A cut-up of radio-bursts, Vietnam news and student arrests. It’s the voice-over commentary that links one scene into the next.

Students picket with placards. Mark is tired of kids rapping about violence, and cops doing it, but he won’t commit. Police lock-up detained students, he’s hauled in for talking back. Sneerily gives his name as ‘Karl Marx’. “How do you spell it?” demands the cop deadpan, typing in ‘Marx, Carl’. Is it coincidence that Allen Ginsberg is ‘Carlo Marx’ in Kerouac’s Beat-generation mythology?

They buy guns in a store piled high with racks of artillery. The salesman is easily persuaded to waive the four-five days security check. He advises that “the law says you can protect your house. So if you shoot him in the backyard, be sure to drag him inside.” Mark conceals the handgun in his boot, shrugging his jeans down over it. Back at the campus riot, state troopers with visors-down, riot shields, and gas masks, beat students with night-sticks. Demonstrators line the block’s flat roof, hustled away in bloody bandages as siren howl. A cop lobs a tear-gas grenade into the occupied block, and a black student is shot as he emerges. Could that happen? It did, at the Kent State University. Four dead in Ohio, even as the movie was circulating…

Mark is about to draw his boot-pistol, but the cop responsible is shot down before he has chance to do it himself. Instead, he runs in confusion. Catches a coach out – seen in green. Later, he calls back from a store payphone. His roommate says he’s been caught on TV running away in a suspicious manner…

Mark watches a small plane fly over between ad-hoardings of happy smiling consumers. He strolls casually onto the Bates Aviation Inc strip, jacket slung over his shoulder. No particular place to go. Turbine sounds. The cockpit door of the small Cessna 210 ‘Lilly Seven’ is ajar, no-one’s watching. Why not? He bluffs a curious mechanic. Control Tower query-calls as he lifts off, up over parking lots, the houses of the Hawthorne suburbs in grid-straight line, over the highway interchange – higher than the rolling L.A. smog. Squint your eyes, Mark looks not unlike Peter Fonda in Easy Rider. ‘Mark’ is Mark Frechette, just as ‘Daria’ is Daria Halprin. They are real. They are not contrived.

Michelangelo Antonioni had filmed Blow-Up (1966), which most perfectly captures the pulse of 1960s’ London, and one of my favourite movies of all time. On an upward curve he relocates to California to catch the burgeoning underground insurgence happening there. Finding it more volatile, fractured with political and racial violence. The untried Mark and Daria are deliberately chosen reality-style. They’re not actors, they just look right. Representative. They have the street-itch of the moment. Although that means they lack the mesmerising screen charisma of David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave in the earlier film. Rod Taylor, as smoothly manipulative ‘Sunny Dunes’ bread-head ‘Lee Allen’ has the screen track-record (including the time-traveller in George Pal’s The Time Machine, 1960), but is under-used. It’s the casual, yet intense interaction between Mark and Daria that defines the narrative contour. On which it rises, or sometimes fails.

Once described as a ‘post-religious Marxist and existentialist intellectual’ Antonioni’s Italian films had already gone through a number of decisive phases before his influential L’avventura (1960), an art-house thriller without a formal resolution, was both booed and acclaimed. A prescient offbeat Marxist view of an emerging Italy, it helped him create a post-neorealist Italian cinema that first shocked Cannes, then brought him enduring international renown. It’s also the first of four seminal movies starring his lover and muse, the cool, morally challenging Monica Vitti, who plays a lower-middle-class girl on a Mediterranean yachting holiday with rich friends. The complex La Notte (1961), an erotic study of alienation, won immediate critical and public favour, placing Marcello Mastroianni opposite Jeanne Moreau as disillusioned novelist and embittered wife.

Those four major Italian films, all deal with loss, emptiness, despair and spiritual desolation. Until Antonioni felt the theme was exhausted and had, in turn, exhausted him. David Hemmings also believed that the director had a desire to be recognised internationally “the way Fellini was by this time, and that’s why he made the film outside Italy” (to Alexander Walker in Hollywood, England, Michael Joseph, 1974).

While in the States promoting Blow-Up, Antonioni noted a brief press feature about a young man shot to death after taking a joyride in a stolen aircraft. It proved a useful plot-thread hook, spun out into a rough screenplay. It’s enough. He sketched out ideas. Brought in playwright Sam Shepard for additional input – he’d been drummer with the Holy Modal Rounders and would be a future Patti Smith amore. Then previous collaborator Franco Rossetti, plus screenwriters Clare Peploe, and Tonino Guerra from Blow-Up. Intended as a major shot for the US counter-culture market, Rolling Stone (#28, 1 March 1969) trailers a cover-splash ‘Michelangelo Antonioni: An Interview And A Preview Of Zabriskie Point’, setting up expectations, which are not always exactly realised. Whereas Blow-Up uses original music by Herbie Hancock, as well as the incandescent Yardbirds live sequence, Zabriskie Point opts for the Easy Rider jukebox approach, producing a soundtrack album strongly featuring Pink Floyd, Jerry Garcia and Kaleidoscope, plus Americana-style tracks from John Fahey (Dance Of Death), Grateful Dead (Dark Star), old-timey Appalachian banjo-player Roscoe Holcomb (I Wish I Were A Single Girl Again) and the 1950s country-pop ‘Singing Rage’ Patti Page (Tennessee Waltz).

While Daria cruises the bright Desert Highway, out through the dunes in a 1950s Buick with white-wall tyres, eating a rosy-red apple. ‘You Are What You Eat. Try Our Salads. Save With Desert Springs Savings & Loans’ framed as a photo. She calls Lee Allen from a roadside bar, faulty neon burning. Their relationship is unspecified, employer and/ or lover? She says that while she’s heading for Phoenix she’s also looking out for “a fantastic place for meditation – Glenville or Valleyville?” A do-gooder James Pattison has been bringing ‘emotionally sick’ kids from L.A. Patti Page is on the jukebox. The bar has a plastic cow on the roof. Telegraph poles space the desert in receding rows. A rusting upturned auto-wreck is used as a bolthole by feral kids. The kids taunt and harass her, demanding “a piece of ass.” At first she jives “are you sure you’d know what to do with it?”, until she’s forced to escape their increasingly intrusive attentions.

And he’s flying over vast desert emptiness, his shadow a racing cross. He buzzes Daria as she stops to top up her radiator. Then chases her, flying low, then approaching head-on. The Youngbloods’ Sugar Babe (a Jesse Colin Young song from their Earth Music album, RCA, 1967) plays as she drives. She gets out and lies face-down in the sand. When he drops an orange T-shirt, she runs and catches it. He sets down beside the road. Drawn to each other by a planet-like gravitational pull, they meet. She’d heard on the radio about the stolen plane. “I needed to get off the ground,” he explains simply. She gives him a lift to buy gas for the grounded aircraft. They pause at the Zabriskie Point viewpoint overlooking a lakebed deposited ten-million years ago. Reading from the plaque she queries “…borates and gypsum?” “Two old prospectors who lost their way,” he jokes. Why did he quit college, she probes. “Extracurricular activities. Stealing hardcover books instead of paperbacks. Making phone-calls on chancellor’s stolen credit card number. Whistling in class. And bringing illegal things onto campus…”

She smokes a joint. He’s on “a reality trip,” and doesn’t turn on. She proposes they play the ‘death-game’. “I wonder what else is going on in the real world?” he muses. They hold hands, play and romp groovy stuff across the lunar landscape. Kiss. The razored dialogue runs on minimalist possibilities, free, no commitment. Don’t think twice, it’s alright. “Would you like to go with me?” asks Mark. “Where?” she says. “Wherever I’m going.” “Are you really asking?” “Is that your real answer?”

Into the first of the movie’s stunning awesome iconic sequences. He unfastens the buttons down the front of her short green dress. Her blue stone pendant. Figures naked in the sand, hazy in blowing dust. Not just two of them now, but multiple entwined couples, erotic, primal, multi-gendered copulating triads in oral orgy sex, group-grope, limbs in dusty entanglement. As though the arid landscape, dry riverbed, primeval earth has become animated, breathing out dust-figures. Does it have a literal meaning? Archetypal man-woman, multiple eternal lovers. The origins of the world. The end of the world. Or just a visually ravishing image? In the real-time world, the figures were members of the experimental Open Theatre Of Joseph Chaikin. A scene subsequently investigated to determine whether it violates the ‘Mann Act’, but as no actual penetrative sex takes place, and the participants had not crossed State lines, potential charges were dropped. “I always knew it would be like this,” he says. “Love?” she asks. No, ‘the desert.’ A stickered camper-van family find their abandoned car.

Then Mark hides behind the red porta-gents as a highway patrolman pauses. He draws his boot-gun. For the second time in the movie, he takes aim at a cop, as the patrolman talks to Daria. For the second time he fails to pull the trigger, the cop drives off. She asks him obliquely. “The guy who killed the cop?” He admits “No. I wanted to. But somebody else was there.” Random chance rather than lack of commitment.

They paint the plane in fantastical designs, assisted by an old garage-hand. ‘A strange prehistorical bird spotted over the Mohave Desert.’ Freecome. She He It. No War. Breasts daubed on the wings. He intends taking the plane back after this joyride, despite her persuasion about him perhaps cutting his hair and them driving to Phoenix together. He’s like Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s On The Road (1957), who steals cars, joyrides them, then takes them back.

She waves as he takes off. Don’t look back. Then she drives on, listening to radio-reports about the plane-theft, as the Rolling Stones play. Keith sings You Got The Silver off their Let It Bleed (December 1969) album, the group’s final track to feature Brian Jones. Cops, a news-copter, and press photographers, await his arrival at the airstrip. As he touches down, police cars circle the plane and pen him in. One nervous cop shoots. Mark is hit. She listens on the car radio amid tall cactus. An apparent hijacking attempt ends in a youth shot dead. She drives on to the desert spa resort where Lee is negotiating land-purchase options. Wind chimes tinkle. Water cascades, washing her tears.

She drives away, rejecting the world, the life and the materialistic values that Lee offers. A worn and stained National Geographic blows in the breeze. A cigarette burns in the ash-tray. The calm, rising into the movie’s second stunning awesome iconic sequence.
She fondles the T-shirt Mark parachuted down to her. Images of explosions smash inside her head. She stands watching it. Multiple explosions in mushroom clouds of debris, again and again, over and over, vivid gouges of lurid flame, storming hails of glass and consumer commodity. A TV detonates, in a flick-flick-flick trip-repetition. A fridge erupts in a shrapnel of cans, K-cornflakes, Wonder-Bread, a naked oven-ready chicken hurls through stunned air. An endless slow-motion auto-destruction art-dance of fragmentation choreographed to Pink Floyd. Shattering images of luxury living and all its accoutrements, a patio table with parasol, a suspended ballet of books and magazines. Sound peaks into piercing screams… It stops abruptly. She smiles. Walks away. Gets into the car and drives. Roy Orbison warbles So Young over the credits.

What does it mean? Does it mean anything in the literal sense? Or just an excuse for eye-raping shock-filmic images. That’s enough. Catching the rootless unconnected dissatisfaction of the times, the anti-materialist anti-capitalist vibe, the vague questing for a better otherness. Life can be what you dream it to be, what you convert it into. Like the trippy light fandango of an acid lyric, it’s essentially meaningless, yet strikes at submerged profundities more sensed than articulated. Realism, and super-realism. A mood of unpredictable change, awakening, resistance. And the lethal backlash. The uncertain kinetic poetry of movement. There’s a thousand sides. Not just heroes and villains. Yet you have to choose one side or the other.

If it’s a flawed movie, it’s a flawed masterpiece. His next film – The Passenger (1975), the third of a three-picture deal with Carlo Ponti and MGM, returns to reliable box-office names – Jack Nicholson, Maria Schneider, Steven Berkoff, and Ian Hendry in an identity-switch action thriller. Before Antonioni returns to making films centred more on the Italian market.

In a weird twist Mark and Daria’s real-life romantic entanglement saw them living together in the cult-like Boston ‘Fort Hill Community’ hippie commune. Afterwards, she was briefly married to Dennis Hopper, while Mark is jailed for his part in a 1973 bank robbery – as though he’d finally chosen one side over the other, and died in prison aged just 27. Neither of them appeared in any other films of note.

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