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Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 Blowup is an unprecedented American art house thriller that became a surprise mainstream success, grossing over six million dollars. That kind of business elevated the status of a number of European filmmakers, securing big co-production deals for, among others, Federico Fellini. For a brief time, being an Italian master of alienation amid bleak landscapes was a definite asset; if the result brought in audiences, MGM would let Michelangelo film whatever he wanted.
Antonioni chose to film his next opus in the United States, at that time the focus of much intellectual and political criticism from the continent. Encouraged by the status conferred upon profitable pictures like Easy Rider and 2001: A Space Odyssey, MGM green-lit Zabriskie Point, a counterculture saga about alienated youth and free love in an America seen as ripe for revolution.
Zabriskie Point imposes a foreign artist's leftist political interpretations on a stylized American landscape. The beautiful but alienated leading actors are little more than placeholders for disaffected youth. The male lead Mark Frechette was found by Antonioni's aides, reportedly standing on a Boston street corner shouting "motherfucker". The quote offered by the promoters: "he's twenty and he hates".*
The actual story of Zabriskie Point is a pretentious trifle. During a period of college unrest, student Mark (Mark Frechette) exits a Marxist planning session (dominated by political firebrand Kathleen Cleaver) and is arrested for hassling policemen booking student demonstrators. He and an associate buy a pair of handguns and may or may not be responsible for the shooting of riot cop back on campus. The doubt is there because the sequence is filmed in such a way that we can't tell who shoots whom. Mark makes his way to an airport, steals a single-engine airplane, and heads eastward to the desert.
In a Wilshire Blvd. office building, free spirit Daria (Daria Halprin) meets executive Lee Allen (Rod Taylor), a land developer working on an Arizona resort for the wealthy. Daria apparently agrees to accompany Lee to his mountaintop desert house, but instead drives there on her own in a borrowed car. After meeting some grizzled oldsters in a desert café and tangling with some near-feral desert kids, Daria is spotted by Mark from the air. He buzzes her car several times before landing. They exchange some elliptical dialogue and she drives him to fetch more aviation fuel. They instead end up at Zabriskie Point, a scenic lookout at the far end of Death Valley. Their lovemaking in the alkali dust becomes a hallucinatory orgy, with scores of couples engaging in various sex acts all around them.
Zabriskie Point's tagline is the now embarrassing "far out" phrase, "How you get there ... depends on where you're at". Antonioni is uninterested in fashioning an emotional reality for Mark and Daria, who are never more than what they are, two attractive kids going through the motions. The director's efforts are instead invested in the film's visual surface, as with his highly artificial, thematically interesting Red Desert. The dramatic scenes are flat and uninteresting; Rod Taylor and his developer cronies are mere stick figures against a sterile corporate backdrop.
Antonioni has a field day making Los Angeles look like a portal to Hell lined with ugly billboards. Lee drives to offices that appear to be at the intersection of Wilshire and Western, somehow avoiding every view that doesn't feature advertising displays. Mark and his fellow triggerman live in a depressed neighborhood, and run red lights in an old pickup truck. Neither the real student demonstration footage nor the staged violence makes much of an impact. The rancor in the 'revolutionary strategy meeting' (scored with Pink Floyd's "Heartbeat Pigmeat") is 100% accurate to this reviewer's experience, with furious, incoherent rhetoric thrown about by zealots incapable of listening to one another.
Zabriskie Point finds its power out in the desert, which represents Antonioni's vision of America as a moral wasteland. Daria seems both frightened and thrilled to be the object of Mark's foreplay, buzzing his stolen plane only a couple of feet above her head. The aerial work in the movie is technically perfect, creating a North by NorthWest "meeting cute" as the modern plane zooms over the prehistoric desert floor.
Death Valley, the lowest point in the United States, is more than a little symbolic. The spaced-out mass sex scene staged there makes the amorous hippies look like prehistoric animals spawning at the dawn of creation. The film was always "R" rated but more than one orgy cutaway strongly implies hardcore activity. As for Mark and Daria, they gambol nude in the dust but don't appear to be engaging in actual sex.
When the existential idyll is finished Antonioni hurries back to his main theme: America is Evil. The lovers paint psychedelic patterns on the stolen plane, which Mark flies to a fateful reunion with the "pigs" back in the smoggy city. Daria drives on to her Arizona rendezvous with Lee Allen, at a lavish designer house built into a rocky Arizona hillside, sort of a space age Navajo cliff dwelling. Daria tours the spotless interior, avoiding the soulless executives and their designer women.
When she realizes what has happened to Mark, Daria and the movie indulge a subjective fantasy of destruction. To Pink Floyd's apocalyptic track "Come in Number 51, Your Time Is Up", we watch for several minutes as the cliff house explodes into a million pieces, a staggering blast repeated from numerous angles and in slow motion. The screen then treats us to several minutes of decadent consumer goods -- furniture, kitchen appliances etc. -- exploding one after another. The shots are in such extreme slow motion that both the image frame and shutter are unsteady. One dreamy shot features what looks like hundreds of pieces of frozen food floating like feathers in a pillow fight. An entire frozen turkey sails by like a spaceship from 2001. Antonioni's message is clear: he'd clearly like to see America, or at least its consumer culture, blasted from the face of the Earth.
Zabriskie Point was harassed by the authorities during production based on rumors (?) of orgies in a National Park and the notion of a foreign radical promoting unrest on California's tense U.C. campuses. A general critical lambasting didn't help the $7 million dollar production find audiences, and it's been a cult item ever since. The legendary Italian filmmaker remained true to his vision of America as a spiritual wasteland ruled by soulless capitalists, but his superficial interpretation of youth in rebellion was rejected by almost everyone. Antonioni 's artistic reputation was unaffected. 1
Actors Daria Halprin and Mark Frechette became an item and lived for a time in a commune. She left for a marriage to actor Dennis Hopper, followed by a career as a psychologist. She eventually authored several books about the benefits of art and dance therapy. Mark Frechette participated in an impulsive bank robbery; his accomplice was killed. He died later in what was described by researcher Dave O'Brian as a bizarre accident in the recreation room of a Massachusetts prison. Frechette's quoted rationale for robbing the bank resembles something his angry Zabriskie Point character might say: "It would be like a direct attack on everything that is choking this country to death".
Warner Home Entertainment's DVD of Zabriskie Point is a bright and colorful enhanced transfer that replicates cameraman Alfio Contini's razor sharp, carefully composed images: nobody will complain about the way this disc looks. The Kaleidoscope, The Grateful Dead, Patti Page, The Youngbloods, John Fahey and Jerry Garcia join Pink Floyd on the soundtrack. The original trailer is a fatuous hoot that now plays like a parody of flower - power inanities. Don't forget: "How you get there / Depends on where you're at".
* This and subequent quotes are from "The Sorry Life & Death of Mark Frechette", Dave O'Brian, Rolling Stone Nov. 6, 1975
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Zabriskie Point rates:
Dear Glenn: I put my copy of Zabriskie Point on immediately to check a few things, principally an odd detail which has long fascinated about this very strange film from Hollywood's strangest year of all.
When I first saw Zabriskie, it ended, of course, with the extended destruction of Rod Taylor's snazzy house and earthly possessions, Daria Halprin smiling, and driving off into the sunset. Then the camera held on the sunset, and Roy Orbison struck up a ballad...
And if you live just for today / The day may soon be done
But there's a place where / Dreams always stay so young
A place to hear the sun go down / And fade away
To see the wind just run away / With yesterday
Any place for those who care / Zabriskie Point is anywhere
At about this point, a single title is superimposed over the sunset:
The picture slowly fades to black.
[This differs from almost all other MGM pictures of the previous and subsequent decades; not only is there no cast listing, the boiler-plate phrase "presented by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer" is conspicuously absent.]
But the music keeps on going [and going] over black leader:
A time to look, forever's there / Or never found
To touch the sky, and really feel / The world go 'round
To live, to love, to laugh, to cry / To be alone
Young, so young, love was meant to be / Wild and free, so young
Young, so young, love is space in life
A place in time a state of mind / Too late I find
When tomorrow's gone / And love is lost so young
Young, so young, love was meant to be
Wild and free, so young
Young, so young, love was meant to be / Wild and free, so young
[Lyrics approximate. If you feel this is excessive, be advised that I came very close to sending you an MP3 of the song. Why should I suffer alone?]
I love Roy Orbison -- and have since I was a kid. A major artist, great singer and songwriter. That said, the moment I heard this song sailing out of theatre speakers at the end of Zabriskie Point -- and particularly when he reached the point when he sang, "Zabriskie Point is everywhere," I knew that this was a rare moment in American culture. Beyond camp, beyond parody, beyond measure. Instantly, this seemed the worst song ever written for an American motion picture -- that could ever be written for any movie. It takes watching a film like Zabriskie Point for nearly two hours to bring such strong feelings to the surface, I think.
The song was reportedly added at almost the last minute by MGM film and record executives; while the movie was filled with rock music (Pink Floyd, Jerry Garcia, The Rolling Stones), no contemporary MGM Records artists were heard in the film (I believe that Patti Page had been an MGM artist, but she was scarcely contemporary). Accordingly, "So Young," was written by Orbison, Roger Christian and MGM Records president Mike Curb, and both the song and recording were apparently put together very quickly at the beginning of 1970.
It is unclear whether Michelangelo Antonioni -- who retained somewhere between considerable and total creative control over the movie -- was ever advised or consulted about "So Young," and it seems that many initial screenings for press and critics of the film did not include the song. Significantly, the song wasn't included on the MGM Records original soundtrack album, though it was released as a single. [The Rolling Stones weren't on the soundtrack LP either, but that was a rights issue.]
The thing is, when I next saw the movie a little later in the year, the song was gone.
An early '90s Film Comment article penned by an Antonioni associate on Zabriskie shed a bit of light on this. I don't have the article handy, but as I recall the story, when the Antonioni acolyte saw a showing with the film with the Orbison song included, she was horrified, and called the filmmaker in Italy. While MGM at this point was almost certainly wishing it had never welcomed the Maestro to our shores, the studio apparently took some action at his behest, and shipped out some replacement reels. At any rate, Zabriskie Point was now a bit less hysterical at its conclusion at the mid-1970 showing I attended.
I didn't see the movie again until I attended a film seminar in 1974, and the picture was screened in 16mm. I was surprised to see that the Orbison song was back; I gathered MGM had never altered its printing negative. This is when my unhealthy obsession with the movie began. I watched the film twice that week. I was slack-jawed, mesmerized, dumbfounded, drained. It was like punishment, but I wanted them to show it again. Worse, I was beginning to get used to hearing "So Young" at the end of the movie. So much so, that when in the early '90s I saw a restored Italian-struck print of the film at an Antonioni retrospective at Lincoln Center, which, pointedly, doesn't include the song... I actually missed it.
The laserdisc of the film includes "So Young," but the song fades out quickly when the picture fades to black. This DVD includes the whole thing -- black leader and all.
The color on the disc was a bit paler than I had expected. The disc is a bit skimpy on special features, I must say. The trailer could have used a little restoration (the LD had both the trailer and a teaser). I wasn't wild about the commentary on Warners' Blowup disc, but at least they found a scholar to do one -- Zabriskie deserved no less. It would have been nice to hear briefly from Rod Taylor. More than anything, it would have been something to hear from Dean Tavoularis, who could have talked about... well, anything he had to say would be of interest, but what people probably want to know about is Rod Taylor's house and its apparent destruction! [The other outstanding question: who greased the wheels so that great Italo lenser Alfio Contini could shoot the movie in the states?]
Sorry for the limited perspective. Best, Always. -- B.
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