Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Zabriskie Point

Michelangelo Antonioni's only American film, Zabriskie Point (1970), wasn't thought very groovy when it came out and it's still something of a film maudit today. To be sure, no Antonioni film is without interest, and I was intrigued by the director's method of de-dramatizing the narrative through a dispersion of an already loose story and his elliptical handling of certain plot points. However, though the film is often masterful in its execution, the script (credited to no fewer than five screenwriters, including Antonioni, his usual collaborator, Tonino Guerra, and Sam Shepard) is startlingly half-baked in ways that the director's style can't fully compensate for.

In Zabriskie Point, as in Antonioni's other movies, the film has a desultory narrative in which events aren't linked by a strict causality. Early in the film, the hero, Mark (Mark Frechette), and some other young men occupy a building on campus. When the police use tear gas on them, most of the men surrender peacefully, although one (an African-American) is shot while walking through the smoke. Mark manages to slip out undetected through a different exit (one detail that's particularly unconvincing, as if the cops wouldn't have the building surrounded). In retaliation to the death of his friend, Mark shoots a cop in the back and runs away. In a conventional film, the rest of the plot would be about Mark's flight from the law, but here the movie almost seems to forget it happened. After the shooting, Mark walks into a diner and asks the cashier to trust him for the price of a meal. He comes away empty handed and wanders onto an airstrip where he gets into a small plane and flies off. In the desert, he meets a girl and makes love to her at Zabriskie Point. They paint the plane in psychedelic colours, but Mark is shot by a cop while trying to return it. In the film, things just happen rather than one event following logically from the last.

Furthermore, the story is full of digressions that don't lead anywhere. The girl Mark meets in the desert, Daria (Daria Halpin), is a secretary who's on her way to Phoenix to stay with a rich land developer, Lee Allen (Rod Taylor). Before she meets Mark, she stops at a country 'n' western bar to ask for directions to a town whose name she can't recall. Upon learning she's unwittingly found the town, she explains to the bartender that she's looking for a friend of hers who lives there and takes care of sick kids. The bartender says he knows the person she's talking about and wishes he would take the sick kids and get out of town. Outside the bar, she finds a young boy plucking at the debris of a piano. Suddenly, she finds herself surrounded by young boys. One of them asks, "Can I have a piece of ass?" No sooner does she reply, "Would you know what to do with it if you got it?" than the boys try to molest her. Daria never finds her friend. One effect of this creepy sequence--which has nothing to do with the rest of the story and is never referred to afterwards--is to momentarily displace the narrative.

Additionally, the film elides a number of important events. We don't see Lee inviting Daria to come to Phoenix, but only learn of it once she's on the road. Similarly, we don't exactly see Mark shoot the cop or see him being shot later on. In the earlier scene, Antonioni shows Mark pulling up his pant leg to reveal a pistol in an ankle holster, and then immediately cuts to the dead cop falling to the ground. Later, we do see the cop shooting at the plane, which comes to a stop on the runway, but Antonioni leaves us in suspense for a moment as to whether Mark was hit. The camera circles slowly around the cockpit, which at first appears to be empty, until we can see Mark's body slumped over the controls. In most films, the death of the hero would be a major event (usually signaled as such by a reaction shot of a screaming woman onlooker), but Antonioni presents it so casually that it hardly seems to matter at all. (By contrast, the scene where Mark harasses Daria by flying the plane just a few feet above her car is drawn out so long that it registers as the most important sequence in the film.)

Zabriskie Point was made at a time when Hollywood studios were desperately trying to tap into the counterculture, both as a subject and an audience, and many reviewers in 1970 saw the film as a particularly inept attempt to do just that. (In her review of the film, Pauline Kael wrote, "If it weren't for [...] the embarrassment you feel for Antonioni, this would just be one more 'irreverent' pandering-to-youth movie, and (except visually) worse than most.") And I suspect one reason that it's never been critically rehabilitated is that a lot of what reviewers said about the film at the time was right on the money. Indeed, the two leads both give flat, tone deaf performances, but despite the fact that neither of them had any previous acting experience, I'm not sure it's their fault given how thinly their characters were conceived. In the opening sequence, Mark stands up at a student meeting and declares that he's prepared to die for revolution, and later, he insists that revolution is a matter of survival for him. But if the cause is that real for him, shouldn't we have some clue as to what's radicalized him? When he and the other men occupy the building on campus, they make no demands and have nothing they want to protest. (Curiously, the film makes no mention of the war in Vietnam or any other political issue.) In making the hero a radical and using Pink Floyd and The Grateful Dead on the soundtrack, the film positions itself as a counterculture movie, but since the filmmakers--like their hero--don't have any demands or anything they want to protest, it's ultimately just an empty pose.

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