Now considered a cult film, Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1970 film, Zabriskie Point, was a huge commercial flop, costing $7 million to make–a huge sum back then–and grossing less than $1 million in its brief theatrical run. The director of the very successful Blow Up , his first of three English-language films, had blown up at the box office. The film also literally–as “literal” as a fantasy sequence can be in any film, especially this one–blew up at the end, as the above YouTube clip of the final scene depicts.
The music, which starts about half way through the scene, is by Pink Floyd (“Come In Number 51, Your Time Is Up,” a variation of “Careful With That Axe, Eugene”). The house didn’t really blow up — it is a fantasy of the beautiful female lead Daria (played by Daria Halprin), who is otherwise “a sweet, pot-smoking post-teenybopper of decent inclinations,” wrote Vincent Canby in his original New York Times review of Zabriskie Point. Why, I wondered, if a film at least looks this good, was it panned and attacked upon release by nearly everybody of every political and cultural stripe? Here’s Canby again:
The main problem with “Zabriskie Point” is that Antonioni has done nothing with his physical production to illuminate in any meaningful way the emotional states of his two principal characters—if, indeed, they have any.
They are completely instinctive people, but their instincts have been imposed upon them by an intellectualizing Antonioni, rather than by God. Everything in the film is calculated, including the prettily-photographed, conventionally-ironic contrasts between the principal locations—Los Angeles (used-car lots, absurd billboards, glass-and-steel office buildings reaching above the smog) and Death Valley, whose barren hills look like the remains of some cataclysmic oatmeal war of prehistory.
Paradoxically, even though everything is calculated, nothing within the film justifies its final, apocalyptic vision of the disintegration of the Western world to the accompaniment of a funky rock tune. It’s lovely to look at (books, furniture, food, a copy of Look magazine, all hanging suspended in an emulsion of deep blue), but completely absurd in the context.
Prettily-photographed, conventionally-ironic, is a deft putdown of any work of art with grand pretension, which Zabriskie Point had in spades. But times change, and so do opinions, at least some of them. It’s important to remember that Zabriskie Point was made in the era before home video, home theater, cable TV, movie channels, the Internet, TiVo, timeshifting, DVDs, Netflix, Redbox, movie streaming, Apple TV, YouTube, Vimeo, iPods-Phones-Pads and all the countless other ways we ingest, digest and otherwise consume “motion pictures” today. So when a movie stopped playing in theaters back then, if it didn’t get picked up by network television–the only kind of television there was–it was never heard from again outside the occasional art house screening. And since no TV network would ever show this film, it effectively vanished, and didn’t even get released on DVD until a few years ago. It became, in effect, a cultural time capsule of a most bygone era, rarely seen or discussed for nearly 40 years. Now that Zabriskie Point can be seen by an entire culture of fresh eyes, is the critical judgment any less harsh?
Dennis Lim, writing in Slate in 2009, asks the astute question: Was Zabriskie Point–Antonioni’s biggest flop–just misunderstood?
All this rancor is a little hard to fathom today. Recently issued on DVD for the first time by Warner Home Video, Zabriskie Point is of a piece with Antonioni’s best work: a luxuriant portrait of spiritual alienation with a sense of place far more expressive than its blankly beautiful characters…. But was Zabriskie Point out of fashion precisely because it nailed the zeitgeist?
In other words, if Zabriskie Point was actually a faithful depiction of a bad trip, then of course people at the time, many still living the bad trip, would hate the movie. Like waking up in the morning with the worst hangover in your life, stumbling into the bathroom and getting mad at the mirror for the hideous scene it depicts. And the “straight culture” that was critical of the bad trip to begin with would of course comply with the film’s artsy stereotype that they are “square” and summarily reject this film. Thus a movie that nobody, at the time, could like. So, could it possibly be likable now?
Having never seen this film, and being a huge fan of Antonioni’s earlier Italian films and his other two English-language films Blow Up and The Passenger (with Jack Nicholson), I decided to rent the Zabriskie Point DVD and finally see what all the fuss was about. I was skeptical, and prepared for the worst. But guess what? I loved the film. Yes, much of the acting is pretty bad (but not that of Rod Taylor as the land developer/boss/lover of Daria, and his compadres at Sunny Dunes Corp), and its attempts at social and political relevance are pretentious and clunky. Such damnation would sink most films, and have sunk this one for over four decades. But I believe the film succeeds in spite of all those knocks, and perhaps the negatives even add to its allure now, and become part of its charm. Because the naivete behind the director, writers and the characters is kind of charming from this vantage point, almost like some kind of primitive folk art.
What I think is most astonishing about Zabriskie Point is partly the very prettily-photographed scenes that Vincent Canby decried, but especially the craft and precision with which those scenes are put together. Every frame of this film is a work of art, and perhaps the best way to appreciate it is through stop-motion, frame-by-frame viewing of the DVD, something that was not possible to viewers back in 1970. That’s what I did, after first watching the film “normally,” in an effort to figure out how this thing was constructed. (I even shot a bunch of photos of individual frames, some of which I am putting together into a composite image for a follow-up blog post, to try to express visually this feeling I had while watching the film.)
Charged and sentenced
Vincent Canby complained that Antonioni had “done nothing with his physical production to illuminate in any meaningful way the emotional states of his two principal characters—if, indeed, they have any,” but I think he missed the point. I don’t think the emotional states of the main characters, especially Mark, are the focus here. I think its the emotional state of the camera, and by extension us, the audience, is what’s most important. We witness scenes and encounters more than much of a conventional “plot,” and the invention, to me, is in how strikingly third-person in tone it all is: the camera/director become our avatar in an alien world, forty years before James Cameron’s mystical blue people of planet Pandora did this literally, and much less interestingly.
When Canby wrote of the climactic scene that, “it’s lovely to look at…but completely absurd in the context,” I think it shows that he, like everybody at the time, misunderstood what the context of the film actually is, so of course it seemed absurd to him. If if the context is misjudged, then the way the film is shot can easily be seen as mannered, as Canby notes:
Various Antonioni mannerisms—the blank screen suddenly filled with a face, the endless tracking shots, the pregnant pauses between unfinished thoughts—are finally only tolerable because you remember the times when they were better used.
Whatever the faults of Zabriskie Point — and there are many — it is a visual and structural masterpiece. It is dense with signs and symbols — literally — but that alone isn’t what makes the film so interesting. It’s the way in which the film becomes a persona of it’s own that is so striking. I think that when it came out, a charged (and foreign) indictment of American culture released into a very politically charged environment, it became an easy scapegoat of all that is wrong, from every cranny of the political spectrum. It is a film that has suffered, in effect, from its own cataclysmic oatmeal war of (contemporary) prehistory. That war is now over. (Spoiler: nobody won.) We have our very own culture wars now.
The sound of silence
Zabriskie Point also has a great soundtrack, featuring music by Pink Floyd, Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia, John Fahey, The Rolling Stones, Roscoe Holcomb, and Patti Page. However, the strongest audio presence in the film is silence. Like a true ancestor of the Dogme 95 movement, most songs are only heard very briefly in the film, and usually only when a character turns on a radio; most of the time, there is no musical accompaniment, and nearly silence on the soundtrack. This gives the action on screen a lot more breathing room, and furthers the transformation of camera into character, as we are not distracted by the artifice of soundtrack music.
Perhaps the most telling comment of all comes from a throwaway line narrated in the original Zabriskie Point trailer: Zabriskie Point. How you get there depends on where you’re at. My advice for today’s viewer is to leave your ideologies “where you’re at,” and surrender to the thoroughly alien — and rapturously beautiful — world that is Zabriskie Point.