Criminally Neglected: Zabriskie Point (1970)

Andrew reviews Michelangelo Antonioni's misunderstood masterpiece

After the enormous and unprecedented artistic and commercial success of Michelangelo Antonioni's first English language film Blow-Up, the cinema world was needless to say the brilliant Italian auteur's oyster.  All eyes were watching and eagerly awaiting whatever the groundbreaking inventor of a new kind of cinema language would do next.  Dubbed by some 'Antonioniennui' for his undeterred thematic focus on bored, disillusioned characters with minimal emphasis on plot or dialogue, Antonioni's cinema was at once revolutionary in construct and pure in essence.  Like any great artist ahead of his time suddenly achieving that enviable pedestal of mastering his intellectual acuity and unmatched aesthetic while simultaneously working in the mainstream, Antonioni was very briefly a trendy doll in the film world having reached the top of the mountain.  Sadly, as with directors like David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino, Lawrence Kasdan, Alex Proyas, William Friedkin, Sam Peckinpah and Nicolas Roeg, the time came for the public at large to turn on Antonioni and it happened with his most controversial and misunderstood project, Zabriskie Point.  The first film of Antonioni's to be shot entirely in the United States with notable emphasis on Phoenix, Arizona's very own Death Valley, Zabriskie Point was an attempt to capture the essence of the counter-cultural hippie freedom and love movement at the tail end of the 1960s and in general a meditation on politically charged civil war between the perceived hippies versus the establishment.  

Utilizing a cast of non-actors in the leading roles of Mark and Daria (Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin more or less playing themselves), Antonioni devotees reacted to the neorealist approach in the same manner Alfred Hitchcock fans did to Frenzy: with derision.  Due to the perception of Antonioni's film as an incendiary call to violence and aberrant sexual behavior well before the cameras finished rolling, the picture was dogged with protests attempting to derail production not unlike the thousands of protesters eager to close William Friedkin's Cruising.  For instance, the U.S. Department of Justice closed in on Antonioni's production over the orgy sequence with early reports claiming as many as 10,000 extras were hired for a scene that only used a fraction of those numbers and never involved unsimulated sex.  Antonioni's leftist politics certainly didn't help temper the flames as FBI agents followed the cast and crew about and right-wing protesters besieged the set protesting an alleged scene of American flag desecration which never occurred.  Critics and audiences were awaiting Antonioni's latest with baited breath and when it finally arrived in 1970, two years after production began, they plunged their daggers deep.  Costing an astronomical $7 million for what was meant to be an experimental art film largely dependent on the deathly dry rocky terrain of the film's central location, the film took in a meager $1 million at the box office and was thoroughly savaged by the critics.  Many including actor James Caan considered Zabriskie Point to be one of the worst films ever made and Antonioni's lovingly rendered critique of American counterculture was all but forgotten until decades after initial release.  A shame because when I first saw it I was unaware of the backlash and thought I had seen one of Antonioni's most beautiful and life affirming films!

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From the original score by Pink Floyd including contributions by Grateful Dead, The Youngbloods and John Fahey to the grandiose vistas of Death Valley, Zabriskie Point is a full on sensory experience which is closer to music than traditional storytelling.  Even if you find Antonioni's minimalist, non-linear and non-narrative approach to be trying, many of the sights and sounds in Zabriskie Point are among the most spectacular you will ever encounter.  Take for instance the now much discussed finale consisting of a fantasy vision of a mansion exploding.  Initially we're treated to a wide shot of the building exploding from multiple camera angles but eventually the scene grows into a series of truly awesome images of refrigerators, television sets, dressers and bookshelves exploding shot in ultra high-speed set to Pink Floyd music.  Out of context, it's an incredible sequence never seen before or since, the likes of which filmmakers now only dream of creating.  The film's much ballyhooed and lambasted "orgy sequence" itself is relatively tame and functions as another extension of Antonioni's rumination on sex as a transitory distraction from ennui.  To an extent all of Antonioni's work regards social climate whether it's swinging London in Blow-Up, the Italian piazza in L'Avventura or the Sahara desert landscape opening The PassengerAntonioni is probably the only director who can truly turn a worldly landscape or architecture into a character as rich and complex as the mercurial human characters populating his films. 

Antonioni was, is and always shall be a difficult pill to swallow.  Of the great artists in the annals of cinema history, Antonioni is arguably the toughest for newcomers to get into.  Objectively speaking, Antonioni's films disregard traditional plot and story formula in search of trying to figure out what makes people tick, what triggers their happiness and ultimately perpetuates their depressed boredom.  It doesn't help that Antonioni has consistently maintained a chilly and clinical distance from his protagonists, almost with an aloof superiority some viewers have found and still find a wee bit smug.  As such, there's no denying he was one of the most important directors to emerge from the Italian New Wave and his passing was a great loss to the cinema world.  That his art is still polarizing to newcomers and veterans is a testament to his individuality as a filmmaker with wholly original linguistics never pioneered before or since.  Arguably the closest director to Antonioni might be Rainer Werner Fassbender for his kindred interest in social critique, using wide arenas for their mutually disillusioned characters to demonstrate either inherent flaws or natural shortcomings in our modern society.  What separated the two however was Fassbender's use of melodrama to draw viewers into the plight of his characters where Antonioni was interested in how his characters represented social construct in microcosm.  Whatever your stance on Antonioni may be, his most controversial and critically lambasted work to date Zabriskie Point, however imperfect it may be, has far more genuine wonders and ideas in it than many have given it credit for and is long overdue for reappraisal with a fresh pair of eyes.  


 - Andrew Kotwicki