Zabriskie Point is one of the largest expanses of earth on show to the sky. Located in the eerily named ‘Death Point’ it holds the remains to over 5million year’s worth of fossilisation and sediments. It’s also the name of one hell of an epic movie. Michelangelo Antonion made movies. Before Generation X had made its mark in the sand Antonion was the eye filming the 1960s counterculture that was brewing beneath the surface. His first major English speaking film ‘Blow Up’ is based in Swinging London and was received with high praise. It was when he turned his camera lens to America that trouble set in.
“Sometimes reality is the strangest fantasy of all” begins the trailer for ‘Blowup’. Based around the day in the life of photographer Thomas, Blowup examines unreality, the imagined and memory. The plot follows Thomas as he wakes up in a squat where he has been shooting art photos, he is late for shoots and tricks a bunch of models in fine Mary Quant fare into shutting their eyes as he sneaks out. All fun and capers until he spots two lovers and takes a photo of them. Furious the woman begins following Thomas around trying to get the film off him. His many blowups of the photograph reveal a body and a suspected murderer lurking in the background. When returning home after investigating all the film and photographs have disappeared, except a close up of the body.
The film ends with a surreal finale. A car full of mimes screams past with 30 or so people clinging on and shouting. As they get out of the car a deathly silence falls and two, a boy and girl, begin to mime out a tennis match on a court. Thomas is drawn into tennis match from the sidelines and as the invisible ‘ball’ shoots over his head he picks it up and throws it. The film entangles “love without meaning, murder without guilt”. It won Antonion critical acclaim
Three years later in 1969 Antonion released Zabriskie Point. It was supposed to be the crowning achievement of his professional life, his domination of America- the feather in the cap of his already seminal body of work.
The 1960s had been fraught with politics, polar opposites and promiscuity. Whereas Blow Up portrayed London in as a mysterious, stylised country of swinging parties, Zabriskie Point would portray America as a place full of friction and Western ideals gone awry. Ironically made by Hollywood moguls and epic-blockbuster makers MGM, the bold statements Antonion sought to make about the USA fell flat. Long shots of commercials to hammer home the corruptness of Western capitalism and soundtrack feautring masters of the epoch Pink Floyd not to mention a sluggish plotline all conspire to make a slow burning film. Starting with a revolutionary meeting discussing racial issues at the college the scene is informal and low key with voices rising over one another before one guy stands up and leaves. His roommate- resplendence itself with moustache and thick frame glasses - tells everyone ‘I guess meetings just ain’t his trick’.
And they aren’t. What follows is the shooting of a police officer, a plane theft and a beguiling young girl with long hair searching the arid desert for a man named Jim. The girl is Daria- a secretary for a Sunnydale Estates who are looking to build housing complexes on the desert. The boy is Mark- abored rebellious student. Obviously they meet in the middle of the desert, fall in love and have full on sex for twelve minutes bringing to life a desert orgy. Once this is over the two paint Mark’s stolen plane with sarcastic slogans and a pair of giant tits before he flies back, getting shot in the process.
When it came out the critics retched. They snubbed and turned their noses up at a film “constructed…of so many lame metaphors and bad puns”. To watch it now is a different experience. The slow burning performances of Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin- both first time actors can be a bit excruciating at times. But they are both pretty spot on for their parts.
The language is of it’s time- the film begins with shouts of ‘Right on!’, ‘the man’ and I’m pretty sure someone is called a ‘jive motherfucker’. But that’s what makes it great. The glimpses into the past. Radio’s report Vietnam updates, the Sunnydale complex treats women as little wives sitting at home ‘cooking for Jnr’. Ironically in 1970 that all seemed passé- now its so passé it’s become social history. The shots of the desert and inner city are visually beautiful and there is an air of youth and rebellion and ‘pot smoking’ throughout. Not to mention dusty sex.
Michelangelo Antonioni, for the most part, was a visionary. His use of music in Zabriskie Point- featuring the Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd and Rolling Stones, his wide-eyed camera work and his narrative style of piecing together disconnected events came before many. He allowed film to relax, to explore the open ended narrative. He found characters who in the modern world can only conjure up a sense of ennui, no matter how many parties they attend, no matter how many drugs they take. Some criticism comes of his long shots- Orson Welles saying “He gives you a full shot of somebody walking down a road. And you think, ‘Well, he’s not going to carry that woman all the way up that road.’ But he does”. But Antonioni is showing life and its boring bits as well. He is exposing the fear of purposelessness and boredom.