Gus Reed reevaluates Michelangelo Antonioni’s lone American film.
Zabriskie Point was destined for notoriety before it arrived in theaters. Released in 1970 after a perpetually fraught two-year production period on location in Death Valley, Zabriskie Point was Michelangelo Antonioni’s first—and last—American film. It was also his follow-up to the enormously successful Blow-Up (1966), which had made Antonioni, already a mainstay on the European festival circuit, visible to American audiences. He had gotten America’s attention, and now he would deliver an opus made just for his newest audience—a film that would take on nothing less than the madness of the American 60’s and hold a widescreen mirror up to a generation in love with its own youthful spirit of rebellion. That may sound like a recipe for disaster; it was.
Zabriskie Point is routinely singled out as Antonioni’s worst film. Pauline Kael called it “a huge, jerry-built, crumbling ruin of a movie.” Roger Ebert commented that Antonioni’s vision of American counterculture hadn’t achieved even “a beach-party level of insight.” “Wow, I don’t remember this movie at all, I need to watch it again sometime,” adds one Rotten Tomatoes ‘Super Reviewer’.
The American public was similarly underwhelmed and disinterested, and Zabriskie Point proved to be the biggest flop of Antonioni’s career, making up only about $900,000 of its more than $7,000,000 budget. It certainly didn’t ruin him; he went on to make five more features, including The Passenger and Identification of a Woman, but no Antonioni film would ever again be received with the same widespread adoration and enthusiasm as Blow-Up, or make as much of a stir as L’Avventura.
At this point, you may expect me to make a boldly iconoclastic and revisionist claim like “Zabriskie Point is actually Antonioni’s greatest film,” but that’s not my intention. Common consensus may even be right in calling it his worst— but side-by-side with achievements like La Notte and Red Desert, that’s not saying all that much. Whatever its ranking in Antonioni’s filmography, there are quite a few reasons to see Zabriskie Point, and I’d like to question its relegation to that fearsome category of embarrassing cinematic failures and unwatchable curiosities supposedly meant “for serious fans only.”
The acting in Zabriskie Point is what you might call “bad.” There’s no getting around that fact. Directing actors was never Antonioni’s strong suit; for his leads, he chose two American unknowns, Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin, presumably because they’re both strikingly attractive and look even better together (but hey—film is a visual medium). Looks aside, their performances are wooden, at best, and it doesn’t help that their dialogue, like most Antonioni dialogue, is dubbed. Maybe he gets away more easily with using non-actors, at least for English-speaking audiences, when his films are in Italian and subtitled (Is Monica Vitti even a “good” actress?! I honestly have no idea).
When Zabriskie Point is occasionally praised, lukewarm reviewers inevitably mention Antonioni’s breathtaking cinematography as the film’s one redeeming quality. This kind of half-hearted recommendation is, to my mind, even more harmful than an outright pan, because it draws an unholy distinction between the film’s style (which is, apparently, commendable) and its content (which is, presumably, lacking). Antonioni was a visual artist more than anything, and in all of his films, form and content are hopelessly tangled up. The stark, lonely images of the desert landscape in Zabriskie Point aren’t beautiful purely for their own sake. Antonioni says more about his two heroes—their anxieties, their desires, their restless longing for place and direction—with three or four shots of them wandering through Death Valley than with all their lines of dialogue put together. In that central scene, Daria and Mark, two near-strangers crossing the desert towards uncertain futures, find themselves alone at Zabriskie Point, seemingly at the edge of the civilized world. They make awkward conversation, punctuated by long silences. The towering emptiness of their natural surroundings threatens to swallow them whole. At times, they become small dots in the barren landscape, traceable only by the clouds of dust Mark stirs up as he tumbles down a dune, or the long lines Daria rakes into the sand with her fingers.
In these moments, we believe—I, at least, believe—that they are experiencing the freedom that they so long for, that, perhaps, they are in love— but they have nowhere to go. The earth surrounding them is dead. Mark’s past draws him back to a hostile city and an almost certain doom, while Daria continues her way across the desert to face a terrible choice. This is no light-hearted frolic through the American countryside, nor is it the glorious celebration of countercultural spunk and resilience that Antonioni’s American financiers so hoped for. Aimless as Daria and Mark’s paths may be, the stakes of Zabriskie Point are quite high, and their indecision becomes a decision in itself. It’s easy to dismiss the strangely apocalyptic, but hypnotically powerful finale as baffling and emptily psychedelic, but the more I think about it, the more inevitable the conflagration seems. The values of a civilization are going up in smoke—what, exactly, will be left when the fire dies down is unclear.
Antonioni’s characters are often criticized as passive and bored. He was categorically interested in people who didn’t know where they were going, who couldn’t articulate what exactly they wanted. Andrew Sarris coined the term “Antoniennui” as shorthand for this then-fashionable, and quickly caricatured brand of malaise, and there’s as much Antoniennui here as in any of his films, though these broke American adolescents wear their discontent differently than the cosmopolitan and oh-so-effete upper crust of Rome and Verona. If you don’t enjoy Antonioni’s films, Zabriskie Point probably won’t be the one to win you over, but give it the chance anyways, and if you’ve never ventured into Antonioni-world, it’s as good a point of departure as any. And, if for no other reason, give Zabriskie Point a chance to hear Daria driving into the distance to the strains of John Fahey’s “Dance of Death”, or Roy Orbison crooning “So Young” as Antonioni zeroes into a blood red sunset.