Zabriskie Point

Zabriskie Point


Reviewed by: Chris

Antonioni’s much-maligned movie of American mores, and the bedrock of human spirit forcing its way through materialism, is best viewed without trying to force it into what we think it will be about.

A Sixties undergrad (Mark Frechette) drops out after a close brush with violence in the student uprisings of the time. He steals a plane and flies across the Californian desert. Here begins a romance that is both unlikely yet whimsically believable. He flirts with a young woman (Daria Halprin) who is driving across the desert to meet her capitalist boss. After landing the plane, the two of them enjoy the freedom of the desert, unconstrained by thoughts of who each other might be in the ‘real’ world. Their idyllic lovemaking in the sand encompasses (in the dreamlike visuals) many other couples. But Daria’s ‘destruction’ of her boss’ world, however vivid, emotional, and seemingly justifiable, remains in her imagination. Mark tries to take his Woodstock values back to ‘society’ only to face an unjust end for his minor misdemeanour.

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What at first appears to be a film about student protests and a myopic view of consumer society eventually goes much deeper than primitive hippie philosophy. Mark is neither swept up by the extremism of his classmates nor willing to concede anything less than a beautiful vision of life. His flawed character sets off with all the unchecked enthusiasm of frustrated youth, much like James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause. When he meets Daria, their lovemaking goes beyond any ‘Garden of Eden’ scenario: only away from everything (and in the arms of a woman) can he truly be himself. Any ‘gardens’ are also firmly generated only in imagination - in this case, Daria’s. (Those who like this symbolism will enjoy Daria biting into an apple as she drives away from her wilderness interlude.)

Daria’s arrival at a similar point to Mark is the opportunity to experience something more significant in her life. Unlike Mark, she is basically law-abiding, but with no less frustration at a consumerist society from which there is no escape. Even her boss’ plan of ‘holiday homes in the desert’ simply transplants patriarchal commercialism into the heart of nature at its most innocent.

Her mental cry of pain (expressed in Pink Floyd’s music written especially for the film, but reminiscent of their earlier Careful With That Axe, Eugene) foments an anger to which she cannot give action. Her tears, suddenly released and merged with the artificial waterfall, are only swept away by turning her back. Like Mark, she might not be able to do anything about the society that she finds herself in, but that does not mean she has to acquiesce or become part of it.

Antonioni’s sweeping landscapes of Death Valley, the surreal back-to-nature lovemaking scenes, his lingering treatment of consumer adverts as if they were add-on art, all pull us towards a view that transcends the apparent rambling nature of the narrative. The director’s statement here is not confined to anything as petty as supporting or deflating the student-protest viewpoint: as Daria says at one point, “There's a thousand sides to everything - not just heroes and villains.” Like the geological Zabriskie Point, where rock formations push upwards through the main strata, counter-culture and anti-establishment messages are merely an element of the whole, a phenomenon that is part of a bigger picture rather than a simple moral high-ground.

For those wanting a straightforward story with identifiable protagonists, Zabriskie Point may seem like a mess. But if you were wanting such simplistic entertainment, why would you go to see a film by Antonioni?

He creates in Zabriskie Point, as in his other films, a profound indifference in the viewer towards his characters. We observe their journey, as outsiders. He creates in us a sense of emptiness (neatly symbolised by the desert) – a theme he would return to some years later in The Passenger. We may feel frustrated that Antonioni finds this more interesting aesthetically (or philosophically) than using it to project a political agenda. It is as if he constructs a wonderful piece of architecture and then lets us observe what people use it for, and without becoming passionately involved in the specific trivia of their lives. ‘Stuff happens’ – whether it be enlightenment or deep expression of loss, or not knowing who or why we are.

The temptation most directors succumb to will be to force meaning and connections onto life that are essentially devoid of a Prime Mover’s Booker pen. Such characters join up the dots far more than any living person does in reality. Part of Antonioni’s haunting appeal maybe that he reminds us that the world and our relationships do not, in reality, fit into a coherent big picture explainable either by science or religions. His characters are psychologically many miles apart. Only in a common wilderness can they, and we, perhaps find an overall poetry that goes beyond individual agendas.

Reviewed on: 15 Nov 2007
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Zabriskie Point packshot
A young dreamer steals a plane and flies it to the desert, but society isn't ready for his vision when he tries to return.
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Director: Michelangelo Antonioni

Writer: Michelangelo Antonioni, Franco Rossetti (as Fred Gardner), Sam Shepard, Tonino Guerra, Clare Peploe

Starring: Mark Frechette, Daria Halprin, Paul Fix, G.D. Spradlin, Bill Garaway, Kathleen Cleaver

Year: 1970

Runtime: 110 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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If you like this, try:

The Passenger