Zabriskie Point

Film Review by Dean Duncan Mar 28, 2015

Frederick Wiseman’s contemporaneous Law and Order makes me skeptical about this film’s cops-are-pigs thesis. They can be and have been, but not only, and not always. On the other hand J. Hoberman’s account (2003) of Michelangelo Antonioni’s troubled production does suggest not only that times were tough, but that official villainy was almost certainly afoot. It could be that LA wasn’t quite like Kansas City, Missouri, and vice versa. The times were certainly crazy, and frightening besides. Whatever the cause, Zabriskie Point is quite a muddle. It’s pretty good, too—emblematic, and with much that still resonates, or works really well. Have you only and always heard that it’s a failure? Well, it depends how you define “failure.” That conversation often begins and ends with box office. So much more to it! Reputation isn’t always very helpful, and sometimes it isn’t even very useful. 

There’s a Challenge-for-Change ( vividness to the ideological debate that opens this picture. The unrest/confrontation that follows has an effective Blow-Up (Antonioni, 1966) uncertainty to it. Something’s going on, and the sense of foreboding is not only palpable but extra-cinematic. Something’s going on, but what, exactly? Uncertainty and ambiguity continue throughout the course of the film. Not all of it is intentional, or productive. For instance, the Mark/Daria relationship is implausible, and it strains especially under the symbolic weight it has to carry. On the other hand, their roles as social actors (not professionals, but actual people actually named “Mark” and “Daria”) require and deserve that we suspend some of our disbelief. 

Conceptual muddles? Zabriskie Point reminds me a bit of Tim Burton, actually. The stories in his films have sometimes been pretty perfunctory. Some of those films are still quite good, though, since Burton is as much a designer as he is a storyteller. Or, he often tells his stories by means of his design. Similarly, since it can be argued that Antonioni is primarily an architect and an image-maker, maybe the viewer would do better to key on what he does best. The pictures here are amazing! They’ve got that Vilmos Zsigmond thing going, where the play of light and lens make story almost superfluous.The images are also Antonioni-specific—the usual, familiar beautiful alienation, strikingly updated and reset. And the actual Zabriskie Point is a primordial, elemental, irreducible space, quite superbly rendered by these collaborators. 

Speaking of Zabriskie Point: Antonioni’s notorious desert orgy inevitably raises that old sex-scene conundrum. There’s something basically inappropriate and inadmissible about them. Is this just joyless prudery? Lots more than that, actually. In Triumph of the Will (Germany, 1934) Leni Riefenstahl gathered and grouped individual human beings into architectural masses, into faceless and, we could say, soulless blocks and columns. Her case is complicated, but the argument has been persuasively made that she subordinated these individuals’ subjectivity and even, eventually, effaced their humanity, all for the sake of a Nazi propaganda film. Leni R. aside, it’s easy to see that the Nazi regime did this exact same thing in the realm of actual relations, during its entire tenure. What an awful sacrifice this was, what an awful loss, and all for so awfully little. 

Does Antonioni, in the sequence presently under review, act similarly? Is this the status of sex scenes entire? It can be argued that in some basic way they reduce actual people, with their various vulnerabilities and particularities, to mere erotical props. (For a knowing illustration consult the heartbreaking, strip-teasing conclusion to R. Altman’s Nashville [1975].) Again, is this just joyless prudery? No! Chastity cannot countenance sequences like this, and Chastity cannot be simply dismissed. But intent and perspective are also important. Whatever impropriety may have attended or followed the shooting (or viewing!) of this sequence, it is clearly—remember what the dictionary says—neither pornographic nor obscene. Let’s shift that question. Not obscene, but did Antonioni reduce these sentient beings into mere symbolical props? Either way, there’s a lesson. Even more, there’s a moral imperative: don’t objectify!   

But is that it? Can’t one (mustn’t one?) take instruction from the unseemly things that are going on anyway? There is tremendous aesthetic and symbolic substance here: sexual congress as having tectonic parallels, resonance, significance. That idea certainly seems healthier than the poles of frivolousness and frigidity that so often prevail in our discussions about sexuality. Are young people being corrupted in the production of this material? (Were they already there?) A (huge!) problem. But “corrupt” might not be the right word. For example, Jules Ffeiffer wrote the scorchingly adult Carnal Knowledge. He also illustrated the properly kid-canonical The Phantom Tollbooth, besides creating that profound piece of kid advocacy Munro, and the thrillingly wise, kid-inspiring A Barrel of Laughter, A Vale of Tears.

Is it hypocrisy then? Well no, at least not only. To assume otherwise is just another form of objectification. People are multiple. And this is part of that multiplicity. Your aged and profoundly circumspect grandparents also produced offspring, and they probably/hopefully did it joyfully. Intertextuality and epic similes aside, people are much more than the mistakes they make, or the trouble they get into. Same with movies! (Cf. Wayne Booth, 1988.) Finally there’s the seeming, probable meaning of this exchange in the context of this particular production. Remember that geological reference, and how this story began. Aren’t they simply looking for permanency beneath all the then rampant uncertainty and unrest? Well, they’re not wrong. Here it is. As I use my brain and eye and my awareness of all of the possible roots and branches all operating together, this ends up being quite a stunning sequence.

Maybe not as stunning as that final explosion, though. It’s very well led-up-to, narratively and emotionally. The conclusion of the kids’ tryst is sweet, making “Mark”/Mark’s subsequent murder all the more awful. Rod Taylor’s old-guard movie star handsomeness is thus effectively transformed into exactly what’s wrong with the world. Look at his beautiful retreat, which not only ignores but causes all of this unrest. And so—Boom! The repeated, multi-sourced slow-motion shots of this cataclysm are gorgeous, portentous. Pink Floyd’s music (“Careful With That Ax, Eugene”) goes perfectly—trippy, yes, but also quite convincingly apocalyptic. Gorgeous, portentous, practically Godardian (1967). And then Roy Orbison’s closing number trumps it! Did MGM go behind the genius’s back in including this song? Almost certainly, and in many ways quite awkwardly. But it’s Roy Orbison! Plus, here’s its own form of bold un-convention: two whole minutes of music over black! Young and free is (complicatedly and ultimately) right!

Once again—boom:–6UzUk

Did we mention it?  Roy Orbison is the greatest:

Susan Sontag, writing very convincingly about the mutual implication of fascist ideology, spectacular aesthetics, and dehumanizing erotics: