ZABRISKIE POINT

 (Michelangelo Antonioni, USA, 1969) 110 minutes

ZABRISKIE POINT

Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Producer: Carlo Ponti
Screenplay: Michelangelo Antonioni, Fred Gardner,
Sam Shepard, Tonino Guerra, Claire Peploe
Cinematography: Alfio Contini
Editors: Michelangelo Antonioni, Franco Arcalli
Production Design: Dean Tavoularis
Music: Pink Floyd, and others
Mark Frechette (Mark)
Daria Halprin (Daria)
Rod Taylor (Lee Allen)
Paul Fix (Cafe Owner)
G D Spradlin (Lee Allen's associate)
Bill Garaway (Morty)
Kathleen Cleaver (Kathleen)
The Open Theatre of Joe Chaikin

Reviews and notes

Antonioni's reactions to life in the USA are very much in line with his sorrowing observations of individual figures in other landscapes. Zabriskie Point offers eloquent variations on his persistent themes of sex and avarice, each of which is treated to an ambitious set-piece: a fervent hymn to sexuality - playful and free, and happening in Death Valley; and a climactic vision of the regulated materialistic world being totally exploded, presumably to leave space for love.

This latter sequence is almost optimistic by comparison with the sombre closing phase of L'eclisse but the film's accumulative effect is scarcely hopeful. Love has been bypassed in favour of death: a girl who might have continued happily with an affirmative relationship has let her transient young lover go his way towards the ultimate risk, the final defiant gesture. The sadness of this, the lack of reason and the surrender to restless compulsion, are to be deplored - and so Antonioni deplores them.

The twenty-year-old individualist, Mark, irritated by an argumentative student-meeting but eager to do his own rebellious thing, visits a gunshop. Claiming that he lives in a 'borderline neighbourhood' where the womenfolk are in danger, he persuades the salesman to forego the customary legal check-up and let him have a gun right away. With it comes advice: 'One other thing about the law. It says you can protect your house. So if you shoot them in the back yard, be sure you drag them inside.' The immoral climate is recognisably the same that gave rise to murderous insanity in Bogdanovich's Targets.

Mark is suspected of killing a policeman with a gun during a riot. He is innocent, but only by accident: somebody else fired before him. He dies in retribution all the same.

In contrast to Mark, the girl Daria is an embodiment of peace. Seductive, and intentionally so, she is cool enough to work if she must: 'It's not something I really dig to do. I just work when I need the bread.' Recent bread has been won at the price (not necessarily too steep) of sexual obligation to the boss, an avarice-figure, shrewdly congenial, who is much involved in property development - turning acres of desert land into affluent but stereotyped residential blocks: regulation homes for the mindless, or for those who prefer to avoid the effort of thinking for themselves.

Daria feels compelled to evade this man for a while, so she purloins a friend's car and is driving it across parched earth when Mark catches sight of her for the first time, from the air. His transport is also stolen - a small plane in which he flies low over the car, pausing in his vagrant journey to nowhere, conducting an imaginative flirtation, playing a game that Daria is prepared to share. This distant courtship is the neatest touch in the entire film: it paves the way for a progression from reality to fantasy, gaining much from the camera of Alfio Contini and the freshness of newcomers Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin as the momentary lovers.

While their performances are easy-seeming, Antonioni draws nuances from their behaviour and their oft-mumbled words, darkening the romantic splendour that will proliferate in Death Valley when they mate upon the cracked and dusty earth of long-eroded lake beds. Their experience gives rise - as in a dream - to multiple rapture. All around them, suddenly, other young bodies are writhing in pleasure: the manoeuvres by players from Joe Chaikin's Open Theatre are inclined once or twice to wax humorous (intentionally?), and this is a shame, but repeated and erotic glimpses of Daria and Mark sustain the wishful mood that culminates in one breathtaking longshot and a benign sandstorm.

Before his fatal return flight, Mark paints the little 'plane, helped by Daria and an old man. Over the original pink (the favourite colour of the owner's wife) go psychedelic shapes in brilliant hues, with the occasional mildly rude word, until the thing is transformed into a 'strange prehistoric bird'. Back it must go, according to Mark, because 'You don't borrow someone's private plane, take it out for a joy ride and never come back to express your thanks'. The finger-snap at conventional ethics is followed, at parting, by the real reason: 'I want to take risks.'

Daria makes her own way to the country house, high on a hilltop, where the boss is waiting with accommodation; but news of Mark's death has endowed her with hate, and the wish-vision blooms as she watches the house. It explodes - not once but time and again, now complete, now bursting to pieces in flame and smoke and gently floating debris. Again, as at Death Valley, a ludicrous note intrudes briefly - details of the wreckage moving through space include a lobster and a chicken from the exploded refrigerator ... but, on the other hand, the growing mood assumes a poetic and almost elegiac tone, as the leaves of drifting books turn slowly against a sky that will flood with gold as Daria goes away.

Where she will go, seems very important.

So indeed does the entire film: visually the most beautiful; and thematically the most urgent, that Antonioni has ever made. In common with the best of his work, Zabriskie Point derives meaningful images from the placement of characters against their immediate backgrounds, while at the same time carrying his ideas beyond the specific place and time of the story. The troubled, wishful humans we observe in Los Angeles and in the desert are influenced strongly by their environment, yet their problems have a universality that will be recognised by many who exist in climates far removed from sad and sunny California.
- Gordon Gow, Films and Filming, May 1970.

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