Zabriskie Point: Antonioni’s First US Feature (Follow-Up to Blow-Up)

Zabriskie Point, a follow-up to director Michelangelo Antonioni’s ultra-cool, ultra-successful Blow Up, wasinitially perceived a major artistic disappointment, even disastrous; critics’ expectations were understanbly but unreasonably high after the brilliant innovation of his 1966 UK feature.

However, on a second look, Antonioni’s first all-American made picture, released by MGM, bears some artistic merits.

Made in 1970, “Zabriskie Point” is like a time capsule, reflecting the post-Woodstock Vietnam era at its most youthful and most nihilistic, with a text that propagates blatantly anti-establishment and anti-materialism.

Five different writers (European and American) worked on the script: Antonioni Fred Gardner, Sam Shephard, Tonio Guerra, Clare Peplo, and Harrison Starr, which may explain the muddled, incoherent result. Also contributing to the film’s problem is the casting of Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin as the central couple.

Stylistically, “Zabriskie Point” is a hybrid of a picture. It opens in a documentary mode, depicting a meeting of radical college students and their pseudo-Marxist discussion of what’s the meaning of a revolution. Disenchanted with what he sees as his classmates’ stagnant idealism, Mark declares he’s ready to die and walks out on the gathering.

Accused (erroneously, of course), of killing a cop during a campus demonstration, Mark steals a small private plane in a nearby airfield and flies to the ominous Death Valley, where he meets Daria (Halprin), an attractive pot-smoking secretary.

Before long, the duo is making love at Zabriskie Point, a touristy spot in the Desert, named after a man (Zabriskie) who discovered minerals there. From then on, the narrative goes downhill, plodding and sluggish–until its notoriously apocalyptic finale.

A tweener, “Zabriskie Point” is neither documentary nor lyrical, neither seriously critical of American culture nor praiseworthy of youth counter-culture. The generation and culture gaps are portrayed in a clich way, perhaps because they are seen from the outside, mostly by foreigners; it’s impossible to know what precisely native playwright Shepard contributed to the final scenario.

The dialogue, not very sharp or credible in the first place, is delivered in an amateurish way by the charmless thespians that make it worse–and more banal–like a series of existentialist platitudes.

If a star like Jack Nicholson (“Easy Rider,” “Five Easy Pieces”) or Dustin Hoffman (“The Graduate”, “Midnight Cowboy”), or Jon Voight, had been cast in the male lead, “Zabriskie Point” might have been more involving as an art film, more controversial as a source of socio-political debates–and more commercial, too.

Yet most of the visuals are awesome, compensating for tedious narrative. Antonioni and his lenser get some breathtaking imagery out of the unique landscape of Death Valley, a place that would continue to intrigue foreign film directors, evident in Bruno Dumont’s 2003 “29 Palms,” also aan excessive  exploration of the Id and Eros in the brutal heat of the desert.

The prolonged sex scene, with the couple nude, revealed much more than was the norm of erotic acts in mainstream American movies.

Most American critics gave Antonioni’s picture the nastiest notices of his career, some resenting the fact that an Italian trespassed into a uniquely American domain. Take the brilliant Andrew Sarris, who is more often than not kind and gentle: “Like ‘Blow-Up’ and its version of England, the film is another artwork of cultural osmosis, as if an interplanetary visitor were surveying the American West with more curiosity than compassion, but with far more compassion than contempt.

Controversia Ending

The film is at its best in the first hour when the couple and their behavior dynamics are depicted.

Many critics and viewers resented the ending–the film’s last 10 minutes–with its imagery of an explosion of materialistic shrapnel, indicating the broader message of spiritual emptiness–as if nothing matters anymore in real life

Dismissing the work, some film critics didn’t even bother to explain the reasoning for their negative critique.

Not surprisingly, as a result of both unfavorable reviews and overly high expectations after “Blow Up,” “Zabriskie Point” went on to become a commercial flop.  The mocie grossed the meager amount of only $1 million at the box-office on what was a considerable budget ($7 million) back then, particularly for a movie by an art director.

Cast

Mark (Mark Frechette)
Daria (Daria Halprin)
Lee Allen (Rod Taylor)
Caf Owner (Paul Fix)
Lee’s Associate (G.D. Spradin)
Morty (Bill Garaway)
Kathleen (Kathleen Cleaver)

Credits

Running Time: 112 Minutes

Producer: Carlo Ponti
Director: Antonioni
Screenplay: Antonioni Fred Gardner, Sam Shephard, Tonio Guerra, Clare Peplo, and Harrison Starr, based on a story by Antonioni
Camera: Alfio Contini
Editor: Franco Arcalli
Production Design: Dean Tavoularis
Costumes: Ray Summers
Special Effects: Earl McCoy