Monday, December 10, 2007

Zabriskie Point

Michelangelo Antonioni's lone American production, 1970's Zabriskie Point, has long been regarded as a sort of ill-conceived folly blighting the director's otherwise unblemished body of work; but, viewed today, it looks a lot better than most films of the period, including its celebrated predecessor, Blowup, the filmmaker's commercially successful, but somewhat limpid look at existential uncertainty in swinging London. In the later film, the director may show little facility in handling the romantic interaction of his two leads (excepting a surrealistic sex scene in Death Valley), but he gets just about everything else right: the smog and ad-saturated Los Angeles cityscape, the mutual racial distrust of 1960s America, the expansive beauty of the desert and the efforts of corporations to sell it - and stages several of his finest set-pieces. Antonioni's status as an outsider hardly results in any sort of unique perspective on the material (and indeed his insights into 1960s counterculture are not really much different from any number of other contemporary films), but he brings to the proceedings a feel for place-specific detail, a wry humor and an eye both expansive and exact, in addition to a final destructive glee that stands as a fantastic antidote to the film's acknowledged triumph of corporate over idealistic culture.

The thin thread of plot - more anecdote than story - comes from a news item the director read about a student shot to death by the police after returning a plane he stole from a Los Angeles airfield for a joyride in the desert. In the picture's first scene, a debate among student radicals filmed as handheld vérité, the young man, Mark (Mark Frechette), responds to the criticism of black leaders against the alleged lack of real commitment of their white counterparts by declaring himself willing to die and then staging a dramatic exit. That scene, with real-life Black Panther Kathleen Cleaver delivering the denunciation, captures in just a few minutes of screen time the racial and socio-economic divisions in the radical movement, a fascinating bit of pseudo-documentary footage, even if its themes are not picked up again in the picture. In fact, the rest of the film takes a largely un-ideological view of revolutionary activity. Although Mark eventually fulfills his declaration and dies at the hands of the cops, there is no indication that he died as part of any committed revolutionary gesture and indeed his political motives throughout the film are never really illuminated (even if he gives his name to the police as Karl Marx). Antonioni's refusal to grant his would-be radicals an ideological consistency becomes a wonderfully ambiguous stance. While he offers a definitive denunciation of murderous policeman and greedy land developers, he is deliberately fuzzy on the motives of their adversaries. It is difficult to tell exactly where Antonioni stands in relation to his characters, but this sense of uncertainty positions us exactly in a world where, while it is easy to identify the villains, it is difficult to locate a morally unambiguous opposition.

The initial meeting between the two romantic leads, and one of Antonioni's several expert stagings, occurs via a round of North by Northwest airplane stunts conceived as a form of foreplay. As Daria (Daria Halrpin) drives through the desert, Mark orchestrates a series of near-misses as his airplane continually skirts the top of her car. Antonioni is fine in handling his romantic leads as long as their interactions are confined to dumb gestures. Unfortunately, the aerial acrobatics soon give way to a rather limpid verbal exchange but, after quickly discharging the necessary dialogue, the director turns to another memorable set-piece, an epic love scene set in the dunes of Death Valley, unfettered copulation imagined as cosmic orgy. As the leads begin their love making, Antonioni intercuts close-ups of a voluptuous tangle of bodies against the sandy background that expands Mark and Daria's individual joining into a universal sexual expression. The young leads may be too ordinary as individuals to excite much interest, but the interweaving of their well-shaped bodies, multiplied to encompass a dozen such couplings, creates a decisively paradisaical moment as Antonioni finds suitable visual expression for his beautiful, vapid couple.

In Antonioni's California, the desert stands at the opposite end of the landscape from the ad-choked freeways of Los Angeles and Alfio Contini's camera spends equal time lingering on the billboards and traffic jams in the city and the skies and dunes of the desert, granting full visual expression to these opposed conceptions. While the former is conceived as a space of violent unrest, the latter, at least initially, offers a form of Edenic escape and becomes the only possible setting for such a radical gesture as Antonioni's love-in. Still, this setting is subject to the perpetual threat of corporate developers who plan on turning the desert into a simulated community for weary city-dwellers. That Daria works for a particularly aggressive developer (and becomes her boss' lover) complicates her sympathies, even if she only took the job because she "needed the bread". Still, after she hears of Mark's death, she loses her final illusions about her position and, in the film's spectacular finale, imagines the explosion of the corporation's Phoenix-area compound. In one of the film's early shots, Antonioni fixes Daria's boss (Rod Taylor) against his office window, framed majestically by a particularly blue sky, a golden skyscraper and the American flag, establishing as well as any gesture on the actor's part the character's embodiment of an ultimate corporate power. In the final scene, this sense of power and all its accoutrements meets its (imagined) end. As Daria stages a mental picture of the destruction, Antonioni follows a half-dozen shots of rather ordinary explosions (all taken from different angles) with a series of slow-motion captures of capitalistic debris flying apart against a smoky blue background.

Antonioni's two great articulations of the counter-cultural ethos, the love-in and the mass explosion, are both staged as fantasy sequences, an acknowledgement of the corporate reality that stands to win out over any more idealistic conception and of its inevitable corollaries: the replacement of the landscape by a reductive simulacrum fitted to a modern suburban sensibility and the elimination of the possibility of unfettered romantic coupling in favor of an uninspired domestic lovemaking. Still, the director, working in the fantasy medium of film, retains the privilege of the last word, and as he slowly lingers on the destruction of refrigerators, designer clothing, cereal boxes and electronics before turning to a final glimpse of a desert sunset, he gives delirious expression to a destructive fantasy that marks a final desperate act on behalf of an exhausted struggle. As 1969 spills over into 1970, the fulfillment of the corporate project may be all but complete, but in the world of Antonioni's cinema, the counter-gesture of orgiastic destruction remains a last, lingering expression of revolt, a defiance whose imagined triumph stands as the film's final, hallucinatory image and as the director's ultimate articulation of a comprehensively frustrated idealism.


SoMars: Literary Journal of Mayhem and Hysterics said...

this movie sounds fascinating Andrew...Where did you see it? You saw it right before the party right?

Cesar Fernandez D said...

I was told it was one of those "either you love it or you hate it" movies. Well, I loved it. Obvious hippie-era, dated and easy symbolism and all. So, I probably have no taste at all when it comes to Antonioni, but this and La Notte (made exactly a decade earlier) are my favourites among his movies so far. Made two years before I was born, Zabriskie Point was supposed to have been Michelangelo's great American epic. But apparently, it turned out to be a flop. I really can't see why. Before watching it I'd read that it was rather boring, so I braced myself for a very slow movie - though I love me a slow movie. For my taste, Zabriskie didn't have a tedious minute in it. While watching it, I made a mental note of how European it was on the director's part to make such frequent use of advertisement billboards in almost every urban scene, enormous billboards dwarfing any human form in sight. This recurrent visual element is obviously there to underline the way that consumerism crushes the individual in American society. But then I watched L'Eclisse straight afterwards, which is set in Rome in the early 60s, and noticed that Antonioni often included billboards in it as well. After all, the masterful use of landscapes, architecture and inanimate objects in each frame with or without human beings is an Antonioni trademark – this is precisely the way that he evokes his characters' psychological states, with more or less understated power and great visual impact. He is virtually unsurpassed in this skill.Zabriskie Point starred two very appealing leads that should have become big stars of the 70s, but never did. Mark Frechette, whom I'd already seen in Francesco Rosi's fine WWI-set movie Uomini Contro, had a very tragic life and died aged just 27. consulta online medico online pediatra online medico online doctor online dermatologo online veterinario online veterinario online psychologist online consulta online abogado online abogado online abogado online abogado online abogado online psicologo online doctor online psicologo online abogado online abogado online Most notably, Zabriskie Point contains one of the most original sex scenes ever filmed - one that brings home a sense of youthful playfulness like few I've seen - as well as a powerfully cathartic ending. It may be the most banal sequence ever filmed as far as its symbolism goes, but I can't see how anyone can deny its beauty and wonderful sense of emotional release. Never has an explosion looked so good, and so poetic. It seems to be an explosion that restores order rather than bringing chaos.