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.