Discovering Antonioni’s Neglected Masterpiece, Zabriskie Point
REVIEWS, 3 Oct 2016
Zabriskie Point is a rocky outlook among the Amargosa mountain range that runs along the eastern border of Death Valley. From its vantage point stretches out a panoramic view of the intricately sculpted badlands of the California desert. In 1970 the great Italian cinema director Michelangelo Antonioni chose to set his sights on the American counter-culture of the time, naming the film that resulted after this landmark. It was a commercial and critical flop, and it has been considered one of the worst films of all time.
Can it really be that bad, I mused, having been an ardent admirer of Antonioni’s wonderful and innovative preceding films: L’Avventura, L’Eclisse, La Notte, Il Deserto Rosso, and Blow-Up. Had the master lost his way on American soil?
So I watched, and so I conclude that this relatively little known movie should be far far better known.
It opens with a passionate discussion among college activists and a deft characterisation of the racial divide, among whom figures Kathleen Cleaver, real life wife of Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver. And it goes on to follow the meanderings of a disenchanted rich boy turned rebel who steals a plane and meets up with a hippie chick in Death Valley. The two principals, played by unknowns Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin (coincidentally enough named Mark and Daria), experience a sexual awakening that implies an alternative to the world in which they have both been embroiled – the Vietnam War was in full swing – and from which they are profoundly alienated. Mark returns to Los Angeles and is shot by police8fter he lands the stolen plane. Daria drives to Phoenix, where she is to meet her lover Lee (played by Rod Taylor), the corporate head of an outfit planning to develop the desert into some species of suburban utopia. Just after she arrives in her old Buick at the expansive mountainside retreat she runs into a Native American woman, obviously a servant, whose glance tells her all she needs to know. She hastily leaves the lodge and looking back fantasises its explosive demolition. This last sequence, of the now furiously wise young woman, features repeated slow motion cataclysms that condense virtually everything artificial about establishment culture flying and bursting out of the fire and through the air: cereal boxes, slogans, and the manufactured promises of material ‘comforts’ – as the incisive music of Pink Floyd wails in accompaniment.
Antonioni’s achievement may not have been appreciated in 1970, but the prescience of his cinematic artistry cannot be denied. The years have moved apace but nothing much has changed. We find ourselves now, like then, in an era where savage unnecessary wars are being prosecuted, where racism is rife, and where the soul of the human spirit is virtually captive to the veneer of mollifying deceit ser8ved upon the altar of consumerism.
Zabriskie Point is well worth seeing, revisiting, absorbing: it’s a subversive and startling work of art that is fresher and more relevant than ever.
Dr. Garcia is a Philadelphia-born poet, novelist, theatrical director and physician who resides in New Zealand.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 3 Oct 2016.
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