Was Zabriskie Point—Michelangelo Antonioni's biggest flop—just misunderstood?

Deleted scenes, commentary, and more.
July 14 2009 6:53 AM

Sex on the Desert

Was Zabriskie Point—Antonioni's biggest flop—just misunderstood?

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Antonioni, who brings a painterly eye to the massive billboards and endless freeways of smoggy Los Angeles and to the harsh majesty of the California desert, was a master at connecting his landscapes to the inner world of his characters. Notwithstanding the stiffness of the actors, the movie provides a vivid and plausible account of how young people might have experienced the contradictions of that historical juncture, passion and urgency colliding with a growing sense of impotence. Antonioni's Zabriskie Point, like so many of his locations, is both a physical and a metaphysical place, a parched terrain somewhere between the apocalyptic wasteland of Joan Didion's California and the empty nowhere of Jean Baudrillard's America.

The finale, a jaw-droppingly literal vision of the end of consumer culture, makes a virtue of bluntness. After Mark dies, a bereft Daria arrives at her destination, a Modernist house perched on a desert hillside, and imagines its wholesale destruction. We see it blowing up, repeatedly, in slow motion. (Seventeen cameras were used.) For good measure, Antonioni also detonates sundry household objects, which sail through the frame as a Pink Floyd number plays: a clothes rack, a television, books, the contents of a refrigerator, including a loaf of Wonder Bread and a whole turkey. (The  video for the recent Jay-Z single "D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)" is a pointed homage, blowing up gold chains and bottles of Cristal as the rapper rails against pitch-correction software.)

This middle finger of an ending got critics fuming that Antonioni was advocating violence as a strategy for social change, but it's crucial to note that the sequence is couched as a wistful fantasy of Daria's—and, as such, is actually in keeping with the Antonioni mode of passivity and inaction. It's equally significant that Mark, in the end, simply turns the plane around and flies it back.

Antonioni rebounded from the critical drubbing with 1975's The Passenger, starring Jack Nicholson. Halprin and Frechette became a couple and lived together on Lyman's commune, as they revealed in an amusingly zombified appearance on The Dick Cavett Show (alongside critic Rex Reed, who in his review of Zabriskie Point had credited the duo with "two of the worst performances of the decade").

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The pair soon broke up. Halprin formed a new counterculture couple with Dennis Hopper, to whom she was married for a few years, and abandoned acting to be an arts therapist. In 1973, Frechette mounted his own crackpot real-life version of Zabriskie Point when he held up a bank in Boston, later claiming it was a political act. ("Robbing that bank was a way of robbing Richard Nixon.") Two years later, while serving out his sentence, he died in an apparent freak accident while weightlifting, choked to death by a bar that fell on his throat.

Frechette was a casualty of the era, but Zabriskie Point looks more and more like an invaluable time capsule. Feeding off the unease and confusion that had permeated the youth and political movements of the day, it's a film that marked the end of a revolutionary moment. More to the point, it's also a film about why that moment couldn't last.

Dennis Lim is editorial director at the Museum of the Moving Image and a regular contributor to the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

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