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?

(Continued from Page 1)

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").

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Right to Run

If you can vote, you should be able to run for public office—any office.

I Went Hunting for Ebola in 2004. (What I Found Was Bats.)

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Ben Bradlee’s Fascinating Relationship With JFK

Culturebox

The Simpsons World App Is Finally Here

I feel like a kid in some kind of store.

Technology

Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

Move Aside, Oxford Comma, the New Battle Is Over Single or Double Quotes

How Punctual Are Germans?

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 22 2014 11:57 AM Why Wasn't the WHO Ready for Ebola?
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
  Life
Atlas Obscura
Oct. 22 2014 12:03 PM Colonia Fara: An Italian Summer Camp for Happy Little Fascists
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 10:00 AM On the Internet, Men Are Called Names. Women Are Stalked and Sexually Harassed.
  Slate Plus
Working
Oct. 22 2014 6:00 AM Why It’s OK to Ask People What They Do David Plotz talks to two junior staffers about the lessons of Working.
  Arts
Behold
Oct. 22 2014 11:04 AM Do All U.S. Presidents Look the Same? What About Japan’s Prime Ministers?
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 22 2014 10:29 AM Apple TV Could Still Work Here’s how Apple can fix its living-room product.
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 22 2014 11:30 AM Where Does Ebola Hide? My nerve-wracking research with shrieking bats.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.