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

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July 14 2009 6:53 AM

Sex on the Desert

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

Zabriskie Point.

Hailed as a master youth-culture anthropologist after 1967's Blow-Up, his supremely chic ode to Swinging London, Michelangelo Antonioni went looking for the soul of a dramatically divided America. The resulting movie, Zabriskie Point, was the first and biggest flop of his career, and the only film he ever made in the States. Reviewers characterized the Italian director, pushing 60 at the time, as a clueless tourist who had failed to bridge the inevitable cultural and generational gaps. "Antonioni has no feeling for young people," Roger Ebert complained. Mark Frechette, the movie's young star, plucked from obscurity by Antonioni, distanced himself from his director: "I told him he wasn't making a film about any America I knew." Guitarist John Fahey, one of the musicians summoned to Rome to work on the soundtrack, came to blows with Antonioni when the maestro launched into an anti-American rant; Fahey would go on to describe Zabriskie Point as "a really terrible and long skin flick." Later generations of film buffs have known it chiefly for its inclusion in the Medved brothers'The Fifty Worst Films of All Time.

All this rancor is a little hard to fathom today. Recently issued on DVD for the first time by Warner Home Video, Zabriskie Point is of a piece with Antonioni's best work: a luxuriant portrait of spiritual alienation with a sense of place far more expressive than its blankly beautiful characters. Released in February 1970 after a drawn-out production that ballooned the budget to a then-exorbitant $7 million, it grossed less than $1 million and soured the Hollywood flirtation with counterculture chic that had started with Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and peaked with Easy Rider (1969). But was Zabriskie Point out of fashion precisely because it nailed the zeitgeist?

The film was conceived in the afterglow of Bonnie and Clyde, but its doomed couple, Mark and Daria (played by Frechette and Daria Halprin, nonactors in every sense), are too numb and inert to fulfill the myth of the glamorous outlaw. It opens, pseudo-documentary-style, at a meeting of student radicals in which a group of Black Panthers, led by Kathleen Cleaver, are mocking and questioning the commitment of their white colleagues. The back-and-forth continues until Mark breaks the vérité spell by sullenly declaring himself ready to die for the revolution "but not of boredom." Events proceed in a desultory trance. Mark tries to bail out a friend and briefly lands in jail himself. He buys a gun and brings it to a campus demonstration. One policeman opens fire on a black student; Mark in turn kills the cop (or at least appears to—the framing and editing leave it somewhat ambiguous). He then very casually steals a plane and flies it into the desert.

Daria, meanwhile, is driving through Death Valley to meet her boss and sometime lover (Rod Taylor), a real estate developer, in Phoenix. Spying her Buick from the air, Mark enacts a bizarre mating ritual seemingly inspired by North by Northwest's crop-duster sequence, swooping down and just about kissing the roof of her car with the belly of his single-engine jet. After he lands, near Zabriskie Point, the scenic overlook that gives the film its title, they exchange flirtatious banter (even though Mark refuses Daria's joint—he's on a "reality trip") and make love in the dunes, an occasion so groovily momentous it fills the screen with a stoned daydream of other writhing bodies (scores of naked extras imported from the Open Theater, an avant-garde stage collective from New York).

It was this cosmic love-in that nearly got Antonioni charged under the Mann Act, which prohibits the transport of people across state lines for prostitution and "immoral purposes." In fact, the entire production, as the critic J. Hoberman recounted in The Dream Life, his epic cultural history of the '60s, was the target of much federal snooping, with rumors swirling that Antonioni was planning a flag-burning scene and intended to shoot on the site of Robert Kennedy's assassination. (Neither proved true, though a rippling American flag atop the Mobil Oil building in downtown Los Angeles does feature prominently in one startling shot.)

The charges of inauthenticity must have irked Antonioni, who apparently did his best to soak up the volatile mood of late-'60s America. (He went to Chicago for the 1968 Democratic Convention, and was, he later told the New York Times, "tear-gassed in Lincoln Park.") He also decided to work not with stars but with actual specimens of alienated American youth. Antonioni spotted Halprin, a Haight-Ashbury earth child and the daughter of avant-garde choreographer Ann Halprin, in a documentary about the San Francisco hippie revolution. The male lead, envisioned as an avatar of inchoate rage, was a bigger challenge. An audition in New York's East Village drew more than 1,000 hopefuls. Eventually Frechette, a carpenter who had spent time in psychiatric hospitals and belonged to the cultlike commune of the folk musician Mel Lyman, was found by casting scouts who saw him screaming obscenities at a bus stop in Boston. ("He's 20 and he hates," they reportedly said.)

Despite being credited to five screenwriters—including Sam Shepard, then an up-and-coming off-off-Broadway playwright—the story is a mere trifle, expanded by Antonioni from a news item about a young man who was killed when trying to return a stolen airplane. Language is seldom a priority in an Antonioni film (even more so here, given the leaden line readings) and the power of Zabriskie Point, unsurprisingly, lies in its charged imagery and its inspired soundtrack (psychedelic rock and ambient noodling from Pink Floyd, Jerry Garcia, and others).

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").

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.

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