It’s fair to say that in the year 2014 one of the last things I expected to get a cinematic re-release would be a cleaned-up digital print of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point. After decades of critical acclaim for his brand of existential non-thrillers made in his native Italy, this film was his pitch to the American market, getting on-board with such contemporary topics as student activism and free love. Needless to say, it was far from either a critical or commercial success at the time, and has at best a cult reputation now (largely due to its soundtrack album, I suspect). Yet in many ways it’s a fantastic film and a successor to Antonioni’s earlier works in its sense of characters adrift in vast threatening landscapes, as well as a film rightly critical of consumerism and rampant property development (themes which are still very much a part of the world 35 years on).
I can’t in all good faith, however, recommend it to people who like strong dialogue and witty repartee: the flat line delivery, period affectations and (somehow typically Italian) use of imprecise post-synching can easily come across as lazy screenwriting. But these are not characters who are able to enunciate their issues with the world: on the one hand, there’s Mark (Frechette), angrily adrift at university, listening to articulate Black Power activists and witnessing his friends’ radicalisation, able only to offer cheap jokes (he gives his name to a cop as Karl Marx); on the other, Daria (Halprin) is a PA at a property developers’ office, where a succession of identikit men in beige suits delivers boardroom presentations so dull that even the camera seems to prefer losing focus, drifting away to off-centre framing, and frequently reflecting the discussion in mirrors and through other surfaces. As characters, these two uneasily inhabit their own respective worlds of words, but only meet in the centre of the film, as Mark buzzes over Daria’s car in a light plane he’s stolen for a joyride, out in the middle of the desert. The two make love in dusty Death Valley, at the Zabriskie Point of the film’s title, as their bodies hallucinatorily multiply, after which point they return to separate narrative strands. It’s here that Mark’s story, which has dominated the first half of the film, cedes to that of Daria, as she travels on to Phoenix for a conference with her bosses.
It doesn’t always work perfectly — whether the actors’ jarringly disconcerting delivery of the script, the modish alienation effects, or the sometimes heavy-handed symbolism — but when it does, it just seems perfect. The pulsating psychedelic drone of the soundtrack, the dizzying procession of vapid billboards in Los Angeles, the subtly interwoven and interleaving narrative strands, the long takes, and of course that apocalyptic desert dream of an ending, in which a materialistic world is beautifully pulled apart in the most visceral way. These are all things I continue to love about this overlooked classic of the American cinema.
Director Michelangelo Antonioni; Writers Antonioni, Fred Gardner, Sam Shepard, Tonino Guerra and Clare Peploe; Cinematographer Alfio Contini; Starring Mark Frechette, Daria Halprin; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Monday 27 October 2014 (and several times previously on VHS in Wellington).