Zabriskie Point (1970)

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.

Zabriskie Point film posterCREDITS
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).

Après mai (Something in the Air, 2012)

For a story about the sometimes angrily confrontational, sometimes wilfully naïve student activism of the 1970s, this is a remarkably warm embrace of a film. Possibly that’s because it feels like an autobiographical take on the era from director Olivier Assayas. I don’t know whether its story — of a young tousle-haired art student Gilles (played by newcomer Clément Métayer) trying to find his métier while watching his friends move off in various directions (geographical, emotional and spiritual) — is based in Assayas’ life, but it feels like something that is at least close to his heart after his previous multi-part epic Carlos (2010).

The title (at least in French, where it means “After May”) alludes to les événements of May 1968 which started with riots amongst university students on the edge of Paris and spread across the country to provoke further riots and strikes, convulsing all aspects of the French workforce, not least the arts and cinema. A new more politically-engaged consciousness was reflected in the 1970s films of, for example, Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker, and in the film criticism of such influential standard-bearers as Cahiers du cinéma (where Assayas started his career in the 1980s).

Après mai is set in 1971, amongst a group of students who are just finishing their final year of high school. There are plenty of teasing hints at the volatile new factions which opened up after May ’68, as we see the students at the start of the film engaged in street riots broken up by police violence, and at fractious meetings in which subsequent action is debated and competing leftist points of view are aired (though nobody seems to like the Communists). When the students, seeking an outlet after the brutality of the police, vandalise their school with graffiti and post breathlessly accusatory fliers, the school authorities are shown scratching their heads as to the meaning or relevance of it all. A subsequent ill-judged attack on a school security guard sees the group, now out of high school, disperse to various parts of Europe and further afield.

There’s humour too in all this revolutionary fervour. Gilles’ friend Alain is involved with an earnest American girl who’s been studying sacred dance in India; he himself is seen creating right-on artwork for the lightshow to a psychedelic hippy band (think early Velvet Underground or Pink Floyd). Meanwhile his on-off girlfriend Christine (the lovely Lola Créton) has hooked up with some older filmmakers taking their agit-prop workers’ rights films on the road to Italy, and Gilles is clearly shown to be underwhelmed by their simplistic praxis (in this regard, there’s also a nice scene at a public screening where one crowd member, channelling Jean-Luc Godard, asks these filmmakers why they don’t present their revolutionary message with a revolutionary film syntax).

However, in all of this there’s pathos and and an underlying generosity. Driving all the characters’ actions is a real earnestness of belief in the cause (whatever precisely this may be) and in the power of art to reflect and champion that cause. However detached Gilles may be shown at times to be, these beliefs are never ridiculed by Assayas. His cinematographer Eric Gautier’s camera captures something of an idyll, languorously and in sometimes long, fluid takes moving amongst the characters. The soundtrack is dominated by the wistful, elegiac sounds of contemporary English singer-songwriters like Nick Drake, Kevin Ayers and Syd Barrett, and groups like Soft Machine and the Incredible String Band. These aren’t just deployed (as they might be in advertising) as a shorthand to creating a mood, but seem more like hard-won accompaniments to Assayas’ sensitive characters — characters who may be confused about what they want, but who are trying throughout the film to figure it out.


CREDITS
Director/Writer Olivier Assayas; Cinematographer Eric Gautier; Starring Clément Métayer, Lola Créton; Length 122 minutes.
Seen at Ritzy, Brixton, London, Sunday 26 May 2013.