Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Zabriskie Point (1970)

Zabrieskie Point
Michelangelo Antonioni is a familiar director with a number of entries on the List. To begin with I did not comprehend his movies and found them obscure and bleak, but gradually I got to appreciate them for the underlying message and the artfulness with which it was communicated. The peak was the British movie “Blowup” where both the aesthetics and the point to the movie were distilled to a high intensity.

After this achievement Antonioni set out to repeat his success in Hollywood… and tanked.

“Zabrieskie Point”, his only American movie”, was rejected by both audience and critics and failed to earn back even a fraction of its $7 million expenses.

I watched “Zabrieskie Point” with some apprehension, knowing this was a movie that failed, and I can see why it failed. “Zabrieskie Point” breaks with a number of tropes, stylistically it is confusing and an unprepared audience would be left very confused. This was touted as a movie for the young generation, but taking your date to the cinema, expecting a popcorn flick, you would have been left very disappointed.

Fortunately, I have already watched a few of Antonioni’s movies.

We follow two characters, Mark (Mark Frechette) and Daria (Daria Halprin). Mark is (maybe) in university campus among, but not really taking part in, the protests going on there. He does not seem to care about their political agenda, but he likes the people well enough. He is there, with a gun, on the day a policeman is shot to death, though it was not Mark that shot him. The police and the media however are quick to pin him on the murder and so he flees, first on a bus and then he steals a plane and flies into the desert.

Daria is loosely attached to a real estate developing company as a part time secretary. Her boss seems to want to get into her pants, but when we meet her, she is driving through the desert in an old car looking for… something while driving in the general direction of Phoenix and her boss’ mansion.

Mark and Daria meet in the desert, have hot sex, paint the plane in funny colors and then part ways. Mark is taking the plane back to the airport to hand it back and is shot by trigger happy policemen while Daria, shocked to hear of Mark’s death in the radio decide to abandon the mansion and dream of blowing up the place.

The whole thing lasts about 2 hours.

This is not a movie that explains anything. We do not know much about the characters. We do not know why Mark decides to take a plane or why Daria is cruising around in the desert and those are just the highlights of things we do not know. The clue here is found in the older Antonioni movies. The reason things are not explained is that there is no explanation. Mark does not need a reason to fly into the desert, he just does it. Daria has no specific target. They live, they are, there is no grand plan and objective. They are however fenced in by society, consumerism, politics, authorities. All of these need reasons, plans, objectives, guilt and punishment, and there is no room to simply be. What Mark and Daria are doing is simply taking a vacation from all this before it catches up with them. A vacation filled with the surrealism that a trip away from reality entails (sex among hundreds of other young people in the desert, returning from this without a spec of dust in the hair).

This should hit home in the counterculture movement and appeal to the sense of revolution in 1970, but instead it missed the mark. Like Eisenstein before him Antonioni overestimated the capacity of the audience to see the points in his art and instead he bored them to death.

I do get this movie (I think) and it is a beautiful movie, but I also agree, it is really, really boring.

Zabriskie Point looks like an interesting site. As a geologist I admit I was getting quite distracted by the gypsum formations there. Definitely a place I should visit.



  1. It is a flawed film but I did enjoy it not just for the visual aspects of it but also its soundtrack. I wasn't bored by it at all though I can understand why people wouldn't like it. I think I do agree with you on Antonioni on overestimating the audience when it came to the film and why it bombed both critically and commercially.

    1. To call it flawed is, I think, a bit of an understatement. Antonioni went on his own trip, apparently trusting his own judgement and here it misfired. It is beautiful though and the cinematography is actually enough to watch this movie.

  2. I hate virtually everything about this film. My review of it was...non-standard.

    1. Ha ha, yes, I read your review just before hitting the sack last night and it did make me laugh. It reminded me of the review I did for Ad Astra last year. It may not look that way, but I do actually agree with most of your points. Certainly, that Antonioni did not understand the American counterculture he was supposed to make a movie about.

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