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Interesting Failure #2: Zabriskie Point

August 7, 2012

Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin

I’ve been in the process of reading or re-reading Andrew Sarris’ books – at least, the ones that are available (still waiting on Confessions of a Cultist at the library) – to see if my opinion of his writing and criticism has changed. I don’t know what it says about me, or about him, but for the most part, it hasn’t. Certainly, I appreciate the passion he brought to his writing, I agree his goal to show people classic Hollywood was a lot better than the snobs of his time said it was (as well as the “nothing black-and-white is worth a damn” crowd of today), and I certainly am someone who catalogs and makes list like he does, so I can relate to that. However, especially in his book Politics in Cinema, the last book of his I read (I had taken a copy out of another library before, but many of its pages were missing), I have to say much of what he writes sets me teeth on edge. I realize at the time he started writing, there was a large contingent in film circles and society who felt the only good movies were the ones that were “good for you”, and many of those people were liberals who only wanted liberal message movies that were often heavy-handed. But Sarris seems to act at times like they were his own personal bete noire, and while, to be fair, he’s equally hostile towards Watergate and such, I have to cry foul.

However, though he doesn’t review most of these movies explicitly, I do have to concede his point when Hollywood turned its attention to the unrest that was going on in this country (and the world, though Hollywood didn’t really touch on that much) in the late 60’s and early 70’s, the results were often wanting. Instead of trying to get to the bottom of things, movies like RPM and The Strawberry Statement, while possibly well-intentioned, were labored, muddled and confused about what they were trying to say. Occasionally, there were  movies like Medium Cool that actually worked as message and movie, as well as movies like Alice’s Restaurant and Drive, He Said that, while falling short in many ways, felt like honest attempts to get inside the unrest and feelings behind it of the time. In that category, although crazier than either of those examples, I’d also put Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point. But then, Antonioni always marched to the beat of his own drummer anyway.

This was Antonioni’s first film in the U.S., and only his second movie in English after Blow-Up. It starts out at a meeting of a radical students organization – Kathleen Cleaver, real-life wife of Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver, plays one of the leaders – at an unnamed Southern California campus as they debate tactics and philosophy, such as whether white support means so much, what they can use as a blockade against security and the cops, and whether or not they’d be willing to die for the cause. Though Antonioni, cinematographer Alfio Contini and editor Franco Arcalli whip around the room, depending on who’s talking, they eventually settle on Mark (Mark Frechette), who’s idly sitting in the room. At one point during the discussion, he gets up and says, “Well, I’m willing to die (too)…But not of boredom,” at which point he leaves. Mark claims he just doesn’t want to sit around talking about revolution or whatever, he wants to do something, but he does get drawn back into the group when they’re all arrested (Harrison Ford, who originally had a bigger part before it was cut, can be briefly seen in the jail) and, in trying to bail his roommate out, gets thrown in jail as well. The group plans another action, so Mark and his roommate go out to buy guns (they get them without a waiting period because they lie and say they need to protect their home). At this “action”, the students take one of the buildings, while the cops surround the building and eventually get them out by throwing in tear gas. Mark, who wasn’t in the building being occupied, goes around to the side of another building, and reaches down to his ankle to get his gun, as if he’s going to fire, but before he does, someone else fires, killing a cop. In a panic, he flees, and ends up stealing a small plane.

Meanwhile, Antonioni and his co-writers (including Claire Peploe and Sam Shepard – her first screenplay credit, his second) also develop the story of Daria (Daria Halprin). We first see her in an office building where she’s temping as a secretary, and she catches the eye of Lee Allen (Rod Taylor), a developer. Without much explanation, we then see she’s now working for Allen, because she calls him from the road. She’s ostensibly going to Arizona for a meeting of some kind on Lee’s behalf, but she’s driving through Death Valley because she’s heard of some great meditation. She has an interesting encounter with the locals there; the adults don’t seem to like what she’s looking for, and a group of young kids chase her (though that part she seems to treat as all in good fun). She also hears, on the radio, about Mark, having no idea she’s going to meet him. In fact, he buzzes her with the plane (in a sequence that takes several minutes), and while she’s annoyed at first, she becomes attracted to him.

Up till the movie lands in Death Valley (the title refers to a part of Death Valley), I was actually going along with it. Antonioni may not have been explicitly a political filmmaker like, say, Godard was at the time, but the opening scene of the meeting sounds and feels authentic, including the way people talk over each other and are a little too proud of themselves (while managing to make glancing points, such as, for example, the fact a woman radical student is still asked to get coffee for people because she’s a woman). One of the charges perpetually laid against Antonioni is he’s more interested in the architecture in the background than in his characters, but here, that works; you can actually see the creeping commercialization of the city that of course has gotten worse today. The riot on campus is well-staged. And while Taylor doesn’t get a lot to do, he makes the most of his screen time, and actually seems believable as a character.

But when Mark and Daria get to Death Valley, the film starts to lose its way. First of all, what may have seemed like a pas de deux between Mark’s plane and Daria’s car becomes long and pointless. Then, when the two of them get together, while  Frechette and Halperin’s awkwardness as non-actors is touching, and they seem to relate to each other (they apparently had an affair off-screen as well), the dialogue they get is stilted and unplayable, while seeming to symbolize more than it actually does. There’s a montage of the two of them having sex (apparently, this was supposed be an orgy scene until park officials nixed the idea; you do get a suggestion of it, though), and while it’s shot and edited well, it seems like it belongs in another movie. You could argue, of course, it represents the initial freedom the hippie movement felt, as well as the “free love” movement part of it, but again, I don’t think it’s well-developed.

Still, I don’t think the movie deserved the savage reviews it got (Pauline Kael, who had given up on Antonioni by that point, called it “a huge, jerry-built, crumbling ruin of a movie”, while Roger Ebert called it “silly and stupid”). For one, except for the rather strange choice of Roy Orbison’s “So Young” as the end credits song (though it does drop the title of the movie in the lyrics), the soundtrack is terrific, mostly provided by Pink Floyd. Of particular note is “Come In Number 51, Your Time is Up”, a re-worked version of “Careful with That Axe, Eugene”, which Antonioni uses during the climactic sequence (which I won’t spoil), and that sequence is another highlight of the film. And while the middle third of the movie, as I said before, feels stilted and vague, the beginning and the end of the movie show the longueurs have a purpose, which happens in Antonioni’s best work (L’AvventuraThe Passenger). Finally, as I said near the beginning, this is the one movie about the turmoil at the time that isn’t sentimentalizing it or holding its nose while documenting it. An unfortunate footnote; Frechette apparently resembled his character enough in real life that he took place in a bank robbery with a few members of a radical fringe group he had joined, and he died in prison.

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