Rolling Stone
No. 53
Mar. 7, 1970
pp 36-39

 
 
 

FOURTEEN POINTS TO ZABRISKIE

By John Burks

Zabriskie Point, produced and directed by Michelangelo Antonioni (MGM).
This review has much in it about what's wrong with Zabriskie Point. Do not be misled. It is a film of exceptional importance. It is seriously flawed, true. But even the flaws themselves have a grandeur about them.
Because Antonioni failed to come to grips with the young people he portrays —in the sense that he is dealing with American young people—Zabriskie Point is an intellectually dishonest work. But—don't miss it.

[ONE]

The earliest moments of the opening scene emerge from the screen in a golden glow. Perhaps a filter was used. It's too golden and radiant to have happened by chance.

The movie opens and closes in the same rich, heartwarming hues. As Daria drives her old Buick off into the sunset, it is into the last fleeting red and golden horizon beams of the sun, filling the screen and the theater with a Disney-like sense of false contentment. It does not appear that Antonioni is joking.

There are precious few manifestations of an Antonioni sense of humor anywhere in Zabriskie Point. Irony, yes. Cleverness, yes. But it is extremely difficult to imagine this man finding much in life amusing. In this movie, the wondrous pop-scene of Los Angeles (the hotdog stands, the billboards, the 40-feet high plastic statues of car-hops, the garish savings & loan company architecture, the palm trees and freeway clover-leafs) is seen as a total nightmare.

Los Angeles lacks the stuff of tragedy, though. Los Angeles is a high-budget production with a second-rate cast of stars, which disintegrated in production from post-frontier near-elegance in the Twenties to outright urban farce in the Seventies. We already gave up on Los Angeles as a Bad Idea a long time ago. Antonioni is aiming at a target which was already destroyed by Nathaniel West, and scores of his cultural offspring.

[TWO]

As he was winding up the filming, one year ago, Antonioni told Gene Youngblood (in a ROLLING STONE Interview, issue #28): "The movement is what interests me most about America; It's the most important, the most alive and vital thing happening here today. But Zabriskie Point is not 'about' the Movement as such." Sure enough, the Panthers are represented by Kathleen Cleaver, who's one of the "students" plotting a takeover of the university when the movie begins.

There's a lot of righteous talk. A lot of searching self-examination, as the news broadcasters like to say, among the white radicals present. Some of them don't believe they're ready to die for The Cause. Some do. A Panther seated next to Mrs. Cleaver puts an end to all this doubt and confusion with a classic cliche. "Molotov cocktails is a mixture of kerosene and gasoline; white radicals is a mixture of bullshit and jive."

Then Kathleen, who is no actress, says, in her familiar icy monotone: "Once they want this school open, they're gonna have to open it on our terms."

Moments later, it's Frank Bardacke, of Free Speech Movement and Stop-the-Draft fame, who drops the revered line: "Even anarchists spend most of their time at meetings talking."

Yuk, yuk. The trouble is, we know that Kathleen Cleaver is beyond mere "Campus strife," now: living in exile, helping her husband Eldridge press for armed revolt within the United States. Similarly, Bardacke's into heavier stuff these days. It's damned hard to take them seriously as "students." We've been through too much (Chicago, People's Park, Altamont, the Chicago Trials, the Panther busts and killings) by now. For this reason, Zabriskie Point seems almost a period piece.

[THREE]

After one of his friends is busted for taking part in a campus demonstration, our hitherto lethargic hero, Mark, goes by the police department to spring him. He is a little too zealous about it. A cop hauls Mark into the compound and includes him among the busted.

Mark doesn't dig Movement meetings because all they ever do is talk and carry picket signs; they never get around to taking direct action, like maybe offing somebody—anyway, Antonioni needs an incident to get Mark moving, to put his anarcho-radicalism into action. Injustices: dynamite!

But first for some more funnies. This cop is booking a professor who's in line ahead of Mark. Occupation? "Associate professor of history." That's too long, says the cop, "I'll just put down 'clerk'."

They book Mark. He tells the officer his name's Karl Marx. How do you spell it? M-A-R-X, replies Mark. On the page we see the cop write Marx, Carl. Carl with a "C," get it?

Hey, these cops are as funny as Dick Tracy. Just as brutal, too, when the riots heat up the next day. Perhaps this is why the battle scenes have all the impact of a comic strip. Here are the students, stealthing about inside the building they've taken over, as the big, brutish cops, with their clubs and gas cannisters and gas masks and visors and special padding, move in on them. It should be exciting, I suppose. It is not. All the bloody action is from news-clips. Maybe Antonioni's crews filmed the incidents, I don't know. But the clips are of San Francisco State during that school's 1968 uprising.

Of course, Antonioni is not doing a documentary. And of course, we are not meant to take these San Francisco State scenes literally. But it doesn't work. These San Francisco scenes are imprinted in our minds. They don't shoe-horn into Antonioni's movie.

[FOUR]

The music is fine, but not too deftly employed. With the kind of people who were involved—Pink Floyd, Kaleidoscope, Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead, John Fahey, the Rolling Stones, the Youngbloods, Roscoe Holcomb, and electronic effects by Music Electronic Viva—plus Patti Page—you know it's going to make for a tasty soundtrack LP. But there are only a few places where the music enhances the trip.

Surprisingly, the best instance of this has Patti Page singing "Tennessee Waltz" (perhaps on the jukebox) at a desert outpost bar and grill filled with old geezers who are apparently leftovers from the Gold Rush and Great Stampede days. The musical enunciations of Miss Page firmly fix this place and these people beyond awareness of life in contemporary America. Did you ever encounter anybody who dug Patti Page and had any idea what was happening?

Typically, the music resides amiably in the background, as something heard over the car radio. Or in the form of electronic music swirling forth (so help me) to signal sinister events about to transpire. The lowest moment comes when an absolutely abandoned and joyous scrap out of the Dead's "Dark Star" wails out to the speakers to accompany a brief horror-show scene where the leading lady comes close to gang-bang at the hands of twelve-year-olds outside the bar and grill, not unlike the scene in Suddenly Last Summer.

To make her get-away, Daria dashes to the old (circa 1954) Buick and blasts further on down the road, out there in the direction of the Wide Open Spaces. Freedom. All alone, away from the technology, away from the exploiters. This is Antonioni's continuing Metaphor throughout the movie. When Mark rips off the airplane, and takes to the sky, he's Free As A Bird. You see it for yourself, just the way Antonioni did. Freedom in the sky.

As Mark wings his way out of peril, away from the city, we look down at the ground below: an endless procession of freeway cloverleafs. Like a series of mazes, or traps. See, those poor bastards on the ground are tied down and wrapped up (earthbound is the cliche), and now that Mark's up in the sky (above it all is the appropriate cliche here) he can see the patterns they're weaving.

Corny? You bet your ass it's corny. Antonioni has constructed his movie of so many lame metaphors and bad puns that it's staggering.

[FIVE]

Antonioni, one year ago: "Technology forces people to adapt to it, rather than adapting to people."

We cut to biz tycoon Rod Taylor at the huge, impersonal office building of the Sunnydunes Real Estate Company, where he is striding by an enormous bank of flashing computers. Before we see Taylor, we look at the computers a little. The camera eye wanders listlessly over them, and we know that this is Antonioni's way of saying this cat Taylor's up to no good. Or else, what would he be doing among those awful computers.

Now there was a time, during the latter Fifties and early Sixties, that intellectuals liked to hang all the problems of Western Civ on the Computer. But there has lately —over the past decade—come the realization that computers are nothing more than what a man puts in them. They can chart patterns for bombing runs, or they can lay down a grid of irrigation canals on a map of the desert. They are as good or as bad as you make them.

But Antonioni digs setting up technology as a straw man. So much so that one wonder whether capitalism is in fact his true target. There's no question that the desert in Zabriskie Point is a much better place than anywhere else. There are no computers in the desert. The desert is as it was meant to be, and it is perhaps for this reason that Mark and Daria are able to achieve such Cosmic unity out there. But if there are no computers and no factories and no plastic/ stucco hotdog stands in the desert, neither is there anything else except the Wide Open Spaces. Ever try to plug your electric guitar—or your film projector—into a cactus?

Antonioni, one year ago: "Technology doesn't help communication. It hinders it."

[SIX]

The cops close in on the liberated building. They're holding shotguns, leveled on the students within. They start by tear-gas. Out come four or five blacks. The last of them falters. Blom! They mow him down. Our hero, Mark, is digging this from seclusion on the patio of a building behind the cops. He just bought a gun. He's got it in his hand. The cop is hit and falls over dead. We learn the cop is dead later. Meanwhile, Mark is running for his life to get away. He does, and is walking the street, trying to figure out where to go. Helicopters and light planes churn the air above. We see them, and we see Mark's face, as played by the Antonioni "discovery" Mark Frechette, and we know he is worried because he wrinkles his forehead. Mark is no actor.

We learn later that he is no killer. Or at least that's what he tells Daria. Says some other cat must have done the shooting.

It certainly is a coincidence how Daria and Mark meet. She is driving out into the desert where her boss Rod Taylor is meeting with some big-money gents about turning the desert into a subdevelopment. She works for his company and is either the secretary or his part-time old lady, maybe. This relationship is never explored. So she's driving her old Buick through the desert. And Mark has stolen this plane from a Los Angeles airstrip (a single-engine craft with the name Lilly 7 on its side, and pink stripes). Fate carries them toward the lonely desert promontory called Zabriskie Point. Mark swoops down and buzzes Daria's car several times, then flies off.

Up the road a piece, Daria spots Mark's plane, parked by an old house, and she pulls off the road. He's out of gas. Would she take him to get some? Sure.

They get in the car, drive to Zabriskie Point, then get out to dig it. Walk around on the desert for a while, rapping. She smokes dope. He doesn't.

She's stoned, he's not. He's talking about how terrible things are. Just things. She says: "That's the whole point, nothing is terrible." He says: "Far out."

Moments later she's playing her fingertips across his chest. Already they've chased across the dusty sand with a whoop and holler. Now it's time to fuck. They roll and tumble in the dust. Antonioni has cut this so that sometimes they're bare, sometimes not, out of sequence. Through it all, more and more groups of lovers, in twos and threes and fours, array themselves against the corruscating desert landscape that reaches down from Mark and Daria, and out to the horizon. With each new grope, dozens more fuckers appear, rolling and tumbling, scuttling and leaping. There are maybe a hundred others out there. Then Dariia gives Mark some head. When we next look up, there are at least twice as many couples frolicking below.

It's like, "Laugh and the whole world laughs with you." Except it's, "Ball and the whole world ..."

Weirder than this is the contrast between the way Mark and Daria go at it —lyrically gritty is one way of describing it—and the way others do. The downhill fuckers make a circus of it.

Can Antonioni top this? Yes, he can. When the balling is done with, and they're sitting there at the rim of the desert hillock, looking down from Zabriskie Point across the sweeping desert, Mark is still in a reverie, indulging (perhaps; we cannot see) in a little after-play; and he intones the immortal line: "I always knew it would be like this."

With all the Americans that Antonioni had working with him on Zabriskie Point, it is amazing how much he got wrong. Fred Gardner, the excellent Movement journalist, is listed among the writers. If nothing else, Gardner could have told him what an ancient cliche "I always knew it would be like this" is in the American cinema.

Antonioni: "I want to avoid all cliches about young Americans. Drugs would be too easy."

When Daria asks whether he'd like to share a joint with her, Mark's straight-faced reply is: "No. The people I'm running around with are on a reality trip."

One extremely curious thing comes during the scene when Daria is doping. They're rapping about something inconsequential, typically, but it's dubbed. Their mouths are saying one thing, their voices another. It's rather badly executed. It's as if Antonioni is telling us that it doesn't really matter what they're saying. Any rap will do.

Antonioni, one year ago: "A boy and a girl meet. They talk. That's all. Everything that happens before they meet is a prologue. Everything that happens after they talk is an epilogue."

An odd thing about the sex scenes: they're almost chaste. It's the same flash of snatch, flax of buttock, did-he-or-didn't-he?, is-she-or-isn't-she? technique that distinguished the balling scene in Blow-Up, Antonioni's last movie (1967). The impression is razzle dazzle. They seem only to be toying with each other.

[SEVEN]

Rod Taylor's office. He's seated at a desk. It's all overwhelming: the desk, the floor-to-ceiling glass-wall window. In the upper right hand corner of the window we see a vast American flag blowing in the wind. Beyond that a hilarious neo-moorish Los Angeles office building, complete to golden gargoyles. The screen stuffs your eye full of empty, air-conditioned opulence. He raps into the telephone; we cut away.

[EIGHT]

Antonioni likes to look at billboards. Especially the kind of billboards Andy Warhol might enjoy painting. Ones with packages of bread on them. Or Mom 'n' Pop 'n' Sis 'n' Brother billboards. He likes to get right up close to that billboard there where it says SANDWICH SPREAD, so close that all you can see of it — spread across the Panavision screen—is WICH SPREA. Vintage super-reality. R. Crumb meets A. Warhol.

[NINE]

The cops are after Mark. It's on the news. Daria has heard it on the car radio. He says he didn't kill that cop, but they think he did. A dead cop and a stolen airplane.

Panic. A state highway patrolman drives by. Mark hides, Daria raps. The cop eyes her goods, looks long and hard in all directions, and for a second it appears he's going to ball her right there on the highway. That's how it looks to Mark, anyway, who's hiding behind a convenient roadside shithouse. He pulls out his pistol and levels it at the cop, but Daria sees this (the cop doesn't) and shields the cop until he drives off.

Antonioni one year ago: "I think that nothing will happen now except for the students. If anything truly revolutionary is going to happen it will be done by students."

They have painted the stolen plane in wild new colors with the aid of an old desert rat/prospector type. It says super neat revolutionary stuff like NO WAR and SUCK BUCKS and NO WORDS on it now, and it's got two eyes, a nose and a mouth. Shades of Godard! Mark's going to try to fly it back to where he stole it from. She asks why take the risk. He: "I wanna take risks."

[TEN]

She arrives at this sumptuous desert house, ersatz Frank Lloyd Wright on the grand scale. She strolls around, here and there. Daria is no actress, but it appears that Antonioni means for her to be in some sort of torment. She sees, in turn, a black maid and an Indian maid. Their faces are genuinely enigmatic. This has something to do with how they're the real thing, in the midst of all this plastic opulence. She strolls around some more, anguished over Mark? Probably so. We pick up some of the action. Rod Taylor is trying to hustle this desert "improvement" scheme to some of the locals. They're all talking about margins of profitability, long-term growth, and you can tell they're evil by the way you see their faces through the subdivision maps.

Anyway, Daria leans up against this fake interior waterfall and gets her hair and her dress wet. Basic stuff, eh? She looks dazed. Rod Taylor spots her, helps her along toward her room. Instead, she splits to her car, drives a few hundred yards into the desert, then looks back at this big desert house, where Taylor, all the big money cats, and those two maids with the soulful faces are.

The place seems to balloon out slightly, then explodes in a bright flash, sending timbers and stones and glass sailing through the air in luxurious full color Paravision slow motion. Shapes distend and distort. It's quite lovely, in an abstract sort of way. Braaammmpphhhh!!! A second explosion. We see the building for a split second, then it explodes again, louder this time. Loud enough to make you jump. In all, we see the house explode at least fourteen times, and each time from a new angle, or through a new lens. In some shots, it's super-telephoto and we see the fragments blowing out of the building, through the splintering windows, as if pushed by some terrible wind, like an Atomic Energy Commission film taken near Ground Zero. The screen rages like a blast furnace. The swimming pool explodes.

Racks of clothing explode.

A refrigerator explodes.

A TV set explodes.

Electronic music keens.

Shirts and chickens and water and shattered glass and timbers do a lazy slow-motion dance through the air. Loaves of bread glide by.

Braaammmmm!!!!

[ELEVEN]

Did the house really explode? No. We know this is Daria's fantasy even before she turns away to drive off. What does it mean? The explosion scene is one of the most stunning I've encountered. It would make an excellent 10-minute short subject to show along with the cartoons, not unlike A Dream of Wild Horses.

[TWELVE]

Antonioni wrote the outline of this movie FIRST, then he came here to look us over.

It is worth noting that he chose Daria (Daria Halprin) as his leading lady after seeing her in a film sequence. She was dancing, not acting, in this film sequence. He liked the way she got around.

It's also worth noting that Antonioni spent seven months—alone—in an editing room in Rome. Cauterized from the United States during the period when the movie was taking its final form.

I think Antonioni should have stayed in this country at least 18 months before he began his movie. I think he should have gotten to know a lot of different types of Americans, from hips to cops, from Yips to Republican hardware store owners. I think that—whatever claims to the contrary he may make — this will stand as his movie about America. The best parts in Zabriskie Point are where Antonioni remains truest to his fantasies about the United States. Especially the dream of exploding American materialism. Antonioni is at his worst the closer he gets to confronting us. Specifically, his characterizations, flimsy as they are, of Mark and Daria, and to some degree Rod Taylor. (Taylor, who is no actor, is traditionally used for his stolid, granitic qualities, as a great hunk of a man, by most directors. He is rarely called upon to emote, even in movies where he stars. Exceptions to this rule have proven unfortunate. Antonioni makes more or less the traditional use of him.)

We spend plenty of time with Mark and Daria—and we never get to know them. They elude us. We never understand why they are doing anything they do, nor do we feel anything they feel, if they feel anything. Antonioni scarcely gives us any clues. I'm betting that he's telling us all he knows about us. And that he doesn't know much.

[THIRTEEN]

Is there more here than I caught the first time around? For me, Weekend was a bore, until later. Zabriskie Point is like Weekend in the latent strength of its images. For instance: One early scene, where Mark is driving his truck through Los Angeles, and the camera, lazily out of focus, smears the screen with block after block of billboards, palm trees, factories and urban ugliness. Another where Daria and Mark are rolling and jumping through the dunes out at Zabriskie Point, against the eternal landscape. When he buzzes her car, prior to their meeting, the jarring madness of it sticks with you. And there are many more. Antonioni is a master craftsman. His movie achieves the most powerful momentum and rhythm. Zabriskie Point may be a spectacular failure, but it is, at least, spectacular. And beautiful, as film. And compelling, despite the bullshit and the amateurish acting, as drama.

Once you get used to the idea that Antonioni has given us a work that deals with the Movement and young people and the United States the same way a dream does — with reality and fantasy mixed in on equal terms—you can begin to see Zabriskie Point for what it is. But it's hard to put yourself inside this movie and see what Antonioni sees. It was hard for the New York preview audience the night I saw it. An equal number applauded and booed. Neither the applause nor the booing lasted long. It was as if nobody trusted his first reaction. I don't trust mine. I know that I will see Zabriskie Point at least twice more.

[FOURTEEN]

The Movement worries about being co-opted. In the most general terms, this co-optation occurs when someone commandeers some aspect of the Movement (or the Revolution, as it has prematurely come to be called) for his own personal gain. The most obvious instance of this in recent memory was Columbia Records' The Man Can't Bust Our Music ad campaign. Now, Antonioni has aligned himself, as a devoted leftist, with the Movement; and, because he is endowed in many quarters with a prophetic vision, he may be allowed somewhat more latitude than the typical Hollywood filmmaker in his use of the Movement. Still, I wonder whether certain Movement scorekeeper/theologians won't come away from Zabriskie Point feeling they've been had. So much of the movie focuses on the form of the Revolution without bothering to delve into its troublesome substance.

Antonioni has said that he digs everything about today's young people. Extremely open-minded for a man of 57. "I like everything they do, even their mistakes, their doubts." I feel the same way—about Antonioni.

Mel Lyman