Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Zabriskie Point

USA  (110 mi)  1970  ‘Scope  d:  Michelangelo Antonioni

Life’s an illusion, love is a dream.  
Everybody’s Happy Nowadays, by the Buzzcocks, 1979  Buzzcocks : Everybodys Happy Nowadays : AUDIO Punk Vinyl ...  (3:09)

This film garnered such horrible reviews when it came out, one of the biggest money losers in film history at that point, where production expenses were at least 7 million dollars and only $900,000 was returned from the domestic release, such a financial flop that The New York Times called it “One of the worst films of 1970.”  Even twenty years after its release, Rolling Stone magazine, once the voice of the counterculture, declared:  Zabriskie Point was one of the most extraordinary disasters in modern cinematic history.”  A year after its release it was often screened and linked with another hippie head trip movie on a double bill, the deplorable ZACHARIAH (1971), also shot in the desert in Mexico, advertised as the “first electric western” with Country Joe and the Fish, legendary jazz drummer Elvin Jones, a member of the John Coltrane quartet who performs a brilliant drum solo, and, incredibly, Dick Van Patten as the Dude, more than 25 years before Jeff Bridges inhabits the character in The Big Lebowski (1998).  This is likely the only double bill ever seen with both films beginning with the letter Z.  OK, enough on the personal flashback.  Antonioni’s picture of America consists of vintage automobiles, giant street billboards, radicals, police violence, capitalist cronies, endless desert landscapes and discontented youth, using unknown stars who had never acted before, where the prerequisite was not acting talent, but to flaunt their youth and be completely unashamed.  If we follow the life trajectory of the two stars, both lovers having a turbulent affair during the shoot, no other couple embodied the spirit of the 60’s counterculture like Daria Halprin and Mark Frechette, captured on the cover of Look magazine, living together in a commune and somehow bridging the mainstream straight and counterculture worlds.  Halprin left the commune and went on the have an ill-fated marriage with Dennis Hopper that lasted 4 years before becoming a practitioner of creative arts therapy, founding San Francisco’s Tamalpa Institute, believing arts can have a transformative and healing property, while Mark Frechette donated his entire $60,000 salary to Mel Lyman and the Fort Hill Commune, but two years after the film release he was nabbed in an armed bank robbery in the nearby Roxbury section of Boston, where he was quoted afterwards saying: “robbing that bank was a way of robbing Richard Nixon,” where two men were killed, including one of Frechette’s partners in crime, but Frechette was sentenced to 6 to 15 years in prison where he died at the age of 27 in a freak weightlifting accident, found choked to death when a 150 pound barbell fell on his throat.  Antonioni discovered Halprin being herself in a 60’s counterculture documentary REVOLUTION (1968), while Frechette was discovered during an argument screaming “motherfucker” to someone at a bus stop on the streets of Boston.  Rod Taylor, of course, miraculously survived the impending apocalypse at the end of Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) only to return as the capitalist foil in this film. 

When Antonioni was in the United States for the premiere of BLOW-UP (1966), he happened to see a newspaper story about a young man that stole an airplane and was killed when he tried to return it in Phoenix, Arizona.  Using that as a draft for a film, he hired American playwright Sam Shepard to write the script, eventually joined by Italian filmmaker Franco Rossetti, Clare Peploe (who later married Bernardo Bertolucci), the director himself, as well as his frequent screenwriter Tonino Guerro.  Shooting began in Los Angeles in July 1968, prior to the Democratic Convention held in Chicago at the end of August, which resulted in the Chicago police bashing in the heads of young kids, all duly captured by Haskell Wexler in Medium Cool (1969), but also some footage was captured by Antonioni as well, some of it appearing at the beginning of this film.  The dreamy opening credit sequence is set to the music of Pink Floyd, offering a kind of spacy introduction that evolves into 60’s campus politics, where radicals are attempting to shut down a university through protests and demonstrations.  Antonioni gives this a documentary feel, as he places the viewer in the heart of an organization meeting, where Kathleen Cleaver, wife of Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver, and a fellow Panther are attempting to radicalize the room, which is primarily filled with white students.  While the white kids attempt to empathize, the Panthers are not buying their fake sentiment, as they have cozy homes to return to as opposed to their ghetto neighborhoods where they are constantly hassled and brutalized by the police.  But the interesting question raised is what would it take to revolutionize the white students?  Let’s not lose sight of that, as this becomes an underlying theme of the film.  From the back of the room, Frechette acknowledges he’d be willing to die for a cause, but then disappears, thinking this is all a load of crap, as nobody is taking any of this seriously.  His next move is to go out and buy a gun, as he’s tired of sitting on the sidelines allowing the cops to continue to bust kid’s heads, literally bashing their skulls in with billy clubs.  The next day during a particularly confrontational moment between students and police, he pulls out his gun and aims it at an officer that goes down.  In a rather clever escape tactic, he commandeers a small plane and literally flies away to the Grateful Dead’s “Dark Star,” Grateful Dead: Dark Star (Part. 1, Live) - YouTube (9:08) and Grateful Dead: Dark Star (Part. 2, Live) (9:56) [Live at the Fillmore West, San Francisco, CA, February 27, 1969], leaving the stench and smog of Los Angeles behind. 

Simultaneously, there is a parallel story involving a high-powered real estate firm, run by Rod Taylor, where we see the advertisement pitch about getting away from the congestion of the city out into the open sunshine of the desert, ZABRISKIE POINT - Sunnydunes Commercial YouTube (1:22), where they are constructing golf courses, swimming pools, and luxury housing developments.  Daria Halprin works for him as a temporary secretary, basically indicating she works when she needs the money.  She gets a head start and decides to drive to Phoenix where they are scheduling a business conference, turning this into a psychedelic road movie where gas is only 29 cents a gallon.  Along the way she stops in a small “ghost town,” where the owner of a bar and café complains about the kind of kids lured into town from Los Angeles, as he considers them troublemakers.  As if on cue, somebody throws a stone through his window.  When Daria observes the scene, she discovers it’s really a bunch of local grade school kids left unsupervised with nothing better to do, where the Lord of the Flies gang mentality drives them to behave like a pack of wild animals, as it’s the only time adults pay them any attention, even if it’s expressed in anger.  Sensing her vulnerability, Daria gets back on the road where out in the middle of nowhere she is the target of multiple dive bombs by Frechette in his plane, ultimately stepping out of the car to meet this guy.  From radio reports and a quick call from a friend, his face is all over the news with photos of his gun pointing at the police officer, claiming he’s a cop killer, though he acknowledges he never pulled the trigger.  She readily believes him, even after learning he’s also heisted the airplane.  Hopping in her car, they approach Death Valley, stopping at the site of Zabriskie Point (1,280 × 307 pixels also here: 1,280 × 725 pixels) where they playfully run up and down the mounds, developing an amorous interest.  In this section of the film where she pulls out a joint (he does not partake), it’s almost as if time stops, where they exist completely outside time, which does resemble smoking pot and getting high.  As they have sex, seen here:  zabriskie point.mpg YouTube (7:21), there are interesting accompanying flashback and fantasy sequences of multiple couples animalistically writhing in the ashy sand, not the 10,000 people having naked sex in the desert that was originally planned, while Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead plays some extraordinary improvisational guitar, simply a gorgeous vision of the dream of free love in the 60’s.  While many are bored to tears in this section, as so little actually happens, it is the most significant idealization by Antonioni in the film, as it poetically reflects the gentleness and tender affection of the hippie counterculture, where living in harmony with nature is nothing at all like the law and order severity of mainstream America, where Daria’s flower child openness actually helps persuade Frechette to throw away his gun.

What drives Frechette to return the plane remains a mystery, but he feels morally obligated, playfully redecorating the airplane in the style of Further, the acid bus driven by Ken Kesey and Merry Pranksters, where the parting transition scene plays The Rolling Stones “You Got the Silver” Zabriskie Point, you got the silver, rolling stones - YouTube (1:30).  As the airport is literally lined with cops and television reporters, this attempt feels doomed, as it doesn’t seem possible for Frechette to re-integrate into the Los Angeles mentality, where the plane is driven off the runway by police cars, surrounded by guns and he’s shot, killing him instantly in an example of vigilante police justice.  Daria arrives in Phoenix at about the same time she hears the radio news reports, where the luxury resort is literally built into the surrounding rocks.  Antonioni has a particular fascination with filming architectural magnificence, and this is a perfect example of upscale desert architecture, where the creative design is nothing less than eye-popping.  Daria slowly walks into and around the premises as if in a daze, as this allows the camera to gaze into every nook and cranny while she attempts to regain her focus.  As she hears the rich wives gathered around the pool, she doesn’t recognize herself in any of them.  The language of business being spoken may as well be a foreign tongue, as it feels utterly useless, where the business convention itself, the goal of her road journey, feels like such a waste of time.  Much like she felt when attacked by the Lord of the Flies kids, she feels a desperate need to get away, driving a few hundred yards or so, then stopping to take one last look, where the building literally explodes about a dozen or so times from different angles, initially to an incendiary Pink Floyd piece, like the frenzied climax of Pink Floyd-Careful with That Axe, Eugene(Ummagumma) - YouTube (8:44) that feels like a raging madness, seen here:  Zabriskie Point: Final Scene (Music by Pink Floyd) HQ  YouTube (6:57).  After the explosions, Antonioni films debris flying through the air, floating in slow motion as an inevitable peace sets in, returning to the dreamy Pink Floyd music that opened the film.  It should be noted that the film released in 1970 had a different ending, where much like “Ballad of Easy Rider,” Roy Orbison wrote a similar over-the-top theme song (“Zabriskie Point is everywhere”) called “So Young” Roy Orbison - So Young (1970) - YouTube (3:33), a heavily orchestrated pop song that played over the end credits.  In the 35 mm print seen recently, there were no end credits or Orbison song, as the Pink Floyd music drew the film to a close.   

Even though these are only projected thoughts, Daria’s reaction is a fascinating cinematic answer to that initial question about what it would take to revolutionize white America, where no one could be more of a peace-loving flower child than Daria, a Haight-Ashbury hippie in real life.  Yet senselessly murdering a man she recently grew fond of, something that happens to families in the ghetto every day, produces a disturbing violence and inner rage that can’t adequately be described, but is beautifully illustrated in this abstract, ballet-like homage to violence.  Unique to cinema, this unforgettable image of out of control violence remains a symbol of America, and a powerful reminder of what America exports around the world in films, gun sales, military intelligence, monetary acquisitions, and military intervention.  Not sure much has changed in the 40 years since Antonioni made this film when America was still actively engaged in the Vietnam War abroad while also rounding up, jailing and killing Black Panthers here at home through an FBI COINTELPRO operation that not only smeared and discredited peace advocate Martin Luther King with a vicious lie campaign, but openly violated the civil rights of Panthers by treating them as potential terrorists, and then lying to the public about all of the above.  When word got out that Antonioni’s screenplay was un-American, his cast and crew were actually followed and investigated by the FBI.  The love in the desert evolving into the radicalization of Daria is unlike anything else Antonioni ever envisioned, where he does an exquisite job contrasting the overreactive police mentality in Los Angeles with the quiet serenity of the desert, literally creating an alternative counterculture universe, which is something few films have ever achieved.  In the end, the senseless death of Frechette parallels the senseless murder at the end of EASY RIDER (1969), where both films reflect an innate American hostility and prejudicial intolerance *against* its own citizens.  What makes this era so unique is that it was the government, through a secret and illegal FBI campaign under J. Edgar Hoover, that led the charge.  

Note – For more on this, please refer to what’s omitted from Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar (2011) and find a chance to see Howard Alk’s The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971).    

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