Antonioni’s “Zabriskie Point”: a terrible, senseless and fascinating film.

I am a firm believer that bad movies have a place in our culture and our lives. If you’re a film buff you can’t expect to like everything you see, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and I think we can learn a lot from truly terrible films. I’ve done article-length profiles on this blog about at least three films I think are truly awful (for the record, they were Last Year at Marienbad, Last Tango in Paris and The Wiz), and often deconstructing what’s wrong with a bad film is more illuminating than praising one that works.

Such is true of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1970 crap-fest Zabriskie Point which I watched, for the second time in about two years, last week. This film, notorious for its epic critical and box-office failure, was one of the most disastrous Hollywood productions of the counterculture era, doing lasting damage to the careers and lives of several people involved in it. It’s a really bad film, but it’s an extremely well-made bad film, hypnotic in its own right even as it alienates the viewer with its cynicism and infuriates him or her with its utter refusal to make any sense. As terrible and misconceived as it is, Zabriskie Point is oddly satisfying, and endlessly fascinating. I enjoy the film in a perverse sort of way.

It’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on in Zabriskie Point, but the plot involves a young college student (Mark Frechette) who is upset with society as well as ineffectual campus “revolutionaries” trying to overthrow it. After possibly shooting a police officer–the film doesn’t make it clear–during a protest, the young man steals a small plane and flies into the desert near Death Valley. He happens upon a girl (Daria Halprin) who is driving somewhere (?) in her car. They meet, exchange “heavy” dialogue, then get it on in the sand near Zabriskie Point, Death Valley’s lowest point of elevation. Eventually (spoilers) the young man decides to return the plane, but is shot by police upon landing. The woman winds up at the desert resort home of a wealthy developer (Rod Taylor), but she leaves abruptly, then imagines the resort home blowing up in slow-motion.

If the film sounds like a mess from the description, that’s because it is. Antonioni, a European auteur made famous in the ’60s with his groundbreaking film Blow Up, employs unnecessarily pretentious and heavy-handed direction to a script, partially written by playwright Sam Shepard, that makes almost nothing clear. Is the young man a student at the college or was he just hanging around? Did he shoot the policeman or not? Does the young woman work for the Rod Taylor character, or is she his lover, or what? Why is she going to his house in the desert? Who are all the random people who suddenly appear in the desert while the couple is making love? These are but a few of the existential mysteries you’ll ponder if you choose to subject yourself to Zabriskie Point. I have nothing against a story that contains ambiguities or challenges for the audience to solve, but this film seems either careless in its exposition, or, worse, it simply has no idea what’s going on and doesn’t care.

The final scene of Zabriskie Point features a lot of stuff blowing up. I have no idea what it means, but it’s oddly hypnotic.

On top of this, Antonioni has some broader point to make about American society, or consumerism, or the counter-culture, or something, but he botches it badly. The explosion sequence at the end seems fixated on showing middle-class consumer goods flying through the air–at one point we see a loaf of Wonder bread in elegant midair pirouette–but Antonioni gives us no clue what point we’re supposed to draw from it. Furthermore, there seems something disingenuous about the film’s attempts to steep itself in counter-culture sensibilities. It doesn’t seem sincere. The movie doesn’t seem to care much about Frechette or Halprin’s characters, suggesting they’re in the film for marketing reasons, to appeal to the “youth audience” and not because it wants to tell a story about them. Even Frechette himself, who clashed with the director on the shoot, told the press Zabriskie Point was “a big lie and totally alien.”

That said, there are some interesting things about Zabriskie Point. The cinematography is really beautiful–not just the desert, but I especially liked the shots in and around the luxury home toward the end (though the lush photography didn’t help me to figure out what the hell was going on there). The soundtrack includes some fun and rare tunes by late ’60s artists including Pink Floyd and Jerry Garcia. In several shots, focusing on the Rod Taylor character, we see through the windows details of the magnificent Richfield Tower, a lavish 1920s-era Art Deco skyscraper in downtown L.A. that was torn down even before the film came out. And, though I have no idea what he’s doing in the movie, I love Rod Taylor’s acting. This is a film where you can glimpse shadows of the wonderful and groundbreaking picture they wanted to make through the cloudy images of the terrible film they did make. In this sense it’s worth watching.

Some shots in Zabriskie Point show the fascinating exterior of the Richfield Tower, an Art Deco masterpiece that was demolished in 1968. I may feature the building on my “Lost America” series.

Zabriskie Point had some odd real-life drama surrounding it. Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin were romantically involved in real life shortly after the production finished. That didn’t last long; Halprin eventually married actor Dennis Hopper, another fixture of the counter-culture Hollywood scene of the late 1960s. Author Ruthanna Hopper is their daughter. Frechette, whose movie role of seeming bitterly alienated from all of society was evidently not an act, robbed a Boston bank in 1973, reportedly to get the money to make another counter-culture film damning American society. He went to prison and died in a weight room accident in 1975. His bizarre story has been mentioned on the movie history podcast You Must Remember This.

In all, Zabriskie Point is an awful film with nothing useful or even coherent to say about its subjects or the time in which it was made. However, that doesn’t make it worthless. Its failures and its real-life story are pretty interesting comments on what Hollywood and America were like in 1970. It’s a complicated and troubled vision, but that is merely a reflection of its era.

The poster for Zabriskie Point is presumably copyright (C) 1970 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. I believe my inclusion of it here is permissible under fair use. The photo of the Richfield Tower is public domain. I am not the uploader of any YouTube clips embedded here.
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