Zabriskie Point (1970, US, 110 mins)

Dir: Michelangelo Antonioni; Producer: Carlo Ponti; Writers: Michelangelo Antonioni, Fred Garner, Sam Shepard, Tonino Guerra, Clare Peploe; Cinematography: Alfio Contini; Music: Pink Floyd; Editor: Michelangelo Antonioni; Production Designer: Dean Tavoulis

Cast: Mark Frechette, Daria Halprin, Rod Taylor, Paul Fix, GD Spradlin, Kathleen Cleaver

The films pose a subject (only to compromise it), constitute objects (only to dissolve them), propose stories (only to lose them), but, equally, they turn those compromises and losses back towards another solidity.

a wandering away from narrative to the surface into which it was dissolved, but in such a way that the surface takes on a fascination, becomes a “subject” all its own.

Sam Rohdie (1)

Sam Rohdie was absolutely right when he claimed that Antonioni, like no other filmmaker, introduced into the narrative fiction film elements and impulses that were purely experimental (2). The story-lines in his films gradually dissolve and fizzle away as his real concerns take shape, and there transpires an abstraction of objects and reality, a shift to another level of seeing and, by extension, thinking.

A true art cinema director, Antonioni’s distinct thematic concerns and visual concepts persist throughout his oeuvre: from the trilogy (L’avventura [1960], La Notte [1961], L’eclisse [1962]) to Il Deserto Rosso (1964) to Zabriskie Point to Beyond the Clouds (1995). Early in his filmmaking career, he was accused by critics and audiences alike of making films that were without social meaning, impact or purpose, that were nothing more than futile exercises in empty formalism. He stood out from the neo-realist practice of filmmaking that dominated Italian cinema at the time.

For Antonioni there is no given, self-evident “reality” that speaks for itself once recorded. A modernist and formalist, Antonioni is interested in the real from another perspective – he discards any notion of the certainty of things and surrenders to the “invisible” and unseen reality, the particularities and tonalities of the surface, texture and materiality of things and that arise in the interaction between things. For those who cannot appreciate his films, it is their own loss. For Antonioni challenges the viewer to go as far as she or he is willing to go, in the offer he presents of a new experience and way of seeing. He will always remain a brilliant and significant director for the way he pushed narrative fiction into what Deleuze has called “the void” (3).

Zabriskie Point came after the significant body of work Antonioni made throughout the ’50s and ’60s, and was his first film set in America. The story takes its cue from the hotbed of political unrest prevalent on university campuses at the time (late ’60s) and the conflict between the counter culture and the “establishment”. From the film’s first shot, we’re plunged into a room flooded with faces and voices in what reveals itself to be a student meeting. With ’70s Afro lingo and in typical student style, the students debate and discuss what it is to be a revolutionary, the importance of recognising the enemy and the tactics and course of action to take. Several scenes on and we see a bloody confrontation between the students and the police.

Antonioni doesn’t tell us what specifically they’re fighting for, he doesn’t dramatise the conflict at all, but it is clear who he sides with. The police are revealed to be merciless and unjustifiably violent in their actions toward the students. In fact, all the characters who represent the “establishment” in this film, from the heartless police to the men and women who work in corporate America, are revealed in a fairly one-dimensional way as money driven and shallow. Antonioni revels in the “gags” that the students in their counter cultural sensibility play: answering the phone with “goodbye”, searching for the “fantastic” place for meditation, giving one’s name as “Karl Marx”, and so on.

That Antonioni privileges the values of the counter culture over the “establishment” is further illustrated in the way he frames the urban landscape as a space dominated and bombarded by advertising billboards that dwarf the inhabitants of the city. Like the billboard that apes a farm landscape, this “reality” of consumerism reflected in the overwhelming billboards, is mistaken as the given reality – and, of course, Antonioni’s intentions are to reveal a brighter, sunnier and utopic alternative. It is the students, with their spiritual openness and soul-searching motives who become the proponents of his deep concerns and vision, and lead the viewer to this world.

The oppositions operating in Zabriskie Point are a little over-simplified and reductionist. If there is a flaw in this film, it lies here. But maybe it’s too easy to make such a claim in retrospect. Regardless, Antonioni draws this schema only to dismiss it and push the narrative into other spaces. Yet he doesn’t dismiss these oppositions entirely, he taps into the values of the “hippy culture” and celebrates them in the gesture he makes in returning to nature as utopia, the mythic ideal, and “true” reality.

Less interested in the narrative specifics of the student revolution or the encroachment of mass consumerism, he’s more interested in the outline and the surface. In the opening credit sequence (framed in bold yellow) Antonioni’s camera darts here and there among a student-filled room, while in each shot he shifts the focus from foreground to background, bringing to attention the materiality of each face, the line and shape of their features. The tone of lightness and plasticity of objects throughout this sequence is echoed in the soundtrack and its reverberating and hollowed voices.

His poetic vision continues through a pair of “outsiders” who cross paths while journeying through the heartland of America. Mark and Daria, the two disconnected young things, aren’t actively committed to any party or agenda. They simply “are”. Mark is first seen at the student meeting where he makes his presence known through announcing his willingness to kill and die at any moment. He walks out of the meeting his individualism intact, revealing his impatience for committees and planned courses of action. Daria, on the other hand, is not associated with the student movement at all. As she tells Mark, she would rather listen to the music on the radio than the reports of the student riots. They exist with a certain lightness of being, open to objects and events as they appear and occur.

A modernist, but also a romanticist, Antonioni’s faith lies in a utopia, an all-embracing, deeply fulfilling and sensuous world of natural beauty. Like in Il Deserto Rosso, the industrial, urban landscape is a hostile place full of harsh, metallic-like, and jarring sounds. It’s in the desolate and depopulated space of natural and untouched beauty that peace and harmony lie.

The object of Antonioni’s cinema is to reach the non-figurative through an adventure whose end is the eclipse of the face, the obliteration of characters.

Pascal Bonitzer (4)

As Mark and Daria travel further across the American desert, they eventually discard their objects of transportation, their last material possession, and literally emerge naked into the enveloping Death Valley. This sequence is like the “heart” of the film, where Antonioni’s poetics are clearly expressed and where the characters and story take a pivotal turn. After their encounter, Mark and Daria separate to face the world “out there” alone. One dies. One rejects capitalism in the most spectacular way.

Daria discovers that Zabriskie Point is in fact an enormous sand dune that has been shaped over millions of years by wind and water. This is the ultimate Antonioni notion of reality – a surface whose morphology is constantly under a process of change – and where his vision is to make concrete and visible this slow, abstract transformation of line, shape and texture. As Rohdie argues, Antonioni’s vision reflects a “.reluctance to know.(which is) founded on a perception about the instability, the tenuousness of knowing.the fragility of knowledge.” (5). This sense of fragility is then extended to the objects themselves and their consequent dissolution. Like the fog that envelopes the characters while standing on the pier in Il Deserto Rosso, the figures of Daria and Mark dissolve both into each other and their surroundings, the natural landscape of endless rolling sand dunes, valleys and crevices. As the line between subject and object blurs on these two levels, Antonioni’s poetics emerge. He reveals the crevice of a descending hill, the line between sand dune and sky, the peaks and falls, shape and curves of the desert and the wide curve of Daria’s bronzed hip. Antonioni’s camera reveals the anthropomorphic qualities of the valley and the echoes between the couple’s bodies and the valley in terms of line, shape and colour.

.in Antonioni, the face disappeared at the same time as the character and the action, and the affective instance is that of the any-space-whatever, which Antonioni in turn pushes as far as the void.

Deleuze (6)

Antonioni’s poetics involve a telescoping of not simply the world of objects and their place in the everyday but the very concrete richness of objects in their materiality and their transformation through time and space. For Antonioni, it’s all about tracing the line, the curve, and the tone, and the process of re-figuration. Here we arrive at the instance of a “void”, an “any-space-whatever” that has been pushed to the limit, the most rarefied state. A state beyond faces, characters, and emotions to the power and mystery of the world of objects and change.

In this abstraction, “reality” is revealed as tenuous, fragile and ever changing, and as complete and concrete in and of itself and not an illustration of something else. Antonioni regards and reveals objects not subordinated to their utilitarianism – their potential for exploitation – but their inherent beauty and mystery.

When Mark and Daria eventually make love, it leads to a complete breakdown in realist narrative logic as multiple couples and groups of young people engaged in sexual play magically appear throughout the valley. It’s as though they release a multiplying and uncontrollable force of life. This theme of a surreal and inexplicable multiplying force re-emerges at the film’s climatic ending.

When Antonioni turns his poetics onto the culture of American capitalism and mass consumption it becomes a spectacular display of imploding and exploding objects occurring within the subjective field of vision of Daria. She rushes out of the building in which the capitalists are making deals to exploit the vast American terrain and, with disgust, commands its violent explosion. In a surreal, circular way, the explosion occurs over and over from different angles, and finally gives way to a series of imploding objects of mass consumption (TV, food, clothing, etc.).

The latter becomes a moment of pure poetic spectacle, as through a hypnotizing slow motion and electrifying score the explosion and the movement of objects through space is rendered graceful and brilliant. Flying toward the viewer, these many shards of shiny bits and pieces that once served a utilitarian purpose when part of a greater object here exist in and of themselves in a purely dazzling spectacle. This is the only way Antonioni can see the beauty of American capitalism, as a rainbow of shattered objects lost in space and time. The poetic spectacle ends abruptly, and we return to Daria with a hint of knowingness and satisfaction in her smile. She leaves the frame and Antonioni leaves us with the eternal power and mystery of the radiating sun, an elemental object that we see as a composition of line, shape and colour.

Endnotes

  1. Sam Rohdie, Antonioni, BFI, London, 1990, p.3
  2. A thesis that underlies his book Antonioni.
  3. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1 – the movement-image, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1986, p.120
  4. Pascal Bonitzer quoted in ibid., p. 119
  5. Sam Rohdie op.cit., p.48
  6. Gilles Deleuze, op.cit., p. 120

About The Author

Fiona Villella is a freelance writer and former editor of Senses of Cinema.