Zabriskie Point has the dubious distinction of being perhaps the only film directed by Michelangelo Antonioni to be regarded by friend and foe alike as an absolute fiasco. Maybe it’s because I’ve now seen it a few times and know what to expect or because Antonioni’s hanging trip on American society feels more accurate than ever or because the film’s fragmented style is so far ahead of its time, or maybe it’s just because it is an incredibly beautiful, original and daring film that I am prepared not only to praise it, but to view it as one of the director’s most important works.
The “story” centers on a campus radical (Mark Frechette, a non-actor Antonioni found haranguing a cop on the streets of Los Angeles) who is blamed for killing a policeman during a protest. He has a brief desert tryst with a lithesome secretary (Daria Halpern) before returning to face death in LA. The film is most famous for two sequences. In the first, dozens of young couples frolic in the waste of Zabriskie Point while the (literally) explosive, extravagantly gorgeous finale is a perfect synecdoche for the film overall. For Zabriskie is a film in pieces, the cinema of sherds and wreckage and as such it prefigures the loud, formless, chaotic junk yard that cinema and society have become. Antonioni probably did not intend to give audiences a foretaste of what to expect in the future, but he did so.
Intentionally prescient or otherwise, Zabriskie is a biting look at American consumerist culture at its tawdry worst, revealed through a loose, spontaneous response to the physical environment. Nonetheless, Antonioni’s stunning, startling images lend both the commercial LA wasteland and the quiet spaces of Death Valley a haunting, ambiguous presence. Whether it is the tortured industrial architecture of LA’s flat lands, or the obscenity of water in the desert being squandered for a swimming pool, or the palpable sense of release as Frechette takes to the air in a stolen Cessna, one image after another mutely expresses the director’s response to the tangled mess and everyday brutality of American life.
It is an indictment barely handled by the script. No screenplay for an Antonioni film is likely to get much better than a C minus in the average screenwriting class. The loose, episodic structure, the flat, monotonous characters, the seemingly arbitrary plot threads left undeveloped almost seem calculated to tweak the noses of those who measure the quality of a film by its script, because none of those “flaws” matter. The images, sounds, juxtapositions and expressive details make his points, silently, without drama. This is real film, not 19th century melodrama masquerading as story-telling.
The results are decidedly not for everyone. Its crystal clear vision of contemporary American life and “values” nonetheless makes Zabriskie Point that rarest of rarities, a film that improves with age.