In Osha Neumann's memoir of his time as a '60s anarchist radical, Up Against the Wall Motherf**ker!, he describes the scene in 1969 as one of considerable change. He writes, "The season of love, rage, and extravagant expectations was coming to an end... hard drugs replaced LSD. The young dropouts had a nervous, ragged edge... Optimism was giving way to a tight-lipped struggle for survival." Students were taking to the streets and there was a paranoid energy in the air. Anything could change at any second.
It was like living on a powder keg.
The student radicals in Michelangelo Antonioni's 1970 film Zabriskie Point embody that same nervous, angry energy. The film opens with a student meeting where those black and white, straight and stoned, are talking revolution and armed resistance. They're talking about taking down the pigs and taking to the streets. One of them, Mark (Mark Frechette), a dropout white guy with a surprisingly buoyant head of hair, stands up and says he'd be willing to die for the cause. It shuts everyone up and gets them doubting his real commitment. But Mark really is committed to revolution, and he's willing to risk everything to find... well, it's not really clear what he wants to find beyond love, sex, drugs, and freedom. Maybe that's enough. He falls in with Daria (Daria Halprin), an anthro student and equally wide-eyed hippie. She works for a company (whose CEO is Rod Taylor of The Birds) building a housing development in the empty desert. Mark steals a plane and heads into the wilderness where he hooks up with Daria and together they shed their clothes, find love in the dust, and try to make sense of the world.
Despite my best attempt at explanation above, it should be noted that Zabriskie Point is not a traditional narrative picture. The film is more about mood and provocation than it is plot or character. It is truly cryptic. Most of the film seems to pass by in a dream-state, images blurring into each other, colors overlapping and then fading into the white hot of the desert sun. Pink Floyd's celebrated soundtrack is equally outlandish, at times cacophonous and at others sublime. There are moments when electronic squiggles and industrial grinding noises squelch all natural sound. When first released, critics found Zabriskie Point infuriating.
It's easy to see why critics hated the movie and at the same time, today, it's hard to say if Antonioni's film is misunderstood. Surely the master of Italian modernist cinema, the man who gave us La Notte, Blow-Up, and L'Avventura, pours all of his talent into Zabriskie Point. His long takes and blank performances are here in all their glory. The cinematography is stunning, transforming remote places into almost otherworldly widescreen landscapes. But the anti-materialist message of the film (Antonioni's first in the States) is not only facile -- it's almost insulting. Chock-a-block with weak hippie-isms and unconvincing radical debate, Zabriskie Point is what film professors tell their students to avoid: the dreaded self-righteous art film.
Ah, but that's if you watch it for a message, or as a "movie." If you just sit back and let the film ride out as an experience, you're bound to enjoy the journey. Zabriskie Point is one of the finest head films ever made. Outside of the astonishing finale (comprised of multiple slo-mo, high resolution explosions of everyday objects: see clothes on a clothing line explode in a riot of slowly spinning colors) and a dusty desert orgy (performed by The Open Theatre, a NYC-based experimental acting troupe, and investigated by the Justice Department), Zabriskie Point is a beautiful mess of a movie that, sadly, may be best viewed outside of the director's intentions.
Zabriskie Point is one of the lowest spots on Earth, buried deep in the rocky dunes of Death Valley. Mark and Daria go there to escape the reality of living in an America they see as an oppressive capitalist regime. There, digging into the firmament, they cast aside their modern lives. Like Osha Neumann's anarchist radicals, Mark and Daria have immersed themselves in a different life and return to society transformed (but not accepted). As Neumann writes, the disaffection with modern life forced the radicals to "discard some baggage... we emerged as members of a new tribe. We left the old behind." Antonioni and Neumann share the same enthusiasm for change, only Neumann really did pick up arms where Antonioni just shocked his audience into silence -- and more than a few howls of derisive laughter.