Even though Zabriskie Point is the epitome of counterculture-era cinematic pretention, the film is undeniably arresting. Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, continuing the English-language adventures he began with the sexy ’60s hit Blow Up, set out to make a tone poem about the flower-power generation. To achieve this effect, Antonioni and his various co-writers (including Sam Shepard) juxtaposed a pair of archetypal characters against the symbolically and visually potent backdrop of an American desert. Unfortunately, using metaphors instead of real characters, and representative predicaments instead of real situations, gives Zabriskie Point a desperate quality—every frame of the movie strains to reach the level of High Art. Shots are photographed from oblique angles that form beautiful but nonsensical compositions; locations are either absurdly picturesque or outrageously ugly; the music score by Pink Floyd (and others) winds and whirls through weird psychedelic textures; and even the attractive leading actors feel like colors Antonioni plucked off his palette.
The story, which is more of a series of minor events than a proper narrative, goes like this. Mark (Mark Frechette) is a radical student at a university in Los Angeles. During a student demonstration, he aims a gun at a policeman, but someone else shoots the cop instead. Nonetheless, Mark flees and gets accused of the crime, making him a fugitive. Meanwhile, Daria (Daria Halprin) is an ambivalent young woman working for (and possibly sleeping with) an Establishment figure, macho real-estate developer Lee (Rod Taylor). The protagonists meet when Mark steals a small plane and flies to Death Valley, where Daria is driving to join Lee for a business meeting. Mark buzzes Daria’s car with his plane, then lands. Soon, the duo wander through the remote wilderness of the desert, eventually having sex in a notorious sequence: The kids’ lovemaking is so beautiful and pure it causes visions of other writhing couples to appear all around them, leading to a trippy tapestry of hippies humping across the horizon.
This being an early-’70s social-issues movie, the good vibes give way to a heavy scene, with lots of “poetic” violence during the climax. It’s entirely possible that Zabriskie Point is about something, although the interpretations that immediately come to mind seem naïve and stilly. (Capitalism equals death, nothing beautiful lasts, sex is the only real honesty, and so on.) One hopes Antonioni was aiming higher than that, and, indeed, critics have spent years trying to determine whether the film is legitimately artistic or merely audacious. Still, there’s no denying that Zabriskie Point is among the must-see pictures of its era, since it presents the angst and idealism of a turbulent time in a singular fashion. As the narrator of the movie’s fabulously vague trailer muses, “Zabriskie Point—how you get there depends on where you’re at.”
Zabriskie Point: FUNKY