Zabriskie Pointlessness

Ah yes! Film snobs love those musical sounding Italian director’s names.

You certainly sound like you’re clued into something more than just Hollywood trash when you can pepper your conversation with Visconti, Fellini or even (if you really really like smack) Argento.

The matter of fact is, Italians are not-by any means- better filmmakers than any other nationality. That illusion is compounded by two factors:

1- Imports are usually filtered. 

Having worked at film festivals, and more importantly, in film festival selection committees, I can assure you the proportion of crap to good films is the same the world over. The impression we get of Hollywood being crap is simply because we bathe in their domestic market.

In fact, every nation in the world seems to share this trait: they all think their local films are bad. Why? Because they see all of them.

But when you go to see a foreign film, it’s usually the one little leatherback turtle that survived the gruelling Darwinian crawl to the ocean. Someone , somewhere had to sit through the thousands of films from India that were NOT in the Apu trilogy.

2- A lot of italian exports masquerade as US films.

I’ve been often surprised at how many times , when pressed for an example of a really stupid american film , people would mention a Terence Hill/Bud Spencer movie like Two Super Cops or Watch Out, We’re Mad. To make matters worse, I remember how the french language newspaper ads for these films would state these were “French Version of” and list the english title. The fact is, despite having location shooting in the US, these films were goofball italian films designed to cash in on audiences who could be easily fooled by the simple americanization of names.

I’m not saying Hollywood films are not stupid. But I will make the claim that foreign pastiches of Hollywood genres can be even stupider. Don’t believe me? Watch the very goofy Doctor Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine. Stupid, uh? Now watch the italian made sequel Doctor Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs and you’ll be writing Criterion begging them to release the first one.

[I guess you can also add an unofficial third reason: Snobs like to pepper their dialogue with Italian phrases like “Ciao!” and “Dolce Vita” or from other European languages not english. What can we do? C’est la vie!]

Which takes us to the film that triggered today’s rant: Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point.

Right off the international success of Blow Up, this was the second of a three-picture deal producer Carlo Ponti secured for Antonioni at MGM. The film would be shot mostly in a cinema verité style and capture the youth protest movement.

As its core story, was the true sad incident of a young rebellious youth who stole a plane, took it for a joy ride and got shot returning it.

In this version, Mark Frechette plays Mark, a rebellious youth who is so rebellious he has trouble getting along with his anti-establishment buddies. After storming out in protest of a meeting with his fellow protesters, he goes out and buys guns under dubious pretense in a scene that is utterly confusing: Are we supposed to feel that he is being choked by “the man” as he is told he has to wait for his guns? Or are we supposed to reel in horror as he gets to walk out of the store with a brand new .38?

Well, Mark is seen drawing the gun in his car during a campus protest where a cop is shot (we’re not sure by who) and Mark takes it on the lam, “borrowing” a Cessna airplane to make his escape.

Meanwhile Daria Halperin as Daria (who else?) is chugging across the desert in a Buick to see her boss/lover (Rod Taylor) and displays such a la-dee-dah attitude we are forced to say “what the hell is she smoking?”. (Not to get some but to avoid it because it really seems to make her stupid.)

Mark buzzes her in his plane. They meet up and head to Zabriskie Point. He’s a boy. She’s a girl. They’re young and in a photogenic setting. Since the film is directed by a european this can only mean one thing: they are in love. So they embrace in simulated sex in the sand (with an entire orgy of artful simulated sex erupting around them). Then they have nonsensical musings on life and whatever makes them feel intellectual and important.

(Yes. My synopsis cuts corners. I hate wasting time recounting a film. Always have. Always will. Why? Because I hate reading synopsis too.)

Then cops show up. Mark hides in a porta potty. He emerges to plug the cop with his .38.  Daria gets between them and therefore saves the cop who drives away. More wooden dialogue ensues. She wants the gun toting jerk to accompany her in her quest for her … er…her sugar daddy (?).  Mark decides to return the plane. His plan to do so safely is to paint the plane with all sorts of psychedelic colors (including a giant pair of boobs on the wings above the cockpit) and fly it back to the very airstrip he stole it from. What could possibly go wrong?

Not surprisingly, the fugitive from a cop shooting gets greeted by a hail of gunfire, leaving him dead on the strip. Man, those cops really do need to chill. It’s not like Mark shot one of …oh never mind…

No wonder Newsweek said it gave “Anti-americanism a bad name”.

Daria finally reaches Lee but walks away from his splendid hilltop mansion when she notices he has native-american servants. (I guess he should not give them jobs?).  As she does, she gives it one last look and imagines it blowing up along with all the consumer goods the director could cram in front of his super-overcranked cameras in an orgy of explosions that would give Michael Bay cause to call his physician. For some reason, the explosion itself is repeated a gazillion times and is foreshadowed a few minutes before by a flashforward. There’s even room for some product placement as a box of Special K and a loaf of Wonder Bread go flying. Not bad for a film that hit us over the head with an earlier montage to show how we were stifled by too much advertising.

The surprising thing is that it took Antonioni nearly 5 years to research this cliché-ridden mess of half-baked ideas. (Pauline Kael famously wrote the film had “barely any new ideas and no good ones”). The film’s $7 million tab was never recovered (it barely accumulated $900K by the end of its secondary run). For a while Zabriskie Point was a punch line. A title you’d mention in conversation to get an easy laugh. A new watermark for critics to warn you in advance of another artsy-fartsy piece of crap.

Who liked Zabriskie Point? Not surprisingly, these guys did:

The film did get much deserved belated praise for it’s cinematography. Some of its explosion footage found itself in better works: notably the exploding TV sets in Koyaanisqatsi (which, coincidentally, also features footage of Zabriskie Point’s mineral rich dunes).

(It’s interesting to note Koyaanisqatsi succeeds in provoking thought where Zabriskie Point fails. Could it be that plot and dialogue can be a hindrance to sending a message?)

There’s also a tendency to praise the film for being a good time capsule item but the same material was covered more successfully  in low-budget films like Mondo Mod which features the cinematography of Laszlo Kovacks and Vilmos Szigmond. Zabriskie Point really stinks of a suit giving “carte blanche” to a big name director to tackle what he saw as a potential market he himself failed to understand. Problem is, by the time Antonioni had finished his “research” (which consisted of a lot of wandering around the US and smoking weed),  culture had moved on and his film looked and sounded dated even when it came out.

In the end, the film succeeded in making me more anti-establishment. I’m pissed off at MGM for making it in the first place and even more pissed off at Warner for keeping this film in print to cash in on the Pink Floyd soundtrack.

Pain Level: 6 out of 10

Quality of pain: Nagging- though the payoff is worth it. That part where everything blows up is hilarious.

Painjoyment™ index: Medium (rhymes with “tedium”)

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About The Cinémasochist

I'd rather just talk about "bad" movies. View all posts by The Cinémasochist

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