“Making a picture in America brings with it one single risk: the risk of becoming the object of a discussion so wide in range that the quality of the film itself is forgotten.” Though Antonioni said this about Zabriskie Point, and about making a film in the US, the principle is much broader than those topics alone. This was considered Antonioni’s “flop,” but of course prevailing factors may have led to that conclusion, rather than the film itself leading to it. Antonioni’s first stint in America, after the mammoth success of his first English-language film (Blow-Up), was undoubtedly overhyped. Antonioni chose a quintessentially American topic to illustrate a quintessentially human condition. But by depicting the youth counterculture movement of the Sixties, Antonioni was accused of naively identifying himself with the youth rather than “The Man.”
The documentary-style opening to the film is rather unlike Antonioni’s previous films, which are more like canvasses for his repainting of reality in highly aesthetic visuals. Similarly, his use of color is less overt than it was in Blow-Up, which was less overt than it was in Red Desert, his first color film. But to label Zabriskie Point as a “counterculture” or “protest” film does great violence to Antonioni’s work. In the same way that Antonioni portrayed mod London in Blow-Up not as London per se, but as his version of London, so Zabriskie Point depicts America and its youth movement at the time as Antonioni saw it, and as he saw it through the eyes of the youth themselves. Blow-Up was shamelessly and wonderfully shot through the eyes of David Hemmings’ character the photographer. Antonioni was considered a genius for shooting a film through the lens of a photographer within the film. But in Zabriskie Point, by removing the somewhat literal camera device from within the film, it seems that many have missed the subtlety that Antonioni would have his viewers watch through the eyes of another, for a particular perspective.
In superficial terms, this may be the most “realist” of Antonioni’s films, at least since L’Avventura. Whereas in the past, Antonioni mainly went with trained actors (at least for his protagonists), this film’s main characters were not only completely untrained but went by their given names (first and last) within the film. Likewise, the student group within the film went by the actual name of the group they were playing. The beginning scene signals a documentary feel that will pervade much of the rest of the film. Below the surface, however, the film is fairly typical of Antonioni’s previous works. To equivocate Zabriskie Point with all that he did before would do it a disservice, though. I noticed a major difference between this film and Antonioni’s others from before. The depiction of love was the purest and most optimistic yet. For once, a couple was not falling in love illicitly or in a one-sided manner. L’Avventura had a man and woman becoming infatuated with one another while they were supposed to be searching for his girlfriend and her best friend. La Notte had an unhappy marriage with a tortured woman and an unfaithful man. L’Eclisse had a single woman eventually allowing herself to be seduced by a man with a wandering eye. Red Desert may have featured a relatively stable marriage, but the husband and wife were all-too-willing to participate in an orgy, and the wife allowed herself put herself within reach of another man. Blow-Up‘s main character was utterly dispassionate, and saw woman only as an opportunity to play or as a means to his own ends. The one marriage shown in the film had a husband objectifying his wife and a wife who couldn’t think about him even in the most intimate moments. In Zabriskie Point, the two young innocents have a Romeo-and-Juliet-like affair, but of a purer sort. Their love is not unrequited, but it is impossible, considering the scenario in which the young man is caught. Though something resembling an orgy does appear in the film, it is relatively monogamistic, with a couple brief exceptions. (It was a time of free love, after all.)
Notes: fuzzy, unfocused, uncertain, flinching, disoriented camera of students in opening credits (similar to camera in opening credits of Red Desert). “Willing to die?” Fake “natural” scenery in city on buildings. Lots of billboards. Identifies himself as “Carl [sic] Marx” to police. Priest also booked, along with professors. Fake plastic people and animals in commercial being screened by Rod Taylor et al. “Sunny Dunes Land Development Company.” Outside RT’s office window is another building, American flag between. Shot of RT from below desk – tape recorder, RT, window, flag on next building. Can’t get sandwich, but gets a plane. RT’s office discusses “cost of blasting rock slopes.” Young boys chase her. “I needed to get off the ground.” Still shot of dead trees as they drive away. Barren but beautiful landscape. She says it’s peaceful, he says it’s dead. Antonioni as usual identifies with the woman. She says nothing is terrible when he says childhood was. Most reciprocated lovemaking in all of Antonioni? One with landscape – covered in dust. 90-degree shot switch after he aims gun at cop near outhouse – perspective changes radically. Investigative work by cops & press after plane robbery – unusual for Ant. Camera movement around plane after landing, shooting. She hears news on radio among cacti in desert. She avoids artificial pool, gets wet in natural falls. Explosion from many angles, repeatedly. Lawn furniture, Wonder Bread, newspaper, books, magazines – reminiscent of plastic commercial earlier.