BOOTLEG FILES 203: “Zabriskie Point” (Michelangelo Antonioni’s notorious 1970 drama).
LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the last public screening of this title.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Available on VHS in the 1990s.
REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: The film may have problems with music clearance issues.
CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: Probably, in the near future.
During the 1960s, Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni was the darling of the movie critics. His critically-supported art house cred was so powerful that MGM signed him for a three-picture English-language movie deal. The first film of that agreement, “Blowup” (1966), was a major hit and earned Antonioni Academy Award nominations for his direction and screenplay.
However, his next MGM project nearly resulted in the death of his career. That film was “Zabriskie Point,” and its release in 1970 unleashed an extraordinary torrent of withering scorn from the critics who once championed his career. It also crashed at the box office and became one of the biggest box office bombs of the 1970s.
What went wrong? Well, “Zabriskie Point” (which Antonioni wrote in collaboration with four other writers, including Sam Shepard) is a hostile denunciation of a nation drowning in its own immaturity and cupidity. Nobody comes across in a positive light: the college campus militants are pompous and vacuous, the police are brutal and stupid, the corporate suite is smug and self-possessed, and even little kids are presented as feral and ridiculous. The American landscape is even less appealing: polluted air, endless traffic, hideous skyscrapers and tacky billboards covering every inch of free space.
Central to the film is the relationship between two lost young souls: Mark, a college dropout who steals an airplane after his shadowy involvement in a riot that left a police officer shot to death, and Daria, a young secretary motoring from Los Angeles to Phoenix on behalf of her employer, a real estate executive trying to build luxury homes in the Arizona desert. Mark and Daria meet cute (he buzzes her car when she is driving through the desert), but eventually they connect on an emotional and sexual level amidst the dunes at Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Monument.
But in Antonioni’s vision, the desert (a seemingly inhospitable location) is actually full of the mystery and vibrancy that has been squeezed out of American society. Alfio Contini’s cinematography captures the strange beauty of Death Valley with stunning artistry – its sand dunes, rock formations and cloudless skies seem more alive than downtown Los Angeles.
Death Valley is also the site of Antonioni’s most astonishing experiment. As Mark and Daria make love in the dunes, the surrounding area suddenly becomes alive with other young people engaging in intercourse (they were played by the actors from Joe Chaikin’s Open Theatre). Couples and threesomes roll and romp and grope with unbridled passion, as if they were spirits suddenly unleashed by the young lovers’ emotions. It is a startling avant-garde moment that inspires awe through its sheer audacity.
Antonioni also dared to incorporate a harder-edged brand of rock music into the soundtrack. While the use of rock music in movies was hardly new, Antonioni specifically steered away from radio-friendly tunes in favor of a more challenging and disturbing sound. The director brought in music from Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, the Youngbloods and the Kaleidoscope; a tune from the Rolling Stones was also snagged. Oddly, Antonioni became also intrigued with the older pop standard “Tennessee Waltz” and went through an extensive (and expensive) effort to secure the Patti Page recording for a brief scene in a desert bar.
Sadly, “Zabriskie Point” is burdened by another Antonioni experiment that did not work: casting nonprofessionals Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin as the young leads. Frechette, a Peter Fonda lookalike, lacks the personality to fuel his role as a causeless rebel, while Halprin is so stiff that it seems like she is reciting her lines phonetically. The couple is great to look at when they are barely dressed and wordlessly making love, but once they are given dialogue they are utterly lost. Ironically, a more capable leading man was on the set but not recognized by Antonioni: a young Harrison Ford had an uncredited bit part as a student demonstrator.
Getting decent performances out of Frechette and Halprin was actually Antonioni’s lowest concern. The production of “Zabriskie Point” was pockmarked with endless problems: the FBI reportedly spied on the entire production, citing Antonioni’s politics as the reason for their surveiilance; the U.S. Attorney’s Office tried to halt production under the pretense that Antonioni violated the Mann Act in bringing the female performers to Death Valley for the desert love sequence; MGM cut out the closing shot of a skywriting airplane scribbling “F**k You, America” in the air; and the studio added an inappropriate ballad by Roy Orbison at the end of the film because there were no MGM recording stars in the score (but no one bothered to give Orbison screen credit and his song was omitted from the MGM soundtrack album).
“Zabriskie Point” opened in March 1970 to hostile reviews. Roger Ebert sneered that Antonioni “tried to make a serious movie and hasn’t even achieved a beach-party level of insight.” Vincent Canby of the New York Times played the silly foreigner card by claiming the film “will remain a movie of stunning superficiality, another example of a noble artistic impulse short-circuited in a foreign land.” And the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael sharpened her stridency by claiming the film “is a disaster, but, as one might guess, Antonioni does not make an ordinary sort of disaster. This is a huge, jerry-built, crumbling ruin of a movie.”
The critics helped drive away audiences. With a budget of $7 million (a lot of money for 1970), “Zabriskie Point” grossed less than $900,000. The soundtrack album was also a major flop.
Antonioni’s reputation suffered badly as a result of the film’s failure. Although he redeemed himself with the critics and audiences five years later with “The Passenger,” the final movie of his MGM contract, he never quite regained its earlier momentum, which was further halted by a stroke in 1985. By the time he was honored with a special Oscar in 1995, his reputation was solidified for his pre-“Zabriskie Point” output.
The fallout of the film also had strange effects on its nonprofessional stars. Halprin and Frechette briefly lived together in a Boston commune before splitting up. She married Dennis Hopper in 1972 (they divorced four years later) and she acted in one more film, “The Jerusalem File,” before pursuing a career as a psychologist and writer. Frechette left for Europe to act in two obscure films, then returned to Boston and was arrested in a 1973 bank robbery. He claimed his actions were in rooted in anger over the political corruption of the period (huh?). He died in prison in 1975 under mysterious circumstances (he was found with a 150-pound barbell across his neck – it was never determined if his death was homicide or an accident).
Over the years, some critics have tried to champion “Zabriskie Point,” but most reviewers still dismiss it as an aberration in Antonioni’s otherwise sterling career. “Zabriskie Point” was released by MGM/UA on VHS in 1993, but to date there has never been a commercial DVD release. I assume the delay is based on clearing the music rights on the soundtrack. Old copies of the VHS release are easy to locate and bootleg DVDs are readily available for those who wouldn’t be caught dead holding a VHS tape.
If “Zabriskie Point” is a failure, then at least it is a striking and provocative failure that attempted to challenge audiences. If Antonioni did not achieve what he intended, at least he made an imaginative effort to create a film that was different and daring – and how many filmmakers can be credited for trying that?
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