Thursday, September 20, 2012

Processing Zabriskie Point

Expectations  So far in these “Processing” posts I’ve looked at films by directors whose work I’ve had a hard time getting into despite the acclaim they’ve received (Alain Resnais and Yasujiro Ozu) and the one generally acclaimed film of a mostly disliked director (Ken Russell).  This month I’m looking at Zabriskie Point (1970), one of the least popular films by a director I do admire.  While I wouldn’t necessarily call Michelangelo Antonioni one of my favorite filmmakers, I do have an easier time appreciating his distinctive and innovative aesthetic than that of Resnais or Ozu, and there is no question that he was a better director than Russell ever was.  Antonioni’s breakthrough L’avventura (1960) might be a tough sell to today’s short attention spans, but it deserves its reputation as a groundbreaking cinematic landmark as much as contemporaneous classics like Breathless (1960) and 8 ½ (1963) do. 

That said, I can sympathize with those who are bored by Antonioni’s nontraditional emphasis on image and contemplation rather than narrative and action, and I have at time been one of those viewers.  Part of the point of L’avventura is to make its characters’ boredom and alienation palpable, which naturally has the side effect of making that great film a bit of an endurance test despite its stunning imagery, and its quasi-sequels La notte (1961) and L’eclisse (1962) sometimes feel like dull attempts to mimic L’avventura’s singular feel.  While I greatly admire the extraordinary cinematography in Antonioni’s color debut, Red Desert (1964), I have to admit that I remember practically nothing about the movie aside from a handful of very impressive images.  From the mid-‘60s to the mid-‘70s, the Italian Antonioni made several English-language films of varying quality.  Blow-Up (1966), the first of these, is as acclaimed as L’avventura is in some circles, but I find it to be perhaps the most overrated of all “classics.”  With its dated appropriation of British mod culture (which the film wants to criticize and use as a marketing hook simultaneously) and its laughable “surreal” ending, Blow-Up is almost embarrassing to watch.  The film’s plot (a photographer may or may not have accidentally caught a murder on camera) could’ve made for a solid conventional thriller – and it did when Francis Ford Coppola and Brian De Palma made variations on it, with The Conversation (1974) and Blow Out (1981), respectively – but Antonioni’s characteristic distancing from the action is at its worst and least justifiable here. 

On the other hand, the last film of Antonioni’s English-language trilogy, The Passenger (1975), might be his best work, and perhaps the only of his films that could reasonably be called “gripping.”  Zabriskie Point is the film that came in between Blow-Up and The Passenger, and I’m hoping that it feels more like the latter than the former, even though the hippie milieu that provides the film’s setting makes me fear that it will look just as dated as Blow-Up.  Certainly the critics of 1970 weren’t kind to Zabriskie, and it doesn’t seem to have gained much of a reassessment since then.  Even the Netflix sleeve – which describes Zabriskie as “an interesting artifact of its time” – seems to be apologizing for the film’s existence.  Though Zabriskie certainly has the potential to provide a dire viewing experience, I can’t count a film by a talent as distinctive as Michelangelo Antonioni out that easily, especially since I have seen some really impressive still images from Zabriskie that suggest that it will at least be interesting to look at.  Antonioni’s films are never less than difficult, but they are almost always beautiful and occasionally intellectually stimulating, so I hold out hope that Zabriskie Point might be unfairly maligned.

 The Viewing Experience  It is immediately obvious why Zabriskie Point was universally panned upon its 1970 release.  The film’s awkward look at hippie culture probably already seemed dated in 1970.  Antonioni’s embrace of radical student politics and “free love” feels no less cynical (or out of touch) than the appropriation of hippie culture in contemporaneous exploitation films like Wild in the Streets (1968).  It doesn’t help that Zabriskie’s lead characters, a teenage drifter and a free-spirited secretary, are played by the incredibly stiff (if photogenic) nonprofessionals Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin, or that their dialogue, despite being credited to five screenwriters, mostly consists of cartoonish ‘60s slang.  The story contains potentially exciting elements – Frechette’s character is on the run after it is mistakenly assumed that he shot a police officer – but Antonioni seems perversely uninterested in developing the narrative in any meaningful way.

Then again, Antonioni has never really been a “narrative” filmmaker, and Zabriskie Point often excels when it embraces its experimental side.  The cinematography by Alfio Contini is tremendous throughout, and the movie achieves a sublime beauty whenever Antonioni ditches the dialogue and acting in favor of pure visual splendor.  A few scenes that ought to seem corny and didactic are redeemed by Antonioni’s abstract approach.  An early scene showing a commercial that represents the bourgeois ideals of some “square” advertising executives is obvious audience pandering in conception, but Antonioni’s vision of literal plastic people inhabiting a sunny middle class world has a creepy visual power in execution.  A sequence in which the main characters and a bunch of unaccounted for hippie types frolic in a gypsum-splattered desert similarly transcends its kitsch factor through the sheer beauty of the imagery.  And the final sequence, a hallucinatory series of explosions set perfectly to Pink Floyd’s “Careful With That Axe, Eugene,” is arguably the most otherworldly and mind-blowing scene in any of Antonioni’s films.  The gorgeous slow-motion footage of debris flying through the air rivals 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) for elegant trippiness, and makes sitting through the rest of this deeply flawed film worth it.

Afterthoughts  I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Zabriskie Point is unfairly maligned.  The film’s many flaws - from the wooden acting of the leads to the instantly dated attempts to cash in on a ‘60s teen culture that the filmmakers clearly had only a surface understanding of – are pretty much inarguable.  While it would be reasonable to argue that Antonioni’s cinema is essentially nonnarrative and shouldn’t be evaluated in the same way that more traditional movies are, it’s still impossible to defend Zabriskie’s glaring non-commitment to the plot events that it sets up or its laughably poor (if thankfully spare) dialogue.

While I can’t say that Zabriskie Point is a particularly good film, I can say that it is nonetheless absolutely worth seeing for its amazing cinematography and its utterly spectacular conclusion.  The final sequence of explosions will undoubtedly stick with me for a long time, and it has a hallucinatory sensory power that fully transcends its vague social statement (consumer products such as Wonder Bread are among the things being blown up, apparently symbolizing the revolutionary destruction of middle class values – or something).  I suspect that Zabriskie’s potent imagery will stay with me long after its pandering social message, hazy plotting, and terrible acting have faded from memory.

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