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Zabriskie Point

Zabriskie Point(1970)

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Zabriskie Point (1970)

The biggest and arguably most controversial film of the Vietnam Era counterculture movement was this MGM production from director Michelangelo Antonioni, the second of an intended three-picture deal following his enigmatic 1966 smash, Blowup. A darling of the arthouse community and international critics, Antonioni had turned ennui into a beautiful art form with his holy trinity of Italian all-star monochrome classics - L'avventura (1960), La Notte (1961), and L'eclisse (1962) - as well as his innovative Red Desert (1964), but the move to Hollywood turned out to be a match made in hell for many of those involved.

Riding high on the youth culture smashes 2001: A Space Odyssey and Yellow Submarine, MGM thought it had another major mind-bending cinematic trip on its hands with this film; however, Antonioni's increasingly leftist politics and disdains for corporate American attitudes would turn out to be a wedge between this film and its intended public when it opened in 1970. In fact, the studio was banking on this film and two others that same year, The Strawberry Statement and The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart, to bring in hordes of viewers by cashing in on recent campus unrest and political discord among the young, but all of them remain fascinating curiosities rather than Easy Rider-style smashes.

Antonioni's Zabriskie Point takes its title from the real-life location in Death Valley, where a massive simulated orgy (largely comprised of members of the experimental The Open Theater troupe) serves as the culmination of a trek through the American Southwest by its two main characters, Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin (playing characters named after themselves). After a campus riot leads to the death of a police officer, Mark steals a plane and flies to the desert with Daria, where their consciousness is expanded and Daria experiences a climactic vision of American commercialism being blown to bits.

Neither of the stars were experienced actors at the time (in fact, frequent MGM player, Rod Taylor, was the most established name in the film), but they both become fleeting pop culture symbols of the free love movement when they fell in love in real life and temporarily moved to the experimental Fort Hill Community (later determined to be a cult) run by Mel Lyman. Three of its members, including Frechette, would go on to commit a bank robbery in 1973 (though Frechette's gun had no bullets), which led to the actor's arrest. He would die in prison ostensibly during a weightlifting accident in 1975. Though neither of the stars would pursue much of an acting career beyond a couple of additional films, Halprin fared better by co-founding an institute focused on the healing power of the performing arts. She was also married to Dennis Hopper for four years (they tied the knot in 1972), resulting in one daughter.

In an oft-repeated anecdote, the frequently-arrested Frechette was first discovered at a bus stop during a verbal confrontation with another man leaning out of the third floor of an apartment building. Antonioni's casting director, Sally Dennison, witnessed the fight and recommended him to the director, noting, "He's twenty, and he hates."

However, the pair's lack of acting experience and volatile lifestyles would prove to be the last of the film's problems. Antonioni's political views attracted the interest of the FBI, who prodded members of the production throughout the shoot. Oakland authorities accused the filmmaker of attempting to stage a real riot for that pivotal early scene, and state officials in Sacramento were poised to press charges for "immoral conduct, prostitution or debauchery" if the orgy scene was carried over state lines. (It wasn't.)

Just as turbulent as the filming itself was the creation of the film's soundtrack, which included participation from artists including Pink Floyd and Jerry Garcia (with The Doors approached as well, but their one submission was rejected). Pink Floyd ended up providing the lion's share of the score (the propulsive "Heart Beat, Pig Meat" is a particular highlight), with one of Garcia's many compositions for the Death Valley orgy ending up in the final cut. The film's expanded soundtrack release is a fascinating snapshot of the film's sonic evolution, featuring an avalanche of unused demos and alternate material that demonstrates how much the film's approach shifted during the postproduction process.

An unmitigated failure with audiences and critics when it opened, Zabriskie Point has seen its reputation improve considerably since its release with many admirers cultivated through repertory screenings and home video (as well as the popularity of its soundtrack). Antonioni would never work in Hollywood again, but his career rebounded with a string of notable films including the masterful The Passenger (1975), and Italian-language productions including Identification of a Woman (1982).

In sharp contrast to the studio-mandated PR behavior of stars today, neither of the leads were very supportive of the film and in fact led the way for much of its public criticism. "There are parts of it I like quite a bit," Frechette said during an excruciatingly awkward interview on The Dick Cavett Show with Halerpin and Mel Brooks, "but there's a lot in it that I was disappointed it. There was a lot that was attempted that wasn't achieved." He added about his director, "This was a hard part because he's a very distant man," while Halprin countered, "I felt very close to him, but that didn't come through in the film." Seen today, what does come through in the film will largely be up to the viewer's own interpretation and willingness to submit to a transitional film from one of the world's great cinematic voices.

Producer: Carlo Ponti and Harrison Starr
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Screenplay: Michelangelo Antonioni, Franco Rossetti, Sam Shepard, Tonino Guerra, Clare Peploe
Cinematography: Alfio Contini
Film Editing: Franco Arcalli
Music: Jerry Garcia and Pink Floyd
Cast: Mark Frechette, Daria Harlprin, Paul Fix, G.D. Spardlin, Kathleen Cleaver, Rod Taylor.

by Nathaniel Thompson

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