Michelangelo Antonioni reached the US in 1970, and found a country in internal disarray, with the Summer of Love an increasingly distant memory. As with the earlier Blow-Up, which zoomed in on the desolation Antonioni had detected beneath swinging London’s poppy toplayer, Zabriskie Point proposed that all was not entirely right under California’s sunny skies, although it takes some while for this editorial line to come into focus. Initially, we’re merely eavesdropping on the hubbub of student radicals staging a sit-in and preparing their next move. There are heated confabs in the refectory; soon, there will be blood on the quad. (The film opened a matter of months before the Kent State killings: Antonioni had sensed there was something in the air.) Off-campus America is presented as hostile, almost entirely industrialised, determined to reduce individuals to cogs in a machine: The Red Desert on a bigger scale.
Already, though, you’re dazzled by the film’s revivifying reframing of its landscape, an outsider perspective rivalled only by Point Blank in turn-of-the-70s cinema; the incredible colours leap out from the screen. This first act, which might go under the title “Paradise Sold”, nails the kind of consumerist fakery Godard had done so much to show up. The frame floods with billboards, presented here as a kind of supersized junk mail. Only in the second act, a sort of Paradise Regained, do human faces begin to outnumber impersonal signs, as two students – trickflying longhair Mark (Mark Frechette), suspected of killing a cop in the protests, and developer’s daughter Daria (Daria Halprin) – break away from the troubled masses, and head off to the untamed Mojave in search of peace, meaning, connection.
Compared to the agit-prop of La Chinoise – which had its students recite entire passages from Mao – Zabriskie Point’s critique of capitalism is hardly sophisticated. Its title is sourced, rather bluntly, from a Mojave landmark “where old prospectors lost their way”, and it winds its way towards the detonation (fantasised or otherwise) of the harshly modernist glass box in which Daria’s father (Rod Taylor, gruffly patrician in a way that now recalls late Mel Gibson) has imprisoned a staff of mute ethnic domestics. It could be the closing passage of a nursery school primer entitled Stick It To The Man, Man! Antonioni’s sponsor here was MGM, and the soundtrack (the Stones, the Dead, the newly emergent Floyd) and sight of two good-looking kids having a high old time in the wilderness suggest all concerned were working towards something that might attract the same drive-in crowd who lapped up Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde. Antonioni’s affectless Adam and Eve veer between the lovers in Pierrot le Fou – though clumsy with dialogue, Frechette shares Belmondo’s knack of using the frame as his own personal playground – and, in their drippier moments, those in The Blue Lagoon.
Yet even as the screen fills with lithe couples cavorting naked in the Mojave gypsum – and we’re left wondering just how many weeks it took to pick that substance out of their cracks – the film proves rather touchingly naïve. What we’re looking at is a souvenir of perhaps the last moment when this mass medium was still prepared to wholeheartedly endorse other ways of life – which is why I think Zabriskie Point might still be picked up and taken to heart by anyone presently being offered the unappetising choice of signing-on or yet more call-centre work. In documenting a paradise lost, the film has become a paradise lost: it’s hard not to regard that final round of explosions – though notionally liberating, and undeniably beautiful to look at – as bearing witness to a dream going up in smoke. If ever a film deserved a rerelease on the college circuit, this was it: a vivid reminder of a moment when the major studios weren’t just corporate shop windows, and took gambles on works as boldly nonconformist as this. It was, and remains, far out.
Zabriskie Point is available on DVD through Warner Home Video.