Monday, September 28, 2009

Zabriskie Point(less)

Just finished watching Antonioni's Zabriskie Point at the cinema.  Once maligned as a disaster - the auteur's worst film!? - it has since become a bit more regarded in critical circles as, if not a great work of cinematic art, at least an interesting portrait of what Antonioni thought of America and its then-current counter culture.  A cultural artifact if you so wish, but nothing more relevant than that.  I remember (sort of) watching this film (on VHS of all things!) about twenty years ago.  I was still pretty young - a cocky yet naive youth of 22 or so - and I probably didn't get what Antonioni was going for with the film.  Cut to twenty years later and a supposed more wiser 42 and I'm still not sure I know.

Antonioni never has been a filmmaker with an extensive need for narrative.  Most of his best films start out with a somewhat structured narrative - something to get your teeth into so to speak - but as the film progresses, the story becomes of less interest - of less importance - to Antonioni and in its place is usually a series of visual conceptions that may or may not have anything to do with the now lost story.   In L'avventura - arguably the director's greatest masterpiece - we watch as the actors search for their lost friend and lover only to eventually drop even the pretense of looking.  The story is dropped, so to speak, for the sake of Antonioni's artistic temperament.  The beauty of the image is never lost, though often his films will become something even greater than what they were before.  Just watch the stunningly melancholy ending of L'eclisse to witness this.  This is the case too with Zabriskie Point.

Opening with a group of student radicals (or at least wannabe radicals) debating what needs to be done about an unspecified protest/strike.  A possible revolution if you will.  It never needs to be specified though as eventually Zabriskie Point will no longer be about any sort of specified revolution but instead, about the very essence of revolution itself.  A conceptual revolution that happens through some of Antonioni's most striking images, the most notable of which are the desert orgy scene (again, conceptualization in the form of abstract imagery) and the penultimate shot(s) of metaphorical explosive rage.     

And speaking of that ending.  Wow is all I can utter at its sheer exuberant brilliance as both cathartic closing and decadent showmanship.  All in all, the movie works on so many levels at once that it is not a surprise to hear of its detractor's protests of inaccessibility and blurred artistic pretension while at the same time acting as dirty, pinko leftist cinema aimed at the government of a country its director could barely speak the language of.  As for me?   I think the whole thing - from its angry protesting beginning through its sharp decisive imagery to the abstract batshitcrazy ending - is one of the sexiest (at least in cinephiliac terms) movies ever made about nothing more than mere concept. 

It is of interest to mention that only a few years after making Zabriskie Point, the lead in the film, a non-actor who was handpicked for the role by Antonioni after being seen throwing a tantrum at the construction site he had been working at, would die in prison after attempting to rob a bank with the cult he had thrown in with.  Now how's that for conceptual revolution?


caleb smith said...

spectacular imagery, great use of noise (visual and audio), and intriguing love story (if you can call it that).
I agree with your thoughts, and agree it's not Antonioni's best, but it left me speechless.
I can see the Sam Shepard influence with city vs. desert, searching, etc.
So glad to see it on the big screen, hope to see the newer 35mm print someday too!
Imagine that end on 35mm!

DavidEhrenstein said...

Making no sense whatsoever as a narrative film it succeeds to a large degree as a pure experiemtn. Albeit the only one ever bankrolled by a major studio.

Love the finale.