Was there actually a quiet, rather nondescript week in 2008, at the height of the energized presidential campaign … when America officially condemned 1960s radicalism?
You had, first of all, all those news clips of Jeremiah Wright, former pastor to Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, yelling to his congregation “God damn America,” which seemed to echo the anger displayed so often during urban uprisings in black neighborhoods in the late 1960s.
Then we had the news that Sara Jane Olson, a 1960s radical and member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, had been granted early release from prison– she had lived as a fugitive for years in Minnesota — then got told she was going back to prison for at least one more year because corrections officials blamed a miscalculation for her early release.
That same weekend, in an ironic coincidence, I watched a movie made in the late 1960s. Along the way, I discovered that a major Hollywood studio, MGM, had financed and then released a film that espoused a radical, sharply anti-American theme: that we had become a corrupted bourgeoisie police state and that violence, even murder, was an acceptable means of fighting back and destroying it. The film, released in 1970 as “Zabriskie Point,” is almost certainly one that could never get made today.
The film was the work of the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, who died in 2007 at the age of 94. Antonioni had attracted the attention of Hollywood because his previous film, “Blow Up,” became a big hit. An art house thriller about a mod London photographer who thinks he may have accidentally photographed a murder in progress, “Blow Up” scored well at the box office and earned Antonioni his first and only Academy Award nominations for best director and screenwriter.
Hollywood took notice and invited him to make a film in the U.S. Curiously, no one at the studio cared much about an interview Antonioni had given around the time “Blow Up” was made, in which he said, “My only hope is to see the Italian bourgeoisie defeated. It is the curse of Italy. It is the worst in the entire world, the most hypocritical. I hate it.”
Or that he would transfer these criticisms directly to America.
When the film was released in February 1970, it was a notorious flop. Hollywood had wanted a hip counterculture film like “Easy Rider” to attract young people, but audiences failed to embrace the movie, despite the requisite soundtrack filled with songs by Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, the Youngbloods and other 1960s bands. Critics tore the film to shreds, complaining that Antonioni’s two lead performers — both complete unknowns, Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin — gave awful performances (I agree that Frechette’s stone faced deliveries are not Academy Award material, but Halprin was actually pretty good), and that the film was meandering, pretentious, plotless and boring. Here’s where I disagree completely. Yes, the movie is slowly paced (as was “Blow Up”), but hardly dull. In fact, it was startling in its revolutionary anger.
Set in Southern California, the film opens like a documentary, with a group of campus radicals meeting to plot a revolution. One of them is Frechette.
Police bust up a campus protest, arresting students and professors alike. When Frechette visits the jail to check on his friends, he gets arrested for no reason. After he’s released, he illegally buys a gun.
When the students barricade themselves in a campus building, the police surround it and toss tear gas inside. As the students flee the building, one officer yells out that an African American student appears to have a gun. Without hesitation, another cop shoots and kills the student. Frechette, watching from behind a nearby building, angrily responds by shooting and killing the cop, then flees.
Frechette needs a way to escape town, and discovers it at the municipal airport, where he hops into a small commuter plane and steals it, soaring high over the city. The movie cuts to Halprin, the secretary for a prominent Los Angeles real estate tycoon. He asks her to drive to a resort outside Phoenix to meet him for a business conference. As she’s driving across the southern California desert, Frechette flies over her, attracting her attention. He lands the plane in the desert, and she drives over to him. They end up going off together into the desert, stopping at Zabriskie Point, where they make love in the dunes, lying naked in the desolate, parched landscape of Death Valley.
Frechette decides to fly back to the city, but as he lands the plane, police surround it and shoot and kill him before he has a chance to surrender. Halprin hears the news over her car radio as she arrives at the opulent desert retreat, where her boss is eagerly waiting to have sex with her. Instead, Halprin stares at the resort — and watches it explode, over and over and over again, killing everyone inside.
Antonioni’s vision is hardly subtle: America has become a bourgeoisie police state, and law enforcement exists to protect the interests of the wealthy and privileged — not to mention capitalism itself. Anyone who expresses a desire to break away from the status quo is either arrested, murdered or banished into the barren desert. So the only solution for a radical non-conformist is to match violence with violence.
Frechette’s decision to kill a police officer doesn’t make him a villain, any more than does Halprin’s fantasy that she can blow up the entire resort, murdering scores of innocent people. If these symbols of society’s elites have to be destroyed in order to save the rest of society, well, violence is viewed here as a perfectly justifiable means for social change.
In a key scene early on, Frechette drives through the city, passing a long parade of highway billboards, suggesting that society has given way entirely to the decadence of commercialism, and the pursuit of business and wealth has bypassed any concern for the disenfranchised. Why not destroy a society like this, Antonioni seems to be saying.
As I said, I seriously doubt this film could get made and released today — at least, not by a major Hollywood studio.
As a fan of “Blow Up” and Antonioni’s 1975 thriller “The Passenger,” I had always wanted to see “Zabriskie Point,” but interestingly, it’s not available on DVD here in the United States (although the soundtrack CD is). I found a copy on eBay; it turned out to be a Russian-made DVD (the film is in English, with Russian subtitles.) I’m curious to know what Russians think of the film, particularly since former President George W. Bush and former Russian President Vladimir Putin ended up on the outs.
“Zabriskie Point” is not a lumbering bore. The scene with Frechette and Halprin in the desert, set to a hypnotic guitar solo by the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, is stunning; as they make love, three other couples appear out of nowhere and join them in a kind of youthful hippie orgy. And the scene where Halprin imagines blowing up the resort, set to Pink Floyd’s spellbinding early classic “Careful With That Axe, Eugene,” is another strikingly photographed moment. There’s also the film’s radical left-wing politics, which are interesting in a time capsule kind of way, made even more so by Antonioni’s visual virtuosity.
The sublime, ethereal scenes set in the desert suggest a new beginning, with Frechette and Halprin as a kind of Adam and Eve rediscovering paradise in the Garden of Eden, and finding an escape from the decadence of mainstream society. But that was then; escaping into a barren desert is no longer an option that very many would embrace these days, I think.
Seeing it today, “Zabriskie Point” makes you realize how much we’ve changed as a society since 1970 — and helps you understand how positively mainstream and centrist both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are in their political views (not to mention the 2008 Republican nominee, John McCain), despite ongoing efforts to paint them as extreme liberals. “Zabriskie Point” is a reminder that once upon a time, the hard left saw little of value in our nation’s way of life, and wanted nothing more than to tear the establishment down and start over with entirely new values.
I’m far too much of a committed capitalist to embrace Antonioni’s cynical outlook, but I still think “Zabriskie Point” is a mesmerizing cinematic look at a volatile period in recent American history.
Today, I’ll bet many of those onetime sixties radicals, now approaching age 60, would hate “Zabriskie Point,” and I suspect more than a few of them are happily supporting the Republican Party’s 2012 presidential nominee, Mitt Romney. The time capsule that “Zabriskie Point” is in has washed out to sea.
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