|Decades after its widely panned 1970 release, Zabriskie Point garnered critical praise for its cinematography. Halprin and Frechette can barely be seen in the left of this scene filmed at Zabriskie Point (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
I’ve seen some wonderful films since moving to Montreal in September including two of the three English-language films made by Michelangelo Antonioni, the great Italian film-maker whose best works were made in the 1960s. The most successful of these three films was Blow-Up, about the swinging London of fashionable photographers, models and so on. But I remember I was not particularly impressed by that one.
The second of these three films was The Passenger, that I saw for the first time this week, in a revival at the valued Cinema du Parc, which is right underneath my apartment on Park avenue. And a deeply impressive movie it is. It deals with a burned-out journalist, played by a youthful Jack Nicholson, who decides to quit everything and wanders off to North Africa, where he meets a fellow-Englishman who, unfortunately, dies overnight in his bed. Methodically, the journalist David Locke, substitutes his photo on Robertson’s passport, takes over his clothes, his possessions, and assumes his personality. The word goes out that the intrepid journalist has been found dead in an African hotel, so he is free to resume his life under another identity.
Unfortunately for the fake man, the real Robertson was involved in gun running to guerrillas who were waiting for him to turn up. To get away from them he returns to Europe, but his wife in London, fresh from an affaire of her own, is guilt-stricken and has set out to check for herself whether the stories of his death are true. She manages to find out that his last contact was with a man called Robertson. In Barcelona the assumed Robertson runs into a young girl student, charmingly and enchantingly played by Maria Schneider, whom he persuades to return to his hotel to pick up his things because he doesn’t want to take the risk of being discovered.
She agrees to accompany him on the rest of his journey: the way Antonioni has handled their relationship is beautiful. A naturalness and affection develops between them, which offsets the rather grim facts of life that otherwise developed around him.
One long shot in particular has become famous from this movie: as the protagonist lies on his bed in an African village, the camera stays on the window of his room, picking up everything that happens in the village square. It is a compendium of the ordinary things people do, whether when just filling out their time, or under stress: we do not know this at the beginning of the shot, but it is the last time we ever see the journalist. This is really a wonderful film, whose silences are vastly more impressive than the music with which film-makers normally accompany the movements of their heroes. It contains the texture of life as it is lived, and leaves an indelible implant on our minds. As someone wrote in the New York Times when the film was revived after many years --- Nicholson owned the film, and kept it to himself for a long time --- “André Gide once wrote a sentence which might be applied with great accuracy to Antonioni’s work: ‘He carries within himself what is needed to disorient and to surprise, that is to say, what is needed to endure.’ ”
The second film I saw, Zabriskie Point, is an altogether different kettle of fish. Antonioni visited the United States late in the 1960s, almost a decade after he made such a stir with L’avventura, , and was evidently not sympathetic to what he saw. The film opens with a debate between activists of the student movement and the Black Panther party, a harsh debate which disgusts the protagonist of the film, a young student who rebels against their inaction and walks out, leaving behind some friends who say he should get used to meetings if he is interested in bringing about change.
Most of the rest of the movie is devoted to this young man, played by Mark Frechette, a French-Canadian born in Connecticut who had never acted before. He was present at a protest at which a policeman was shot dead: he had a gun in his hand and was pointing it towards the policeman, but later claimed that someone else beat him to it. Thereafter he took off in a light plane that he stole from a suburban Los Angeles airport, and he flew it out into the countryside, where he began to buzz an old car being driven by a young woman who was on her way to Phoenix.
This young woman was a stenographer in a development firm that had a plan to build a major resort for the wealthy, and she was on her way to take part in a meeting about this project.
This was a hippie type, extremely beautiful, nubile, one might say, and her journey was brought to a halt by the antics of the young pilot. They began a long idyll at Zabriskie Point, part of Death Valley, in a vast concourse of sandhills through and over which they gambolled and made ecstatic love. This was a rather strange sequence, because occasionally they were joined in their love-making by two and sometimes four others, and eventually all of the hills were dotted with couples like themselves, symbolically giving vent to the counter-culture mantra, Make Love, Not
When they had had enough sexual games, they painted the little plane with psychedelic colours and designs, and the young man decided he wanted to take the risk of flying back to Los Angeles and returning the plane to its owner.
The young woman continued on her journey to Phoenix where she temporarily joined the party discussing the project. The last sequences of the film are by now so well-known that I can be betraying nothing when I say that she became disgusted with the process and the project, drove into the countryside, and in her own imagination, blew the house on the hill to pieces, not once, but at least 13 times.
It was a dramatic ending to the film, leaving nothing to the audience’s imagination as to Antonioni’s message in relation to the United States. He abhorred the place and all its works.
There is a final, sad commentary on this film in the fate of young Frechette. He was, in real life, a counter-cultural devotee who joined a cult, persuaded his co-star, Daria Halpern (an exceptionally beautiful, glowing and vital presence in the film representing it seemed, all that the film-maker wanted to show of America’s virtues) to join along with him. After a while she left the cult, but he hung on until one day he and two other members robbed a bank, were apprehended, and he was sentenced to six to fifteen years of imprisonment. He was 23 when he worked on the film, 27 when he died in a bizarre accident in the prison gym, being crushed under a huge weight that dropped across his throat.
Zabriskie Point was a complete failure when first released, raising only $900,000 of the $7,000,000 it cost to make. Later, years later,. it was reissued and has since become something of a cult classic
It is a remarkable film in its way, bizarre, but the skill with which Antonioni shows his distaste for the civilization that had grown up around Los Angeles betrayed the hand of a master, as much as do all his other films.