Deciphering the Code of Cinema From the Center of Los Feliz by Peter Avellino
Thursday, June 25, 2015
Wide Open Spaces
Our last view of Don Draper was on a cliff somewhere near Big Sur in 1970, a moment of total peace leading to the eureka of the legendary ‘Hilltop’ Coke ad in his mind. And as significant as that is, as perfect an ending as it remains, there are things we’ll never know. We’ll never get to see how things went between him and Peggy when he returned. We’ll never find out what happened to Megan’s acting career, or to the long-departed Sal for that matter. We’ll never know if Don watched ALL IN THE FAMILY when it came on or what he thought of NETWORK. And we’ll never know what he thought of Antonioni’s ZABRISKIE POINT, which had of course opened in February 1970, months before the series finale even took place. If Don had seen it, and since way back in season 2 he talked about LA NOTTE it’s possible he might have, it’s not at all a stretch to think something in the film may have helped to trigger the odyssey he took during the final episodes. Of course, whether he would have even made it much past the first half hour is open to question. Maybe he might have even decided against going at all after reading the review in The New York Times where Vincent Canby called it “a movie of stunning superficiality”. Roger Ebert, for his part, declared it “silly and stupid” but it’s not as likely that Don Draper would have been looking up film reviews in the Chicago Sun-Times.
45 years later, ZABRISKIE POINT has its admirers or at least a few people who feel like they have to see it again and again in an attempt to pierce the skin of what it’s trying to say. Or at least there’s me, maybe trying to figure out just what this film, released a little over a year before I hit the scene, is still doing in my brain. ZABRISKIE POINT was the one film Michelangelo Antonioni made in the U.S., coming off the huge acclaim and success of BLOW UP several years earlier. His own anti-narrative approach combined with the facilities of MGM at his disposal makes the film unique, a foreign film made in the U.S., a Hollywood studio picture made by someone with total power and yet zero interest in making a ‘Hollywood’ film. It’s a time capsule now whether it’s an accurate portrayal of the era or not as well as a film that possibly hates itself for existing. That it even got made was maybe only possible at that specific moment in time, when the studios were desperately trying to figure out what would possibly make money, that brief period when they were all trying to recreate EASY RIDER but it turned out most everyone wanted to see AIRPORT. In the first half of season 7, set in early 1969, Don Draper went to see Jacques Demy’s MODEL SHOP would could almost be considered the anti-ZABRISKIE POINT, a film made by a foreigner that finds beauty where Antonioni categorically rejects it, specifically in the city of Los Angeles and some of its people. He apparently not only doesn’t like it there, the feelings seem to go deeper than that as if he’s getting fuel out of his own hatred for the place and everything it represents, striving to find ugliness within beauty. Whether he’s arguing against the very nature of consumerism, everything about the capitalistic way of life found there or if he simply doesn’t like mid-century modernist architecture is something I’m still a little unsure about. In some ways I’m still unsure what to make of ZABRISKIE POINT even after all this time. But as a song that Don Draper once shut off reminded us, Tomorrow Never Knows.
After walking out of a protest meeting saying that he’s ready to die for the revolution, “but not of boredom”, Mark (Mark Frechette) is thrown in jail when trying to bail out a friend arrested at a demonstration. Soon after he purchases several guns for his involvement with the campus protests. When he gets caught up in one of the riots and pulls his gun, a cop is shot although it’s unclear if Mark is the one who pulled the trigger. Meanwhile Daria (Daria Halprin), working as a secretary for the Sunny Dunes Real Estate company, is driving across the desert to a Phoenix meeting involving her boss, Sunny Dunes executive Lee Allen (Rod Taylor) and who is in the middle of a massive project to build a resort out in the desert for the rich to live and play away from the smog of the city. On the run from the police, Mark steals a small plane and flies out over the desert where he eventually encounters Daria, buzzing her car in an act of flirtation. The two talk and eventually find their way to Zabriskie Point, the lowest spot in the United States, which represents something they’re about to discover together.
Before his death director Krzysktof Kieslowski talked of making a trilogy depicting Heaven, Purgatory and Hell—he reportedly wanted to set the last film in Los Angeles, but it may not have been necessary since in some ways Antonioni had already made that film as ZABRISKIE POINT. Written by Antonioni, Fred Gardner, Sam Shepard, Tonino Guerra and Clare Peploe, it’s America (or, more specifically, Los Angeles and the nearby desert) as stark landscape, full of billboards and smog and freeways and guns and factories (including a sign for Bethlehem Steel, a company that was a plot point on a season one MAD MEN). The imagery is placed up against what was going on at the time which is something that Antonioni seems to only partly understand, taking two non-entities meant to represent the struggle going on between the separate halves of this world and they don’t seem much different from the mannequins featured in a Sunny Dunes commercial that we see. It’s the stark Antonioni look at the world with all the alienation that exists crossed with a cinema vérité look at the surroundings crossed with the undeniable awkwardness that becomes apparent the instant the lead character speaks his first line of dialogue.
And as much as the prolonged opening sequence which features actual revolutionaries of the time arguing over their goals (including Kathleen Cleaver and several Black Panthers) it’s not clear whether Antonioni has any actual interest in the politics of the day or if he just wants to show the futility in what was happening then in order to display some combination of contempt, pity and hatred for the people who live in this world. He never quite seems interested in what the lives of any of the characters would be like just as he’s not particularly interested in the geography of the city or what surrounds it, what it’s really like to live there or even the simple passage of time. There are protests on the unnamed campuses which contain what appears to be some actual documentary footage (Kent State happened several months after the film’s release), Vietnam is mentioned on the radio and anyone wearing a uniform, whether a police officer or even a lowly security guard, is a flat out Bad Guy. The revolutionaries, meanwhile, don’t seem to have any alternatives beyond their bickering. The film feels like it wants to be of the moment and yet it has little interest in strict realism—the majority of the story seems to be set over one day but it would have to be an impossibly endless one considering how much transpires before the sun goes down. Maybe the very nature of Los Angeles renders all of that irrelevant to Antonioni and soon after Mark flies off, giving us some impressive looks at the freeways below (including where the 10 connects with the 110, showing us how different downtown looked back then) the film soon leaves the city behind almost entirely.
The desert is where it heads to, breaking away from all that, and just as the real place is, ZABRISKIE POINT the film is also a blank for you to put anything you want onto it but after many viewings it still feels a little too much like an ink blot that isn’t formed enough for me to make a guess at. With some of Antonioni’s films a complex response isn’t the problem, letting me to soak into LA NOTTE as I ponder everything in life imaginable while losing myself in all the imagery. My continued reaction to ZABRISKIE POINT is more complicated as I’m always trying to find something in there to latch onto, mesmerized by certain moments but I find myself getting lost amidst all the dialogue that I can’t quite make out, but it doesn’t matter anyway, along with all that Pink Floyd music on the soundtrack.
Questions about plot and character are basically admitting that I’m thinking too much about realism but I can’t help it. Does Mark really know how to fly a plane or in the Antonioni universe does he just climb in and start it up? Daria is temping at Sunny Dunes then in the blink of an eye has some sort of relationship with Rod Taylor’s Lee Allen-- is she a private secretary he’s taken a friendly interest in? Something more personal? The real estate office is an intriguing, if fairly simplistic, metaphor (with a muzak version of the old standard “Don’t Blame Me” playing in the lobby—don’t blame Sunny Dunes for what they’re doing, that’s someone else’s problem) and the imagery of Rod Taylor looking out at the desert that he hopes to develop has a power to it, we feel how conflicted he is as the deal is possibly falling apart but too much isn’t clarified. Basically this film’s version of Don Draper, it’s frustrating how much his few minutes of screen time imply an unexpected dimension to things which never feels resolved, placed up against the blank personas of the two leads that presumably represent the blanks of the youth. Elements throughout are intriguing but not entirely clarified--Daria goes looking for a town she doesn’t know the name of, presumably where some sort of meditation center is, only to learn she’s already there and encounters a group of feral kids roaming around but never the person she’s looking for, ends abruptly too. Too often, the points are obscured or obvious and some bit parts that are clearly meant to portray the crassness of Americans, like a pair of tourists whose only response to the beauty of Zabriskie Point is that a drive-in would do great business there, feel like they belong in one of Richard Lester’s SUPERMAN sequels.
The leads are blanks and the plot they’re in is a blank, with a meaning that falls between nothing and something, whatever you want it to be. For all that’s said about whether or not Mark shot the cop ultimately the answer to that doesn’t matter. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. He doesn’t seem to care and maybe the film doesn’t either. After Mark decides to return the plane to Los Angeles and Daria’s response to the aftermath of his decision, there is of course the legendary ending of ZABRISKIE POINT which involves a house growing out of the natural rock as if like an alien virus, the most stunning piece of architecture you’ve ever seen and a desecration of the earth all at once, looking out over the desert which represents the Eden they’re hoping to destroy. Daria spots a few women lounging near the pool without a care in the world, presumably the wives of the executives meeting inside, and we can barely make out what they’re saying but it doesn’t matter. They’re not human. The endless explosion and materialistic aftermath set to Pink Floyd’s “Come In Number 51, Your Time Is Up” that we get to witness during this climax may be the only thing some people know about the film, is its own APOCALYPSE NOW ending years before Coppola got his shot at it. Multiple angles on that house, a TV, a refrigerator, a closet full of clothes, a loaf of Wonder Bread, magazines, an enormous bookcase (Books? You lost me, Antonioni. What’s wrong with books?), everything about the evils of capitalism done anyway with. I’m never bored by it for a second and yet there’s a poison to the film that I can’t deny, it’s a film about what it hates and doesn’t offer much of an alternative.
That’s all how I feel. It’s the truth. But the more I watch ZABRISKIE POINT the more I’m drawn to it, fascinated by it. There isn’t another film like it, not even other Antonioni films. Forget the acting, forget the story, just watch the film and the jaw-droppingly astonishing cinematography both in the city and desert by Alfio Contini. Freeze on any random shot. Construct any film around that shot. Find the story, the meaning, in that moment, how the people connect with the environment from moment to moment. Maybe it does what a film should do. I can watch ZABRISKIE POINT compulsively knowing that it’s ugly and beautiful and haunting and essential. It’s a Los Angeles that I don’t want to visit and yet I know I live there and don’t want to be anywhere else. I can’t stop watching it because I’m trying to figure it out while as much as I don’t want to hear the message I suspect there’s some truth to it. The movie goes out there in a way few films ever do, even if it does go too far out on the ledge, with billboards that are everywhere and the messages the give off creates everyone’s lives, so they want nothing more than lots of mayo on their sandwiches. If the imagery was meant at time to portray any sort of exaggeration, whether satirical or otherwise, it doesn’t play as that now and a few brief moments in gun stores are even sadder in that realization. It feels like for the director it boils down to two sides: the revolutionaries who are fighting over nothing as the cops close in while the rich are interested in just getting richer (of course, the more things change…). No matter how irrevocably dated it may be in every sense of that word it feels like it still means something now.
But there is the feel that Antonioni began the film with the idea that he hated what he was portraying and never changed his mind which gives it all an unfortunate sense of stasis. The film begins with its male lead turning his back on organized revolution and ends with the female lead, the one who has an eye towards the future unlike the self-destructive Mark, turning her back on both the more organized power structure and her own fantasy of destroying it. It’s a reflection of the time she spent with Mark and how they each viewed the desert—she saw peace, he saw death. In the end, turning your back from that hate towards the sunset, towards the promise of a new day, might be the healthiest response. But maybe that message isn’t enough. The other key scene in the film is the legendary orgy (because just as the explosion is ZABRISKIE POINT, the orgy is as well) where she and Mark begin to make love in the sand, leading to countless other people just appearing, joining in with them. The sequence features members of the Open Theater, a New York experimental group, and it seems to signify both everything and nothing imaginable.
Whether by accident or design many of the others involved could almost be doubles for Mark and Daria as if the film is saying that the future begins here thanks to these two meeting up in this place, that they are in effect everyone, in addition to how we’re basically watching a lengthy orgy sequence. It makes me think of the famous Coke ad, the one Don Draper apparently came up with, which was conceived a year after ZABRISKIE POINT played theaters and the message it gives off of hope and inclusion is the polar opposite. Don Draper’s idea presumably led him back to the world of advertising, yes, and however cynical that might be is open to debate. But however poisonous Antonioni clearly believed creating such a message that way was, it’s also a very clear message. With ZABRISKIE POINT Antonioni is presenting a question mark without either a clear question or answer. Maybe if Don Draper saw the film he realized that he needed to get his message across. And as Joan Holloway (well, maybe someone else too) once said, the medium is the message.
If Antonioni wasn’t interested in having actors for his leads, is it necessary to discuss the performances? When Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin, both dead in the eyes, finally come together out there in the desert, exchanging dialogue about heroes and villains that’s supposed to mean everything it’s as much of a void as what they’re staring out at. They may be unknowns, they may both be good looking, but it’s all one big blank, an intentional void at the center of the film. In fairness, they both have a few off the cuff moments that feel slightly genuine even while neither one ever seems entirely sure how to compose themselves in front of the camera. The endlessly silent, enigmatic looks Daria Halprin gives off during the last 20 minutes almost pays off but maybe you just need Monica Vitti for that to work. And as beautiful as she is, she's no Monica Vitti. Along with the few beats that Rod Taylor gets to do something with here and there, character actor Paul Fix (many western credits as well as playing the Enterprise doctor in the second STAR TREK pilot “Where No Man Has Gone Before”) in his brief role as the Ballister café owner brings an undeniable feel of truth to what he’s saying about what’s happening to his town but naturally the film loses interest in him pretty quickly.
One person who might not be in the film is Harrison Ford even though various sources have him appearing briefly although though no one can say where—apparently he did audition for the film just as he almost played the lead in MODEL SHOP, another way the two films can be connected. Incidentally, the film has a fascinating history, more than I can go into here ( for starters, the Sept 1992 Film Comment article Michelangelo and the Leviathan: The Making of ZABRISKIE POINT by Beverly Walker is particularly valuable) as do some of the people who were involved—Antonioni’s next film in 1975 was the acclaimed THE PASSENGER starring Jack Nicholson. Frechette and Halprin eventually broke up after living together for some time in a commune. Frechette was later arrested after a bank robbery along with two other members of that cult and died after a suspicious weight-lifting accident in prison. Halprin married Dennis Hopper and had one child before their divorce in 1976 after which she co-founded the Tamalpa Institute which focuses on expressive arts education and therapy. Rod Taylor’s career continued on after this, making his final appearance playing Winston Churchill in INGLOUIOUS BASTERDS. He sadly died earlier this year at age 85.
Then again, maybe Don Draper didn’t see ZABRISKIE POINT after all—maybe MAD MEN actually exists somewhere within the film’s continuity which would let Don and Rod Taylor’s Lee Allen meet up eventually. Maybe it would turn out Elizbeth Reaser’s Diana who Don became briefly obsessed with is actually Daria’s older sister so Don and Lee hire INHERENT VICE’s Doc Sportello to find both of them. See, I really have been thinking about all this way too much. I can’t find confirmation that originally Antonioni wanted to end the film with a plane sky-writing “FUCK YOU AMERICA” but one interesting point about is that the ending on the U.S. DVD is apparently not his preferred version, instead an alteration that MGM made at a certain point during the film’s unsuccessful release. It seems that while his curtain call had a reprise of the Pink Floyd track fade up during the ‘END’ title card, MGM inserted a newly written Roy Orbison track (which is not mentioned during the song listings in the opening credits) ‘So Young’. It brings a feel of serenity and acceptance to that final moment, in how the lyrics try to convince us that “Zabriskie Point is anywhere”—oddly, the lyric “If you live just for today/today will soon be done” ties in with much of Don Draper’s philosophy through the years—but it feels like the opposite of anything the film itself is trying to say. Antonioni’s ending is more insistent, more of a piece with what we just saw, as if saying that the revolution of the mind can somehow continue into the real world. Either way, as Daria drives off into that sunset she’s heading towards the 70s which I suppose in the context of this film means she drives off to nowhere. Maybe when it comes to ZABRISKIE POINT the best thing to do is just kick back with the desert footage, absorb yourself in the music and try not to reconcile the myriad elements because you really can’t, not with a straight face anyway. Like when I watch this film and find myself wondering, what does anything mean? Does anything really matter while these billboards are starting down at me? Maybe if I ever figure that out I’ll never have to see ZABRISKIE POINT again. But I don’t know what the point of that would be.