Sunday, January 13, 2013

Zabriskie Point (Michelangelo Antonioni)

Free love.

At the height of the American counterculture scene, a certain auteur named Michelangelo Antonioni, because of contractual obligations with producer Carlo Ponti and MGM, has set out to create "Zabriskie Point", an anti-consumerist film about the tattered fabrics of late '60s Americana. As we all know, the film, after being a critical and commercial disaster upon its initial release, has since amassed, among viewers, a silent cult following.
For a film about counterculture (or, to a certain extent, even entirely counter-American), such 360-degree turn in terms of audience perception is just rebelliously perfect. In a way, it's as if the film, after being initially misunderstood, has emerged victorious against an improbable adversary. Antonioni, an artistic outsider merely dipping his fingers in a culture he does not fully understand, is an image of elegant audacity. But because of his perennially indifferent approach to emotions and a tad too reserved an execution, "Zabriskie Point" does not quite reach the utmost potential it most certainly has.
Nevertheless, the film, for what it is worth both in the context of American culture and in the context of Antonioni's pulse as a filmmaker, is still quite a unique triumph. In a tumultuous time when demonstrations and cries of protests were brash and recklessly loud, "Zabriskie Point" is a film of quiet anger. And in the pages of Antonioni's cinematic play book, this is a most definitive approach.
Depending highly on symbolic visual manifestations (the imagined mass orgy representing sexual liberation; the film's destruction of consumerist products captured in slow-motion) rather than on obvious imagery and contrived scenarios, the film feels fresh and, typical to Antonioni, alien.
For the record, "Zabriskie Point" is never the definitive, all-American counterculture film. Instead, what the film actually represents, on Antonioni's part, is something personal and culturally detached. This is, after all, Antonioni's sarcastic love poem to America. By often framing his characters in front of commercial billboards displaying sandwich spread products and corporation names, Michaelangelo Antonioni was able to enforce his critique of the American 'way' without looking forced and too satirical. So "Zabriskie Point", in a way, is less a film than it is a state of mind.
Typical to Antonioni's thematic style, the film wallows less on the nuances of humanity but more on why people are slowly losing it. In this film's case, 'capitalism' and 'mass consumerism' are the main culprits. But before everything goes too far, I do not think that the film is entirely political or even completely radical. If anything else, "Zabriskie Point" purely wallows on the futility of activism. That after all, making an anti-establishment film is just like writing an anti-glacier book (kudos to Kurt Vonnegut). Alas, Antonioni's indifferent brand of cinema, which has earned him both fans and detractors alike throughout the years, has worked yet again, and quite fascinating at that. Through the use of on-screen movements rather than words and dialogues, he was able to convincingly capture the essence of 'free love' during the time.
The great example for this is the scene when our two protagonists, one a beautiful anthropology student (riding a car) and the other a rebellious young man (riding a small plane), show their subtle endearment to each other by way of "North by Northwest-esque" aerial communication. As touching as it is strange, Antonioni has made use of two very American manufactured products (the car and the plane) and turned them into objects that bridge human connection. And then of course, there's that famous orgy scene, performed with dream-like abandon by the Open Theatre and beautified by Pink Floyd's transcendental music. Moreover, the film, by highlighting both the barren landscapes of the empty, titular part of Death Valley and the hustle and bustle life within the product-emblazoned corners of mainstream America, is also a textbook exercise in great visual contrast.
Generally speaking, "Zabriskie Point's" reputation was indeed highly damaged by the notoriety of its initial reception. For the film's producer and distributor, such failure spiels apocalyptic repercussions. But for a director like Antonioni, a man who is never new to countless boos and walk-outs (the Cannes screening of "L'avventura" comes to mind), such reaction is not a blemish to his ego nor his career but a mere solidification of his utterly divisive and infuriating power as a filmmaker.
For some directors, a picture of "Zabriskie Point's" quality can already be considered as a pinnacle. But for Antonioni, it's a mere frolic within the western movie system that he despises the most, and the joke's on them.


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