After the 1966 film Blow Up became a surprise box office hit, and especially after the commercial and critical success of Easy Rider in 1969, Hollywood was desperate to grab ahold of the zeitgeist and jump on board. And so Italian film maker Michelangelo Antonioni was invited by MGM to go over to America and make a movie for them. This is what he presented them with.
Traditionally, Zabriskie Point (’70) is seen as the second and by far the weakest of Antonioni’s English language trilogy. An unfortunate and uncomfortable trip to America in between the twin masterpieces of Blow Up in ’66 and The Passenger in ’75. That’s certainly how I would have regarded it before seeing it again in the cinema this week. And that I think is the key, you really do have to see this film in the cinema. It’s a revelation.
Whatever about the critical pasting that it got at the time, it’s not hard to see why it bombed at the box office. It’s exactly the kind of fractured, anti-narrative portrait of counter-cultural disgust for conventional bourgeois capitalism that you’d expect from the darling of the European avant garde. In other words, it’s exactly the kind of film Hollywood would have claimed it was looking for. As ever, be careful what you wish for.
The reason that it makes for such remarkable viewing today is not because it offers up such a fascinating snap shot of Los Angeles as the idealism of the 60s became subsumed by the nihilism of the 70s. Although it is definitely that. Rather, it’s the combination of Antonioni’s exceptionally measured and carefully constructed compositions in a film that invites contemplation at the expense of a conventional story.
Many, indeed most of the shots are long lens, but in close up. So, say, a man sitting at a desk will lean forward, thereby going out of frame, before coming back into frame as he changes position in the chair once again. What results is a hyper awareness of the frame and of the very tactile nature of film, as in celluloid. You can feel the texture of the images as they unfold before you. And the experimental soundtrack, both the use of sounds, and the music of Pink Floyd, the Stones and Roy Orbison accentuate and compliment the images as they reveal themselves.
The Monica Vitti trilogy of L’Avventura (’60), La Notte (’61) and L’Eclisse (’62), together with the other two films from the English language trilogy, Blow Up and The Passenger, are conventionally understood as Antonioni’s masterpieces. Zabriskie Point can now also be included in that august list. It confirms Antonioni as one of the two most important film makers to have ever worked in the medium. The other of course was Bergman. And they both died on exactly the same day in 2007, on July 30th. But, and I hate having to say this, you really do have to see it in the cinema.
You can see MGM’s trailer for Zabriskie Point here. Groovy.
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