Antonioni’s “Zabriskie Point” at the cinema.

Zabriskie Point

Zabriskie Point

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.

Blow Up.

Blow Up.

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.

Monica Vitti and Alain Delon in L'eclisse.

Mon­i­ca Vit­ti and Alain Delon in L’eclisse.

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.

Daria Halprin in Zabriskie Point

Daria Hal­prin in Zabriskie Point

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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