In the late 1960s, the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni came to the United States to make a film about the American counterculture. He was already in his late 50s. The film, Zabriskie Point, was a spectacular failure, from the beginning of production to its release. Antonioni was almost prosecuted under the Mann Act for staging a mass sex scene in the California desert. He was assaulted by the musician John Fahey after he went on an anti-American rant. Zabriskie Point wound up going well over budget with its total costs coming in at over $7 million. It got less than $1 million back at the box office.
Set in the mountains east of Death Valley, and in Los Angeles, Zabriskie Point is about emptiness. Unable to connect with one another, Americans get swallowed up in the immensity of the desert. Yet Zabriskie Point is not about the return of nature. If Americans cannot build a lasting civilization in Southern California, they can still destroy Southern California. If Los Angeles is a big pile of nothingness, then it is also a big pile of nothingness that has done lasting damage to the North American continent. I don’t know if you can call Antonioni prophetic. Building a megalopolis in the middle of a desert was an insane proposition to begin with, but nothing about the current state of drought ridden Southern California has proven him wrong.
Zabriskie Point begins, as it ends, with a failure to connect. We are in a meeting of radical students. They are planning some kind of action against their university, but can’t get together long enough, even to be civil to one another. Black students accuse white students of being insufficiently committed to the revolution. White students accuse black students of misunderstanding them. A lot of rhetoric is exchanged. Very little is communicated. Finally Mark, the film’s hero, introduces himself. “I’m willing to die for the revolution,” he says, “but I’m not willing to die of boredom.”
Daria, Zabriskie Point’s heroine, is a privileged white hippie who “works only when she needs bread,” and has an on again off again relationship with her boss, a real estate developer played by Rod Taylor. As she’s driving out to the desert to meet “a man, who works with emotionally disturbed children from Los Angeles,” Mark is trying to bail his roommate out of jail. He ends up causing a disturbance at the police station, and getting locked up himself. When he and the roommate get out of jail that same day, they visit a gun shop, where they manage to get around the gun control laws by explaining to the owner that they “need guns to protect out women.” The owner is immediately sympathetic. “If you kill someone in your backyard,” he says, “drag the body inside so you don’t go to jail.”
Mark isn’t planning to use the gun to protect white women from black rioters. On the contrary, he wants to protect student radicals from the police. After shooting a cop at a demonstration in retaliation for the shooting of a black student by the police — “Just like old John Brown,” he explains later. — he steals a small private plane from a local airport and flies it out into the desert near Zabriskie Point. Antonioni doesn’t explain where a random 20-year-old student radical learned how to fly, but Mark turns out to such a skilled pilot that he and Daria “meet cute” when he repeatedly buzzes her car, then lands on the road in front of her. He used to be a student, he tells her, until he got kicked out of college for hacking into the Dean’s computer and putting all of the engineering students into liberal arts courses. Daria explains even less about herself. She doesn’t tell him about her affair with her boss, or why she’s even in the desert in the first place. Back stories don’t really matter in Zabriskie Point.
Today, the group sex shot that almost got Antonioni prosecuted under the Mann Act looks pretty tame. In fact, now that we can see past what, at the time, became sensationalist story in the tabloids, we can understand it a lot better than they did back in the swinging 60s. Daria and Mark start to make love in the desert. As they do, they find themselves surrounded by other men and women doing the same thing. An orgy has materialized out of nowhere in the middle of the California desert. That’s the point. If Daria and Mark have no back stories, they don’t have much individuality in the present. The orgy, in effect, becomes part of the landscape. The landscape, in turn, becomes part of the orgy. While Los Angeles may be a city, Antonioni hints, it’s not a city like Paris, Rome, Florence or even New York and Boston. There is no civilization, or community. Humans have sunk into the California desert, even as they have transformed it.
The best scene in Zabriskie Point comes after the orgy in the desert. On the way back to the stolen plane, Mark and Daria come upon two portable toilets along the side of the road. Apparently it’s easier to find a public toilet in the middle of the California desert than it is in Midtown Manhattan. The sheer absurdity of the whole thing is brought home when Mark ducks into the little red booth marked “Men” and Daria waits outside. A police car stops next to the two porta-potties, and the policeman gets out. He questions Daria. “Does she need help?” he asks. Does she need a ride? What exactly is this young woman doing alone, on foot, in the middle of nowhere? The entire message of Zabriskie Point is summed up in one image. Human beings have come to Southern California, but have left nothing to show for it but their own waste.
Somehow Daria convinces the police officer to leave before Mark can shoot him. He still has the gun, which he explains is unloaded. He also explains to Daria that he wasn’t the man who shot the police officer in Los Angeles. We don’t know if he’s telling the truth, and the issue is never resolved, but, once again, it doesn’t matter. The police still think he’s a cop killer. The return to the plane, which Mark paints in pink and yellow, almost as if it were a hippie bus on tour with the Grateful Dead. It is, basically, a hippie bus, but the fact that it’s a plane, and not a bus, is significant. A small plane like the one Mark stole not only covers greater distances than a bus. It has only has room for two.
Antonioni, who’s from “old Europe,” is mesmerized by the immensity of the American west. He’s also deeply saddened by the disconnect between people, an issue he’s dealt with before in films like Blowup and L’Avventura, but not on such a gigantic scale. Southern California has, in effect, blown the old Italian’s narrative. The vast distances and vulgar consumer culture have made him feel irrelevant. Everything he’s expressed about loneliness and alienation now seems almost quaint. It has made him a nihilist, like his hero Mark, who goes back to the same airport in Los Angeles where he had earlier stolen the airplane, and gets shot down by the police. Why? We don’t know. Neither does Daria, who’s left alone in the desert. If Mark represented a nihilism of action, Daria represents a nihilism of the imagination. She comes upon a large, expensive mansion in the middle of the desert, designed in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie School to be one with the landscape, and not opposed to it. In a scene that probably cost most of the film’s $7 million dollars, Daria stares at the lavish house. In her mind’s eye, she destroys it, blowing it to kingdom come, littering the desert with the waste of American civilization. This is what the counterculture has come down to, random acts of senseless violence, and a fantasy of general destruction.
Note: Mark Frechette, who played Mark, would later go onto become a bank robber. “Robbing banks,” he commented, “was the best way of stealing from Nixon.” He ended up dying in a Massachusetts jail, where he was serving a 15-year-term, in a bizarre “weightlifting accident. I suppose he dropped a barbell on his head while he was doing bench presses. Daria Halprin, who played Daria, is still alive. She and her mother eventually “founded the Tamalpa Institute and developed the Halprin Process, an expressive arts approach for transformative healing that integrates movement/dance, visual arts, performance techniques and therapeutic practices.” Failed outlaw and New Age profiteer, two fitting ends for two forgotten stars of the 1960s counterculture.