by Vic Neptune
Zabriskie Point, east of Death Valley, offers a vista of desolation and haunting beauty, an image of nothingness in a nation visited in the late 1960s by Italian filmmaker, Michelangelo Antonioni. This surface-of-planet-Mars-like location is the ultimate destination of a young man, Mark (Mark Frechette) and a young woman, Daria (Daria Halprin), who meet by chance on a Death Valley highway. He’s stolen a single engine airplane to get away from Los Angeles, where he’s searched for by police for a copkilling he didn’t commit. Though he had a .38 caliber revolver and was prepared to use it, defending a group of protesting students, one of whom gets blasted by a cop’s shotgun, Mark can’t bring himself to shoot. Fleeing, he steals the plane, flying east, coming across a car on the highway. Buzzing it a few times for his own amusement, he gets a look at the attractive driver–Daria–when she pulls over and gets out. Landing and parking the plane ahead, she comes to him, starting their brief connection in the desert’s nowhere.
Daria’s on her way to a house near Phoenix, Arizona, where her boss (Rod Taylor), a land development executive, will host a meeting with potential clients. Sidetracked by her interest in Mark, she delays going to the meeting, exploring instead the wonder of Zabriskie Point. One gets the impression others of their generation (it’s 1969 or 1970) have explored the place, made love there as do Mark and Daria, for Antonioni combines different times in the same dusty place, with numerous other couples getting it on while instrumental Pink Floyd music plays on the soundtrack. Bodies covered in sand and dust rolling about make the scene surreal, bewildering even in a first viewing, but having seen the film twice, I see this strange set piece as an attempt to show an ideal of that generation seeking peace and escape during a vicious war.
Mark, an outsider, doesn’t fit in with any political or romantic ideal. We see him in the opening scene with students planning their protest- -the one that will turn violent (from the police side, mainly). A former student, brought to the meeting by his roommate, Mark stands up to let them know he’s bored out of his mind by them. His belief is to take action. He buys the revolver from a lax-lawed gun shop proprietor, puts it in his boot and arrives late at the protest, witnessing the tear-gassing of some mainly Black and Latino students sheltering in the university library. Reacting to the wounding or killing of a Black student by a trigger-happy cop, Mark just gets his gun out when some unknown person fires at and kills the shotgun-wielding cop. Seen by witnesses with the gun in his hand, Mark’s in trouble.
As he says to Daria, he stole the plane, “Because I wanted to get off the ground.”
This line refers to freedom, literal and psychological, something he finds for a short time with Daria, until he decides to return the plane to Los Angeles, but not before they enlist the help of an old desert dweller in possession of several gallons of paint. Daria, Mark, and the old man paint the plane in psychedelic colors, writing phrases like “Suck Bucks,” and “She He It,” as in a drawn out “Shee-it!” The old man contributes a devilish pig’s face on the plane’s nose.
In our time, anti-establishment and anti-materialist cinema isn’t made much, if at all. Yet, in 1970, MGM, a major Hollywood studio, put up money for a film made by an Italian leftist, starring no major stars, except for Rod Taylor in a supporting role, giving the leads to two total unknowns, Frechette and Halprin. Zabriskie Point seems to have baffled audiences and critics at the time, but now its message critical of American nonstop consumerism and how it dehumanizes us should resonate with anyone feeling the impact of advertising stinging us like insects every other moment.
Often in TV shows and movies, product names are blanked out or not mentioned, even though the names of everything from A-1 Steak Sauce to the United States Army are everywhere in our sight as we drive around or shop in stores. Antonioni shows billboards, cigarette packages, a National Geographic, all products on display. Daria’s vision at the end, showing an explosion of consumer goods in slow motion while mesmerizing Pink Floyd instrumental music–written for the film–plays, reveals a rejection on her part as she leaves her employer for good, driving away we know not where, but away, perhaps, from the society that eliminated her companion, Mark, as he attempted to return the plane to its owner, only to be hemmed in and shot to death by cops.
Flawed, yes, by Frechette’s and Halprin’s inexperience, they nevertheless manage to present themselves well on the screen, creating interesting performances in a one of a kind film. Mark Frechette’s angular face works well with the camera lens, as do Daria Halprin’s clear eyes. Such things may seem superficial, but I always find it fascinating when an unfamiliar actor or actress projects charisma. Halprin, still alive, was married to Dennis Hopper for a while in the 1970s and later became a therapist. Mark Frechette acted in two more movies and robbed a bank to gain funds for a friend’s film project based on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. While in prison he suffered death by asphyxiation while lifting weights.