Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Set in the Los Angeles of the late 1960s, this is Antonioni’s only foray into American territory. He becomes the foreigner (outsider) who focuses his sights on the radical protests taking place at that time on the college campuses. His rambling story is a near-masterpiece of vision and great perception of what was taking place. It let go of plot development and story line, and instead captured the moods, atmosphere, and insights making up the changing landscape in America’s unprecedented time of political unrest and social change. It was a time when the white middle-class students joined with the black militants demanding that the system change.
Mark Frechette is a college drop-out, now operating a fork-lift truck for a living, who still rooms with his radical college mates. He is bored with the rhetoric from his white middle-class protesters who are seen with black militants at a joint meeting as they are being chastised and lectured to by them, told to expect violence from the police. They are leading a demonstration against their local college. Kathleen Cleaver, with her recognizable Afro and militant dialogue, basically plays herself, telling the white students that blacks are always ready for revolution because they have been suppressed for so long.
Out of boredom, wanting to do something revolutionary, Mark gets ready for the college protests by purchasing a gun, forgoing the usual waiting period required by the state by telling the gun seller he lives in a borderline neighborhood and needs the gun for protection.
The tensions run high in the city over the protests but the media is mainly looking for the sensational story and not interested in telling the student’s side, and the police are shown as being hostile to the demonstrators. Mark watches as the police tear gas the college administration building. He uses the chaos on campus to, probably, shoot a cop (if I was asked to be a witness, I couldn’t tell for sure if he actually was the one who killed the cop). Anyway, he is told by his roommates that his friends identified him as the shooter by watching the TV news.
On-the-run, Mark decides to steal a small plane and fly it aimlessly over Death Valley where he spots a car on the deserted road driven by a very attractive hippie, Daria Halprin. She is the lover and secretary for Lee Allen (Rod), a big real-estate developer, who runs a firm that is exploiting the desert for their land developments. He is so taken with her whimsical nature and beauty that he will leave the bargaining table in the middle of a 40 million dollar deal, just to speak casually with her on the phone.
When Mark’s plane runs out of gas she agrees to give him a lift to the next gas station, but they stop off at a deserted tourist place called Zabriskie Point, an area of ancient lake beds. Here they flirt with each other, get to know something about the other, and frolic in the sand dunes, making love as the camera also shows some other imaginary couples making love.
Daria is into smoking grass, listening to rock music, and staying away from the heaviness of reality; she survives by using her imagination. Mark is a realist, not even willing to smoke grass, stating that he believes that violence is needed to let others know who the enemy is and then the people will be able to get rid of them. Daria asks: “Then what do you do, count up who killed more enemies and the winner gets the last shot!”
Mark decides his joy ride is over and will take the plane back to L.A. after gassing up and painting the plane in absurd colors, a childish protest against the rich, even writing on the plane’s side “Suck Bucks.” Daria tells him to just leave the plane and she’ll drive him back to Phoenix, but he says he likes risks and feels responsible to take it back.
Upon landing, the police surround and unnecessarily shoot Mark. When Daria hears this on the radio she is visibly shook up as she enters the bourgeois dream-house of her boss’s firm with all the luxuries and amenities, including an ornate pool. She decides that she can’t stay here anymore and sneaks away from her capitalist-pig boyfriend; she is picturing in her mind the luxury ranch house blown to bits with all the consumer products in it such as refrigerators, TV’s, air-conditioners. It is all in her head, and she rides away from there with a smile on her face. The explosions take place in slow-motion and Pink Floyd’s “Careful with That Axe, Eugene” plays as the products of commercialization go floating by.
Antonioni wanted to make a film that visually shows that it is a change of attitude inside your head that changes the system and not violence. That if you can’t change yourself and are still caught in the consumerism trap, you can’t change the way society is driven, you will only change the surface of things. Reality is inside your head. It is not by killing off your enemies that you accomplish your aims, but by getting your act together so that you are not part of the problem. It is up to you to make the world a better place to live in.
There was one other scene that got my attention. Daria arrives in that morbid Arizona desert town that she doesn’t even know the name of, coming there to meet a friend of hers from L.A. who told her it is a great place for meditation. But when she is inside the local cafe, the group of emotionally disturbed kids her friend brought here from L.A. are seen running around unsupervised and they break the local bar’s window. When she confronts them they pinch her ass, while her meditation-minded friend is nowhere to be found. Antonioni is sending a message that if you think you can escape from the world and your responsibilities by retreating from it you are mistaken, you only make matters worst.
The film originally garnered mostly bad reviews and ended up being a commercial failure, subjecting the director to some unfairly harsh criticism. But it was probably the most perceptive film made about that turbulent time, and it is not outdated like most of the critically praised films of this type are when viewed today.
The nonprofessional actors lived in a Boston commune. Daria was briefly married to Dennis Hopper. Mark went to prison for robbing a bank, which he says was for political reasons. He died in a 1975 prison accident.
REVIEWED ON 1/6/2000 GRADE: A