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Film Review: Zabriskie Point (1970)

Updated: May 22, 2021

Upon its cinema release Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1970 film Zabriskie Point proved to be a commercial flop. Panned by the critics, this weird and wonderful film proved to be a painfully expensive failure for the Metro Goldwyn Mayer studio.

Recently however the film has undergone somewhat of a critical re-appraisal and rightly so. Cult status calls.

Casting a couple of unknowns in the lead roles is the first of many masterstrokes by Antonioni. Mark Frechette (Mark) was apparently talent spotted on the streets while the movie would also signal the first screen role for female lead Daria Halprin (Daria).

The resulting interplay is an intriguing brew of minimalism, naturalism and improvisation. Indeed it’s the sheer unprofessionalism of the lead performances, as raw as they are un-hammy, which draws the viewer ever deeper into this film.

Add into the mix some stunning cinematography of the Nevada Desert and Death Valley, a soundtrack comprising the Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones and what you have is a simply astonishing cinematic experience.

From the moment the camera pans around a university campus meeting room, an ever changing perspective that picks out myriad faces of would-be revolutionaries, you just know this film is not going to play by the rules. The camera jerks from student to student urgently attempting to follow the line of debate. Unsettling, unusual, Zabriskie Point sets out its stall.

It is within this chaotic scene that Mark declares his boredom with traditional student politics as well as his intention to die for the cause if necessary.

Thus we are pitched deep into late 1960s American counter culture. Think Kerouac meets the Graduate meets Easy Rider. A college demonstration that goes horribly wrong when a policeman is killed sees Mark on the run. But did he pull the trigger?

Meanwhile in its glossy headquarters an American corporation is planning to build a synthetic holiday resort in the desert. Using a marketing plan that is just surreal, company employee and embryonic-hippy Daria is on her way to meet the big boss in his sumptuous desert lair.

In one of many sequences that fully exploit the vast Nevada desert having commandeered an airplane, and in arguably cinema’s strangest ever courtship ritual, Mark swoops precariously over Daria as she drives down the freeway.

It’s lust at first sight. Not long after hooking up this beautiful couple are indulging in some of that Californian free love we hear so much about. The desert love scene in which Mark and Daria are joined by ever more copulating couples is a scene to behold. Sun, sea, sand (lots of sand) as you could never have imagined.

Their moment of passion past it is time for the couple to part. Mark is determined to fly back his plane, to face the music. A death wish? Has the young malevolent decided to make good on his promise to die for the cause?

Daria is thus left to drive to the corporate den of her big-time capitalist boss, a potential den of iniquity. Mourning the brief moment of freedom she enjoyed, Daria is a changed girl. The desert lair no longer attracts but repels.

Pure Warhol, the film’s final sequence caps this visual delight magnificently. It’s a 10 minute pop art video, disturbing, surreal, psychedelic. Wow. Just wow.

An interesting footnote to the film concerns the fate of leading man Mark Frechette. The troubled young man would later go on to be sentenced to a jail term for his part in an armed robbery. Two years into his sentence he would die tragically when a weight-lifting bar crushed his windpipe.

Even the back-story to this film is something else! Extraordinary. Quite extraordinary.