Friday, June 20, 2008

[Michelangelo Antonioni Retrospective] Zabriskie Point (1970)

Surreal Sex

I've got to admit I continue to be perplexed by the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, having the counter now reach 2. Perhaps it's due to my limited knowledge of the vast issues during the 1960s counter-culture era, and probably count The Graduate as one of the movies set during the time that stuck vividly on my teflon coated memory.

Between Blow Up and Zabriskie Point, I thought I saw a style continue in having scenes come up in a rather haphazard manner without any seeming logic to connect one to the other. We're presented with something, and then we're left to our own devices to figure out and fill in the blanks. Just like how Daria (Daria Halprin) was introduced as a stand-in secretary wanting to access the rooftop of Sunny Dunes Development Company to retrieve a book left behind, before having to ask the approval of a manager. So, was there really a book, and did that chance meeting progress into anything more substantial? I can only guess.

Zabriskie Point began with a closed door debate on revolution, where geeky students were championing their various individual thoughts on what it means to be a revolutionary, some fighting with ideals, while others suggesting violence. It's a somewhat long scene where the camera adopts jarring motions as if you're caught right in the middle of the verbal crossfire, peering over heads and shoulders to look at (and sometimes fail to see) whoever's talking. The other protagonist, Mark (Mark Frechette) gets introduced toward the end of the discussion where he disagrees with the majority, and walks out.

Throughout the first half of the movie we follow Mark as he evades the authorities, presented here as very heavy-handed, and daft too, and we see this very carefree rebel almost synonymously generalized with the impetuous youth of the time. Little is known of him at this stage besides watching him getting entangled in a protest riot (which was quite documentary like) that went awry. We assume that he is quite well to do since he obviously have taken lessons to fly a plane, and fly one expertly at low altitudes too. And then the ridiculous and the boring happened, which was an elaborate courtship ritual over land and air, and it's not since Tom Cruise tried to woo Thandie Newton in John Woo's MI:2 using the crashing, twirling sports car technique that this goes into my books as quite laughable.

I would have imagined that the story would pick up at this point where the two youths meet, but of course I was wrong. I am now starting to believe that if it's something that I would have come to expect, then an Antonioni film this would not be. One had been trying to look for direction to the next stage of her character, while the other was running away and wanted to be left alone in peace. Put them together and I wanted to see some sparks fly as they talk, flirt and get intimate. They do, but not without having the entire scene become far more surreal, with plenty of other bodies joining in a frolicking good time at the titular location.

And from that point on, I felt the story went downhill, trying to find an avenue to make a last ditch attempt to salvage something out of nothing so far. Sure I can see the obvious references to the anti-war statements, or statements that are anti-establishment, but beyond that, try as hard as I can given my limited ability, I just can't figure out what else would have been coded in between the lines. Just when I thought there would be a story, the last act dragged out itself and no longer became engaging, save for what some would call the mother of all repeated explosions, making a blatant point across that consumerism, corporations, mass media (and the list goes on) can all go to hell. Sorry, but Fight Club deals with that theme in far more interesting ways than this one did.

There are still redeeming qualities though, and that's the cinematic images that the movie contains, with plenty of generous shots of vast plains, as well as a view from the top looking down at relatively flat city skylines. And sadly, having read about one of the final shots which never seen the light of day, I thought it would've complemented perfectly the gaudy colours of a hastily and heavily graffiti-ed plane with striking pictures of the male appendage and 2 boobs on its wings, together with echoes of anti-war statements and of bombs.

Needless to say I did not really enjoy Zabriskie Point, but curiously enough, there were some shades of local films Lucky 7 and Dreams From the Third World in it with its scenes in the flats and in what I thought looked like a cave with dripping water. I guess to continue to try and enjoy more of Antonioni's works and to prep myself, nothing can come sooner than a documentary about the man himself, to be screened tomorrow morning as part of the Retrospect.

P.S. Lead actor Mark Frechette led quite a life during those turbulent times, and you can read about his event-filled though short lived life here.

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