It would be all too easy to dismiss Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point as a failed relic of hippie excess; a notorious auteur’s survey of the swingin’ sixties that predictably falls on the side of righteous youth. In fact, I steeled myself for this very result, and from the opening credits — scattered shots of campus radicals yammering simplistic slogans that did nothing to disabuse me of my negative expectations — I was set to slog through the standard clichés of fighting the machine, embracing experimentation, and living with perceived authenticity. But as the film played out before me, my notions of Antonioni’s overall intent shifted with jarring force. By the end, knowing that Antonioni has always confounded easy interpretation, I realized that his indictment — and the movie, despite it all, remains as such — was not at all in the realm of the obvious. Far from pro-hippie, anti-Man, or being supportive of the radical element that flourished throughout the decade, this is a brutal, unyielding attack not on America, per se, but what America hath wrought in the form of its alleged rebelliousness. Our country is not empty and barren simply because it erects billboards on every conceivable roadside, but rather because it no longer possesses the language, insight, or strategy to challenge anything worth a damn. It is, simply put, alienated from even knowing how to be properly alienated anymore.
Lest that sound ridiculous, consider that Antonioni has chosen as his symbols of the new order the two least interesting human beings on the planet; two ciphers so bereft of even the most minute levels of self-awareness that were it left to them to instigate revolution, the whole damn enterprise would suffocate from boredom. This is no accident. Mark and Daria are not Bonnie and Clyde revisited, but dimwitted dullards who can’t even be bothered to act rashly. Sure, Mark steals a plane and flies to the desert, but does so only after attending a protest and, well, failing to do anything at all. He appears to have the desire to shoot a cop, but someone else steps in before he can act, the first of many ineffectual efforts by our two “heroes.” Mark is clearly upset by something (though his wooden performance makes it difficult to establish any emotion save ennui), but he lacks all the tools for converting his turmoil to agency of any kind. While his plane ride might be misconstrued as a daring act of freedom, it’s best to see it instead as a fool’s errand; a journey to nowhere by a truly unimaginative man. Even on the flight back to Los Angeles, he does nothing more than paint the stolen plane with hippie buzzwords and loud symbols, as if he were from another planet armed with a self-styled handbook about anti-establishment behavior on Earth. There isn’t a genuine gesture to be found, as it’s all artifice. Score one for Antonioni.
He strikes again with his portrayal of Mark and Daria’s desert love affair; to date one of the least inspiring romantic endeavors between two otherwise healthy, attractive youngsters. There again is the point in bold colors: we expect virile youth to take shots, abuse the system, and either get away with our applause, or die trying in a hail of sexy gunfire. Instead, the pair meet on a lonely road after Mark plays footsie with Daria, with a plane and car substituting for actual appendages. They talk in dull monotone, though with the sanctimonious conviction of the period, and play around as if skipping through the sand could solve issues of hunger and poverty. Then, in a flash, they are naked; rolling about with abandon, in a montage that seems to go on forever. Antonioni, cleverly, also shows dozens of like-minded couples frolicking in the dust and dirt, pointedly reminding us that while claims were made to change the world, all these kids really wanted was a place to fuck and get stoned without interruption. The mess and tangle of flesh, at least here, is meant to emphasize the interchangeability of these so-called revolutionaries. One, at last, is as worthless as the other. Privilege never pushed a sea change, it only fostered an entire generation of armchair assassins who lectured far and wide with the good fortune of having somewhere to go after the whole thing fell apart.
Not much happens during the film’s 110-minute running time, but that’s in the spirit of the director’s stubbornly consistent vision of the human animal. Abandoning instinct, desire, and creativity, we fall back on traditions and robotic rituals without considering the possibility of an alternative. I have little doubt that Antonioni craves a new chapter for our species, but here, he’s arguing with vehemence and conviction that whenever the call may come, it won’t be coming from America. It’s not just that we’ve been reduced to taking to the streets only when we discover personal inconvenience, or, in the modern era of the college campus, finding more cause for alarm in the enforcement of drinking laws than the erosion of free speech or global voting rights; we are simply not cut out for the fight. Reasonable, sympathetic protest died with the Civil Rights movement, and the era on display in Zabriskie Point might as well be on the moon by comparison. Some claimed it was an immoral war that stoked the fires; I saw the call for sacrifice that now reached white suburban doorsteps, and the kiddos were spooked to hell by the line now crossed. Antonioni may have supported raised fists against Vietnam, though he wisely avoids any specifics here. All he cares about is that whatever the cause, it won’t ever be enough.
The most talked about — and caustic — turn in the movie is at the end, when a desert retreat (where executives building a well-to-do housing community discuss their plans) is blown to hell from a dozen different angles, though only in the madness of Daria’s imagination. Having learned of Mark’s death moments earlier (he was gunned down on the runway after returning the stolen plane), Daria stares blankly ahead and is greeted by the massive explosion. The flames are not, however, a call to arms against suburbia, white people, or wealth. Instead, the blast is only possible in the minds of the limp and powerless. They craved big, important gestures, but in the end, had nothing lasting to say. That said, Antonioni isn’t even suggesting that the building and all it symbolized should have been destroyed. Radicalism bent on mere opposition — as accurate a representation of the hippie movement our language affords — cannot, by definition, lead an individual life, let alone a city, nation, or widespread cause. Lacking practical solutions or details, abstract “missions” wither and die when stripped from their placards and hastily photocopied leaflets. In the end, Antonioni saw beauty in our physical environment, and even in our faces, but we hadn’t the muscle, the balls, or the brains to move beyond prettified exteriors. It seems we left more than our clothes behind in the desert.