Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Movie a Day: Zabriskie Point (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1970)

One of the great debates in film is intent vs. outcome. If a writer or director intends one message, but another is conveyed, how should it be evaluated? I've always been of the opinion that a film is what it is. the best of intentions shouldn't matter if a film is just crap. On the flipside, a film crudely made for profit with almost no artistic intent can still emerge a great film.

Zabriskie Point reaffirmed by stance. From everything I can suss out in the film and what little I've read of behind-the-scenes information, Antonioni was really trying to make a film that genuinely embraced the hippie culture's revolution against the establishment as a way to totally eviscerate American culture. The extent to which this actually works is mixed - some moments come off as truly inspired, in which these characters and their way of life seems almost noble and certainly necessary. But there's also a fair chunk that's just plain silly, especially a lot of the dialogue these poor actors were saddled with, which just reeks of the screenwriters saying, "Groovy? That's something the kids say, right?"

It doesn't help that the leads, Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin, are so completely not up to their task. Frechette manages to get by because his character seems to genuinely not actively care about anything, so non-acting sort of works in a roundabout way (this is where we start to see the outcome work, even when the intent doesn't), but Halprin is totally lost, unable to give a single line an ounce of weight.

So what we end up with is a portrait of the death of hippie culture, what Antonioni (or the film anyway) sees as the failure America's last chance at regaining anything remotely resembling essential. Throughout the film, Mark, Daria (their characters are named after them), and their comrades make attempts to overthrow the system and get back to their roots, not as Americans but as people, but come up short, either because what was momentarily fulfilling has little resonance, or because The Man shut them down.

I have little doubt that Antonioni intended for those fleeting moments to have more resonance, but they don't, and in turn, the unused ending of an airplane writing the words "Fuck You, America" have even more importance. Aside from his intent to totally skewer comsumarism, materialism, and mainstream culture, Antonioni accidentally tore everything apart. And, in its own way, the film is better for it.

Any way you slice it, though, the film is a challenging, original piece of provative art, far more complex, terrifying, and artistically thrilling than most of what passes for art, these days or any other.

Oh, and it's Antonioni, so it's God damn beautiful to look at.

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