Sunday, May 06, 2018

Zabriskie Point

Michelangelo Antonioni's film Zabriskie Point (1970) is named for the ancient lake beds where it is partially set. The two protagonists Daria and Mark drive to this viewpoint and explore its dry slopes before making love.  As Adam Scovell has written, the way they become gradually covered with sand 'unites them with the topography and camouflages their presence from themselves and the world around them'.  The dream-like appearance of a whole bunch of other hippies coupling in the dust adds to the effect (and, to be honest, would be quite hard to take if it wasn't for the accompanying music by Jerry Garcia).  This empty terrain seems as far from the city as it is possible to get (Zabriskie Point had stood in for Mars in one earlier film), but Death Valley is hardly an idyllic retreat.  After the two of them part, Daria drives on through the desert to the lavish modernist home of her boss Lee Allen, built among some rocks near Phoenix.  Here, in a kind of capitalist oasis, women sit around a pool and businessmen discuss the possibility of investing in Allen's new real estate development.  As Daria leaves she imagines the whole luxury house destroyed in an explosion.

Daria and Mark explore the landscape in Zabriskie Point
Whilst Zabriskie Point itself is central to the film and its wind-sculpted shapes are pretty remarkable, what really seems strange to the modern (British) viewer are the earlier scenes set in Los Angeles.  This is the LA of Ed Ruscha, designed around the automobile and full of garish signs and billboards.  At one point Mark drives past a large hoarding painted incongruously with a rural scene of barn, animals and farmers.  The film features other artificial landscapes too, like the one we glimpse in an absurd promotional film for Lee Allen's new development, Sunny Dunes.  At the end of the film, when he is trying to sell his proposal, the businessmen congregate around a semi-transparent map of the scheme.  Here the landscape is no more than an abstraction onto which they can project their financial schemes.  As they discuss the possible deal, drinks are served by two native American women, suggesting the way power and ownership of the land has changed in the course of a century.

Mark driving through LA

 Promotional film for Sunny Dunes with fake bird and people

 A map of the proposed development

I will conclude here with a paragraph from an excellent Lightmonkey essay which I think illustrates the point that, whilst Zabriskie Point undoubtedly has its faults, it is fascinating for anyone interested in landscape and cinema.
'In a series of striking shots we see glimpses of an older Los Angeles from Lee Allen’s modernist office with large windows overlooking the city. This office was located near Wilshire Boulevard in the downtown area and had a spectacular view of the city skyline. Antonioni went to great pains, and expense, to light the office with the same color temperature as the outside, creating the possibility of using deep focus to shoot Lee Allen at his desk and the skyline, both in sharp focus, establishing a dialog between actors and location. These extraordinary shots give the sensation that the interior space and the man made landscape outside go on forever morphing into one large electronically controlled space. Buildings from various time periods rise up like markers, most prominently a magnificent black and gold Art Deco tower on Flower St. Not surprisingly this landmark building was demolished shortly after the film was made, to make way for the new sleek skyscrapers that would come to dominate the city, and that were more in keeping with the international style of architecture favored by the surging corporate state. From the point-of-view of Mark, as he rides around on his truck the city seems to already be a collage that is in the process of being created and destroyed at the same time, with no time to reflect on the historical causes or the psychological effects.'

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