Directed By: Michelangelo Antonioni
Starring: Mark Frechette, Daria Halprin, Rod Taylor
Michelangelo Antonioni's Zabriskie Point follows the paths of two young Californians. Mark (Frechette) is a restless soul who gets involved with campus radicals, but is frustrated by their inaction. During a large-scale protest that has devolved into a riot, Mark levels a gun at a police officer who is shot. He flees the scene, highjacks an airplane, and heads east into the desert. Daria is a temporary assistant to wealthy real estate developer Lee Allen (Taylor) who crosses paths with Mark when she is traveling by car to meet her boss in Arizona. Mark buzzes her with his plane, eventually lands, and they meet, talk, and have a brief affair in and around the Zabriskie Point area of Death Valley. When they again go their separate ways, Mark must face the consequences of his actions and Daria's viewpoint is violently altered.
Michelangelo Antonioni's Zabriskie Point was surrounded by controversy during its production and release and became somewhat infamous due to the financial blow it dealt to the already reeling MGM studio when it failed commercially. MGM had clearly traveled a long strange trip from the days of Louis B. Mayer when they opened up their coffers for Italian auteur Antonioni to produce his first (and only) film for an American studio. While turning over millions of dollars to a filmmaker known for his polarizing leftist political views and existentialism so he can make a psychedelic indictment of the American establishment seems like an odd business decision in retrospect, the studio was likely hoping to achieve something like the box-office success of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey which polarized critics, generated lots of discussion, and played multiple times to "turned-on" youth audiences. Antonioni's previous English language film, Blow-Up had also been a critical and commercial success.
While the film was in production, controversy swirled with rumors that Antonioni was making anti-American obscenely pornographic Marxist propaganda. While that was not quite the case, Antonioni's view of the USA as expressed through the film seemed to be something along the lines of, "I just got back from America, and ... I really liked the landscapes." While Antonioni certainly displays no love for the capitalist establishment, represented by Taylor and his business associates as well as heavy-handed law enforcement, he also seems less than enamored of the counter-culture, represented by protagonists Mark and Daria and Mark's other friends and acquaintances. Through his lens, Antonioni paints a picture of an America headed inevitably towards mutually destructive internal violence.
The message is simplistic, not especially profound, but possibly instructive as a look at how an outsider was perceiving American culture in the late 60s/early 70s. Taking his expressed disdain for actors to an extreme, Antonioni cast novice performers in his leading roles. Their efforts are in no way helped by terribly inane dialog from a screenplay credited to five different writers including Antonioni and American playwright Sam Shepard. Rod Taylor sticks out like a sore thumb as the only cast member who comes across as anything resembling a professional actor. The bland performances and inane dialog may very well be part of Antonioni's intent to play the youth counterculture as a restless unfocused expression of id, but it certainly does not make a two-hour film any more compelling as a viewing experience.
Left without talented actors playing interesting characters involved in compelling activities, the film must get by on its images and sounds. Visually, the film relentlessly caresses the desert landscapes with one beautifully composed shot after another. In this sense, the visual eloquence inherent in the images created by Antonioni and cinematographer Alfio Contini produces a counterpoint to the prosaic dialog and inexpressive acting. In further counterpoint, the film's measured editorial pace is twice interrupted quite effectively by sequences reflecting the psychology of Daria. These scenes manage to convey the character's internal thoughts in purely cinematic ways that are almost completely un-reliant on the actress herself. I am being somewhat vague in my description to avoid spoilers, but the sequences to which I am referring should be obvious to anyone who sees the film. The soundtrack is credited to the band Pink Floyd with significant contributions from others, including an acoustic piece from Jerry Garcia that is used to underscore one of the two key fantasy sequences. The fact that Daria is driving her truck through the desert at various points in the film allows opportunities for lots of songs, mostly bluesy acoustic numbers, to be played from her radio including music by John Fahey, The Rolling Stones, The Youngbloods, and others.
Fans of the film aware of its editorial history should be pleased to learn that the version presented on this disc features the Roy Orbison song at the film's conclusion that is consistent with its original theatrical showings. Some versions of the film have deleted this song and simply extended the Pink Floyd song that precedes it. Star watchers note that Harrison Ford had a small part in the film that landed on the cutting room floor. He can still be seen as a "background performer" on the far left side of the Panavision frame in three or four shots from a sequence in a police station early in the film.
Fans who have been waiting since the dawn of DVD for a decent presentation of this film will be very pleased with this 16:9 enhanced 2.35:1 transfer. The meticulous widescreen Panavision compositions are rendered beautifully throughout. The bitrate is only modestly high given that the film is presented on a dual-layered disc, but it is sufficient to the task as detail is rendered well and compression artifacts are few and very minor. High contrast edge ringing is normally absent, but does show up in a few specific shots.
The soundtrack is presented via an English Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track. It sounds like it was sourced from a magnetic track with minimal noise, but the fidelity is not especially impressive. The frequency range seems somewhat limited, especially on the low end. This detracts a little from the many musical passages including a sequence involving a series of explosions set to the tune of Pink Floyd's "Careful with that Axe, Eugene", but the soundtrack is otherwise solid if unspectacular. An alternate French Dolby Digital 1.0 dub track is also available.
The only extra is the film's theatrical trailer which is presented in 4:3 letterboxed video with Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio. The trailer is not cut for general audiences and about two-thirds of it consists of a montage set to Pink Floyd's "Careful with that Axe, Eugene". The MGM marketing folks certainly were not hiding their intention to attract the youth market when they came up with the tag-lines, "...where a Boy and a Girl meet ... and touch... and blow their minds!" and "...how you get there depends on where you're at."
The single sided dual-layered DVD-9 disc is packaged in a standard Amaray case with no inserts. Menus are efficient and functional, with the trailer accessible directly from the main menu.
Antonioni's Zabriskie Point, while certainly not the piece of pornographic Marxist propaganda that its detractors claimed it to be before its release, is also not quite the overlooked masterpiece that some of its more enthusiastic proponents claim it to be either. If nothing else, this 16:9 enhanced presentation finally gives viewers the chance to appreciate the film's greatest strengths, which are the eyes of Antonioni and cinematographer Alfio Contini applied to beautiful Panavision framings of the American southwest. It is presented on disc with outstanding video quality and a mono soundtrack that, while serviceable, fails to impress with its fidelity. A theatrical trailer is the only extra.