In "Blow Up" (1966), Antonioni had his hero question truth against a backdrop of British youth protesters. By setting such questions against a fabric of hippie youth movements, Antonioni questioned, intentionally or not, the effectiveness of these organisations. How can one fight for a cause when what one holds as true might be a lie? On the flip side, the film said that we must always actively test what we see, precisely because we live in an image bank of deceit at worst, uncertainty at best. Though the "hippie aspects" were the most tacky parts of "Blow Up", they created a nice texture and gave the film more ambiguity - a sort of widespread ontological uncertainty - than it might otherwise have had.
With "Zabriskie Point", however, Antonioni throws away all the ambiguities and subtleties of "Blow Up" and instead goes full blown hippie. The result is a film awash with clunky metaphors and heavy handed storytelling - disappointing from a director renowned for restraint - but which is nevertheless consistently interesting.
The film opens with a beautiful series of sliding close ups (which stress blurred faces and anonymity), as we watch a group of radicals discussing "revolution", specifically, as one woman states, "what does it take to get white people to fight for revolution?" What the film is concerned with, however, is the opposite: what stops whites from revolting.
Suddenly one man, Mark, gets up and leaves the discussion. Though revolutionaries fight for freedom, Mark is impatient, wants quick fixes and views binding oneself to such a militant cause as being akin to giving his one's own freedom away. And so like Jack Nicholson in Antonioni's "Passenger", Mark flies away. The other radicals promptly chastise Mark for this "bourgeois individualism", and his blatant intolerance of groups.
As such, Mark buys a gun and goes solo. Later Mark runs away when police raid a university campus, worried that he may be mistook for an "actual radical" who fired a shot. He then flees to a nearby airfield, steals a private plane and flies out into the desert. Antonioni treats the desert as a peaceful utopia, devoid of capitalism's encroachments, and contrasts it with America's cities, with their billboards, plastic people, mannequins, dreary lives, bad food and modern appliances. His desert is Edenic, Paradise before The Fall, but also Zabriskie Point, the lowest point of the United States, and so a regressive fantasy.
Flying above the desert Mark then spies Daria. He lands and meets her, his lusts bringing him promptly back down to earth. Antonioni then gives us a silly sex scene in which hundreds of hippies copulate in the sand. Free from the constraints of modern life, radicals celebrate their individualism, their primordialism, by humping in the sun. Here revolution collapses into hedonism, vague notions of revolt giving way to lust, personal fulfilment and "free love".
The film ends with Mark dying after returning a plane. He believes in sharing rather than possessions, Antonioni stresses, and is punished for this. Meanwhile Daria fantasizes about blowing up the mansions, commodities and stately homes of the "rich capitalists" who inadvertently killed Mark. Less a challenge to its audience - "Pick up the guns and pickets! Tear the walls down before they cage you in!" - this ultraist sequence is one of profound disappointment: the one dimensionality and impossibility of the radical fantasy, and the foretold reign of techno capitalism. Daria walks away, the world intact.
The film is touted as being "anti establishment", but Mark is the enemy and doesn't know it. He refuses to work with others, wants instant gratification quick fixes, flees because he doesn't want to be "mistook for a radical" and his notions of justice all revolve around his own whims, wants and desires.
6/10 - In hindsight, "Zabriskie Point's" flaw isn't that it's a "radical film" directed by a quiet, contemplative man (it's a film about what prevents whites from being radicals- sex, selfishness, bourgeois individualism, fear etc), but that its actors can't bring the level of metaphysical intensity to their dialogue that Antonioni is known for. The film is beautifully shot, if we ignore some clunky metaphors, but simply lacks the haunting, intense and even sexy quality of good Antonioni.
Incidentally, there are many films in which audiences are encouraged to "rebel", but they all fall into one of four categories. In the first category (eg "Network", "Cool Hand Luke", "Cuckoo's Nest", "Loneliness of the Long distance Runner", "If", "Spartacus") we watch as the lives of freedom fighters end in failure, though in each case the "spirit of revolution" survives. In the deaths or failures of our heroes, the optimistic notion of change then lives on through martyrdom.
Then you have films like "Fight Club" and "Falling Down", which simply encourage you to explode. Tear it all down. Go out guns blazing! These films are borne out of angry, reactionary feelings, rather than any sort of common sense.
Then you have the third category ("The Lives of Others", "Bound For Glory", "A Clockwork Orange" etc) which treat artists as a force of change. In these Dystopian worlds, it's the unbridled creativity and freedom of will of the artist/criminal which create waves.
Then you have the "flight rather than fight" category ("Passenger", "THX1138", "The Devil Probably", "Logan's Run", "Red Desert", "Warriors", "Easy Rider", and "Badlands" etc), which typically show men running from worlds they do not like and forging islands or peaceful havens for themselves. A fifth, Utopian category of films doesn't exist, because everyone from Marx to modern thinkers have been unable to cook up a workable, pro-active way out of techno-capitalism. The notion of "revolution" is also complicated by the fact that, historically, social change is often instigated accidentally by either humble inventors, spurred ahead by minor technological advancements, or non-violent protesters who humbly refuse to get off buses. I mean, what liberated women more than contraceptives?