After enjoying the biggest success of his career with 1966’s Blow Up, Michelangelo Antonioni spent two years (and $7 million of Hollywood’s money) making Zabriskie Point, an aloof, unfocused study of American crassness and its corrupting influence. By the time the movie arrived in theaters in 1970, critics and hip moviegoers were growing weary of anti-establishment screeds on the silver screen, so Antonioni got hammered for his already-dated take on hippie revolutionaries, as well as for his insistence on using a cast of inert, mumbly non-professionals. Then in the ensuing decades, Zabriskie Point’s critical standing improved, as directors like Gus Van Sant and Bruno Dumont paid homage to the movie with their own challenging, existential films about empty souls roaming around deserts.
So was Zabriskie Point grossly misunderstood in its own time, or is it overrated now by fans of the self-consciously arty? Perhaps both. There certainly isn’t much to the story. Antonioni spends two hours showing two young strangers—a gun-toting, plane-stealing radical (Mark Frechette) and a sappy secretary (Daria Halprin)—as they meet by chance in Death Valley and spend an afternoon talking and making love before diverging to meet their separate fates. And though Antonioni’s imagery is frequently striking, his montages of industrial waste and roadside signage—along with his comparisons of corporate types to model-home mannequins, his aerial shots of a smog-bound Los Angeles, and his fleeting glimpses of litterbugs, juvenile sexual predators, and people who ruin a perfectly good salami sandwich by slathering it with mayonnaise—are all pretty flat and blunt as social commentary.
But not enough attention was paid in 1970 to the movie’s innovative soundtrack, which mixes folk-rock, electronic drone, and near-complete silence into an aural representation of what Antonioni is trying to say about the natural and the synthetic. And maybe Antonioni intended the moviegoers of the time to roll their eyes at Frechette and Halprin’s “We’re just misunderstood, beautiful people” chatter. Critics at the time talked about the movie’s famous final scene—a hillside house exploding in slow motion, over and over—as Antonioni’s statement of support for violent revolution, but those critics may have been too close to the cultural moment to see the big picture. Perhaps all the gorgeously shot explosions and the talk of armed insurrection in Zabriskie Point were never meant to be admired. Maybe those scenes—like the film’s centerpiece “orgy in the dust” sequence—were only ever meant to show that even the most idealistic Americans were as crude in their philosophy and behavior as the culture that spawned them.