Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970) is one of the few films made by masters of the European Art House in the English language. It is the only film made in America by the great Michelangelo Antonioni and stands alongside Blow-Up (1966) and The Passenger (1975) as being one of three films the Italian maestro made in English.
The film continues an exploration on formal ideology through a reversal of approach that changed the Italian fascist aesthetic to a left–wing approach that I shall call liberal fascism. Film–makers like Antonioni who were forced to work under Mussollini changed their approach to the opposite end of the spectrum after the fall of fascism in Italy after the Second World War. Antonioni functions in this film within the parameters of the studio system, but makes a film against the interests of the studio and the state. The fascist aesthetic of destruction under Mussolini is made into a dialectical exploration of creation itself as being a form of destruction through a contrasting split between the real and the imaginary.
With Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow–Up, the Marxist notion of praxis, which can be defined as "practice taking theoretical considerations into account" created several in-between spaces. Whereas the French through the Nouveau Roman movement in literature and theNouvelle Vague movement in cinema tried to explore this in between state as being a merge of location–space and narrative–space or documentary and fiction, this interplay was complicated by directors like Antonioni. In the writings of Theodor Adorno, an author who deeply influenced Antonioni, this split is much more complex and has to do with the limitations of actualizing theory in the real through practice.
The mediation creates an in between state that is constituted by theory–practice, form–content, dialectics–metaphysics and subject–object mediations that constantly create the conditions or parameters for a new image. For Antonioni, in his film Blow–Up (1966) this mediation is precisely what makes "reality into a mystery." In Zabriskie Point, Antonioni engages with America and especially its youth because for him: "What’s new is that young people today do not want to submit passively to this mystery. And that they use it as a springboard so to speak, for revolt."
Like Antonioni’s earlier films Il Deserto Rosso (1964) and Blow–Up (1966), the film professes Adorno’s negative dialectic. According to Adorno, the capitalist dialectic after the industrial revolution and the Second World War was not one of affirmation but one of critique. This critique is displayed through the antithetical relationship between resources and production and more significantly a disconnect between and individual’s consciousness and social being. The split between individual consciousness and social being realizes the splits that already exist, i.e. those existing between theory–practice, form–content, dialectics–metaphysics etc., and makes them into a social act constantly appropriated in time by society. In both the above–mentioned films, Antonioni plots a social critique through reified characters whose individual consciousness is in conflict with their social being.
The most important element in the film is the use of color. According to Antonioni "color in [his] films are almost as important as the actors."Antonioni himself analyzed the importance of colors in his work by making a comparison to Picasso in one of his interviews: "The blue spread across over Picasso’s painting, evident during the blue period, was the painting." Whereas in Blow–Up Antonioni modified the colors on the set to remove those that were contradictory and make the film in a location that "wasn’t really London, it was something like London", in Zabriskie Point he took a more conservative approach where he attempted to, instead of changing the colors, "exploit" the colors he already had.
Another key category for producing a discourse on the film is the importance of the location of America, particularly the location spaces in California and the desert in Arizona. Antonioni was strictly against shooting in a studio. For him: "In the studio, film crystallizes, it becomes impermeable to the unexpected". For him this "permeability" was only possible through the randomness of the location space. However before we reach the central point of the importance of the location space in all its uncertainty it is important to emphasize that the creation of the film occurs during the shooting of the film, and not as in studio cinema in the scripting or editing. The unexpected event that occurs on the location that makes the film "permeable" is precisely the accident that cannot be planned in the script or synthesized in the edit room. This importance of the location space provokes a situation where the viewers "oscillate between the sensation of knowing what kind of a place we are in and the acute sensation of being lost"
The film is planned in search a way that the key issues are kept at the peripheries. The leads that constitute metaphysical symbols occupy the center. As analyzed by Murray Pomerance in his book Michelangelo Red Antonioni Blue, these issues at the periphery are a) the lack of water in the arid West coast, b) the problems of African Americans and c) the dominance over all spaces of the public of the police. I will explore the next few paragraphs to elucidate these points.
For Antonioni just as the problem of America was contrasted with the enthusiasm of the aware youth, the boredom of the majority of Americans is contrasted with the enthusiasm of the African American community. Antonioni stated in an interview:
""Perhaps this is the difference between the white people and the [Blacks], that the [Blacks] are the only people, aside from the most committed groups among the youth, who know what could happen, the only ones with the ability to refuse to accept, the only ones who are not afraid."
Antonioni deliberately avoids the issue after making an African American character the focus of the very first shot in the film. The absence of water (as emphasized by Pomerance) becomes an element that haunts the location space. If Antonioni travels through the American outback in search of "ghost towns" that form settlements out of nowhere, water is the ghost presence that drives the content of most of the film. The absence of water becomes a sign that constitutes "a space that is interior and topological, a space illuminated by spirit rather than radiation." Antonioni creates a divergence between the solid elements of the frame with the liquefaction of time. By destroying the materials in the image as in the last sequence he makes the space purely temporal and therefore fluid.
This liquefication of the image makes it purely temporal and measurable in time, which is purely quantitative. This liquefied image is different from solid images which essential represent space and therefore are different qualitatively i.e. in terms of spatial differences that cannot be measured in magnitude. This process of liquefication makes the image measureable in magnitude and therefore makes it capable of participating in a Marxist exchange in images.
The images although liquefied resemble pop art collages much like David Hockney’s paintings that create a pure sign that traverses as in Barthes’ definition of the sign constitutes the length between the signifier and the signified. For Pomerance the liquefication of the images is emblematic of cars that compose the pop art landscapes:"[I]t is the automobile that drinks not the people, although the setting is relentlessly sunny, arid, bleached and desiccating and we can imagine thirst everywhere."
The liquefied image suggests the possibility of a spiritual presence of water and the material presence of either cops or African-Americans. It also has a temporal presence that aligns the action occurring in the present to a happening in the future. This happening is very much in line with Lyotard’s regimes of post-modern "legitimation"which arrive at "what we are" (present) from "what we ought to be" (future). According to Pomerance this once again links back to the location-space of California: “Although Southern Californians do not understand the semi–arid environment in which they live, they are haunted by a vague and nameless fear of future disaster...California will be a silent desert again.”
The characters form the center as metaphysical symbols amidst the issues at the periphery. Like in Lyotard’s theory of the post-modern the lead character, Daria is convinced that the idea of experience comes before experience. This is curiously, precisely the opposite of what film maker Robert Bresson mentioned in his handbook, Notes on the Cinematographer, as "image without idea of image." Daria’s character is contrasted with that of her lover Mark who stands for impulse and sensation. Whereas Daria stands for obedience, order and linearity (Pomerance), Mark is the idealized Antonionion character who is not acting but is willing. Antonioni therefore creates a mechanism through planning and improvisation where the character is able to exercise his free will. Each sequence in the film then confirms the present whereas its assemblage (montage) points towards the future. In this way Antonioni’s desire machine recognizes itself as creating a false consciousness where the only ‘truth’ is the character’s possibility of willing.
Antonioni in this way pre-dates the writings of Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari and Jean-Francois Lyotard (as stated above) in this mesmerizing 1970 film. Antonioni creates the Deleuzean construct of the rhizome much before Deleuze himself theorized it. In a sequence of the film the concept of rhizome is referred through a much more ambiguous term of "jungle".
Dara: Pretend your thoughts are like plants, what do you see ?
Mark: I see a jungle.The film constructs its characters only once they are nomads. The characters have to leave the city so that the audience gets to know their true facade. It is only when they leave the city and are in the desert that they undergo a Kafkaesque metamorphosis into animals. Dara in the car is the panther and Mark in the plane is the bird. It is curious to note that they are not animals but becoming–animals in the Deleuzean space i.e. geographically behaving as if they are something which they are not, and that this transformation is mediated by machines. Therefore the machine–becoming intersperses the nomadic location and the Kafkaesque becoming–animal. In this way Antonioni is attempting to sum up his "impressions of America, I would list these: waste, innocence, vastness, poverty" with the mapping of animals juxtaposed with machines.
It is curious that a discourse on America brings about poverty in his reflection "on some of the psychological aspects of violence." Poverty is related to the state structure and how through capital it pauperizes the whole. Capital is its own negative space, it is the negative for the negative, the imaginary in the imaginary that produces the remarkable last sequence where pop matter erupts.
Antonioni, in the death of true metaphysics with that arrival of Fascism and questioning the fragmentary nature of the real and its difference from realism and actuality; is creatingthrough destruction. The rhythm of the destruction is the repeated planes and automobiles that signal repetition. This creation through destruction is reminiscent of the Hindu God Shiva who through the construction of planes, in his frenzied taandav dance is also destroying the universe.
The negative plane of negative capital is precisely what defines the Fascist aesthetic under Mussolini. However it is different from a destruction of space through a rendering of a split between the plane of the real and the plane of the imaginary. Antonioni himself agreed that in the film the line between real events and imaginary events is not precisely demarcated and this is what alienated audiences from the film.
The film uses this negative of the negative to precisely side with the youth over the establishment and this as being the sole method of defining reality. The youth are precisely what helps capture what is changing in a society so that Antonioni is able to approach the location space and capture it in all its authenticity.
The form of the film is related to its forwarding, not just because of the Panavision format that defines the choice of lenses, but also because of the notion of waste (as opposed to destruction) as the film praxis within the framework of Hollywood. Antonioni himself agrees to this in a prime interview: "It seems to me I’m seeing such a waste of money. It seems to be almost immoral. There is also a waste of film...in Italy I would start with the multiple camera setup just at that moment [in the middle of the scene]. Not here. They start from the beginning. It is a waste of film!" In this way Antonioni is able to create a new, different dimension of the left without sympathizing with the right-wing aesthetics of Mussolini that he is able to classify destruction as being part of the imaginary and not the real. The destruction of consumer goods is a fantasy as it signals the arrival of a form of socialism or even liberal fascism. Antonioni sees it as fantasy as the destruction of capital is symptomatic of capital and not an escape from its glaring eye. The arrival of water, the police and destruction of matter are the conditions that would make revolutionary socialism possible. But the absence of these conditions for revolutionary socialism in the ontology of capitalism makes the conditions of the film possible.
1. Michelangelo Red Antonioni Blue: Eight Reflections on Cinema by Murray Pomerance (University of California Press,2011)
2. Michelangelo Antonioni: The Architecture of Vision: Writings and Inteviews on Cinema, edited by Carlo di Carlo and Giorgio Tinazzi. American edition by Marga Cottino-Jones (University of Chicago Press,1996)