Tune In: The Psychedelic Film Experience – Zabriskie Point (1970)

Tune In: The Psychedelic Film Experience witnesses Tim Wickens getting lost in the desert of Zabriskie Point (1970) starring Mark Frechette, Daria Halprin with Rod Taylor and directed by Michelangelo Antonioni.

Let us begin with the interesting story of Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin. Antonioni toured the United States to find his stars for this film. In Boston Massachusetts, Mark Frechette was discovered as he hurled a flower pot at a woman with whom he was arguing. He was part of a commune run by cult leader Mel Lyman located in Fort Hill, a section of Boston known as Roxbury, and included over 100 members. Now Daria Halprin was discovered by Antonioni himself. He was watching the hippie documentary Revolution when, in it, he noticed Daria. Later Daria and Mark would soon become a real life couple, even being featured in Look and Rolling Stone magazines. They were known as the first counter culture couple. Life in the Lyman commune was too repressive for Daria as was the cold hard aloofness of Mark who always came across as sort of an angry young man while Daria was the typical flower child. By 1975 Mark would be found dead in prison. Sentenced for a bank robbery, he would die from an accident where a weight suffocated him. Those who knew him blamed it on depression. Daria would later meet, and marry Dennis Hopper. Frechette would make two more films after Zabriskie Point while Halprin would make only one more.

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Michelangelo Antonioni was known for films such as L’Avventura (1960), Red Desert (1964), and Blow-up (1966). Blow-up was his first English language film. It would capture the hedonistic swinging London of the 60s perfectly. Imagery, acting and music combined to create a work that was a mirror of those times. Britain had been conquered now was time to look to America with its revolution and hippies. Though it would filter out early that Antoniono was going to make a film that was very anti-American. US law enforcement was hostile toward him at an Oakland protest, footage of which was never used. Next, the US Attorney’s Office of California tried to use the Mann Act to shut the film down – the Mann Act that made it illegal to transport women across state lines for immoral conduct. Luckily Zabriskie Point, the location, was in California not Nevada. With an already hostile public let us look at the film.

A group of African American revolutionaries are speaking to a group of mostly white students at a college. Mark (Frechette) happens in. He declares, “He is willing to die for the cause not of boredom…” A student protest occurs with students rounded up, as Mark goes to see them in jail, he too is manhandled and grabbed. Later, Mark and a friend, now out of jail, are seen to be buying guns, back on campus and armed in the middle of another confrontation. The next thing we see is a policeman die, but did Mark kill him?

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Meanwhile, Daria (Halprin) is driving through the desert in search of someone. Her “boss” businessman Lee Allen (Rod Taylor) speaks with her on the phone wondering when she will arrive. Daria is almost attacked by some young sexually awoken young youths. As she drives away her car is buzzed by Mark who had stolen a plane. The two meet, talk, we see the difference in his coldness to her flowery love. At the desert in Zabriskie Point the two make love as the music of Pink Floyd plays. What had only been the two has more and more couples in the act of love dotting the landscape, it is one of the best scenes in the film. Mark now decides he must return the plane he ‘borrowed’ over the protests of Daria. The two paint the plane in psychedelic colors with the words, “No more words,” and “no war” written on the fuselage.

Nothing ends well. Daria makes it to Allen’s house on a hill but the comfy life is not for her. SPOILER ALERT: She runs out of the house. As she looks, focusing the house explodes, in repeated ways. Pink Floyd’s music forcefully drives on as clothes, a refrigerator, books, etc. are blown up.

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Zabriskie Point has a minimum of dialogue, though what’s spoken is generally typical everyday stuff. Unfortunately the film drags on as not much is seen nor said. Rod Taylor is completely wasted. I speculate he took this role to reach a new generation, or appear hip. Frechette and Halprin are competent but it really doesn’t matter as the script is flat. I wonder if Antonioni deliberately left the dialogue and action to a minimum as a comment on the US. There is an empty bareness to the film. It could be he is commenting on the empty commercialism coupled with the, possibly in his eyes, juvenile idealism of the hippie/revolution moments. I admit this is grasping at straws, though I have a strong inclination that there is a deliberate message here. Whatever it may or may not have been, the film did poorly with audiences and critics. The year 1970 was not the best year for the 60s psychedelic spirit as The Beatles broke up and the deadly dark Altamont Speedway concert occurred late in 69. The times were changing but a spirit is hard to kill.

FMV Rating: **



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