Z and Zabriskie Point
By NICK DEMARTINO
No matter how hard you might try, it is impossible to see a film like "Z" or "Zabriskie Point" without making some political connections to your life. In quite different ways, and in different cinematic languages, the two films deal with repression and revolution. As a young American living here in 1970, you will not be able to ignore either film's obvious analogies and applications.
I saw "Zabriskie Point," Michaelangelo Antonioni's MGM-produced interpretation of the American student-radical world, while attending a convention for college editors. An after-film panel discussion led by the associate producer, Paul Krasner of Realist fame, and others, dealt almost exclusively with Antonioni's politics. "Revolutionary! Counter-revolutionary.'" went the rhetoric. The flick is "a prophecy" pronounced Krasner, after summarily canning it for its acting,script, character development, plot structure, and lack of reality.
The "prophetic" message of "Zabriskie Point" is the political radicalization of a vaguely Left, dope-smoking bour-geoise girl, who comes to realize that the System is corrupt and must be destroyed violently. We see this graphically, lyrically, powerfully realized in the fantasy of destruction and liberation that ends the film. Heroine Daria (played by real-life Daria Halpern), who works for (and maybe sleeps with) a land-development magnate (Rod Taylor), had reached the destination toward which she had been traveling across the desert during the film's action: the opulent desert estate where her boss is holding an important business meeting.
En route she meets and makes love with a young UCLA radical who is fleeing the cops for allegedly shooting one during a student demonstration. She hears over the radio that the student (named Mark, and played by Mark Frenchette), has been killed while returning a stolen airplane which he had taken to escape from LA. Daria enters the plush desert retreat, sees and hears the capitalists at their work.
She encounters an Indian woman, a
maid, then splits the scene. The last sequence of the film is a five minute, slow-motion bomb explosion of that house, and, in turn, the symbols of the American capitalist plastic culture of the 50's which she and Mark are a product of, and in rebellion against. Her earlier fantasy, when she and Mark made love, was the proliferation of uninhibited bodies making dust-covered love in the desert sands. She has been radicalized from the peace-and-love thing to a political revolution.
We can hypothesize why she can now no longer "work whenever she needs bread" for a boss and a system that crushes someone she loves and the ideas he represents, but Antonioni never spells it out. He just gives us image after image in her fantasy of revolution. " '
Serving as a backdrop at''the editors' debate over "Zabriskie Point" were the recent events that pretty clearly represent the repressive system and the need to destroy it: the Chicago Conspiracy trial had just ended. The rallying cry at the conference of somewhat radical editors was "Remember Santa Barbara" "partially because this was an ecology conference, but mostly because Bank of America had just been ripped off by radicals.
Just as "Zabriskie Point" confronts some pretty vital issues, so "Z" brings home the very real spectre of fascism in a "democratic" state. Costa-Gavra's film is a fictionalization of the events that lead up to the military coup in Greece that brought a fascist government to power, and with it the elimination of almost all civil rights.
Before the coup that finalized a police state, the police and other right-wing powers in the government did everything within their considerable power to discredit and suppress leftist dissenters, including an involvement in the assassination of a popular left-wing university professor-turned political leader. The police role in the riot and the effort to distort and discredit anything favorable to the Left was dramatically illustrated in the central assassination scene.
The day after I saw "Z" I attended the Frankfort demonstration against the war.
couple of young guys who were born and raised in Muldraugh and who had just come in:
"You know why they (the New Left) ain't selling it (their ideology)? Because whenever they come into a town, the local fuzz ain't gonna go with it, right? . . . "
"This is Kangaroo Country, man. "
"Right here is Kangaroo Court. That's all they have is a Kangaroo Court. . . "
"Hey, we're supposed to be buggin' you all, but we're not. The cop sent us to bug you all. "
"The last time I come here, Dave Ridenour himself asked me to come down here and spy on people to find out when this next rally gonna be,, how many people was gonna be in it . . . "
"What's a rally? I mean it ain't nothing as long as you don't bug the cops, see. It's a rally. That between us all, not them. "
"Look, just because we were born in this town, they gonna use us, you know.
"To bug you. Hey, we been thrown in jail ten times at least, man, by them two. They want us to bug YOU all, see ..." (The rest is drowned out by loud, conspiratorial laughter. )
A middle-aged man present interrupts to say he believes "there are police officers and there are pigs. . " At this point, Muldraugh1 s own take over again:
"Well, you only got pigs in this town ..."
"And you got Martin's pig farm. You got that, that's right. And police? Where at? Kangaroos, yes. They're jumping all over you, like little ants jumping over the fence, man. That's all.
There I heard representatives from the Muldraugh coffeehouse tell about how local cops directed a band of Muldraugh rednecks armed with clubs to "get" members of the coffeehouse staff who were leaf letting in favor of a boycott of a local hamburger joint The cops stood by, just like in "Z," and let the right-wingers assault the dissenters. And the headlines about Chicago's "police riot" were nothing compared to the record sentences of the Chicago Seven who were being tried on the weakest of laws, primarily because they led dissent against the government and police.
Indeed, it's pretty easy to make the connections between life's reality and the film's reality. Antonioni makes the connection even easier. He uses non-professional actors for the two leads, who not only seek to portray characters in a movie about America, but are actually very similar in reality to what those characters are.
Such a concern about the politics of the films is essential. After all, that's what they're about. If you don't get the revolutionary point (even if, like the people at the conference, you don't agree about its validity) then you've missed much of the movie. For the directors are pretty explicit about their intentions to confront the viewer with a political statement.
Since content is what affects most moviegoers, anyway, hopefully these two potent films will stir some political feeling among even more people than those who were strongly impressed by a trite movie like Easy Rider because of its moral message.
The only problem is that such a wide-open acceptance of the politics alone has the net result of defeating the art of cinema. A mere sociological application can be made from even the crap-piest production, if it starts out in the right place. (Hence, lots of intelligent people tolerate the shitty quality of most
underground papers because they agree with the ideology.) But art is not reality. Art must be understood in its own terms, the artistic language it aims for.
As films, both "Z" and "Zabriskie" are very strong, though hardly perfect works of art. "Z' was the better, more totally satisfying work for me, after only one viewing of each. Costa-Gavras maintains a taut rhythm, tension broken by sequences of relief that are pure lyric. The strong plot-line, broken with associ-ational and referential flash backs, is supported by uniformly fine acting. Etc. Etc. I have only seen the film once, but I had the feeling of gnawing hollowness mixed with flashing emotions that I get when I see a really fine film. It happens infrequently. It happened when I saw Antonioni's "La Notte."
It didn't happen when I saw his "Zabriskie Point." Maybe when I see it again there will be more than just Antonioni's masterful camera eye, his brilliant images to sustain me.
That's nothing to take for granted, even from Antonioni. But I demand more from a film than pretty pictures and political power. For "Zabriskie Point" to rise above the level of a fine, instructional film to a great work of art, I am going to have to see much more during my next viewing. First of all I am going to have to believe the film on more than just a symbolic and allegorical leveL I don't think these people really function as people in the film. The plot is so contrived that it's irrelevant. One of the lingering aftertastes of "Zabriskie" is its Holly woodishness, though it's plot would be lousy even by those standards.
The whole thing is just too obvious. Like propaganda, not art, it cops off the little vaguaraies, the ambiguous sensitivities to people and events. Antonioni caricatures America, I'm afraid, which is great for the revolution, but it's not art.
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