The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties
J.Hoberman. New Press, 2003. (ISBN 1565847636)
[Antonioni, Zabriskie Point, Mark Frechette, Fort Hill...]
No less than the protagonists of Easy Rider and the patrons of Alice's Restaurant, Michelangelo Antonioni had gone in search of America. MGM was anxious to bankroll the maestro's follow-up to his astonishing hit, Blowup, and flew Antonioni to Los Angeles in May 1967 to discuss plans. Knocked out by the infinite freeways, plenitude of used-car lots, and "steel buildings shining through clouds of pollution," Antonioni plucked the idea for his movie from an item in a Phoenix newspaper about a hippie who was killed by police while trying to return a stolen airplane.
Antonioni returned to the United States in the heroic days of late 1967 to meet with off-off-Broadway playwright Sam Shepard in New York. Shepard gave the hippie-outlaw-martyr story an environmental exploitation angle by introducing the character of a wealthy real estate developer, a George Washington McLintock foil to the hero's Billy the Kid. Antonioni then continued his investigation, flying back to California to hang out with militants in Berkeley and hippies in Golden Gate Park. While there, he found his leading lady in anthropology student Daria Halprin, eighteen-year-old daughter of avantgarde choreographer Ann Halprin.
Zabriskie Point, which Antonioni named for the lowest spot in Death Valley and hoped to open with footage of a real urban race riot, had been scheduled to start shooting in June 1968, but production was postponed while the director searched for Daria's co-star, imagined as an American Che, the Hollywood embodiment of the New Left. Some 1,300 hopefuls mobbed the Electric Circus in New York's East Village one Friday afternoon. "To join in the mass hallucination of grandeur all you had to be was a male, between the ages of 19 and 23, and five feet 10 inches tall," Steven Lerner wrote in the Village Voice. Waiting on line, Lerner deduced that Antonioni's desired type was a "tall, gaunt, hollow-eyed youth (preferably with dark hair) who looked shifty enough to be an Algerian bomb-thrower and mean enough to slit your throat if you couldn't light his cigarette."
Lerner further noted that, during their auditions, prospects were often given the line "fuck you," and he advanced far enough in the audition process to learn that rage was crucial. He was asked what made him angry and if violence tended to "happen" around him. Meanwhile, as Antonioni's scouts scoured the nation for the personification of enraged white youth, the director himself flew to Chicago for the DemCon and got tear-gassed in Lincoln Park. Finally, Mark Frechette was discovered one night in the midst of a heated argument at a Cambridge, Massachusetts, bus stop. ("I've got one who really knows how to hate," the scout reported.) A twenty-year-old carpenter who had only recently joined musician Mel Lyman's Fort Hill commune publishers of Boston's underground weekly, Avatar, as well as the group later immortalized in Rolling Stone as an exemplar of "acid fascism" Frechette had never heard of Antonioni, but he had the chiseled looks of a young Peter Fonda and a history of violence that included two stints in a mental hospital. Shooting finally began in late summer and continued from the post-Chicago apotheosis of the New Left for nine months into the early regime of Richard Nixon.
Characterized by continual conflict between the Italian filmmaker and his American crew, Zabriskie Point was treated as an alien invasion. Antonioni had barely begun when copies of his script disappeared from a locked MGM office and word spread that he planned to desecrate the American flag atop the Mobil Oil building in downtown LA. No sooner were Mobil's lawyers placated than Antonioni had to deny a report that he'd been filming on the RFK death site in the Ambassador Hotel kitchen. When production moved north to Marin County, Antonioni was accused of fomenting a riot on the campus of Costa Costra College. To the sound of a tribal drum, Kathleen Cleaver and other Black Panthers taunted a group of white students, telling these would-be radicals that if they want to be "real," they should chuck a Molotov cocktail into the ROTC office. Mark (Frechette) stuns the meeting by announcing his readiness to die and splits to buy a gun. The students occupy the library building, but after a policeman cold-bloodedly guns down a black kid, Mark (or someone) shoots the pig. Then Mark flees just as, by some accounts, Antonioni's crew split before the local police could serve warrants for their arrest.
Mid-November, Antonioni retreated to Death Valley importing Joseph Chaikin and twenty members of New York's Open Theater, as well as a number of teenagers from Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, for a nude "love-in." By now the production's phones were being tapped and its mail opened. As Zabriskie Point inspired its own Operation Chaos, so Frechette waged a personal guerrilla war trying to persuade Antonioni to hire Mel Lyman to score the movie and littering the set with copies of the Avatar, open to his guru's picture. To add to the paranoia, the star classified 4-F was being harassed by his draft board and, summoned to Phoenix for a physical, had to stage an Arlo Guthrie freakout. Back in LA, Antonioni felt police everywhere: "The cop is looking at you. In the streets. In your houses. Everywhere. It's incredible. They arrest you if you say `fuck.' Everyone is afraid of the police."
Sumptuous and alienated, Zabriskie Point is scarcely more than a violent anecdote unfolding over the course of one long afternoon. The TV references to Mark's crime, the ease with which he steals a plane, only add to the sciencefiction ambience. Daria (Halprin), who works for Sunnydunes Enterprises in the police-state skyscraper of total surveillance, is driving through Death Valley to Phoenix in her 1954 Buick for a rendezvous with her boss and lover Lee Allen (Rod Taylor). In a scene that might have come from a Doors song, she stops in a desert town populated by disturbed children. They attack her but she manages to escape.
Mark, who proves an extremely competent pilot, flirtatiously strafes Daria's car, then lands so they can meet. She lights a joint and offers him a toke, but Mark demurs. His is a "reality trip." Neither particularly expressive, they engage in arid repartee and then make love in close-up, occasioning a lyrical interlude of other naked couples the Orgy as a vision of the new order. Daria tells Mark that he's "beautiful," and together, they paint the plane. Mark is planning to return it, but just as with Bonnie and Clyde, Wyatt and Billy, and Willie Boy, the Great Society will not let him live. As he lands in LA, Mark is shot down by the cops. Daria hears the news on her car radio.
Zabriskie Point ends in the desert's plastic pleasure spa. Arriving in Phoenix, Daria proceeds to a mountaintop ranch, and there has another vision the Eve of Destruction. She imagines the ranch house exploding and, as though watching her own personal movie, has only to look at it to make it happen. Three times, the place blows up in slow motion: A television, a refrigerator, patio furniture, a box of cereal, a loaf of Wonder Bread, even a copy of Look (which later would place Daria and Mark on its cover), float in space. Then, having brought down the world, Daria disappears into the sunset.*
Throughout the filming, Halprin and Frechette had been, naturally, conducting a love affair. As soon as Zabriskie Point wrapped in April 1969, the couple decamped for Fort Hill, where Frechette had left his wife and baby. That month, in Berkeley, an amalgam of hippies, students, politicos, and vagrants began tilling the empty lot they declared "People's Park." In May foretaste of Nixon hardball Zabriskie Point's producers were served with subpoenas, charged with violating the Mann Act by transporting persons for immoral purposes across state lines. May 15, People's Park was bulldozed and Berkeley occupied by the National Guard. Antonioni, meanwhile, had taken his footage to Rome, where he spent the next seven months editing. He did not stop in Fort Hill. Nor did he use the dialogue that Frechette went on strike to force him to reshoot.