American Avatar
Summer 1969, pp 10-15

Antonioni's Newest Superstars

The summer of 1968 was an eventful season, the primaries, Columbia, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the televised furor of the Democratic Convention. In the midst of the excitement and the talk of youthful revolution came Michaelangelo Antonioni to America to create a film about the violent revolution he saw coming. Antonioni's search for the perfect SDS cop-killer extended across the land, it was a small but well-noted event of the summer. Hundreds of young actors lined up in front of places like the Electric Circus in New York to be poked and questioned and tested to see if the part could really be theirs. It was said the Great Director was seeking someone with the incisive intellect of a Marxist grad student and the personal attitude of an Algerian bomb thrower. Meanwhile, oblivious to the hopes of so many of his contemporaries, twenty year old innocent Mark Frechette stood anxiously on a downtown street corner in Boston, scratching his beard, engrossed in an argument between a sailor and his date at a bus stop. The girl was getting nasty and bitchy as young girls do, and Mark was growing frantic waiting for the sailor to finally assert his manhood and belt the dumb broad across the mouth. As the argument intensified, a horror-stricken busybody in a fourth floor apartment took judgment and a flower pot in hand and prematurely ended the dispute by braining the sailor with a geranium. The insensitivity of this intrusion caused so much indignation in the idealistic Frechette, he shook his fist at the fourth story window, "You motherfucker!" he screamed. Suddenly he was grabbed from behind, "How old are you?" his accoster wanted to know. "I'm twenty," Mark said, bewildered, trying to figure out what was going on. The man shoved Mark into his limousine next to a pretty young girl. "He's twenty and he hates!" he said gleefully. And so, in a fateful moment, Mark Frechette found himself on his way to a screen test, fame, fortune, and Michelangelo Antonioni.

Following the filming of Zabriskie Point, Mark returned to his home among the members of the Fort Hill Community in Roxbury, Massachusetts, bringing with him his lovely co-star, Daria Halprin. It happened that the noted Italian journalist, Pino Cimo, was visiting the community for a few days, on the pretext of doing a story for Tempo. Crowding Mark, Daria, Pino, Jessie, and other members of the community into one room with lights, photographers, and a tape recorder, we produced and recorded a wonderful conversation. The first section of the transcript appears below, the second will follow in next issue.


Jessie:You want to do an interview on Mark and Daria, right?
Pino:Well, I came here because of Avatar. Then I realized that there were two other guests here.
Daria:So Jessie, he wants to do an interview with you, about Avatar.
Jessie: OK.
Pino: Are you ready?
Jessie:Sure, ask me anything. You know, it's not often that we have somebody like you come to the hill.
Pino: Yeah, I realize that. Everybody's waiting for me.
Jessie:No, we're not waiting for you, we want to give you whatever you want.
Pino: I'm getting more than I want.
Jessie: Are you? God!
Pino: I'm getting a community, I'm getting two movie stars ....
Jessie:I know, we've got a lot packed into a very small place! (laughter) I'd like you to meet Owen de Long. He's going to be the next president of the United States — in about ten years.
Pino: Did you start your campaign already?
Owen: No, it was started for me! (laughter)
Jessie: He hooked in on the power source.
Pino:OK. May I ask a kind of a question so everybody can answer and we can start talking?
Jessie: Yeah.
Owen: But what if we all start talking at once?
Jessie: We will, but we all say the same thing so it doesn't matter.
Pino: So, you knew Mark before he went to California, right?
Owen: Before he became famous?
Jessie:See, one of the lovely ladies on the hill was very attracted to him and picked him up on the street. She said "WOW, did you see that guy that walked by?" And she said "Hey kid, do you want an Avatar?" And he says "Yeah." Two days later he moved up to the hill, right, with his kid on his back ....but since then it's all changed. But that's how he got here. She thought he was be-au-ti-ful! And everybody must have thought he was beautiful — he got picked up on the streets again for the movie, right?
Pino:Mark, what was your impression when you came back from California?
Mark:I was glad to be back. My impression was that a whole lot had happened here, a whole lot of work had been done, a whole lot of changes and a whole new order .....I felt kind of out of it out in California.
Pino: Did things look different for you when you came back?
Mark: Umm hmm.
Pino:Which way? People, things, the community life idea, the community life experience?
Mark:Well, see, I hadn't ever really been here for too long before I went out to the coast, so it was sort of like... it was almost like starting off here, like coming to a new place.
Pino:But inside you what happened? I mean, did you feel closer to these people you knew before, or just kind of different?
Mark:Yeah, very much so.
Pino:Could you be more specific? Which way?
Owen:(aside) He makes all the money!
Jessie:He's a part of each of us now and he wasn't before. He's a part of the family.
Pino:That's what I'm asking, the fact that he spent ten months in California making a movie ....
Jessie:It doesn't matter, if he's connected in one moment then he's connected forever.
Pino:Well, that's not always true.
Jessie:It's only true as to how much you can be connected to another person. If you can connect totally to one other person, then you're connected forever and he has done that.
Pino:How did you feel when you saw him first when he came back?
Jessie:I felt nothing, I didn't know him.
Pino:But you knew that he was here and then he went to California?
Jessie:Yeah, vaguely .... He's the kid that carried the kid around on his back all the time that was on the hill, got a part in a movie and went to California, but it wasn't until he got back from there .... too many people going in and out of here all the time .... But they have one thing that they're connected to which is Melvin, and if they connect deeply, like he makes people connect, then they're connected forever, and then everybody on the hill eventually becomes connected to them, and it's one family.
Pino:Mark, did you know more about Mel after you came from California? I mean, the fact of spending ten months in California, did it affect this relationship?
Pino:Which way? I mean, did you understand him better than before or ....
Jessie:(interrupting) No, he had something to give him.
Mark:Well, what it was, starting with the Avatar, getting that free copy from Faith ..... After that, I understood Mel perfectly the first issue, I thought he was crazy! (laughter) And it was only after several months, almost a year of issues, that a lot of stuff I just couldn't accept I began to realize, in my own life, were... were facts, you know, were truths. And then some things happened between me and my wife, and I wound up in Roxbury with my oldest son, not really knowing Mel, not really knowing anyone else on the hill either, with just a general feeling of... of... there was just so much going on, there was so much vitality, and it all seemed directed, very well directed, you know, it wasn't scattered, it wasn't just wasting through loose seams or corners. And I felt really peaceful up here, you know, I felt like this is a place I could be — I got a job here, I got an apartment here — where I could uh...just sort of reconstruct what had just fallen apart in my life, you know, and just try to get something else going again...and I had only been up here about a month and a half and I got discovered for this part in the movie. It was sort of like I felt... I just felt an obligation to the community and the people up here, simply because they were here, and even though I didn't know them, just even their physical presence on the top of this hill helped me through an awful lot of changes, like when my kid was getting up at three o'clock in the morning, just... just wailing for daylight, and he would be screaming and very upset, and the only thing that I could think of to do was put him in the back pack and take him up around the hill because it was just so peaceful, and uh... I wanted to do something, to contribute to what was going on up here, which I really didn't understand at all. Whatever it was, I wanted to do something for it, and... when the picture came along, that was an opportunity .....
Pino:Didn't you feel a sense of duty to remain here? Instead you chose to go there. Why?
Mark:Because that's what me... that's what I could have done for the community. You know, they had enough people with hammers in their hands.
Pino:And when you came back, did you feel that you had done exactly what you wanted to do?
Mark:Uh, no, I didn't feel I had done exactly what I wanted to do, I wanted to do a lot more, probably, than I ever could have done, but I felt I had done something, I was able to contribute something to the community, and so I felt a little closer to it.
Pino:Daria, when you met Mark during the movie shooting, did you feel this kind of a community spirit in him — the fact that there was, behind him there was community, that he wasn't just himself but had kind of a family up here on the hill, or you just met him like anybody else?
Daria:I just met him like anybody else. And when I first met him I don't think that he... I didn't feel Fort Hill in him as much as I do now.
Jessie:Were you threatened by it?
Daria:By Fort Hill? No, but I wasn't excited about it. I accepted it but I wasn't ....
Jessie:Moved by it.
Daria:Yeah, like passive acceptance.
Pino:How did the change come?
Daria:(laughing) Well, one night... um... oh God! .. one night I had a vision about Fort Hill, and um ....
Jessie:It's a very religious family! (much laughter) Jesus Christ is the leader, you gotta take that in your stride!
Daria:No, really, I had a vision about Mel, and... and for about twenty four hours I was just having visions about Fort Hill, all the way in California, and I had never been here ....
Pino:What did you know about Mel?
Daria:I didn't know very much about him at all.
Pino:So how come you had the vision?
Daria:I have no idea.
Owen:(aside) She was affected by the spirit.
Pino:Did Mark talk about him?
Daria:Yeah, but not... not as clearly as my vision talked to me about him... I mean, it was like Mel just paid me a little visit one night in California to let me know that it was about time for me to have a reaction.
Pino:To what?
Daria:Towards Fort Hill. And so then I just waited around for Mark to get his stuff together so we could come up here.
Pino:Was it kind of a message that you got from this vision?
Daria:No, I just felt that I wanted very much to come here.
Owen:(aside) Touched by the spirit!
Pino:And when you came here, did you find what you expected?
Daria:I didn't expect anything in particular. I expected a family and I found a family.
Pino:When you say family you mean... closeness to everybody here?
Daria:That's part of it, on a very simple level.
Pino:Do you see a very big change between your life before and your life here?
Daria:Ummm... I don't know.
Owen:She hasn't decided that yet.
Jessie:She's only been here for three days.
Pino:Well, when she says she found a community, she found a family, that's already a big change, right?
Jessie:Yeah but, you know, a girl marries into a family, she finds a family. That's what she's done. She has to wait a while — it takes more than three days before her life is changed by it.
Owen:(aside) You find the structure, but you have to fill it in.
Pino:I'd like to ask someone else, when Mark and Daria came back, did the community get something new from them?
Candy: Two new people.
Pino:Besides that... I mean, it wasn't just the same as to get two new people from Cambridge or from New York.
Candy: Well, any two people have their own set of experiences, of course, sort of highly specialized experiences.
Jessie:Hollywood, you might say! We got Hollywood, we got Mr. Antonioni, we got films, we got uh... the god and goddess of the younger generation.
Candy: The new god and goddess of the younger generation.
Jessie:Yeah, Elizabeth Burton and, uh, what's his name — Richard Taylor! (laughter) Man, they're nowhere! (more laughter) I still love them though.
Pino:Uh... both Mark and Daria, is in the movie, Zabriskie Point, is there any closeness to this community life, I mean in the spirit of the movie, is there anything which is close to this community life?
Mark:That depends on how Antonioni cuts it. That depends on how close Antonioni is to that kind of spirit.
Pino:Well, how about in the way you understood the movie?
Mark:I didn't understand the movie very well. (laughter)
Owen:(aside) He found himself in the unfortunate position of simply being the star rather than the director.
Pino:But of course you understood the basic idea of the movie?
Mark:Well, I did and I didn't.
Jessie:But it kept changing, right?
Mark:I mean, see, Antonioni did not start the movie with a basic idea, so his own idea of it was changing from day to day, and I was several days behind Antonioni on all of these changes in the movie, so it took me a while .... Even now, it depends on how he cuts it as to what the movie is going to be like.
Pino:But, apart from what Antonioni's going to do, was there a time when you finally said "I'm doing this, and this is something to do with my personal life, you know, I'm trying to give a message to somebody, or to people who's going to watch the movie." Did you really get involved in the movie?
Jessie:To try and change it.
Mark:Yeah, I began to get dissatisfied with it, I didn't feel that it was taking a direction that meant anything.
Pino:When was that?
Mark:Late in the movie. Antonioni had spent such a short period of time in this country, most of it involved with the technicalities of producing the film, that he hadn't had time to experience fully, or even substantially enough, what was actually going on in this country, what he was trying to make a movie about. What America was telling him wasn't the full story, and... I tried to do something to change that.
Jessie:Did he have a lot of pride?
Mark:Yeah, he's a very proud man.
Jessie:He was too proud, in other words, to make a real film about America?
Owen:(aside) Well, let's say he was preoccupied with his concern for technique, similar to Max Ophuls in uh... uh... Lola Montes as compared with the movie Loves of Isadora ....
Jessie:Are you getting all this? Write it down! (laughter)
Owen: ... Stanley Kaufmann's review of Max Ophuls movie being to the point. (laughter)
Pino:Daria, what was your impression of this, did you get involved in the movie like Mark did?
Daria:Yeah, I got involved in it.
Jessie:She fell in love in it, right? That's pretty deep involvement!
Pino:Did you have the same impression Mark did that Antonioni...
Daria:No, I had a completely different relationship with Antonioni, and therefore a completely different feeling about the movie, on most things.
Jessie:So what happened with that one?
Daria:We had a lot of arguments!
Mark:We had an awful lot of arguments.
Pino:What did you argue about mainly?
Daria:Well... um... what did we argue about?
Mark:Specifically, it's too far in the past to even bring back, but what would happy would be that Antonio would explain to Daria what he was trying to do in a certain scene, what he intended to be the main point of the dialogue or whatever and I wouldn't find that... you know, I wouldn't find that meaning or that direction in the dialogue or in the scene, and it was difficult for me to get any satisfaction from Antonioni. It seemed he was very distant. Whereas he explained an awful lot of things to Daria, he didn't spend that much time explaining things to me, which was in tune with the character I was portraying. However, what this led to was that for me to get any information about the film I had to go to her and say "What did he say about this, what did he say about that?"
Daria:That's how it all started! (laughter)
Pino:Well Daria, to be more specific, Mark is saying I think, if I understand correctly, that he wasn't satisfied with the movie, he wasn't satisfied with the way Antonioni was trying to make the movie, and I think Mark was implying that he thinks Antonioni wasn't really making a true movie about America.
Mark:He was reading an awful lot of newspapers and magazines, and watching television and radio and like that. I felt that he just wasn't getting the whole picture. I felt like he was getting a highly monitored cross-section of the American life and what was going on here.
Pino:Would it be correct to say that he was then getting a superficial view of America?
Owen:(aside) Similar to Governor Rockefeller's current tour of Latin America.
Pino:OK. Daria, did you have the same impression.
Daria:That Mark did? No.
Pino:I mean, were you satisfied with what Antonioni was trying to do?
Jessie:What is Antonioni like as a person?
Daria:Umm ....
Daria:No, he's very warm.
Mark:Cold. (laughter)
Owen: Does he project his personal opinions of his personal relationship with you into his movies?
Jessie:I imagine he's different with a male than he is with a female.
Owen: Of course, that's why I brought it up.
Mark:I think it was also that it had something to do with just the character... you know, an uptight individual who's having trouble being heard by the establishment — his views, his opinions, his feelings ....
Jessie:Is Antonioni concerned about that in himself?
Jessie:He is concerned about that.
Owen:In other words ....
Jessie:Wait a minute, wait a minute, we've got a point of agreement. He is uptight about presenting himself... in other words, to be recognized by the establishment.
Mark: I think that was like me in she film, right, and so maybe to effect that, you know, he put me in just that position against him.
Daria:When the movie was over he was really warm toward you.
Jessie:Oh, so he sacrificed you instead of himself, right?
Daria:He sacrificed himself too. He really had a hard time with Mark.
Jessie:Yeah, but still, if Mark was part of himself in the film, which is all directors' thing, right? other words, they present themselves in film, isn't that correct, that's why they make films.
Pino:Mark, are you saying that Antonioni in a way played a part with you?
Daria:Well, maybe he did.
Mark:In a way....
Pino:Because they do this, the movie directors, they do all the time, if they want you to get angry they will be rough to you all the time, you know.
Daria:Like Mark is giving him the benefit of the doubt.
Pino:From what she's saying, I understand this way. Would you agree, Daria, that in a way he wanted to be different with you because of the movie, not because of his personal relationship to you?
Mark:That may be it.
Daria:That may have been it, because he was very warm toward Mark when the movie was over and we were working on postproduction ....
Jessie:But wait a minute, why do you think that happened?
Daria:I'm not sure.
Owen:You haven't answered my original question which is, did the movie which you made reflect the kind of relationship which you had with him at the beginning of the movie. Then a second question is, did the movie reflect the kind of relationship you had with him by the end ....
Daria:We don't even know what the movie is, Owen.
Jessie:He was making a movie about revolution, right?
Mark:Umm... my first understanding, and what sort of sustained me, because I felt that he would put together, present a revolution in film, a revolutionary film, but it didn't appear to me to be shaping up that way for a long time. But the changes that were made after March, the new dialogue and the new stuff in Death Valley, did seem to reflect .... Like when I got back there the first day of spring in San Francisco, he was just like ... you know, from about two hundred feet away you could see this amazing warmth, which I had never seen before coming from Antonioni. It was so much that even Daria noticed it.
Daria:It was because I had my vision about Mel.
Pino:May I read a few lines by him, by Antonioni, about this movie? Maybe that could explain a little bit, you know, what he thought the movie should be.
Pino:He says, "Perhaps my movie, my film, is the historv of a search, an attempt for liberation, in a private, personal sense, but this attempt for liberation in front of the reality of the entire America." He wants to express his personal reaction, his personal feelings, his personal attitude toward what he sees is happening in the United States.
Jessie:In other words, he's expressing himself. Does he attempt to communicate to the American people, or does he attempt merely to present himself to the American people?
Mark:To present himself to the American public.
Jessie:Not to communicate to the American public, but only to express himself to the American people and be recognized, right?
Candy: What else could he do?
Jessie:Ahhh! A great man could do much more!
Owen:He came to the United States to perceive the revolution. Did he bring any preconceptions to it as far as you experienced it?
Mark:I had one talk with him that was as distant as most of the talks that we had, but in the course of it a lot of his own feelings about the college scene today came out, and he related this back to his own experiences in college, with facism, the feelings that he had about wanting to do something then that were apparently stifled by the amount of opposition that he received. He spoke of the old feelings in small town Italy, completely resistant to change.
Owen:So he came to the United States with a preconceived empathy with the student revolution?
Mark:Yeah, I had a feeling that he had a lot more faith in the students than the students had in themselves, really.
Owen:Did his preconceived empathy with, sympathy for the students, change in the course of making the movie?
ark:I can't say for sure, he never actually came out and said that, but due to one factor or another, most of the emphasis on the college campus was de-emphasized. In other words there were a lot of scenes that were supposed to be done on colleges that never were done.
Owen:Could this be attributed to the fact, as a more specific question, that he may have come to the United States with a preconceived idea of where it was that the revolution was taking place?
Mark:Umm... I think so... He mentioned at one time, the first time he was in the United States, a couple of years ago, that there was very little happening on college campuses, and on his return to the United States he found they were all tearing up their school books, and it was happening all over the country, and this he thought was... this was a lot to him, this made quite an impression on him, that it was very widespread now.
Owen:Is it possible that he mistook the location of where it was happening for where it had been happening before that, and also perhaps he mistook the physical manifestations of change for what in fact were just the later stages of a spirit which had passed through at an earlier time?
Mark:... Yeeess... (Laughter)... yeah ... (more laughter)
Candy:What did you tell him about Fort Hill, and what was his reaction?
Mark:He was interested in knowing about Fort Hill, but there was no real interest until that time I came back here after I walked off the set.
Pino:You walked off the set?!
David: Maybe we should start at the beginning.

(Part II of the interview will appear in next issue)

<NOTE: this was the last issue of American Avatar,
and so Part II was presumably unpublished.
Another interview, "Daria," appears in Pluto (1970). ST>

Mel Lyman