Last month I wrote about an Italian film that was a huge international success. This month I choose one by another Italian that I admire. This film was considered a total disaster critically and financially. It’s about American youth in the 60’s in rebellion against the establishment. At the time, Michaelangelo Antonioni’s ninth film was one of the worst money losers in history. Since then, “Zebriski Point” has been almost universally put down.
The worst part of “Zabrisiki” is its performances, but I think I have seen acting like this one other time, when it was being praised. It was in a performance of “Iphigenia at Aulis” by Euripides; a play that portrays a father ritually sacrificing his daughter to the gods to boost his standing in the Trojan War. Those in the audience who were gushing over the performances were aware the acting technique was antique, but it gave us a pleasure, similar to hearing music played on period instruments.
When I first watched it, I thought Antonioni was sacrificing the darling daughter of America, namely consumerism, to the gods of youth and beauty whom the Greeks called Aphrodite and Adonis. Likewise, I thought Antonioni’s decision to make the actor’s performance seem wooden was a classy homage to the Greek origins of western drama.
I have since read that Antonioni gambled on his lead actors, choosing pretty looking revolutionaries that were amateur actors and he found them very difficult to work with, especially the boy.
Before reading much about it though, I thought Antonioni was also poking fun at American porn films from that time period.
By the 1960’s adult films had evolved from crude roll playing in one reel stag movies, into feature scenarios with badly acted narratives quickly leading to expertly conducted sex scenes. Those brightly lit, fuzzy-edged frames were later labeled “soft-core” after hard-core went mainstream.
The big orgy at “Zebriski Point” was a feast for Antonioni’s detractors. Again, I found the choreography so campy, and put-on that it was a turn off instead of a turn on. Which is exactly what I would expect from Antonioni. He regularly plays against expectations in his films, so I didn’t question it. I presumed it had sprung from the filmmaker’s genius and I laughed with him and enjoyed myself. My laughter turned to awe while the cinematography at the end of the scene made the episode seem, by turns, sublime and transcendental.
In my untutored state, I thought the decision to make the final “Point” of his movie with multi-camera documentary footage of the demolition of an opulent resort home reason enough to make his feature in the first place. It might help you to understand that the story begins in a crowded room where American university students are plotting a revolution.
Symbolically, this finale could be read as Antonioni strapping consumerist society to a bomb and detonating it. He was in America for the first time, shooting in legendary California, the movie Mecca of the world. Here was a deep-thinking outsider making the authorities nervous with his portrayal of alienated American youth. I read that the Feds grew so paranoid and suspicious they tried to run the production into the ground. Would the critics rescue him? Nope.
As a consequence, many people will never see this superbly controlled and photographed event, invented in the late sixties before big explosions in movies had come into vogue. You used to have to watch a two-hour, playfully stylish, and mythical love tragedy to get to these closing fireworks. This scene can be watched as a stand-alone event now. It lasts about five minutes. Watch it full-screen, if possible. Tell me what you think the director had in mind.