Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Soanyway River

Most of what’s has been written in English on Zabriskie Point was written when it came out in 1970. Commentators (mostly Italian) in the post-neorealist milieu taking Antonioni to task for not articulating a clear political position converge with those (mostly American, notably the narratologist Seymour Chatman) opining that the films are formal experiments crafted to be “incapable” of political argument (Chatman, Antonioni or The Surface of the World [1985], 78). Zabriskie Point incorporates this monotonic circle of realism and aestheticism when the male lead actor, Mark Frechette, complains about the “reality trip” his associates have been on. Asked “Were you in with that group? Why didn’t you get out?,” he responds in part: “I wasn’t really in a group . . . . But when it gets down to it, you have to choose one side or the other.” “There are a thousand sides, not just heroes and villains,” Daria Halprin, the female lead, responds. Her suggestion multiplies neorealism by a thousand, surpassing it by outdoing it.

Frechette’s character has been read as an object of criticism and even satire, but in many ways Antonioni does hurry to establish the film’s “side” and is not without sympathy for his need for things to happen before their time. Zabriskie Point presents group conflicts with unmissable crudity: right and left, white and black, man and woman, rich and poor, old and young, South and North. Although differences between black and white militant students are shown as tense yet susceptible to discussion, and a moment of mutual recognition seems to pass between the white, sexually exploited Daria and an indigenous-looking Latina housekeeper in a corporate villa, the capitalist developers, police, and tourists with bumper stickers from the South are caricatures of common enemies, linked by what Antonioni portrays as an incapacity for thought. There’s never the slightest suggestion that we should take the corporate elite or the Nixonian rabble seriously, nor see their kinds of lives as credible options: there may be a thousand possible sides, but those aren’t among them.

The problem that emerges only when “side” is not a problem is how to live one’s sidedness as part of the weaker side. Live doesn’t only mean “express”; in the conditions to which Antonioni repeatedly returns, it usually doesn’t get to. His dwelling on the problem of these conditions in almost pure terms is still hard to understand. He tries to register the intransigence of the times without, like Hegel or Marx or Deleuze or Lacan in different ways, suggesting that life does or will burst out of one's recognition of them. Frechette’s allusion to Marx, “People only act when they need to, but I need to sooner than that,” constructs an impasse where before there was a single historical process. Antonioni never shows the outside (nor radical inside) of the process, but only the legitimacy of the desire for one. The meeting of militants that opens the film debates the question of how to be on a side as one of political strategy and goal. When Frechette leaves the meeting, his exit line, “I’m also willing to die, but not of boredom,” fuels the charge of aestheticism (interest vs. boredom is more important than life vs. death). Read at the time as criticizing the immaturity of characters who don’t understand that political action is different from moral impulse, the film nonetheless implies that they have a “point,” even if it's only one point in the “center of nothing” (Antonioni’s interview with Roger Ebert [1969]). Antonioni seems to posit that something does happen when his characters finish their inventories of the limits that enclose them, and further--this is the part that bears more thinking about--that it’s not possible to say, only to show, what that something is.

Zabriskie Point is an outlook in Death Valley from which there’s a panoramic view of a prehistoric lake bed. The notion of "Zabriskie Point" as a "place" involves a Cartesian emplotment of the necessary and the arbitrary, a piece of language nailed to a vast expanse to privilege one of a thousand possible, in many cases equally grand, views. Rather than commemorating a significant human history, it points to a geological formation that indexes time itself. “This is an area of ancient lakebeds deposited five to ten million years ago,” Halprin intones, reading from the actual State Park sign, after which the camera shoots what one can see from the outlook. This bit of Parks and Recreation boilerplate is deadening erasure from a historical point of view. As a shred of the actual, one of the many documentary elements of Zabriskie Point, it’s part of Antonioni’s analysis of the reality trip: a “blind spot,” if you’re one to believe in the impossible Real (cf. Fabio Vighi, Traumatic Encounters in Italian Film [2006], 78). Like Marker in La Jetée and Guzman in Nostalgia for the Light, Antonioni plays with the idea that a portal to the scarcely knowable can expose the contingency of human acts. What Halprin can see from Zabriskie Point is the almost arbitrary power in its naming. It makes her think, a little later, that “’Soanyway’ ought to be one word—the name of a place or a river. Soanyway River.” (The name here is a shortcut past still slower changes in grammar.)

Halprin's “ought to be” mode amplifies in her vision toward the end of the film, in which she imagines, and Antonioni imagines her imagining in loving 70mm from thirteen different angles, how it would look if the developers’ modernist architectural paradise were blown to bits. This famous sequence works like the still more famous sequence in L’Eclisse when a minute of silence on the Bourse passes in real time, Alain Delon whispers to Monica Vitti that the minute is costing money, and the viewer realizes that every passing minute of a film production also costs money. In Zabriskie Point, Antonioni’s realization of a destruction that is counterfactual inside Zabriskie Point is the opposite of the almost-free documentary moment of reading a State Park sign. Showing assets blowing up, Antonioni is also really burning cash in “the biggest controlled explosion ever filmed” up to that time (Barry Miles, Hippie [2005], 351).

Fictively virtual, the explosions (but not the destruction of the house) are literally actual. We know they are supposed to be virtual within the logic of the film partly because the house blows up again and again, violating a chronology which until now has been paratactic ("so anyway") but linear. The thirteen or thousand realities of destruction project the film’s technical capacity into Halprin’s “inner” space of transformations and vice-versa. She doesn’t need to be able to see each angle physically in order to be able to imagine them, while Antonioni gathers them in one place--serially instead of spatially as the geological Zabriskie Point gathers slices of time--so that we can see them. I can’t work my way around to reading the sequence as claiming that its crossing of the virtual and the real is efficacious or inefficacious, or even that it is pre-efficacious. Showing what people wish for without suggesting that because it is impossible, they should wish for something else, the scene stops short of making us feel that this is wish fulfillment. So anyway . . . .

Within the plot, Halprin doesn’t have the leverage over naming exercised by the Borax Company, which got Zabriskie Point named after one of its early 20th-century mining executives; but behind the plot, Antonioni did. Even though no one liked Zabriskie Point at the time—or maybe because people hated it so spectacularly—the spot refers to the film now. They say Foucault took acid there in 1975 (James Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault [1993], 245). I don’t know what the radical architect Paolo Soleri made of Antonioni’s use of his house to exemplify the corporatization of avant-garde art; he started building his visionary desert community, Arcosanti, in the same year. He’s 92 now and it’s still unfinished, and that still cuts two ways. “One gets the strong impression that these different shapes and arrangements must mean something” (Wittgenstein, Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology, and Religious Belief, 45).

Zabriskie Point's final sequence: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bJsW6ta4X8o

1 comment:

etc said...

The point you mention as something to think further about raises the question of the forms of showing that do not count as forms of saying. What is it that signals the difference (or maybe friction) between these modes? Is it the difference that is actually perceptible?