L&F On Film: Zabriskie Point (1970)

April 2024
Addison Rees 

"A highly romanticized take centered on ideas of utopianism. He’s right that modern existence is perilous, leaving individuals alienated and detached from their reality. But, like so many, he probably got caught up in that revolutionary energy of late 1960s America. The film is poetic to a fault."
-Seth Harris, popcult.blog

"Such a silly and stupid movie, all burdened down with ideological luggage it clearly doesn't understand"
-Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

“★ ★ ★ ★ ★ Made me drop out, get a tan, and name my child Banko Famerica. No regrets.”
-Letterboxd user Smidvin

I have been to Zabriskie Point only once in my life. The air temperature was one hundred twenty-eight degrees and I was freshly out of the hospital recovering from a collapsed lung. The trail up to the point is only a quarter mile, and paved to boot, but walking it remains one of the most difficult things I have done in my life. And it was fine because I was there with someone I was in love with.

When I remember my trip to Zabriskie Point, and being in love there, it makes me think how funny it is that almost no one, to this day, discusses the film Zabriskie Point as a romance. It is considered only as a protest film, or some kind of period piece. Thinking in those terms it's no wonder so many people hated the film when it was released. Besides being formally clunky, it doesn't have many cogent points to make about particular political issues or "the sixties" as such. And thank god for that! One can only imagine how boring it would be to sit through a hundred and thirteen minutes of Antonioni trying to make A Statement about American politics, especially with these actors. Luckily for us, he is concerned with more important things: with love, time, and communion. Which is not to say Zabriskie Point is not a political film. But its politics are so far outside, so inherently opposed to, the existent political sphere that they simply cannot be expressed coherently in existent political language. They demand a new form of life.

This demand is clear from the earliest moments of Zabriskie Point. No time is wasted trying to pick apart exactly what is wrong with the world Mark and Daria find being built around them. Antonioni films it as it is, unbearably hostile to living creatures. And while that world expands, stomping out any alternative, the supposed resistance is content to wait on the revolution which will surely arrive on schedule. In the meantime, there's nothing to do but argue, try to squeeze some reforms out of a university which hates you, go in and out of jail, every once in a while die for this or that cause.

This is not tolerable to Mark. He would prefer a revolution which doesn't "plan on losing," and he would prefer it in his lifetime. He is seeking an interruption, a total exit of the hostile world in which he has been forced to live. When he can't find one, he makes one, taking up arms against the police and fully severing himself from the acceptable life of the capitalist subject. It's unclear whether or not he actually kills a cop but, if he didn't, he certainly doesn't have any interest in sticking around to clear his name in court. He takes the accusation as an opportunity, and flees to a desert wilderness which, at least for now, is beyond the reach of the metropolitan state. All the while, the campus Maoists are content to sit around quoting the red book at each other and condemning his "bourgeois individualism."

Still, maybe the Maoists have a bit of a point. This trope of a lone man, greater than his times, retreating to the wilderness has been done a thousand times, and rarely goes anywhere interesting. In many cases it's nothing more than self-justifying mythology from the very people who built the civilization they pretend to escape. Mark's case becomes different when he meets Daria (this is a romance, remember?). He does not retreat to the desert seeking smugly ennobled solitude. He goes to find love, something impossible in the world he left behind. The two of them escape together. They are open to one another, although they are very different. They disagree. They influence, teach, and learn from one another. This openness to one another allows them a budding openness to an even broader world. As they enter one another's bodies they roll in the dust and become indistinguishable from the earth itself. This is what theorist Marcello Tarì called "love against history," a communion so powerful it interrupts the world-as-is and allows us to glimpse "a people yet to arrive." For Daria and Mark this beatific vision arrives as a community of phantom lovers, appearing and disappearing like the little hidden animals which burrow under the desert (whose existence Daria pointedly reminds Mark of when he describes the valley as "dead"). Like the nocturnal surfacing of these animals, something is remembered. That which is obscured becomes visible, that which is past or future becomes now. A different form of life emerges, one that is only possible in our Being (and Becoming) Together.

No doubt these contentions—that revolution entails a transformation of everyday life, and that love is both the method and the goal of that transformation—are part of why Zabriskie Point's heart remained so inscrutable to critics. These truths have been at the center of those movements which most effectively challenged the American social order, and by their nature are antithetical to established cultural and political institutions, no matter how radical they may claim to be. By the standards of these institutions it is easy to agree that Zabriskie Point is objectively flawed. The actors are clearly inexperienced, the script is wooden, the politics wild and incoherent. But what those critics fail to understand is that this is not the kind of film where these flaws matter in the least. Antonioni never set out to make a character study, an exercise in snappy dialogue, or an analysis of "the movement". He is working here with the erotic and ecological. The dialogue and acting are almost entirely superfluous to the actual experience of the film: as in the most erotic moments of our own lives, the words are perfunctory. They are only there to invite us to the edge of that place where we don't need them anymore, where we can ask and be answered by plumes of dust, by distant music, by the motion of bodies together. Working in this mode he constructs a mythic romance, one in which his characters act as folk heroes, incarnations of a liberatory movement which extends far beyond the two lovers themselves. This kind of film, regardless of technical flaws, continues to pose meaningful questions to the revolutionary movement of today.

My lover who took me to Zabriskie Point is long gone. We haven't talked in years. Still, as Tarì notes, "Love [and thus communism] can be defeated, but... remains irreducible as an experience of happiness if we are able to redeem it in remembrance." This happens to the lovers of the film too. Their revolution is soundly defeated and Mark is killed by the police. Daria, grieving, continues on to Phoenix which, as local readers know well, may be the most profoundly miserable and alienated metropolis in the US. She enters the city no longer as an employee but as an enemy agent, alone physically but not in spirit. I have felt this transformation too, in my time in the desert, in the people who have helped me across the heat and the rocks and taught me how to be together. At a time when all the forces of power are working tirelessly to drag us away from one another, there may be no more urgent lesson.

Interested in writing a review or creative work analyzing, criticizing, and otherwise engaging with film for our L&F On Film series? Send a pitch to livingandfighting@protonmail.com. We’ll consider work from writers located in the Southwest and borderlands, or about films with a connection to this region. Essays, poetry, videos, art, and other multimedia will be considered.


  In this floating world with its cargo of brutality, there are many things that want to be said. Living & Fighting will say a few of them. It is a necessarily rude gesture in cyberspace, hopefully exceeding it. This excess is our desire and its refusal to settle into an automatic life.

  L&F circulates a multiplicity of fragments from the so-called Southwest.

︎ ︎ poetry
︎ ︎ state repression
︎ ︎ independent media
︎ ︎ sporadic aphorism
︎ ︎ opinion piece
︎ ︎ events/talks/interviews
︎ ︎ multimedia content
︎ ︎ long form essay  
︎ ︎ gestures
︎ ︎ podcast
︎ ︎ excerpt


︎ Submit Content
︎ Twitter