In Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1969 American bomb, Zabriskie Point, the character of Daria, played by Daria Halprin, reprises the role played by Monica Vitti in Antonioni’s “Alienation Trilogy,” The Adventure, The Night, The Eclipse (Vitti’s is a minor character in this film), plus The Red Desert, in which she finds the resolution that eluded Vitti.
Antonioni was part of the Italian “Neo-Realist” movement in cinema, which, in part depicts human nature making progress impossible. Vitti’s characters tend to struggle with modernity and capitalism, trying to find comfort in sex, romance, luxury, even imitating the supposed behavior of tribal Africans. Nothing works.
Zabriskie Point is a hippie romance, with a meet-cute involving a Cessna Skycatcher, a gray ’53 Buick Roadmaster, and a souvenir nightie.
In the opening scene, a meeting of student radicals is improvised by Joseph Chaikin’s Open Theater and a bemused Kathleen Cleaver. Leading man Mark Frechette storms out, saying he’s willing to die, but not of boredom.
Cleaver says “the same goddam thing” will make white people revolutionaries “that makes black people revolutionaries...running pall mall into fascism, the pigs on the campus now—you want them sitting up in the classroom. You want ’em in your door? You want them standings on the street every time you walk out?”
Temp-worker Daria drives from Los Angeles to an assignation in the desert with her developer boss. Police mistake Mark for a policeman’s killer during a student riot. He steals an airplane, and soars above the LA smog to the tune of the Grateful Dead’s “Dark Star.”
Daria and Mark meet when his plane’s fuel gets low, and she spots it by a prospector’s shack. They make love at Zabriskie Point, America’s lowest elevation. Mark flies back to LA where police kill him before he can exit the plane. Daria hears this on the radio, but continues on to the lavish home where her boss is negotiating with other wheeler-dealers. Antonioni counts on us to connect the extrajudicial execution with conspicuous consumption.
In any case, the boss doesn’t measure up to Mark. Daria, until now a round-heeled pothead, fulfills Cleaver’s opening-scene prophecy. The mansion explodes, in her mind, in an orgasm of refusal. The explosion scene, in slow motion to the tune of Pink Floyd’s “Come in, Number 51,Your Time Is Up,” has been criticized as extravagant. The film crew built and destroyed a mock-up. The actual mansion, designed by architect Hiram Hudson Benedict (not Paolo Soleri as rumored) was spared.
Another rumor is that the original ending involved skywriting “Fuck America,” but was vetoed by MGM. Granted, much of Zabriskie Point is preposterous, but that is too much of a false note to be believable.
For a lot of Americans born between 1948 and 1952, young adulthood was a time of soul-searching and reckless experimentation. From the civil rights movement, to LSD and Enovid, to rock music’s maturity were all catalyzed by the war in Vietnam.
It occurred to the children of privilege that there could be a better way of life. Students fantasized about living with friends in the country, in peace with humanity and the environment.
The peak was late spring 1970. The United States invaded Cambodia. Four protesting students died at the hands of the Ohio National Guard, and four million American students went on strike, closing hundreds of colleges and high schools.
By fall, the mood on campus was less defiant. Longhairs gradually returned to the fold. Duty and love for parents, desire to use our gifts, the gradual dissolution of campus affections, and, most strongly, responsibility to new families ended “the movement.”
We tried to work compromises between what we thought we ought to do and what life demanded. Sometimes we gave up entirely, doing work that would have been the same, had The Sixties never happened. Sometimes we tried things that didn’t work out. Sometimes we got lucky and found ways of living our dreams.
Daria Halprin was 19 while shooting Zabriskie Point. She was born to Lawrence and Anna Halprin, a prominent architect and a prominent dance teacher. Prior to Zabriskie Point, she danced in a piece her mother choreographed for a Haight-Ashbury documentary, Revolution.
In Zabriskie Point, her acting, as well as Frechette’s, seems wooden. The New Realists often used non-professionals who shared backgrounds with their characters, instead of professional actors. Halprin and Flechette were both major crush material, and they fell in love.
Frechette was a member of the Boston Avatar Commune, who lived to serve folk musician and con man Mel Lyman. Daria wised up fairly quickly and left. In 1972, she made her third and final film, a thriller, The Jerusalem File, and married actor Dennis Hopper. She had a daughter with Hopper, and divorced him in 1976.
In 1979, she founded the Tamalpa Institute with her mother, and developed the Tamalpa Life/Art Process, where participants work on issues through dance, writing, drawing, and other creative expression, continuing her mother’s belief that dance is the “mother of all art.”