Where Agape is privatized and Sentimentalized, Eros is Also Doomed

The semantic role of Zabriskie point in the film is to create a historical frame of reference for modern America – it is a point of the past “our land and we all came from”: the beginning of “us“, in front of which we feel a reverie and the need “to justify ourselves”. But it is also a point of danger which reminds us that if we are not on the level of our pristine origins, if we screw things and ourselves up we’ll pay a high price. ZP, in other words, belong to the same archetype as the figure of the Creator of the world who watches our moral condition, or nature (in a situation of global warming, for example) which starts to “strike back” because of our infantile irresponsibility and blind greed.

Child- and youth-abuse starts with a systematic infantilization of the mind – with stimulation of the imaginary without simultaneously teaching how to establish and keep the psychological borders between imagination and reality. The reason why in US the cultural pedagogy of differentiation between the imaginary and the real is lacking is that it could be “bad for commerce and economy” – people will buy less guns because they then will comprehend the nature of socio-economic conflicts and understand that guns are a part of the problem, not the solution. People who make profit on selling guns cannot afford to care about the social price the whole society pays for the presence of guns in young hands (the statistics of accidental and impulsive killings, police brutality and general atmosphere of suspicion and intolerance).

After being mistreated at the police station Mark impulsively decides to buy a gun to triumph over the “police thugs”. Young people, especially the ambitious or those with the experience of having been humiliated, can very easily come to do irrational things if the pedagogy of rationality (taking into consideration the psychology of youth), and alternative to violence channels for self-realization are absent in culture, as it happens to be in US.

Similarity of these two faces points to the problem when people become older without becoming more mature, without transformation of the soul. Many Americans don’t become more adult with years – they age but remain childlike: oriented on spectacular achievements, great deeds and on trying to impress others instead of developing their own relationship with truth. Without this psychological condition there couldn’t be childishly impulsive student rebellion depicted in the film, Mark’s “imaginary” desire to kill a cop, his “circumstantial” theft of a plain and taking off flying it, and later the absurd idea of returning the plain as a heroic “super-boy”.

The interior of the neighborhood Deli gives Antonioni’s intuition the chance to represent the unconscious of the young Americans where innocence, self-aggrandizing and misleading ideology of “freedom”, pop-taste, doping and cheap consumerism are fused together as in a melting pot.

Bombardment by ads representing the new kind of man – a happy/healthy consumer, is, according to Antonioni, a practical pedagogy influencing Americans from childhood. In comparison with the poster-specie Mark feels himself as a helpless pigmy. Today it is becoming obvious that it is commercial ads what has defeated democracy in US.

Painted like a toy and bright as animation cartoon image, the plain (that will bring the main protagonist of the film to his end) is Antonioni’s visual metaphor of the American dream as it exists in the American unconscious.

Sheriff’s obtuse face is a contradictory combination of natural dullness, trained arrogance and robotic calculation. His presence at the foreground of ZP landscape transforms the pristine area into a soulless wildness. The shot connotes the dryness of the soul of those who invent a social order without sense, entrepreneurship without humanity and profit without reservations. This sheriff is not a guard of the American land but protector of the very wildness of the internal world not touched by the universal human culture.

The security guard at a corporate building is like Saturn encircled by cosmic rings of security measures. Here Antonioni shows the role of private security forces in the corporate America of sixties in comparison with the police force reserved for handling regular people. Today the private protection of the rich keeps on growing and after forty years since the release of ZP, reaches a size that is almost comparable with that of a traditional national army.

Policemen are shown like identical twins – they think, feel and act typically (democracy hasn’t reached them]. Today, in times of “photo-enforced security” when privatized agencies collect money from the population for private profit, policemen have become even more robotic than when Antonioni made this film.

The boss is worried – where is beautiful Daria and why she disappeared? But look at his hands: he is not a person who will let what he has kept in his paws to run away. Still, for the sake of not deviating from the historical truth we have to remind ourselves that in 60-70s American corporate leaders still had a certain liberal/democratic decorum of polite mannerisms, and that is not true anymore in the beginning of 21st century.

These role models for the American masses according to the leaders of the American economy throughout the 60s-70s, today became role models for the whole world. Why is this child-doll meant as a role-mode for children, crying? Because he didn’t get all the entertaining toys he wants. According to pushers and sellers of techno-prosperity, the future generations must permanently desire new items for consumption.

One of the largest scenes in the film is an “abstract” – not directly connected with the plot and a highly symbolic representation of the sexual revolution in US which is very often “romantically” interpreted by sociologists as a part of the “democratization” and rejuvenation of American values in the sixties and a twin of pop-music revolution. Antonioni, on the other hand, is not less critical about “sexual liberalization” as he is about a more traditional American orientation on profit as a goal in itself, and on militaristic and consumerist values. The scene of young bodies playing and copulating on the sand of the hills looks like an independent semantic music piece, and it is also important as a characterization of the cultural and psychological context of Daria and Mark’s amorous encounter. According to “ZP”, sexual revolution takes place not because of “democratization” of conservative values but because of rigidity of the internal world and modality of human togetherness of many Americans as a result of their orientation on financial success. It is as if through artificial sexual promiscuity many Americans tried to revitalize their existential batteries exhausted by fight for jobs, profit and consumption.

As we see, Antonioni is not afraid of the animalistic: insect colony analogy with sexual revolution.

This shot of a multi-layered highway entrance to ZP as a locus of a new luxury settlement for the Americans of the future (according to the planning of the great entrepreneurs) can be taken prophetically, as if Antonioni foresaw the future slogan of global economy and the morbid fixation of American corporations on fossil fuel in the Middle East. The shot depicts the confrontation of the desert with Western industrialism as with a giant boa trying to suffocate the earth.

Is the meeting between Daria and Mark a typical event in American sexual revolution? Or is it different because of Antonioni’s particular perspective on these two young people trapped in their circumstances and trying to find a way out through personal sympathy? Daria and Mark are far from being anything like Charles and Alberta in Bresson’s “Devil Probably” (released seven years later), not as emotionally refined and intellectually sophisticated. But their tragedy is equally tragic and meaningful, and equally painful to witness. When a human society cannot attend its young – what can be a more important and devastating characteristics of this society?

Daria and Mark’s love is as doomed as the American sexual or pop-music revolution, and the little talisman for happiness, that we see here, will not help. Today the American baby boomers are transformed into currency speculators, practitioners of financial collapses, disciples of Bernie Madow and desperate people following the right wing talk show hosts and electing Tea Party candidates into American Congress.

Having learned about Mark’s death (who is shot by the police) Daria is as if swallowed, not by her grief but by the necessity to hide it because of its incompatibility with the omnipresence of total hunt after financial success.

Daria tries to liberate herself from the ideology of prosperity, from the glorious financial future and power over the world. Grief over Mark’s death and memory of him became more important for her, like for the heroine of Godard’s “Breathless” death of Michel Poiccard.

“Under the reign of neoliberal politics with its hyped-up social Darwinism and theater of cruelty, the popular demonization and “dangerousation” of the young now justifies responses to youth that were unthinkable 20 years ago, including criminalization and imprisonment, the prescription of psychotropic drugs, psychiatric confinement, and zero tolerance policies that model schools after prisons… Pedagogies of surveillance and testing flourish… Scapegoating youth as a threat to the social order allows conservatives…to further privatize public spheres that youth need, such as education and health care, while developing policies that move away from social investment to matters of punishment and containment.” (Henry Giroux, “Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability?” Palgrave McMillan 1911). According to Antonioni’s “Zabriskie Point”, today’s conservative socio-political posture towards the youth that Giroux describes, was noticeable in US already 40 years ago when the film was made, although in a less extensive form. Antonioni’s futuristically sensitive vision of US in 1970, now, in 2010, is completely realized. He was concentrated on what in his times had an objective potential for becoming future.

How little (and how much) the situation in US has changed since the release of “Zabriskie Point” (ZP)! Then it was Vietnam and widening anti-war moods among the population. Today, we, simultaneously, have wars in Iraq, in Afghanistan and in Pakistan (not to mention Yemen), and two more looming – with Iran and Venezuela. In the beginning of 21st century anti-war moods are, mainly, private and dog-watched by a Home Land Security bureaucracy. Antonioni in ZP emphasizes that in spite of war, the anti-humanistic powers fighting democratic humanism are mainly commercial by nature – the way of life established as a model for young people was a life of a consumption philistine, of a material prosperity drone. This is only partially true in US of the 21st century. The business expansion depicted in the film, takes place on the American soil, not yet in a globalist perspective. But in how Antonioni shows the American life we can immediately identify what today has become an everyday knowledge – solemnly and loudly proclaimed principle of corporate profit that easily overrides the concerns of a democratic society about the well being of its citizens. In 2010 we already live, strictly speaking, in post-commercial times – in times of escalating military conflicts (as a result of American globalist expansion into the world), economic disasters and financial collapses. But the psychological exactitude of Antonioni’s film and its depiction of dehumanization of the life atmosphere in the country make the film exceptionally important as a document tracing how commercialism suffocates and psychologically drains the life of the young people. Like the ideal of Communism was a vampire on the vitality of the youth in Soviet Union, the ideal of consumerist happiness made the American democracy in the 70s intolerant towards the young people (yearning for freedom and existential happiness) in the same way as today’s financial collapses and militarization of the economy are antagonistic to their happiness.

Daria’s imaginary destruction of the reality (the last segment of the film, when she after learning about Mark’s death starts to blast the items of American prosperity in her imagination) – even this imaginary revolutionary act is today taken away from the democratic youth. Today it is the right wing conservative financial policies are blasting and destroying the American economic prosperity (and it is in no way in imagination but in grave and grim reality) – the rich destroy the population’s standard of living and transform the middle class youth into poor who are expected to enlist or to rebel against a democratic government.

This final episode of the film should not be taken as an act of terrorism in the mind of a potential terrorist – a kind of psychological worming up before a real terrorist action. Daria is not a prototype of a domestic terrorist (as Mark is not a murderer, as police sloppily took him to be) – she is too sensitive, emotionally refined and cultured, she is capable of having concentration on problems, of having contact with problems, with pain, and she is able to internalize her suffering. Daria is a person with a liberal sensibility that is psychologically incompatible with any form of physical destruction. Her imaginary blasting of American prosperity is her subjective liberation from the artificial commercial dream of possessing wealth as the ultimate goal of human life. Daria’s psychological action of getting rid of the philistine ideals means the internal liberation from the ideology of wealth worshiping.

Young people in ZP are not of an exceptional nature or potential (like in Bresson’s “Devil probably” – 1977). From the first moments of the film we see faces of the American youths problematized by the director. In the scene of student political meeting on the university campus, Antonioni as if equalizes the faces and the body surfaces by the sliding camera movements. He is also inclined to show the faces out of focus. He notices some intelligent faces amongst the group but the camera as if is afraid of disappointment and moves aside to other faces and slides away again. Camera’s tracking shots looking for meaning and sense in students’ remarks are often impatient and chaotic, like these very remarks are foggy, intuitive and approximate. The emotional atmosphere of the meeting is characterized by the absence of direction, as if blindness tries to find its way around, to find a not reachable rational perspective. We see children without adults’ intellectual help. Neglect of the youth in US starts with the neglect of young people’s critical intellectual function, with ignoring and subduing their existential intelligence. Thinking about alternative ways to the existing structure of social life is not supported by a culture which reflects narrow but swelled needs of the wealthy elite. Conservative construction of socio-psychological life makes the status quo a monarch suspicious of humanistic change. By not pedagogically attending human critical function the system makes their (critical) thinking impulsive, fragmentary, utopian and cathartic. These blind spots of the American culture are responsible for the student rebellion on the campus that triggered a chain of tragic events in Mark and Daria’s lives. Youth neglect leads to youth abuse. And youth abuse starts with easy availability of weapons. The presence of guns in the hands of children leads to violent measures by police against the frivolously fire-armed people. Pop-music accompanying the film like a voice-over is as “out of focus” as are the faces of the young Americans. Both are as if in the fog: not formed, not articulate enough.

The space of life (in the film) is bombarded by multilayered advertisement posters – the effect of the multilayerness of ads is achieved either when the moving trucks with ads pass the bigger ads on the buildings or when ads on the polls along the road as if jump one after the other in front of the car carrying the camera. The cinematic effect is that the higher the speed of the cars (the more intense/accelerated life is) the more of ads intervene into our attention. The presence of ads is as omnipresent in US as are the portraits of the political leaders in totalitarian countries (ads are the real political leaders in US).

Antonioni analyzes how the American youth is hurt by a systemic mistreatment. American sexual “revolution” (the twin of pop-music and processed food “revolutions” and of entertainment boom) is addressed in a large “abstract” (out of plot) scenes of mass sexual games in sands of the dry landscape of wilderness signifying the existential impoverishment of the American soul overinvested into dreams of social success and personal self-enrichment. Sexual revolution, according to Antonioni, was a desperate attempt on part of the young Americans to regain contact with existential human togetherness beyond commercialization and calculation. Daria’s encounter with smaller kids in the (a) desert village is a prelude to the scene of sexual “revolution” – kids who are prematurely intrigued by the commercial advertisement of sexuality as an item for consumption, don’t differentiate between playing together and sexualized playfulness – between each other as playmates and erotic objects, between friendly wrestling and sex (this last point returns in Antonioni’s next film “Blow Up” – 1976). For these kids-existential mutants representing for Antonioni the future American generations, sport and sexual excitement are mixed up. They don’t differentiate between private and public – the feature that is very basic for (American) sexual liberation. For them sexual emotion can glue to anything. Let’s now try to read the semantic structure of the film chronologically (as if it is a plot), to grasp it as a representation of American historical trends throughout the 60-70s. The first part of ZP is the rebellion of young people and its collapse under the police action. The alternative world of business planning and shining entrepreneurs partially coincides with shots of the rebellion and police reprisals. Gradually it becomes an extensive advertisement of a new desert colony – the demonstration of plastic human figures signifying the exemplary citizens-consumers as role models for the young people. If a human being can’t correspond to the ideal of plastic figure (communist man in the Soviet Union or the ideal consumer in US) he/she is of no use and is considered as waste, like the student rebels in “ZP”. A system oriented on commercial success and not on existential values, as if became disappointed in real young people and started to construct the alternative human beings imagined to be in tune with business world – the happy consumers. And, as we follow the film, the American youth got the message. We see the large scene of sexual “revolution” – the attempt of the youth to find as if a compromise between their human nature and the necessity to become more artificial (more consumerist oriented). “Sexual liberation” for them, on the one hand, becomes a tool to battle their de-existentialization-through-commercialization forced on them (sex is natural in comparison with calculating profit and consuming), but on the other hand, it is a way to reduce their ability for sublime love for their fellow humans into private happiness and sexual freedom. They wanted to love in both private and public realm – sexually and politico-economically (not to perceive other people as competitors and enemies) but they agreed to retreat into private love as amour and sexual freedom. By unconsciously exchanging humanism between souls for emotional symbiosis, by sentimentalizing and sexualizing intimacy, they incorporated sex as an item for consumption into their existential needs. They sold their rebelliousness and critical intelligence in exchange for sexual rights, sexual equality, for occupation with sex and private happiness. Finally, we see the revenge of the system on those who dared to resist – we witness the loss of intimacy (Mark’s murder and Daria’s imaginary reaction that is like a tormented grieving scream lost in the wilderness where sand and rocks flirt with machines that drill the world for profit). In this world without or with a reduced mutuality even love, even marriage becomes impregnated with the connotation of success, as it was always the case in pre-democratic societies. The future joins the past while getting rid of the historical present – the attempt to farther democratize the democracy, to change the factual society into a more humanistic one.

*When word came out that Antonioni’s screenplay was highly anti-American the FBI began to trail and to investigate the cast and crew of the film… When word got out that there was to be a flag burning scene, a mob of right-wing protestors besieged filming locations (no scene of this nature was planned)… Investigating the film for its anti-Americanism, the District Attorney’s office attempted to use the Mann Act to cease the film from being made. The Mann Act was a law created in 1910 prohibiting the export of women across the state line “for immoral conduct, prostitution or debauchery.” Proposing that the orgy scene at Zabriskie Point could be held under these laws, the DA’s office had to back down because it learned that Zabriskie Point was actually fifteen miles west of the California-Nevada state line, and that Antonioni wasn’t braking any laws. As the public tension around this film rose, MGM hoped that public outcry, scandal and protest would lead to a curious public embracing the film. However… these protests were in reality omens of doom for the film.

Posted 9 Oct 2014 –   Zabriskie Point | Michelangelo Antonioni (1970) by Acting-Out Politics