BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: deserted youth.

ANTONIONI infuriates the hell out of me. There are some utterly amazing moments in his films – his use of space and architecture is simply remarkable, his visual sense makes me a magpie to his shiny images, and some of his artistic conceits appeal to the cynical prankster in me (mainly his endings, and his playing with narrative expectations). I also like some of his ideas, to be fair. However, he’s also as dated as rotten fruit, and he’s also the type of director whose films you can reduce down to three shots and a final scene – this’ll probably tell you everything you’ll need to know in the film.

Hollywood tried a vain attempt to appeal to the counter-culture movement in the late ‘60s. Since Hollywood is often a bit behind the times, it’s of no surprise that most of the ‘counter-culture’ films were released when the movements had largely petered out. The studios also brought in successful directors from overseas (mainly Europe) to try and appeal to the ‘yoof’ and attach a European flair for sex and violence onto a puritanical Hollywood. Zabriskie Point was an example of how they got it wrong. The film was a bomb upon release, and you can see Antonioni’s talent for baffling audiences would continue into his Hollywood foray.

It’s a simple plot – a boy kills a cop and steals a plane. He meets a girl in the desert who is traveling to a conference. They make love. He goes back to Los Angeles and is killed. She goes to the conference. His characters are vapid ciphers (purposefully so) that allow Antonioni to look at urban alienation and contemporary ennui. There’s a little more humour than usual apparent here though, not quite a Godard full-blown ‘comedy’, but much more than his frequently dour approach. His mise-en-scène is full of advertising shots, immense highways, humans being dwarfed by architecture. It’s a bleak vision of modernity and impersonal relationships, and he’s transferred his vision over from his celebrated Italian films. It’s easy to see why the film would sink upon American release.

But it’s not too difficult to figure out Antonioni’s concerns in this film, and he’s pretty ham-fisted at it. He shows an America buckling under corporate culture, and his corporates in the conference are cartoon villains. He has the wooden couple make love in the lowest point in America (Zabriskie Point is in Death Valley). The couple are in a barren utopia, a once-upon-a-time Eden (the female eats an apple after making love – sigh). The urban environment is full of metal, of bigots, of screeching noises. His desert is pure (the ridiculous orgy) and idealised. However, the film’s also breathtakingly beautiful to look at, his camera contorts to create shuddering imagery throughout. His ending is also quite something – Antonioni evokes the end of capitalism without having to evoke the end of the world first – something which is remarkably difficult to do, and rarely done. Like I said – three shots and an ending is all you’ll need.