Sunday, June 20, 2004

Sydney Film Festival - Zabriskie Point

The most exciting movie I've seen so far, in the first half of the Sydney Film Festival, has been Zabriskie Point.
I've always wanted to see it, even though I'd read that it was supposed to be pretentious garbage. It lost a lot of money for MGM, and partially deflated the critical reputation of the director Michelangelo Antonioni.
But I loved it, and I'm hugely glad that I saw it properly on the big screen, where I could get the full impact of the sound (great use of early 70's songs) and the visuals.
It was easy to see in the first few minutes why the film was not a success in 1970. It's completely pretentious. The main two stars are rather bad actors, though I loved watching them (they look very pretty together, and nothing like the usual Hollywood stars - especially with the 70's hair). The dialogue is stilted and unnatural, trying too hard to be hip. And the political messages are far too heavily handled, it's almost insulting. It also has one of the most un-Hollywood endings I've ever seen from a Hollywood film. Downbeat is not the word. The ending is angry and negative and exhilarating and completely grabbed me.
I found myself loving the film. And it kept coming in and out of my mind for the rest of the day.
The 70's cinematography was beautiful to see. The first half of the film is set in the city, with advertisements everywhere - consumerism has taken over. And businessman Rod Taylor is getting ready to bring this 'civilisation' to the desert, by turning it into real estate.
Our drop-out leads get away from it all by going into the desert, and it's beautiful. The scenes in the desert are a bit slow, but they feel magical.
The sex scene in the desert, which turns into a kind of mass orgy fantasy of sexual freedom in the dust, looked great. Again, not the kind of thing to expect from MGM.
And then there's the killer ending.
It's an angry dream sequence, starting with Rod Taylor's desert dream house (and it was a great house - wouldn't mind it myself) repeatedly being blown up in slow motion. I was looking forward to seeing this, but wasn't prepared for how gobsmackingly gobsmacking it was. I liked that Rod both represented greedy consumerist america as well as old Hollywood (being the only old Hollywood star in the film) in this sequence. Go Rod! I think it was brave of him to take on this role.
And not only the house - a fridge, a clothing rack, shelves full of books - they're all beautifully blown to smithereens in slow-mo, with Pink Floyd getting louder on the soundtrack, till you're totally immersed in the apocalyptic vision. It was like nothing I've seen before in a film, which is something considering how often things get blown up in movies!
I'm sure this film would lose some of it's power on tv. The big screen was definitely the place for it.
Wow, man, I'm freakin' out (as they used to say)!

1 comment:

Brian said...

In the last few years, I've had several conversations about the difference between movies from the 1970s and movies today, with people of all ages. A few themes emerge. Movies from the 1970s tend to be slower-paced and quieter in almost every way: the dialogue can often be slower, the shots and running times are longer, the soundtrack is less obtrusive. Also, movies from the 1970s--at least the ones that survive to bear mention 30 years later--were more ambitious, or arty, or pretentious, or whatever word you'd like to use here. It was the era of the auteur and all that, blah blah blah. I'm not saying anything new here.

That said, I've found watching movies from the 1970s to be a hit-or-miss experience. "The Conversation" is still great. So is "Midnight Cowboy." So does "Aguirre, Wrath of God," because Klaus Kinski is such a maniac and the director so reckless that it's horrifying.

But there's a kind of self-indulgence to 1970s movies that sometimes overwhelms my ability to enjoy them. This is even true of movies I like. The best case here is Werner Herzog, whose "Aguirre" I just said I liked. Let me elaborate. In retrospect, I liked Aguirre. Some scenes in it are very hard to forget, and the cumulative effect of the thing is nice and horrifying. But there were long stretches of that movie where I was thinking "cut! Cut!" I haven't seen "Fitzcarraldo," which most people seem to like best. But I have seen "Kasper Hauser," which a lot of those same people liked and which I thought was one of the most boring movies I've ever seen. It would have made a very nice half hour movie. But it is not a mere half hour, my friends. Oh no. We get looong scenes of Kasper wandering around town. Kasper hanging out around the farm. Kasper gazing at himself in a pool of water--aha! That's the problem, isn't it?

David Foster Wallace wrote a really good pan of a John Updike novel which he used to talk about the literary equivalent of those 1970s film auteurs, pooling them together as narcissists. His feeling was that there was a point where such self-indulgence, as a cultural value, was a good thing. It was okay to be into yourself, to spend a great deal of time fretting about the tensions in your daily life, that indeed, this fretting could be the stuff of books and movies. But those our age, who are the kids of those self-indulgent folks, have swung somewhat the other way, and so do not dig the aesthetic as their contemporary peers might. There comes a point in which us younger folks want to see the character try to fix whatever's bothering him, not just wallow in it or let it overwhlem him. Hence my frustration with "Last Tango in Paris," another movie with a few awe-inspiring scenes in it (and no, I'm talking about the acting, particularly Brando's soliloquy to his recently deceased wife), but in between those scenes are a lot of other scenes meant, I guess, to convey some of Brando's ontological despair (Wallace's phrase) but which to me are a Ticket to Snoozeville.

My uneven experience with 1970s directors has made me cautious about watching them. Thus, I haven't seen any of Antonioni's movies--yet--though some of them really intrigue me. "Blow-Up" in particular, because I love the very short story (by Julio Cortazar) on which it is based, and am interested to see how such a crystalline yet tiny concept could be, er, blown up into a full feature-length movie.

This brings me to the last barely connected thought here, which is that I have a much, much higher tolerance for arty self-absorption in books than I do in movies. Where in movies I eventually say, "okay, something has to happen now," I can happily read hundreds and hundreds of pages in which almost nothing happens at all--in which, say, people wander around a summer house barely talking to each other (I'm looking at you, Ms. Woolf). Why this discrepency? Is it that I'm an insufferable snob for books but a populist for movies? Is it that I'm just illiterate when it comes to movies--that I just don't appreciate good filmcraft the way I appreciate good writing? Or is it not my fault--is it something about the difference between books and movies? Discuss!

Okay, back to work.