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THE MAN WHO LOVED AMERICA SO MUCH IT HURT

Interviewing Michelangelo Antonioni at the time of “Zabriskie Point’s” U. S. premiere? Wouldn’t that be like interviewing the captain of the Titanic had he not gone down with his ship? Yes--and no, as I found out when I talked with the late Italian director in 1970 for The New York Times. --GUY FLATLEY

 

Mama mia! Michelangelo Antonioni has a right to sing the blues. Until a few days ago, he was sitting on top of the movie world: the establishment critics endorsed him, the auteur crowd adored him, the public stood in line and paid for the privilege of applauding him. Everybody admired his dissection of the bored Italian bourgeoisie in “L’Avventura,” “La Notte,” “Eclipse” and “Red Desert,” and they grooved merrily along with the dissolute London swingers in “Blow-Up.”

And then – smash, bam, bomb – along came the breathlessly awaited premiere of “Zabriskie Point,” Antonioni’s cinematic impression of rebellious American youth. The critics’ verdict on the following day was not so much negative as just plain catastrophic – a blistering blend of shock, disillusionment and old-fashioned outraged patriotism. For example, Richard Cohen, writing in Women’s Wear Daily, completely lost his cool and called Antonioni “an ignoramus.” In Cohen’s impassioned opinion, the Italian director’s dark view of the American Way of Life had resulted in a “loathsome and incredibly shoddy” film.

“Antonioni has offered us his contempt,” he groaned. “We give it back to him.” An equally excitable critic for one of the slicker national magazines was overheard voicing this esoteric appraisal of Antonioni: “That sonofabitch! He ought to be shot!”

New York Times critic Vincent Canby kept his cool but nevertheless considered one of the film’s most ambitious scenes – a graphic sex orgy in Death Valley – to be “unintentionally funny.” Another spectacular scene – the blowing up of an obscenely modern house symbolizing soulless, affluent America – struck Canby as “absurd.” He summed up his downbeat diagnosis by saying, “Because of the fundamental emptiness of his American vision, all sorts of flaws that one might overlook in better Antonioni films become apparent.”

In short, nobody seemed the least bit taken with Antonioni’s concept of America the Turbulent or with the puzzling plot concocted by his battery of screenwriters or with the non-performances of his two young discoveries, Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin (shown here with the director).

Actually, things had taken a turn for the disastrous even before Antonioni got to New York. In what may or may not have been a routine customs search upon his arrival at the London airport, the director – and his pretty blond companion, Clare Peploe – were arrested for having pot in their possession. Antonioni spent the night in a tiny jail cell. Luckily, Miss Peploe maintains a London residence, so she was released and managed to evade photographers by sliding down a drain pipe. They were each fined $240.

So is “Zabriskie Point” a total bomb? Not if we are to judge by the winding lines outside the Coronet Theater where, according to the roar of the MGM publicity department, attendance records are being shattered. And while it is still too early to tell, there is some evidence that it may become a cult film, a “must” among the under-30 set. There are even those among the over-30 set who regard it as a visually stunning, severely flawed masterpiece.

It is conceivable that Antonioni, who claims that negative reviews never upset him for the simple reason that he does not read them, had a premonition that “Zabriskie Point” would not overpower the critics. But when I talked with him on the day before the premiere, he didn’t seem worried. Well, not too worried.

Antonioni – frail, sensitive, alert, appearing much younger than his 57 years – seems slightly uncomfortable in the stuffy suite at the St Regis. And so does Clare Peploe, the pale, soft-spoken, 28-year-old Briton who has replaced Monica Vitti (at left, in "L'Avventura") as Antonioni’s off-screen leading lady and is one of the four writers to receive screenplay credit for “Zabriskie Point.” Still, they are courteous and hospitable, and Antonioni is genuinely concerned about anticipated charges of anti-Americanism.

“My basic reason for making a film in America was that I love this country,” he says in urgent, fluent English. “I love the landscape – that’s why I chose Death Valley, because it’s so beautiful and not because it’s dead. This is also the most interesting country in the world at the moment, because of what’s going on here: the contradictions, many of which exist everywhere but which are already crashing against each other here. That’s what I tried to show in ‘Zabriskie Point.’

“It’s very easy for an American to say to me, ‘You’re an Italian; you don’t know this country. How dare you talk about it!’ But I wasn’t trying to explain the country – a film is not a social analysis, after all. I was just trying to feel something about America, to gain some intuition. If I were an American, they would say I was taking artistic license, but because I’m a foreigner, they say I am wrong. But in some ways a foreigner’s judgment may be…not better, necessarily, but more objective, illuminating precisely because it is a little different.

“Of course I didn’t say everything that could be said about America. My film touches on just a few themes, a few places. Someone can say this is missing or that is missing. Well, of course it is. The story is certainly a simple one. Nonetheless, the content is actually very complex. It is not a question of reading between the lines, but one of reading between the images.”

Reading between two of the film’s final images – a young man being senselessly killed by several policemen and the girl who loved the young man imagining the home of her wealthy employer being blown to smithereens – we might conclude that the point of “Zabriskie Point” is that only through violent revolution can we right the wrongs in our society. Antonioni smiles at this interpretation.

“I wouldn’t start a revolution by blowing up a house,” he says. “The explosion of the house is not exclusively a symbolic comment; it is a clear expression of how the girl feels at that precise moment. I am telling her story and that is why I don’t end the film at that point. Instead, I show her returning to the car after the explosion.

“‘Zabriskie Point’ was not intended as a documentary about America, even though several of the basic incidents were taken from actual events – the boy being shot while returning the stolen airplane, for instance. I wanted to describe a situation in which the levels of society are separated from each other, a situation which is so obviously true not only in America, but everywhere. Nobody in the film is really personally unpleasant. Rod Taylor, for example, as the girl’s boss, is individually sympathetic, but everyone is cut off from everyone else. That’s the thing I was trying to show. The executives in their towers, although so powerful, are actually solving idealized problems, not the real ones, the ones in the street below, the ones they cannot even see. It is on that street level that we find the real conflict – between the rich and poor, black and white, old and young.”

Antonioni neither predicts nor advocates violent revolution. But he does detect “a silent revolution going on already. "The mentality of the people in this country is changing. Papers like The Los Angeles Free Press not too long ago had a circulation of 5,000; now it’s about 100,000. In a sense, there is a violent revolution taking place too, one that is caused by things, objects that are supposed to be helping people. They do help some people, of course, but they also assault and disrupt. That is why a refrigerator behind a shop window in Watts becomes a revolutionary object. In ‘Zabriskie Point’ I suggest that the material wealth of America, which we see in advertisements and on billboards along the roads, is itself a violent influence, perhaps even the root of violence. Not because wealth is bad, but because it is being used not to solve the problems of society, but instead to try and hide these problems from society.

“You ask me if there will be a violent revolution in America?” Antonioni shrugs. “Perhaps in 50 years things will arrive at a crucial point and these forces that are now underneath will explode. Who’s to say? Even though a lot of young people talk about violence and revolution, not all of them could do it. It’s not easy to be violent. Mark wanted to shoot the policeman in ‘Zabriskie Point,’ but he couldn’t. In some cases violence is justified, but with many students violence is just an intellectual thing – something quite different from the violence that comes out of the conditions of life in a black ghetto, where there are practical, material forces that push people into violence.”

Whatever hyper-patriotic critics may say, Antonioni has borne personal witness to Violence, American Style – at the Democratic convention in Chicago. “I was tear-gassed in Lincoln Park and also in front of the Hilton Hotel,” he says matter-of-factly. “It was quite an experience.”

He is also remarkably calm in discussing the Justice Department’s extraordinary interest in “Zabriskie Point.” Shortly after shooting was completed, 11 people connected with the production were summoned before a grand jury in Sacramento, Calif., and ordered to testify about the movie’s alleged anti-Americanism, as well as possible violations of the Mann Act, which forbids the transportation of women across state lines for sexual purposes.

“Personally, I didn’t have any trouble with the Justice Department. I was out of the country at the time of the investigation. I understand that a girl said that I had asked her to do oral intercourse in the film, which is absolutely ridiculous. I’m not crazy, after all. And there was no violation of the Mann Act in the love-in scene, either. What I wanted were the attitudes, the gestures of love. Those people from Joe Chaikin’s Open Theater were acting, not doing.

“The misunderstanding about my anti-Americanism arose from the fact that I am not used to explaining all my intentions to the crew. They saw the airplane all painted up and the kids talking politics, so maybe they thought I was a Communist starting a revolution. As for the scene showing the American flag being painted red, well I frequently do things like that with color. Besides, I visited several houses where students lived in Los Angeles, and many of those students painted their flags that way.”

Antonioni does begin to boil at the mention of one division of the Justice Department – the F.B.I. “They accused me of actually provoking a college strike that we were trying to film. But that strike was real. And then the sheriff of Oakland wrote an article in the daily newspaper also saying that I provoked the strike. I was astonished. Nobody should be allowed to write an article like that without having to prove the charges. It was false, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to say so.”

Returning once again to that lively Death Valley love-in – some critics have bluntly stated that the scene is nothing more than a tasteless, tacked-on bit of titillation. Antonioni insists, however, that it is all very natural and that it takes place in Daria’s mind, an erotic hallucination induced by marijuana. “The majority of young people smoke pot,” he points out. “Actually, not only the young smoke it.”

After the love-in, the most talked-about scene in “Zabriskie Point” – and the one which has provoked the most vitriolic tirades – is the one in which a lavish desert retreat, overripe with all the luxurious commodities that American money can buy, is repeatedly blown up, each hideous blast photographed from a different, increasingly close-up, angle. When Antonioni talks about this scene, he is far more animated than usual.

“We rented the original house, the one in which we shot the interiors and some of the exteriors, but naturally the owner was not going to let us blow it up. So we built another one just like it not far away. I believe that the owner sat on his terrace and watched as we blew up that house that looked exactly like his own.

“We used 17 cameras. It was so difficult to organize the explosion, with all the wires and cameras – like a war operation, and I was the general, giving instructions for one cameraman to shoot now, and then turning quickly to another and signaling him to shoot next. I was so concerned with the practical things that I didn’t have time to feel anything else as the house exploded.”

Antonioni is undoubtedly happiest when talking movies, but there are other subjects which must occasionally be discussed – like love and marriage. For Antonioni--whose only marriage was annulled after a long, unhappy wait--the two do not go together like horse and carriage.

“Marriage is a piece of paper,” he says rather sternly. “The problem isn’t to be or not to be married; the problem is to live together or not to live together. How long a relationship lasts does not depend on a piece of paper.”

Is it possible that love can last forever? Antonioni looks over at Miss Peploe. They confer in Italian and laugh and confer again in Italian.

“I believe that anything is possible,” he says finally. “But I don’t really believe that love can be permanent.”

Suddenly, Miss Peploe doesn’t understand a word of English, because she is looking at Antonioni and giving him a very permanent-loving smile. And Antonioni is smiling back.

 

Click here to read Guy's interviews with other major directors, including Pier Paolo Pasolini, Martin Scorsese, Billy Wilder, Jean-Luc Godard, Woody Allen, Frank Capra, Dennis Hopper, Dorothy Arzner, Bernardo Bertolucci, Alfred Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut, Lars Von Trier, Clint Eastwood, Vittorio De Sica, Joseph Losey, Ken Russell, Luchino Visconti, Clarence Brown, Fred Zinnemann and Raoul Walsh.