“Zabriskie Point”: Young love and death in the symbolic American desert

By on July 16, 2015

Tomorrow night, Friday, July 17, beginning at 7:30pm, two totems of late 60s hippie counterculture, Easy Rider and Zabriskie Point, will unspool at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, California, presented by the American Cinemateque, so we thought we’d take this opportunity to delve into some of the behind-the-scenes action of the latter film, Italian auteur Michelangelo Antonioni’s mind-blowing odyssey of two youths in the American desert, one of them on the run from the police after a violent student demonstration on a college campus.

ZABRIKSIE POINT 2

Let’s begin, however, with this uncomfortable interview Dick Cavett had with the film’s two stars, Daria Halprin and Mark Frechette, who bristles at the fact that Cavett hasn’t even seen what the talk show host describes as a “controversial flick” and Frechette then corrects him when he says that he lives in a commune (“it’s not a commune, it’s a community”).

The tension in the interview probably speaks for itself, but seems symptomatic of some of the tension lying just beneath the surface of quite a lot of conversations being had between the counterculture and members of the national media at the time, even when someone like Frechette is talking with a guy who certainly wanted to be perceived as understanding youth culture or at least making the attempt to have spirited conversations on his show with members of the U-25 crowd (“I design for the U-25s, that’s Under 25s. It’s a mentality, not an age,” designer Peter Max had told Life magazine in their September 5, 1969 issue).

ZABRISKIE POINT 19

Some of the difficulties in particular can be laid at the feet of Antonioni, who clearly had preconceived ideas of how he saw America at the time, and he wanted to present those ideas in a distorted and kaleidoscopic way, in a film which depicted many things, including a dream-like view of reality as seen by the counterculture who were rejecting the “straight” view of the world, but also possibly the drug-induced madness and an atmosphere of existential confusion that comes along with that rejection.

ZABRISKIE POINT 11

Mostly, however, he wanted to create a pre-loaded polemic about a country caught up in a war with itself, a culture war of values and ideas, a country fighting not only the Vietnam War but a war within its own population between the generations, between authority figures and those under their shiny black boots.

Have a look at the film’s trailer:

Antonioni thought his film should begin where the the big ideas were coming from at the time — in this case on the campus of “California State College” — where a policeman is shot and killed by a student, which may or may not have been Frechette’s character.

Antonioni didn’t seem to care about his guilt or innocence, he just wanted his lead actor to get the hell out of L.A. (which he clearly saw as a “hell”), and out into the desert, where he could pair them up as lovers.

We should mention that Antonioni’s choice of Zabriskie Point as a title and setting is pretty obviously symbolic, in that he clearly saw America at being at its lowest point in the late sixties, and where best to represent that but in Death Valley, California — at 282 feet below sea level, it is the lowest spot in North America.

ZABRISKIE POINT 6

Perhaps the Italian director saw Zabriskie Point — named for Christian Zabriskie, whose Pacific Coast Borax Co. developed the twenty-mule teams to get the precious mineral out of there — as a place of beauty, but more likely he saw it as symbolic of death, or perhaps something akin the plug in the bathtub of the southwestern U.S., that in his film he could symbolically pull to empty the country of its undesirable elements.

The surrounding badlands of the local area, looking out over the Furnace Creek Lake bed, look about as primordial and raw as any place on earth, which probably also means it’s a good place for starting over.

ZABRISKIE POINT 18

First, though, before the death in the desert, he needed to show life, in Los Angeles. Antonioni doesn’t dwell on the beauty of L.A.’s beaches or the hillside homes or any of that (although we do see the Richfield Tower, a black-and-gold downtown L.A. Art Deco building that was demolished in the spring of 1969, much to the dismay of L.A. residents and those interested in architectural preservation).

Instead, he chose to focus on the ugliness he saw there, in junkyards and detritus on the city streets, in the uncontrolled sprawl and squalor of consumerist L.A., or what he considered America at its worst.

Antonioni did not like Los Angeles, saying “It’s like being nowhere and talking to nobody about nothing.”

ZABRISKIE POINT 7

It’s all right there in the screenplay, really, penned by Antonioni himself, along with Franco Rossetti (sometimes using the name Fred Gardner) and Tonino Guerra. American playwright Sam Shepard and Clare Peploe, Antonioni’s assistant (who later married Bernardo Bertolucci), also contributed.

We get to hear the contempt dripping from his character’s tongues, like the scene where the police are taking down information for their arrest reports, grilling college activists like one man who identifies himself as an associate professor of history. “That’s too long,” a cop says. “I’ll just put down ‘clerk.'”

ZABRISKIE POINT 14

Perhaps — in addition to the wonderful cinematography by director of photography Alfio Contini — the best prism through which to understand what Antonioni intended us to see in Zabriskie Point was how he approached the creation of the film’s sprawling, often psychedelic-sounding soundtrack, and one of the best stories (perhaps a bit apocryphal) was expressed in an interview with guitarist John Fahey to writer Byron Coley.

The American Primitive pioneer tells Coley that Antonioni hired him to compose music to accompany the desert orgy scene, or what he called “porno scene,” and says that the director told him what his music would be used for: “‘Now, John. This is young love. Young love.’ I mean, that’s young love? All these bodies? ‘Young love. But John, it’s in the desert, where’s there’s death. But it’s young love.'” (The Open Theatre of Joe Chaikin provided the lovely naked bodies for the site-specific “performance.”).

ZABRISKIE POINT 9

Fahey says he was sure he was talking to a madman, but says he then experimented with other musicians and came up with what he said sounded “pretty ominous,” and says that he played it for Antonioni, who thought it was great.

They celebrated by going out to a fancy dinner, drinking lots of wine, when Fahey says Antonioni suddenly began telling him how horrible the United States was and they ended up getting into a fistfight.

“You have no idea how much that guy hates the United Sates,” Fahey remembers in the interview. “What a jerk.”

ZABRISKIE POINT 13

In the end, and who knows if it had anything to do with the fisticuffs or not, the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia ended up supplying the gentle guitar-plucking for that famous desert orgy sequence, although we do get to hear John Fahey’s “Dance of Death” on the radio while Daria is driving in the desert.

The most psychedelic music heard in the film, however, including the slo-mo apocalyptic near-climax of the film, and indeed most of the film’s original score, was commissioned work from the band that Antonioni felt was best suited to create what he envisioned for his film’s soundtrack, British rock band Pink Floyd.

ZABRISKIE POINT 12

By this time in their careers, Pink Floyd had already done the soundtrack to Peter Sykes’ 1968 movie The Committee and provided the entire soundtrack for director Barbet Schroeder’s 1969 movie, More, which they wrote and recorded in eight days.

Antonioni brought the band to Rome, where they spent at least a month holed up in a very expensive hotel suite, working 12-hour days.

Antonioni’s feedback about Pink Floyd’s recordings, and his cryptic, sometimes imperious manner as a director, however, confounded the band members, who had simply wanted to please the Italian director but could not figure out what it was that he wanted to hear.

In particular, Roger Waters says they struggled to come up with something that would work with the desert orgy-dream sequence that takes place at Zabriskie Point.

ZABRIKSIE POINT 4

According to Nicholas Schaffner’s 1991 Pink Floyd biography, Saucerful of Secrets: The Pink Floyd Odyssey, bassist Roger Waters recalled that recording soundtrack music for Zabriskie Point was “hell, sheer hell.”

“We could have finished the whole thing in about five days…..” said Waters, but Antonioni “….would listen and go — and I remember he had this terrible twitch — ‘Eet’s very beautiful, but eet’s too sad,’ or ‘Eet’s too stroong.’ It was always something that stopped it being perfect. You’d change whatever was wrong and he’d still be unhappy. It was hell, sheer hell.”

ZABRISKIE POINT 17

Ultimately, however, they were unsuccessful in their attempt to come up with whatever it was that Antonioni wanted to hear, and their efforts provided only two tracks for the final original motion picture soundtrack LP, which was released on MGM Records: “Heart Beat, Pig Meat” (a pulsing score heard during the film’s opening credits as a radical-student meeting is in process, which “effectively sets the scene’s tone of menace and cross talk with a naked, foreboding pulse-beat and a disruptive sequence of television and radio sound bites”) and an alternate recording of their own previously issued 1968 b-side, “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” (retitled and revised here as “Come In Number 51, Your Time Is Up”), which is heard at the end of the movie.

When asked about the sparse use of music in his films up to that point, Antonioni was quoted in an interview during the production saying this: “I don’t like music that makes a commentary on the film. Of course, there will be rock music in the film [Zabriskie Point] as heard on the radio or record players. That’s just natural. But I don’t necessarily want a rock score. That would be too easy, too obvious.”

Antonioni apparently was very particular about everything he put in the film, and had even imported fine silk sand to blow around his actors during the scenes because the real Death Valley sand didn’t really work for his vision (incidentally, writer/philosopher Michel Foucault called his own 1975 acid trip at Zabriskie Point the greatest experience of his life).

ZABRISKIE POINT 16

There are several mixes available of the music they composed for this particular scene, in fact. David Fricke wrote the following about the some of the film’s soundtrack score:

“At over seven minutes, the Floyd’s “Love Scene (Version 6)” is an atypically straightforward — for the Floyd anyway — blues jam, albeit with plenty of room for David Gilmour to show off his silvery, stabbing attack and taut phrasing. “Love Scene (Version 4)” is an entirely different approach, a languid exercise in galactic-lounge jazz performed on piano and what sounds like a vibraphone — closer to the Modern Jazz Quartet than A Saucerful Of Secrets. An even earlier take [not included on the Rhino reissue] is a long blue-water stretch of humming keyboards and guitar dreaming, marked at points by the tidal wash of Mason’s cymbals and moments when Gilmour’s guitar sounds like a pack of agitated seagulls.”

Rhino’s 1997 reissue CD (which featured a very nice lenticular cover!), featured a added bonus disc of previously-unissued recordings which had been recorded for the movie but never used (the tracks are owned by the MGM film music library), but we also own a couple of bootleg CDs, including one called Outer Zabriskie, which contains a whopping 77 minutes of outtakes by Pink Floyd (there are other collections of the complete score if you search around for them).

ZABRISKIE POINT 20

Most of the tracks the band recorded in Rome is nicely ambient-sounding country rock and space-rock type stuff, and some of it varies from jazzy piano tinkles and spacey instrumentals to blues and fairly normal hard rock, but there are a few real surprises along the way.

Guitarist David Gilmour once described one of our particular favorites from these sessions,Crumbling Land, as “a kind of country & western number which he [Antonioni] could have gotten done better by any number of American bands. But he choose ours– very strange.”

The “fast version” of “Crumbling Land,” in fact, is the closest they ever came to sounding like the Grateful Dead circa Workingman’s Dead. “Crumbing Land” does appear in the film as well, a brief snippet of it as Daria is driving.

In fact, there’s a slight country-rockish feel to many of Pink Floyd’s 1969-era recordings, which may be why we love this Pink Floyd soundtrack stuff so much. Country Song,” in particular, features honky-tonk piano by Rick Wright, while “Unknown Song” (also known as “Rain In The Country”) is a shimmering blend of acoustic strumming, skittish electric picking, and Gilmour’s slide guitar. It’s another favorite of ours.  There’s also Wright’s six-minute piano hymn which accompanies, of all things, the campus riot scene.

The solo piano piece, called The Violent Sequence,” was later transformed by Pink Floyd to superbly enriched effect for “Us and Them,” a track appearing on their 1973 masterpiece The Dark Side of the Moon.

One of the versions of “Fingals Cave” (it was an untitled piece apparently intended as the background music to a sex scene, but given its title by someone involved with making the bootleg release, as were some of the other titles), which contains some riotously blue simulated-sex spoken vocals, presumably by members of Pink Floyd; at one point someone dryly notes, tongue fully-in-cheek, “fucking long three minutes, and I do mean fucking!” You don’t get much counterculture than that.

ZABRIKSIE POINT 3

By the way, it’s an interesting end to the story to point out what happened to both of the film’s leads.

Mark Frechette, of Quebecois ancestry, had grewn up in Fairfield, Connecticut, where he eventually dropped out of high school. He was twice hospitalized for emotional problems, and several times arrested, prior to appearing in Zabriskie Point. He donated his $60,000 earnings from Zabriskie Point to the cult-ish “community” outside of Boston, where he was living, led by Mel Lyman.

He went on to make a third film in Yugoslavia called Man Against in 1972, and returned again to Lyman’s commune. Then, in 1973, Frechette and two other “family” members of Lyman’s cult/community — including Frechette’s best friend, Christopher “Hercules” Thein — staged a bank robbery as a kind of overt protest against Watergate, but the police arrived and Thein was shot dead. It was later revealed that they had no bullets in their guns.

Frechette, who was sentenced to a six to fifteen year sentence, was asked later why he had done what he did, and he said this:

“I am afflicted by a political conscience. We did it as a revolutionary act of political protest. We had been watching the Watergate hearings on television and we saw John Dean tell the truth and we saw Mitchell and Stans lie about it. We saw the apathy and we felt an intense rage. They did not know the truth and did not want to know the truth. We know the truth and wanted to show it to them. Because banks are federally insured, robbing that bank was a way of robbing Richard Nixon without hurting anybody…There was no way to stop what was going to happen. We just reached the point where all that the three of us really wanted to do was hold up a bank. And besides…standing there with a gun, cleaning out a teller’s cage – that’s about as fuckin’ honest as you can get, man.”

ZABRIKSIE POINT 5

On September 27, 1975, Frechette died in in the weight room at Massachusetts Correctional Institution with a 150-pound weight barbell was pressed against his throat.

An inquest was held to investigate his death, with the official conclusion being that his death was accidental and that the barbells had slipped while he was bench pressing.

However, questions occurred around his death as the result that no marks from the bar were left on his neck. Foul play was eventually ruled out as Mark Frechette proved to be very popular with inmates, and more likely it was due to the fact that he’d stopped eating and had lost a lot of weight and muscle due to depression, which possibly resulted in his accident. He was 27.

ZABRISKIE POINT 10

Daria Halprin, meanwhile, made one more film, The Jerusalem File, in 1972, and married Dennis Hopper, and they had their only child, Ruthanna, in 1974. The couple split up in 1976, and Halprin remarried and had another child.

Her main focus after leaving acting was using the art of dance as a movement therapy for healing, and with her mother Anna Halprin, formed the Tampala Institute, a San Francisco-based non-profit that taught dance and psychology and drama courses, and focused on using dance and movement as a therapeutic healing process.

She’s currently (we think) a registered movement and expressive arts therapist with a private practice in the Marin County area, and has authored numerous books.

ZABRISKIE POINT 8

ZABRISKIE POINT 15

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.