Friday, March 26, 2010

Zabriskie Point

Michelangelo Antonioni's Zabriskie Point (1970) is remembered largely for its famous closing sequence of slow-motion explosions, as his female protagonist Daria imagines the destruction of the Carefree development-resort in the Arizona desert and all it stands for. To the accompaniment of Pink Floyd's 'Come In Number 51, Your Time Is Up,' Antonioni presents the annihilation of buildings, furniture, clothes, food, television, and books with an exquisite eye for the aesthetic properties of things coming apart.

The Carefree resort is clearly modelled on the houses Frank Lloyd Wright built in the desert around the outskirts of Phoenix, and which became the fantasy homes for aspirational post-war Angelenos. (Most of the land, incidentally, to the south and east of Phoenix is comprised of Indian reservations). Daria's allegiance to native cultures-- the hippie paraphernalia of Sioux and Navajo jewellery, the long, uncut hair, the meaningfully empathic look exchanged with the Mexican or Indian maid -- clearly informs her discomfort at being in this place, and reveals her awareness of the subjugation and displacement of the region's indigenous inhabitants. Daria works for the Sunny Dunes Corporation, which is behind the desert development, and has arranged to spend time with her boss at Carefree. This tryst provides the pretext for her trip from LA to Phoenix, a drive of some three hundred miles, which temporally, however, takes Daria through millions of years, from the geological ground zero of Zabriskie Point to suburban wish fulfilment.

While Antonioni's film is generally not much admired, its stunning visual language is rightly celebrated. Zabriskie Point is fascinating precisely because it puts such a high premium on chromatic splendor and pictorial composition at the expense of plot, narrative, and characterization. It is a film that is supremely concerned with surfaces and quality of light; with looking. It is in particular concerned with looking at and visually representing landscape, as Dave Hickey writes, ‘by picturing the noncultural wilderness within a frame'(1).

As a specific cultural product of the Enlightenment, this 'viewing' of the non-human world from a privileged vantage point prefers a nature scrubbed of the tracklines of history -- of everyday life, of dramatic event -- in order to offer up the world as empty page upon which the prospector can scrawl his signature. The modernist formal dismantling of the sovereign perspective, according to Hickey, did not effectively challenge the authority of the gaze, but simply realigned its taste away from romantic luxuriance to pared down austerity. So, especially in its American modernist form, the landscape tradition favors the arid West, with its absence of 'atmospheric incident and decorative vegetation' that allows the view 'to mimic the reductive, formalist territories of European Modernism, upon which the works of industrial humans appear as decrepit blemishes on an equally abject (but essentially pure) armature of primal design’ (2). For Hickey, '[c]reatures of the eye' read but do not caress the world, and, as a consequence, 'the glass wall that the camera deploys between the body and the world, through which only the eye can pass, lends itself perfectly to our disembodied romance with the evacuated landscape that presents itself to us as a container of the spirit’ (3).

This is a not unfamiliar critique of the cold, cold heart of the Enlightenment: the Cartesian propensity for division and domination, the construction and enlistment of aesthetic categories -- beautiful, picturesque, sublime -- to service the interests of nation and empire building and private enterprise. As Hickey suggests, the American West is one of the nodal sites for the resourcing of expansionist, capitalist, and aestheticist projects.

The vision of the fruits of these projects erupting, fragmenting, atomizing at the end of Zabriskie Point is a willed return to the granular existence of geological history. It is a vision that destroys the notion of history as progress, that produces a catastrophic counterreading of 'nature' that rejects the organic modernism of the high-tech dwelling nestled comfortably in the supporting landscape and the prospect it supplies. The violence of civil disorder and industrial overlay that frame the film are, subsequently, revealed to be a mere prelude to the violence inflicted by the desert, to which the trappings of human existence are seen to return. The liberating potential written onto the vacant desert space by Daria and her confused drop-out protester friend Mark, whose death at the hands of the police prompts her vengeful vision, is at the same time endangered by the encroachment of a bourgeois leisure elite with visions of Edenic reclamation. Daria's redemptive romantic nature (an ersatz hippie primitivism) and nature as professional-managerial resource (utopian modernism in its postwar, postfordist manifestation as high-end trophy-home) are both exploded in the final scenes of the film. The dispersal of the signs of US culture into shimmering patterns of light and colour might be seen as a kind of radical formalist recoil from the commodification of modernism, as the geometric abstraction of nature at its most crystalline absorbs the sedimental garbage of conspicuous consumption back into part of its own elemental grandeur.

Frank Lloyd Wright's utopian interest in the possibilities of organic form in architecture was confirmed by the flora of the desert, where he finds in the Saguaro cactus the 'perfect example of reinforced building construction. Its interior vertical rods hold it rigidly upright maintaining its great fluted columnar mass for centuries’ (4). The inner ribs of the Saguaro were, indeed, used as structural elements in Papago and Pima shelters, and Wright senses a kind of natural duration in the.cactus which resists the vicissitudes of history. The Saguaro, incidentally, like the one sitting in the corner of the Sunny Dunes executive's LA office, bears in its scientific form the name Carnegiea gigantea, after steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, whose foundation established the Desert Laboratory in Tucson in 1903 for the study of desert ecology.

The Desert, published in 1901, the most celebrated of the over forty books published by John C. Van Dyke, is dedicated to one A.M.C., which, although not enlarged upon by Van Dyke, turns out to be Andrew Michael Carnegie. Van Dyke was the first professor of art history at Rutgers College, a well known art critic, friends with Sargent, Whistler and Mark Twain, author of a number of books of art appreciation, and a regular contributor to upmarket magazines (5). He was a prominent Rembrandt scholar, remembered almost exclusively in the obituaries of 1932 for challenging of the attribution of nearly a thousand Rembrandts around the world (6). In 1897, respiratory problems prompted Van Dyke to to visit his brother in southern California, and The Desert recounts his experiences during three years spent around what is now called the Colorado Plateau ¬¬-- which includes the Mojave, Colorado, and Sonoran Deserts -- between 1898 and 1901, equipped with a pony, a few pounds of supplies, and only a fox terrier for company. The book broke from the conventional distrustful view of the desert as barren, hostile, and unpleasant and, as 'the first work to praise the desert for its beauty,' claims Van Dyke expert Peter Wild, The Desert 'led the way in a major shift of the culture's outlook on the arid portion of its natural heritage' (7).

Van Dyke moved comfortably in the circles of preeminent industrialists and art collectors like Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and Frank Thomson. According to Van Dyke, it was he who guided Carnegie's first investment of six thousand dollars in American art and who continued to acquire art for him during his later life (8). Like his friend Bernard Berenson, Van Dyke was a connoisseur of Renaissance art, and like Berenson, this skill was put to work in stocking the collections of wealthy industrialists and, subsequently, in shaping the taste of America's upper class (9). Van Dyke had, it appears, a standing invitation at Frick's house, and was well enough trusted to edit Carnegie's autobiography. Indeed, it has been suggested that Van Dyke's trip to the desert was, in fact, precipitated by Carnegie, who wanted someone to deliver conscience money to a former employee sacked, persecuted, and ruined after the Homestead Strike and who had taken refuge from the law in northern Mexico. Needless to say, nothing of this story makes its way into The Desert, which is solely concerned with disinterested acts of acute perception (10).


1. Dave Hickey, 'Shooting the Land,' in Peter E. Pool, ed. The Altered Landscape (Reno and Las Vegas: University of Nevada Press, 1999), 22-32, p. 25.
2. Ibid., pp. 26-7.
3. Ibid, p. 28.
4. Frank Lloyd Wright quoted in Peter Reyner Banham, Scenes in America Deserta (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1982), p. 73.
5. David W. Teague, The Southwest in American Literature and Art: The Rise of a Desert Aesthetic (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1997), p. 128; Peter Wild, ed., The Desert Reader: Descriptions of America's Arid Regions (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1991), p. 111; Patricia Nelson Limerick, Desert Passages: Encounters with the American Deserts (Alburquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1985), p. 96.
6. Teague, p. 130. See also Alessandra Ponte, 'The House of Light and Entropy: Inhabiting the American Desert,' Assemblage 30 (1996):12-31, p. 19.
7. Peter Wild quoted in Ponte, p. 129. John C. Van Dyke, The Desert: Further Studies in Natural Appearances (London: Sampson Low, Marston, 1901).
8. Ibid, p.138.
9. Ponte, 'The House of Light and Entropy,' p. 19. 'Berenson's oeuvre must be placed within the milieu of the theories of visual perception developed in the aesthetics of Konrad Fiedler, Adolf von Hildebrand, Alois Riegel, and Heinrich Wolfflin'; that is, an aesthetics of 'pure visibility'. Ponte, pp. 19-20.
10. Van Dyke liked to present himself as the ideal composite of cultivated, urbane aesthete and Rooseveltian outdoorsman, as much at home in the Painted Desert as the galleries of Europe. To a large extent he was, yet the picture of self-sufficient nomad is somewhat compromised by the fact that many of his desert visits were made by train, he often stayed on his brother's ranch or in good hotels, and his knowledge of desert fauna was hardly sufficient to survive for long periods alone in harsh conditions. 'In 1901 [Van Dyke] sent the tearsheets for his book Old English Masters, Engraved by Timothy Cole back to the Century company not from a desert water hole but from the Hotel Almada, in Guayamas, Mexico, which its stationary proclaimed to be a "Hotel Moderno de Primera Clase."' He would not have lasted for long, observes Teague, 'under the delusions that rattlesnakes are in fact sluggish and that Gila monsters are harmless.' Teague, p. 130.

I offer a more extended discussion of Van Dyke and his relevance to British architecture critic Reyner Banham's reading of Western American space in John Beck, ‘An Over-illuminated World: Reyner Banham and Art History in the Wilderness.’ Everything 3 (2000): 26-33. Zabriskie Point has recently (finally) been released on DVD in the UK.