Ciao, Michelangelo

My involvement with Zabriskie Point started with a call from Sally Kempton in the early summer of ’68. We had mutual friends at the Village Voice. She said her husband, Harrison Starr, was producing “Antonioni’s American movie” for MGM, a script by Sam Shepherd was being revised, and there was one scene –a movement meeting of some kind– that they wanted me to work on for “authenticity.” (Sally later confided that what they wanted from me was access to movement activists.)

I flew to LA for a meeting with Antonioni on the MGM lot. He said he thought that what was happening in America –the political/cultural acting out– was “the hope of the world.” He said that his movie was about a “political” boy meeting a “hippie” girl in the desert. The heart of the movie would be their dialogue — the dialogue between a boy and a girl who personified the two halves of the movement, as understood by M. Antonioni.

Maybe the problem was that you can’t make a movie about philosophical abstractions, it has to be about human beings. Or maybe he could have pulled it off he had gotten the right boy and girl. But the boy and girl he wound up with were absolutely, totally wrong.

A highly publicized search for the proper unknowns had been launched the previous winter, involving calls in the newspapers, readings and photo sessions in several cities, and screen tests for the promising candidates. It had gone on for more than half a year. A lot of money had been spent, and Harrison Starr lost patience as Michelangelo rejected this one or that one for not having the right face or the right voice. Finally there was a face that Michelangelo really liked: Mark Frechette’s. The only trouble was, Mark didn’t have the requisite “political” background. He was in fact a follower of a Boston-based cult leader named Mel Lyman.

So Harrison Starr gave Mark a Resistance button to wear when he met Antonioni! And he told him that MGM would help him deal with his draft board if he encountered any problems! That was cynical of Starr, but ultimately you have to hold Antonioni responsible for his naivete. Why make a movie about people you can’t even read? Imagine mistaking Mark Frechette for a politico of any kind.

The casting of the female lead, Daria Halprin, just as outrageous. As Larry Bensky remarked at the time, “Daria may have once walked barefoot across the Berkeley campus, but she sure isn’t a hippie.” I always wondered about the significance of the fact that her father was a landscape architect who did some work for the Department of the Interior under Stuart Udall. Harrison Starr had been seeking permission from Interior to film at Zabriskie Point, a national monument. What a happy coincidence that he could cast Larry Halprin’s daughter as his lead. Here’s another happy coincidence: after Udall left Interior he got hired by Halprin’s firm as a consultant.

Of course Daria didn’t get the gig solely to facilitate access to Zabriskie Point. Starr and Antonioni greatly admired her looks. They were oblivious to how wrong she was for the part in terms of experience and perspective.

Antonioni used my draft of the meeting scene to kick off an improvised discussion, which he then filmed. That was his approach to shooting Zabriskie Point: the script for a given scene would be the touchstone, a starting point for spontaneous, open-ended exchanges between the actors.

He was very gracious, and I thought I had his ear, but in the end he didn’t use my material. When I got called back to work on the scene in the desert, Daria and Mark rejected the dialogue I’d written, each simply declaring “This isn’t me.” And they were right. And they had been promised by Antonioni that they wouldn’t have to say anything that wasn’t the real them.
What a fiasco!

In 1993 there was an Antonioni revival at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco that my friend Peter Lurie attended. Afterwards I debriefed him for the Anderson Valley Advertiser.

PL: …For 10 bucks they showed Zabriskie Point, Antonioni himself, and Blow-up, in exactly that order. A whole lot of people didn’t stay for Blow-Up –which gets better every time you see it.

FG: I can understand people leaving after Zabriskie Point. “Let’s get outa here, honey.”

PL: Most people were older than me –they’d probably seen it before.

FG: They were probably coming to see themselves on screen.

PL: Exactly. I did like the opening scene –the political meeting.

FG: No thanks to me. It was basically all improvised. They may have kept the opening line –Kathleen Cleaver saying “Some people think things have to get worse before they get better. But what’s going to happen is, things are going to get worse before they get even worse. And then they’re going to get even worse.”

PL: It’s a well done scene. It’s got a real documentary feel. Much more energy than the rest of the film … So the film ends and this guy who’s some kind of local filmmaker –he has some association with Zoetrope– points into the audience and says: “Michelangelo Antonioni!”

FG: Was it Dean Tavoularis, the art director?

PL: No.

FG: I remember Tavoularis took this little corner store and repackaged everything to make it look exaggerated and grotesque.

PL: No, it wasn’t Tavoularis, it was more of a business type.

FG: I heard that in One From the Heart he rebuilt the Las Vegas Strip because it wasn’t garish enough.

PL: That’s true, One From the Heart was way over-designed –and it’s the film that bankrupted Francis Ford Coppola– but it’s worth seeing anyway.

FG: We should only be as bankrupted as Francis Ford Coppola. With his magnificent estate in Rutherford and his office buildings in San Francisco.

PL: You’ve got to see Heart of Darkness, the documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now. It makes you feel like you’re inside the head of this guy, who is obviously a maniac. There was one scene where Francis is on the line to the studio. Martin Sheen, who’s 35, has just had a heart attack on the set. We see them putting the paddles on his chest, it’s incredible. So now they’re incredibly pissed off because they can’t shoot because the star has had an MI. Three weeks of shooting time in the Philipines are lost. And Francis is on the phone to Paramount yelling “No, no no! I decide if Marty has had a heart attack!” Then Brando shows up. He’s getting a million bucks a day, and for the first three days he wants to “discuss the part.” It’s great ….

Anyway, the guy from Zoetrope says “Michelangelo Antonioni!” and everybody starts to clap. Antonioni struggles to his feet. He’s obviously had a serious stroke, his right arm is really not moving, it’s in his jacket, he can’t talk, he’s aphasic. He’s there with his wife on one side and Daria Halprin –looking most attractive, I must say– on the other. So he gets his left arm up and gives a few waves, and then he manages to turn slightly and waves to the rest of the audience, which is clapping respectfully.

Then this guy from Zoetrope says, “We have a number of other people here who were connected with the film.” And he points out a camera operator, and a guy who’d been involved in the music, and a woman who’d been an extra in the protest scene on the campus. And then there was a man of about 60 with white hair down his back and a beard down to here, and he revealed that he was the guy who had painted the plane with the breasts and the ridiculous slogans. People loved that.

So then they ask for questions from the audience and really the only person who could answer was Daria, so she sort of answered the first one. And then somebody else asked a question and it was the same thing, the only person really placed to answer it was her, so the guy from Zoetrope says, “Why don’t we bring Daria Halprin up to the screen,” and everybody starts to clap and she comes around and gets up on the stage.

FG: Just like the making of Zabriskie Point.

PL: An ironic situation in which the maestro has been replaced by his non-professional actress. And she explained how she had been chosen –how he had picked her out. Do you know this?

FG: I knew that she was the daughter of Ann Halprin, a very successful modern dancer, who was always described as “the Martha Graham of the West.” And her father, Lawrence Halprin, was a very successful landscape architect. But I never heard Daria’s version of how she was cast.

PL: She was 17 at the time, a dancer, and a UC Berkeley freshman. And Antonioni had been in the Bay Area and somehow seen a video of her dancing. And he picked her out of the video. And he got on the phone and called her up.

FG: Very unlikely story. Harrison Starr, the executive producer, was from the East Bay and he probably had connections to her family. He also thought she was extremely beautiful. Many men did. “Isn’t she the most beautiful princess in the world?” I remember him saying as he gazed longingly at her picture. His wife was in the room at the time.

PL: So then more questions were thrown at Daria. One was particularly absurd. This guy says, “At the end of the movie, did you just imagine the house being blown up, or did you will it to be blown up?”

FG: I can’t remember. What happened at the end?

PL: She looks at this house being blown up and drives away.

FG: Why are they blowing this house up?

PL: Well they’re not really blowing it up. She’s been working as a secretary for Rod Taylor. She has come to realize the errors of capitalism and conspicuous consumption, and she is metaphorically rejecting all this and blowing it up. So she, ironically, ends up being the true rebel, not Mark, who ends up being chased down for having shot somebody he never shot, and then going back to be killed. Basically to martyr himself. So she gets out of the car and looks at the house and it starts to explode and they had 13 different cameras and you see it blow up 13 times and then it cuts to all these consumer goods being blown up. The whole fridge explodes. The Wonder Bread … And you see everything filtering down. And it cuts back to Daria and she’s still standing there unmoved and she gets back into the car and drives off into the sunset and the movie ends.

FG: So did she answer the guy’s question?

PL: She said, “I think she willed it.”

FG: Well, then she willed it. Whatever Daria says.

PL: You know that if Michelangelo had been asked that question, he never would have answered it. Never! Under any circumstances!

FG: Who’s making money off this retrospective? Whose interests are being served? Antonioni had great dignity, it’s hard to imagine him making this circuit for a last hurrah. Just because he’s had a stroke doesn’t mean he can’t think and feel.

PL: I’m not sure he’s appearing at all the places where the films are being shown.

FG: And I wonder why he lets them include Zabriskie Point? He had a substantial body of work without it. The films about wealthy Italians wandering around interesting landscapes …

PL: He obviously doesn’t feel the way you do about it.

FG: I got invited to see the preview in LA and afterwards I went up to him. Brando was telling him how great it was and I sort of cut in and said, “You don’t have to bring it out right away. You could cut it again. There’s something really, really off.” And Mike Nichols grabbed my arm and pulled me aside and said very pompously, “You cannot talk like that to a man about his work.”

PL: What did Mike Nichols have to do with it?

FG: Mike Nichols was giving a dinner party for Antonioni immediately following the preview. I guess he didn’t want the mood spoiled.

PL: In between films everyone went into this side room –it was full of Europeans, everyone was smoking– and you could see Antonioni nodding, agreeing. You had the sense that he had learned how to listen.

FG: He could always listen. He was a very gracious man. It was a surprise to realize that his polite nodding didn’t mean agreement. Pretty arrogant of me to assume that it did.

FRED GARDNER is the editor of O’Shaughnessy’s, the journal of cannabis in clinical practice. He can be reached at


Fred Gardner is the managing editor of O’Shaughnessy’s. He can be reached at