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ON FILM: Film clips in brain mostly unreliable

By Philip Martin

This article was published July 3, 2009 at 3:00 a.m.

— More than 40 years' worth of movie-watching piles up in your head. Things are forgotten. Other things get manufactured. Memory is an unreliable narrator.

I envy friends who have clear recall of movies they saw 20 or 30 or 50 years ago, but my brain doesn't work that way. I remember a few basic plots, a few lines of dialogue, and a whole lot of shots, but I can't tell you who killed John Wayne at the end of The Shootist. (Actually I can at this particular moment, because I've looked it up. But I won't be able to next month.) And so it's not unusual for me to realize - 15 or 20 minutes into a DVD or cable presentation - that I've seen a film I thought was new to me before. The flip side of this is that I sometimes think I've seen movies that I haven't, especially when they're films I think I should have seen. For instance, I really believed I'd seen Michelangelo Antonioni's Zabriskie Point (1970) until my colleague Joe Riddle brought it up the other day.

Joe had just watched it on DVD. He wanted to know what I thought of it.

I told him it had been a long time, but it was - well, you know, very 1970. It had been a major flop - the second film Antonioni made in English, after the amazing Blow-Up (1966). It was widely perceived as anti-American.

It also had, you know, a bunch of hippies and stuff. And that guy with the motorcycle. And Michael Parks. You know, it inspired the TV series Then Came Bronson. Right? That Zabriskie Point.

Uh, actually no. I don't know what I was thinking about. My best guess is that my imagination somehow conflated and remixed several existentialist movies from the era - including a couple I do know pretty well, including Vanishing Point (1971) and Five Easy Pieces (1970) - with the 100-minute Then Came Bronson pilot (1969). Thus germinated my own version of what Antonioni's movie must have been like.

It's possible that I had seen Zabriskie Point sometime around its original release. I used to spend part of every summer with an uncle who had a penchant for art house movies; It's not inconceivable that he took me to the movie when it opened in the Bay Area.

Except he probably couldn't have - the movie was originally rated X, due to an infamous love-in scene in Death Valley that featured members of Joseph Chaikin's avant-garde Open Theater. (Orgy scene or not, had I seen it when I was around 11 or 12 years old, it's highly likely that I'd been so bored with it that it would have slid right out of my mind.)

What's more likely is that I meant to watch Zabriskie Point on cable in the mid-1980s when it was aired with some regularity on the Playboy Channel. They used to run a lot of foreign/arthouse films with naughty bits - I remember seeing La Grande Bouffe and Caligula on Playboy.

But though I may have videotaped it - it seems like I packed and unpacked a VHS cassette labeled "Zabriskie Point" a few times - I obviously never watched it. Until the other night when I borrowed Joe's DVD.

So now a gap in my education has been filled. I have seen Zabriskie Point, and found it interesting, if not entertaining. Forty years after it was filmed,the flat performances of the lead actors - Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin - seem kind of precious and misguided, a relic of a time when people weren't so media-wise as they are now. Frechette and Halprin had no previous acting experience, and they exhibit no aptitude during the movie.

Nor is there much to the story - a campus radical (Frechette) seems to kill a policeman during a student uprising at UCLA and flees in a stolen plane. He encounters a hippie chick/secretary (Halprin) on her way to Phoenix to meet her boss (Rod Taylor), who might also be her lover or her father.

They wander around Death Valley, trading philosophical insights and making love near the titular landmark (turns out the orgy scene is just an erotic hallucination). She wants to run away with him, but he insists on flying the plane back to Los Angeles while she goes on to Phoenix - and each of their stories is punctuated by violence.

While the cinematography is stunning, and it's a necessary chapter (and not quite the low point) in Antonioni's remarkable career, Zabriskie Point can't be regarded as any sort of success. It's a self-indulgent movie, filled with half-baked ideas and radical sloganeering.

Frechette's real-life story is more compelling; he was a French-Canadian high school dropout who was discovered on the streets of Boston by Antonioni's talent scouts, who heard him cursing.

"He's 20 and he hates," they told the director, who was looking for an unknown to star in his American epic.

Frechette was a real-life radical, a member of the Mel Lyman Family, a commune near Boston led by the one-time banjo player for the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. A couple of years after filming Zabriskie Point, Frechette was arrested with other Family members during a botched bank robbery in which one of the Family members was killed.

Frechette, who carried an unloaded pistol during the robbery and surrendered before police even realized he was not an innocent bystander, was sentenced to six to 13 years in prison. He died in 1975, in the prison weight room. The coroner ruled his death accidental: Frechette was asphyxiated when the 150-pound barbell he was pressing slipped out of his hands and landed on his throat.

He was 27 years old.

Frechette's story is what makes Zabriskie Point unforgettable for me. After I watched it I went on the Internet and found a clip of him and Halprin being interviewed by Dick Cavett. You can find it on YouTube, or see it here: http://post.ly/115m.

Before you forget, e-mail:

pmartin@arkansasonline.com

MovieStyle, Pages 36, 41 on 07/03/2009

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