Let’s Talk About Zabriskie Point (August 1970)

Writing is not my business. I know that I’m not a good judge of myself or of my films. Each time I must put something down on paper about myself, the same embarrassment returns. The questions put to me are always the same: why did you make that film? What were you trying to say? I’m tempted to reply: I wanted to make a film and that’s that. But if you want to know why and how I did what I did, what prompted me to do it, what I was thinking while doing it, what I wanted to say, in other words, if you want me to summarize my reasons and explain what is almost impossible to explain (impulses, intuitions, figurative choices), you will only come to this: you will come to spoil the film itself.

I think that what a director says about himself and his work does not help to understand the latter. In my case, what little knowledge I have of myself, words can, at best, clarify a particular moment, or a state of mind, a vague awareness. The answer I prefer to the above question is that, at a certain period when a film was being prepared and shot, I saw certain people, read certain books, loved X, hated Y, had no money, did not sleep well. … But even in saying that much, perhaps I am supplying involuntary explanations.

Let’s talk instead about Zabriskie Point. Talk about it now, long before these words will see print. There are marches on Washington. American universities are in revolt, four youths have been killed on an Ohio campus and two more in Jackson. It is difficult, unfortunately, to reject the temptation of feeling like a prophet. I would prefer, however, to reflect on some of the psychological aspects of violence. I’m convinced that a policeman does not have death on his mind when he enters a university or faces a mob. He has too many things to do, too many orders to follow. The policeman is not thinking of death anymore than a hunter is thinking of the death of a bird. Astronauts, in the same way, are not afraid, not because they do not know the dangers, but because they do not have the time. If the policeman gave some thought to death he probably would not shoot.

Making a picture in America brings with it one single risk: the risk of becoming the object of a discussion so wide in range that the quality of the film itself is forgotten. I went to America because it is one of the most interesting, if not the most interesting country in the world. It is a place where some of the essential truths and contradictions of our time can be isolated to their pure state. I had many images of America in mind, but I wanted to see it with my own eyes, not as a voyager but as an author.

My film certainly does not pretend to say all there is to say about America. Even if the film’s content is complex, the story is simple. It is simple because it sets out to achieve the aura of a fable. Now, even if critics may object, I do believe one thing: fables are true. Even when the hero destroys an army of dragons with his magic sword. If had wanted to do a picture about student dissent, I would have continued the direction I took at the opening with the student-meeting sequence. If ever the day comes when young American radicals realize their hopes to change the structure of society, they will come from that kind of background and have faces like those. But I left them there, and I followed my protagonist on a completely different itinerary. The itinerary does run through a bit of America, but almost without touching it, not only because the young man flies over it, but because from the moment he steals that airplane, America for him coincides with “the earth,” from which, precisely, “he needed to get off.”

That’s why you can’t say that Zabriskie Point is a revolutionary picture, although it may seem so from the point of view of abstract dialectics. Some say that to do a picture in a foreign country you have to know that country in-depth. This doesn’t strike me as a valid aesthetic criterion. If it were so, how could American or Japanese critics judge and praise, as they did pictures like L’avventura, Fellini Satyricon, The Damned, themselves knowing very little, I suppose, about Sicily, ancient Rome, or the Germany of the Krupps? I should like to ask Americans: How many of you, crossing one of your astonishing deserts, have stopped at a ghost town longer than for a normal tourist visit? And anyway, why should I be coercively confined to speak of “what I know,” which ultimately would mean (following Aristotle) what the average audience believes it knows, within the patterns of verisimilitude, current majority opinion, tradition, and so on. 

Certainly, judged by such ancient critical standards, my picture, especially the finale, may even look delirious. Well, as an author I claim my right to delirium, if for no other reason than today’s deliriums might be tomorrow’s truths. I am not an American and I shall never tire of repeating that I do not claim to have done an American film. But why deny legitimacy to a foreign, detached observation? A famous French philosopher and aesthetician wrote: “If I look at an orange hit by a side light, I do not see it as it actually appears to me, i.e., with all gradations of color from light to shadow; I see it as I know it to be, uniformly colored. To me it is not a sphere with graded nuances of color; it is an orange.”

Well, let’s put it this way: I have looked at America as it has appeared to me, without knowing what it was. Eventually, as I kept looking at the orange, I may have felt like eating it; but this urge is a fact which strictly involves my own personal relationship with the orange. In other words, this is the problem: whether I have managed to express my feelings, impressions, intuitions; whether I have been able to raise them, if you permit the expression, to a poetic level; and not whether they correspond to those of Americans.

Why Americans saw in Zabriskie Point a film against their country remains a mystery to me. “Antonioni has given us his contempt, we give it back to him,” they even said, echoing Ivan Karamazov. What, contempt? I must be dreaming. Are the two protagonists seen with contempt? Or maybe they are not American themselves? Perhaps the Paris Herald Tribune critic is right when, astonished by the reactions of his fellow American critics, he wonders: “Did they perhaps watch a different picture?” 

That an author should analyze his own political and social choices, and manifest them in his work, in my case, a motion picture which relates back to them through the channel of imagination,does not justify taking those choices as the only basis for judgment. The course of the author’s imagination is the real issue. The questions are: whether the word poetry acquires special weight today (can the word by saved by poets?) and whether this word applies to Zabriskie Point. It isn’t up to me to pass judgement, but I believe that poetry is the criterion for others to do so. 

I insist on this argument, because I want to be understood. I’ve always detested the role of the non-understood. If there is something enigmatic in what I do or say or write, I am in the wrong. (The trouble is that my errors are perhaps the most personal element I have put in my films.) If one is instinctively brought to make common cause with America’s rebellious youth, perhaps it is because one is attracted by their natural animal vitality. When in Chicago kids with blankets over their shoulders and flowers in their hair are seen being bashed by grown men wearing helmets, you come very near to forming, without reservations, a total alliance with them. I wasn’t able to avoid wishing these youths great success. For they know what the adults ignore. They know that reality is an impenetrable mystery, and it is in the nature of today’s children not to succumb passively before this mystery nor calmly to accept the adult vision of reality which seems to have produced monstrous results. These are the experiences and impressions which have caused some personal symbols to emerge in my films. But after each new film, I’m always asked what the symbol means, rather than how it was shaped and inspired.

My films are always works of research. I do not consider myself a director who has already mastered his profession, but one who is continuing his search and studying his contemporaries. I’m looking (perhaps in every film) for the traces of sentiment in men and of course in women, too, in a world where these traces have been buried to make way for sentiments of convenience and of appearance: a world where sentiments have been “public-relationized.” My work is like digging, it is archaeological research among the arid material of our times. That is how I started my first film and that is what I am still doing.

It has never been my intention, in any film, to show the conflict between the human mind and technical progress. My interest is not in man facing machine but in man facing man, with his acts, his story, his attempts at love, according to the style, the pace, the place, and the occasions which today’s civilization allows. It is not the command of the machine which is slipping away from man, but the control of his sentiments, his beliefs. In answering a question put to me about Red Desert, I said once, more or less, the following: “In this film, machines, with their intrigue of power, beauty, and squalor, have an enormous effect and they have taken the place of the natural landscape. But machines are not the cause of the crisis of the anguish that people have been talking about for years. I mean that we must not long for the more primitive times, thinking that they were a more natural landscape for man. I prefer to believe that man must struggle to try and mold and restrict the machines to man’s measure, not try to negate technological progress.”

Color has a psychological and dramatic function for me. This point is not an Absolute, nor is it valid for everyone. It is a rapport between the object and the light, the object and its observer, the position of the latter in regard to the object, and even its physical state. At times we have a desire for color and we find it or even see it where it is not. These are not my discoveries, they are findings of scientists expert in that field. Nor should the psychological effect of color be overlooked. There is a psychology of color which has been proved by hundreds of texts. There are scenes and dialogue in my films which would not have been possible without the presence of walls or backgrounds of particular colors.

But theoretic discourses are useless. One simply must use in a film only those colors which are right for the story one has to tell. Exclude all others. A painter doesn’t ask what color that tree before him should be, but lets his fantasy tell him. He has his good reasons for dong what he does, but do not ask him what they are. Most of the time, he cannot give the answer. But there is one thing I must tell you: you cannot argue that a film is bad but that the color is good, or vice versa. The image is a fact, the colors are the story. If a cinematic moment has colors which appear right and good, it means that it has expressed itself, that it achieved its purpose. The blue spread over Picasso’s painting, evident during his blue period, was the painting.

A director does nothing but search for him self in his films. They are documents not of a finished thought but of a thought in the making. Often one is asked: How is a film born? The probable answer is that it is born in the disorder which is in us all; the difficulty is in finding the order, in knowing how to pull the right thread from the skein. I’m convinced that it depends not only on an attitude, but also on an attitude of one’s fantasy.

A story idea can be born in a moment like this: Rome, the fourth day of a strike of garbage collectors. Rome flooded with garbage, heaps of colored refuse at the street corners, an orgy of abstract images, a symbolic violence never before seen. And, contrasting this, the meeting of the garbage collectors in the ruins of the Circus Maximus; two thousand men dressed in bright blue blouses, silent, orderly, waiting for I don’t know what. Observing this scene, it came to mind that in that moment, it wasn’t anymore the garbage collectors in the midst of the garbage, but all the citizens of Rome.

When one is in certain moods one should not be alone. People help you by taking your mind off yourself. They even make you less “sensitive.” They force you to be a hypocrite, they stir up the air around you, polluting it. In a mob everyone can be exalted, at a party everyone is a little bit of a fool. Among people who know nothing of me, I even forget myself a little. “Ignorance,” said Joubert, “is a bond between men.” There I go with a quotation. I detest myself when I assume the airs of an intellectual. Naturally, I’ve read a quantity of books but I’ve always tried to hide this fact. Modesty? Diffidence for culture? I don’t know. Read a book carefully and do not think of it again. A book works inside you, like food.Talking about it is like writing a new book. But, then, I get little pleasure out of talking. Today I’ve decided not to do anything which does not also give me great pleasure. Shooting gives me pleasure. I should not let too much time-lapse between films.

Traditional images are no longer capable of representing the world. One can say that the ideal image of the world is that which coincides exactly with a world which must be canceled as an image. For an image no longer exists which gives form to the world because the world itself can no longer be represented other than by approximation. There’s the need, I think, to recommence from zero to experiment with new ways of representation. It is a process already underway. Saying this, one realizes that the tasks of the spectator also are modified. It cannot go on, as it has till now, that the image enters through the eye to reach the brain, the spectator must operate on his own, almost creatively. One says seeing a film, reading a film. These words now are no longer suited. Today, it is the rapport between image and image which counts. So it is more right to say that today we must feel a film. Let’s put ourselves down in front of the screen no longer as men of culture (our culture is almost at the zero point anyway) but simply as men.

A screenplay is never definitive for me. It is a director’s notebook, nothing more. In a screenplay there is no technical plan, where to place the camera, which lens to be used; these are things to be seen to during the shooting. That’s the system for all directors now, I think. Even the dialogue must be heard spoken by the actors, or rather by the characters, within the scene being shot, before I can be sure of the validity of the lines.

And there’s another factor. I believe in improvisation. It is not my habit to prepare myself for a business encounter, a love encounter, or a friendly encounter. I take them as they come, adapting myself in the course of things, making use of the unexpected. The same system works in shooting a film. A propos of improvising: when I think of the past I can say that I have always lived from minute to minute. It is my way, even now.

Each moment of the day is important to me because it constitutes a new experience. And this does not change while making a film: the stimulants of reality during the filming, the chance encounters, the rapport between working companions, all these things influence the film and lead to sudden choices and even to radical changes. That’s what I mean by improvising.

My relations with my actors are rather curious. Rather friendly I would say, even if the opposite is often presented as the case. The metier of an actor is something I would never attempt to learn, since any form of exhibitionism is against my nature. Nor could I support being in the position of being chosen, rather than being the chooser. The actor must always compromise with the personalities of the roles to be interpreted. Maybe that’s the reason why I can tolerate without much trouble an actor’s sudden shift of humor. I understand their problems: the good profile for close-ups, the right stills for publicity, things of that sort. I realize too that actors and actresses often feel uneasy with me, they feel as if I’ve shut them out of my personal creation. In a certain sense, they are right. But that is the kind of collaboration, and no other kind, which I ask of them.

Only one person holds in his head a clear idea of the boundaries of the fIlm and that is the director. Only one person mentally fuses the various elements which compose a film and is in a position to foresee the results of this fusion, and that is the director. The actor is one of these elements and sometimes not even the most important. For example, one thing the actor can never do is see himself in the scene. Consider how many ideas for his acting he could get, if that were possible. This limitation will partly be eliminated the day we film on magnetic tape, but i don’t believe that it will change the actor film-relationship. It will always be the director who must manipulate the “actor-element,” following precise criteria which only he knows.

The methods for directing actors are many, each director tends to have his own. For my part, I think that it isn’t necessary, in order to achieve a certain comportment, or certain expressions and intonations, that the actor must be in a corresponding state of mind. In fact, this could even lead to putting us at cross-purposes, because it would be the result of his sensibility being different from mine and thus committed differently in the film.

I never think of the public. I think of the film. Obviously, there is always an interlocutor, but it is the ideal interlocutor (who may really be another me). If it weren’t that way, I do not know how I would manage, in as much as there are as many publics as there are continents and human races, not to mention nations, cities, villages, social classes, sexes and generations.

The number of new directors in America, Germany, Italy, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, everywhere, could be much larger than it is. Young directors do not yet have the power they merit in the cinema because the resistance to the novelty which they offer is very strong. The commercial and industrial network of the cinema is like an enormous dike which is holding back a sea of talent. Things are moving even in America, but much too slowly. How much longer will it take the producers to realize that the majority of the public is made up of young people and they want to see films made by their own generation?

Why talk about costs? Money spent on a picture is never seen by the director. And a great part of the expenditure is not even wanted by the director. Filming in America, I had contrasting opinions: on one side it seemed that money did not matter, or mattered less. But then, it wasn’t true. It is true, instead, that more is consumed in America, more than one can imagine. I think they must teach it at school, how to consume. And when you grow up, it gets worse, you consume that much more. And since the cinema is run by grown-ups, the result is that there is a squandering of material and money such as I’ve never seen in Europe.

Zabriskie Point is certainly the most costly film I’ve made. And not only because of the reason I’ve just given, but also for the absurd laws which the American unions have. For example, in Arizona once, I saw that there was a doctor and a nurse hovering around the set. I didn’t know what they were doing. No one was ill; if anything I was somewhat concerned about the doctor’s health. He might have had sleeping sickness because he was out cold and snoring all day. The nurse, however, was busy taking snap­ shots. On another day, shooting in Los Angeles, I asked for an extra. They brought me thirty. When I asked why, I was told, “Just in case.”

The movie camera hidden behind the keyhole is a gossipy eye which records what it can. But what of the rest? What is happening beyond the visual range of the keyhole? So one hole is not enough. You make ten, one hundred, two hundred holes, place that many cameras behind them, and let several miles of film roll through. What will you have? A mountain of material in which not only will there be the essential aspects of an event, but also the marginal, absurd, and ridiculous aspects. Or the less interesting aspects, I mean to say. Then your job is to reduce and select. But the actual event really did include all these aspects. In selection, you will be falsifying. So you say, I am interpreting. That’s an old question. Life is neither so simple nor always so intelligible and even history-as­ science does not come near to completely expressing it: Strachey and Valery came to the conclusion via different routes; the historian who made history an art, and the poet who despised history.

Pudovkin’s experiments also are well-known. He changed the meaning of certain shots by rearranging the sequences in the editing. A smiling man who looks at a bowl of soup is a glutton; if he is shown with the same smile eyeing a dead woman he is a cynic. Why then the keyhole and the two hundred cameras and the mountain of material?

Some lines of MacNeice have been running through my mind for years: “Think of a number, double it, treble it, square it, and sponge it out.” I’m convinced that this could become the nucleus, or at least the symbol, for a curious film. The lines already indicate a style. Probably the best film is one which is born from many diverse ideas, not from one alone. But the problem is in recognizing these ideas in the chaos of sensations, reflections, observations and impulses with which the world surrounds us, or our own imagination provokes in us.

Why, among so many possibilities, do we isolate some ideas and not others? There are several answers but none of them satisfactory. The good ideas for a film may not be the same ideas which serve us in life. Otherwise, the way a director lives would coincide with his way of forming a film. Instead, however autobiographical these ideas may be, there is always the intervention of our fantasy which translates and alters what we see and what we want to see. We are our own personages to the extent in which we believe in the film which we are making. But between us and them there remains the film. There is that concrete, precise, lucid fact, that act of will and of strength which qualifies us unequivocally, which releases us from the abstraction to let our feet rest firmly on the ground. Thus from being proletarians, let’s say, we re-become bourgeois, from pessimists we re-become optimists, from solitary and alienated persons we re-become desirous of opening a dialogue and of communicating.

I read something written by an American philosopher some years ago which left an impression on my memory. This philosopher had gone to spend a city in what we’ll call a model city. First-rate schools, splendid music halls, stadiums for all the sports, fountains, parks, theaters, no germs, no poverty, no drunks or addicts, no criminals and no policemen.

Moral: He returned to New York and what a relief  “Give me,” the philosopher said, “something primeval and savage, even if it must be something perfidious like a massacre of Armenians, just to restore the balance. I want to run all the risks of the world, with all the inherent suffering and crime. Here there is many times more hope and help than in that quintessence of all mediocrity.”

One can share, fully or not, the position of our philosopher and it is true that some films are like that model city: insupportable, dull. You can’t go wrong in asking yourself, when you are preparing a film, if there is enough nastiness in it. If there isn’t, put some in. What will happen is what happens when a substance is put in contact with its natural chemical reagent, which makes it reveal itself, its composition, its truth.

The first time I stood behind a movie camera was in an insane asylum. The supervisor was a tall, imposing man and he had a face which, with the passing of time, was beginning to look more and more like that of one of the inmates. I was living then in my home town of Ferrara, a fine little city in the Po Valley, silent and ancient. Together with some friends, we had decided to make a documentary film on the insane. The supervisor went out of his way to be helpful, even rolling on the floor to illustrate how some of his patients reacted to outside stimuli. I wanted to make the documentary with the truly insane, and after some insistence on my part, the supervisor said: “Try it.”

We set up the camera and the lights and we placed the inmates in the room as we wanted them for the first shot. I must say that they took our orders with humility and took care not to make mistakes. They were very touching in their sense of cooperation and I was delighted with the way things were going. Then I called for the lights to be turned on. I was excited myself All at once the room was flooded with light. For an instant, the patients remained immobile, like stone statues. I’ve never seen on any actor’s face an expression of such thorough, total fright as I saw then. This lasted only a second, and was followed by an almost indescribable scene.

The schizophrenics began to roll on the floor, just as their supervisor had done. In a moment, the entire ward became a pit in Hell. The insane tried desperately to hide from the light, as if it were some prehistoric monster which was assaulting them. Their faces, which a minute before had seemed composed, now were distorted and devastated. Now it was our turn, behind the camera, to freeze like stone statues.The cameraman didn’t have the strength to start the camera rolling and I could give no orders. It was the supervisor who finally shouted to us to put out the lights. In the semi darkness of the ward we could see bodies huddled together which were still twitching as if they were in the last throes of agony. I’ll never forget this scene. It was that day just before the war, and that scene which started us talking about neorealism in the cinema.

Every time I enter a strange office, public place, or private home, I get the urge to rearrange the scene. I go out to meet someone and the conversation puts me ill at ease. Because I feel that neither of us is properly placed in the room. He is on a divan, whereas he should be in an arm­ chair, which would be less free, more enclosed. I’m seated next to him, when I should be opposite. And instead of his having his back to the wall, I feel it would be more fitting if there were a window or a door behind him, leaving some possibility for escape.

Is this professional distortion, or the instinctive urge to feel myself in physical harmony with my surroundings? I believe more in the second hypothesis. In fact, I cannot shoot a scene without first being alone in the room, or the set, in order to understand it and sense the various possible camera angles.

A book is read in a few days, you keep it next to the bed, you carry it with you, you reread it. A painting or a piece of music you enjoy all your life. A motion picture you lose at once, or almost. It is placed in the memory and then after only a few weeks the demolition work begins: you erase, add, change, retain the best, or retain the worst. The film then belongs to you. And that is why, when after a few years you see the film again and you find that it is different, you might not like it anymore.

There are moments when I seem to perceive, however confusedly, the why of certain things. When this happens, I become a combative optimist. How many times, however, do I hear myself being accused of pessimism. Some years back, when I made a movie based on a book by Cesare Pavese, I was bracketed with him. Now, I’ve read Pavese with interest and with love, but I cannot say that he is my favorite italian writer. And one reason for this is the tragic conclusion of his life, his suicide, a conclusion which made his intellectual experiences coincide with his practical experiences.

But am I not still here, making films (good ones, bad ones, whatever) which are always against something and someone? Isn’t this obstinacy? And isn’t this obstinacy itself a kind of optimism?

From Esquire 74:2, August 1970

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    • RV
    • February 21st, 2012

    Thank you for reproducing this here.

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