The American Desert (August 1968)
What will your film be called?
Zabriskie Point. It’s the name of a place in Death Valley, in the California desert.
Blow-Up represents your English experience. Will the new film deal ‘with an analogous experience in the United States? Or aren’t places important to you?
Places are important. But Blow-Up’s story could have happened anywhere. Zabriskie Point, instead, is a film about America. America is the real protagonist of the film. The characters are just a pretext.
Don’t you think that the themes of your past films (incommunicability, solitude, anguish, alienation and so forth) find their greatest confirmation in Anglo-Saxon society? That is, don’t you think that these themes are, after all, the real themes of the most advanced form of neo capitalism?
Yes, that’s true. These themes have a clearer, more extreme, more profound resonance here in the United States.
How does the revolt of young people (students, hippies, beatniks) fit into your usual world? I mean: until now you have shown us the middle-class grappling with its problems, but you have shown us them from within, you’ve accepted the values of the bourgeoisie itself. Students, young people, it seems to me, deliberately place themselves outside of the system; they try, as they say nowadays, to challenge it. Does this dissent interest you?
Yes, it interests me; in fact, I have incorporated it into the film.
In what way?
I can’t say. I’ll limit myself to mentioning that the characters of Zabriskie Point are in a certain way typical of the present American situation. More than a psychological affinity they share an ideological affinity. Ideological affinity in turn becomes a means to communication, to mutual understanding.
Don’t you think that something has changed in these last years? Western society seemed entrapped in the mechanism of well-being, without an escape route and, what’s worse, without being aware of it. Revolt is always an indication of an attempt at consciousness raising, objectivity, explanation. comprehension. To revolt does not only mean to reject subjugation, but also to affirm one’s own autonomy. In this case, it means to reject not so much society as much as the idea that man is powerless to change society, and that reality is an impenetrable mystery. What do you say?
I think so, too. Nevertheless, reality continues to be just as much of a mystery. What’s new, if anything, is that young people today do not want to submit passively to this mystery. And that they use it as a springboard, so to speak, for revolt. Anyway, I don’t believe that man is powerless. The change for the better that has taken place in recent years, if nothing else, proves that.
What is your relationship with America? I mean, what are the points of friction? In what ways do you feel provoked, offended, humiliated, irritated?
My relationship with America reflects the division of Americans into very distinct categories: in one camp are two-thirds of the population, irritating and unbearable people; the other third are wonderful people. The first group is the middle-class; the second one is today’s youth. Among young people there is an absolute indifference toward money, there is purity, disinterestedness, revolt and change. The middle-class, instead, I would call a social class of crazy people because, after all, despite all their alienation, they are uncorrupted and well-meaning. The European middle-class, you see, is corrupt and therefore is not crazy.
Would you like to become an American director? Do you consider the American experience as the beginning of a new phase of your career?
No, I consider it a transitory experience.
Figuratively speaking, has America suggested something new to you?
Yes, in a figurative sense, America has really made a strong impression on me. It was jarring. Particularly advertising. Everything is so photogenic that you don’t know where to begin.
In America, they say, there aren’t classes but races. In your opinion, is this true?
In America there is everything as far as divisions go: there are races, sub-races and so on, and then there are classes, sub-classes and so on. And there’s more. Their mania for inequality persists even within a democracy that should function as an overall equalizer. For example, there are these receptions where, for lack of other criteria, only people with an income greater than one hundred thousand dollars are invited.
What has struck you most in working on an American production in comparison to a European production?
Cinema in America is less improvised, less original than in Europe. Everything is more bureaucratic and more mechanical. Americans are very tied to routine.
Do you generally like your relationship with Americans? Doesn’t it seem automatic, impersonal? Don’t you miss the relationship you have with Italians, which is so much more irregular and sometimes even unpleasant but always personal?
I do prefer the relationship with Italians. But my relationship with the American world is an important experience.
Do the producers impose their own will? Do you have labor problems? Is your relationship with the producers smooth or difficult?
It’s smooth. My real problem is understanding the country and trying to make the right film.
Is there an ideological tendency (conscious or unconscious) in the American cinematographic industry? I mean: is there a conformist barrier?
Is there? And how!
To what extent will a major production studio like Metro Goldwyn Mayer allow an art film to be made?
I would say that you can’t put the question in those terms. Because MGM films have to make money. If they make money, MGM stocks go up; if not, they fall. Does an art fIlm like Blow-Up make money? If it does, fine, let’s make art films.
In general, does the United States thrill you or depress you?
It thrills me when I understand it. It depresses me when I don’t understand it.
Have the themes of your films been enriched by the American experience?
Yes they have. Then again, novelty is always a great thing. I was tired of seeing the same people all the time, the same landscapes.
How do you explain the fact that until now no European director has managed to adjust to America?
Perhaps because they have found America to be a curious, exotic country. My greatest concern – I even lose sleep over it – is not to approach America as a curious, exotic country, but to capture its deep, authentic characteristics. On the other hand, I must acknowledge that I experience some difficulty fitting in, because, in fact, I do not want to find a point of contact with the American world beyond the realm of work. Basically, I feel a little rejected and I reject a little, too. And then the language is a problem, at least for me.
What do you think of Hollywood and underground cinema? Do you like the fact that Hollywood is capable of adopting the experiences of the underground and making them its own?
There is a lot of bad stuff; but there are also good films, in underground cinema. Underground films influence Hollywood and vice-versa. For example, recently the underground has taken a few steps backwards. [Jonas] Mekas, who is more or less the ideologue, says that we need to return to the plot, to the narrative sequence. There is an osmosis between the two form of cinema.
And the actors? Where will you get the actors?
Off the street. I have already found the female lead: she is a student in San Francisco. I thought I had found the male lead the other day, in a restaurant. He was a blond hippy, handsome, very young. He was exactly what I was looking for. While I was trying to fIgure out what to do to approach him, the irreparable happened. A policeman showed up, looked at him; he took off, escaped, disappeared. The cop followed him but it was no use. I never saw him again. He probably ran out of there like that because of some drug problem.
You are an autobiographical director, in the sense that the themes of your films are projections of your experiences, isn’t that true?
In this film I used other people’s experiences. But I hope to make them my own.
Will you film in the studio?
In the studio, film crystallizes, it becomes impermeable to the unexpected. I will film on location as much as possible. If there are any riots (black uprisings) this summer, I’ll be there with a camera. Also, they are demolishing an entire neighborhood of Los Angeles to build a new one. I’ll film this too.
You said that you’ll incorporate the young people’s revolt into your film. What is it that attracts you about this revolt?
The fact that it’s not tied to any ideological system, that it’s anarchistic.
In your films first comes the point and then the story; or does the story come first and then the point?
First the story and then the point. For example, I only discovered the point of Blow-Up a month ago.
Where have you gone to scout the location for Zabriskie Point?
I traveled a lot: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Palm Springs, Las Vegas, Barnstone, Death Valley, Sacramento, Miami, Cape Kennedy, Nashville, Chicago, New Orleans, Montreal, Dallas, Houston –
And which locations have you chosen?
I have decided on Los Angeles and Arizona.
How did the story come about?
I had some notes on America. The story took shape from these notes.
How long will it take?
A film takes one year. This one will take a year and a half, maybe two years.
Doesn’t it seem to you that the postwar years were “lost”years? And that now everything is beginning to be more interesting?
The immediate post-war period was great. The period between 1950 and 1960 was very boring. Now things are better, it’s true.
One last question: would you like to be younger?
I am younger now – younger than I will be when I am older.
Il deserto America,” from L’Espresso colore, 11 August 1968.