“Once I loved a man who was a lot like the desert, and before that I loved the desert.” – Rebecca Solnit (2006).
Late last year, I quite accidently combined the viewing of two films that spoke of a theme I have become interested in over the last few months. Viewing Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970) followed by Dennis Hopper’s debut as a director, The Last Movie (1971), drew a number of connections between the films. Both are products of the American counter-culture coming up against a concrete wall and the Nixon-isms of the early 1970s; both also feature the disintegration of a moral core through the bulldozing caused by various capitalist practices (in Zabriskie, this is architectural developments and student politics, in The Last Movie, it’s cinema itself). But both films also deal with another theme, that of the relationship between sex and the landscape. In each film, a moment where these two aspects align and comment upon each other in a symbiotic fashion occurs though for differing reasons; even at this point in the supposed sexual revolution, the body and its phenomenological relationship to the world around it was being questioned by popular art.
Zabriskie follows the meandering journey of Mark (Mark Frechette) who is mistakenly identified as the killer of a policeman at a race protest on a student campus. Stealing a plane, he flies out to the desert, his life becoming ghosted and intertwined with the daughter of a rich property developer, Daria (Daria Halprin). Some way into the counter-culture adventure, the two find themselves in the sandy desert of Death Valley. The pair of characters are deliberately set up as both curious and childish, playing at first in the landscape with a youthful abandon. The sex scene occurs as an evolution from this abandon, protracted in slow-motion as Mark and Daria roll in the sand. Several aspects are worth noting here. The first is the emphasis Antonioni puts on the covering of their skin with this sand. As the cuts reveal the lovers to be less and less clothed, they gain a new couture and veil of sand. In some shots, it is only their bodies movement that reveals the pair to be actually in the shot; their sexual union unites them with the topography and camouflages their presence from themselves and the world around them.
As the scenario progresses, Antonioni opts for an even more surreal effect; filling the landscape with subsequent couples of varying partnerships and orientations to accompany the original pair as the sexuality of the hills and mounds activates a spirit latent in the sand. This was the scenario that landed Antonioni in trouble with the authorities, with faked outrage at supposed “genuine” orgies being filmed in a public National Park; much of the social establishment were already attempting to get the film banned more generally with it being so calmly anti-American. Yet the scene in question is one of the film’s most important as Antonioni is clear in showing what the linking of these two characters physically does to the film; it augments the very perception of the landscape from which it takes its name, making it sentient with a thriving eroticism. The fact that the two leads sparked up a genuine romance during the film is hardly surprising in that the power of their attraction is shown to morph and conjure a landscape filled with its own sexuality. They simultaneously characterise it and become a part of it.
The Last Movie, on the other hand, shows a similar scenario to this but only briefly and in order to contrast it later on with the very commercialisation of sex and the body. This film follows Dennis Hopper playing Kansas, a staffer on a western film shooting in Peru who loses his love of filmmaking due to an accident during production and opts to stay on in the town and live there. He partners up with Rose (Toni Basil), a local prostitute who was working her own business with the film crew during the shoot. Things turn to chaos as the local villagers become almost possessed and obsessed in recreating some of the scenes from the violent western that Kansas was working on; unaware that the film was fake. Through the degradation of emotional turmoil, Kansas lashes out all around him and is eventually lost in the ritual of the fake/real film. The film is more about the acceptance of reality and the ritual of cinematic violence but sex also plays a key role and pivots around the portrayal of the Peruvian landscape.
When Kansas and Rose’s relationship is shown to be at its height, Hopper opts to show a sex scene with the two characters in a local waterfall. The bodies are shown to fit snugly into both the mould of each other and the rocky and grassy outcrops around the fall. Kansas wants this simplistic life away from the brutal monetary world of cinema and capitalist society, losing himself briefly in this moment before Rose ultimately forces them both to go back to the town with its array of bars and bordellos. In sharp contrast to this sex scene, Kansas’ character and psyche becomes ravaged by the town. He is shown to mistreat Rose, assuming her body is a commodity; far and away from their relations in the waterfall. They pay, along with some fellow American visitors, to watch two women have sex in a backroom. The moment is a deliberate contrast to the earlier moment when the pair of characters almost dissolved into the landscape through the pleasure of each other’s bodies; the sex is so contrived and fake back in the town that even the characters wince at its fakery.
The fact that the two films sit only a year apart is interesting in this portrayal. Antonioni predicts (and perhaps misfires) where such a negation of sex and landscape will lead to. Zabriskie is most famous for its final sequence of various commercial products (as well as Daria’s father’s home) blowing up in slow motion; almost orgasmic in the way it is shot and in its repetition. It’s a similar thematic pathway to The Last Movie‘s eventual moral collapse though has an optimism that seems more apt for 1970 than 1971. Hopper’s film, on the other hand, knows that the brief moment of dissolved identity in body and land will pass; a virtual impossibility in the increasingly violent world of capitalism’s mediation of the body, especially of women’s bodies (and of the threat to the landscape more generally by developers). Yet both films capture a brief moment where the landscape, far from being the bastion of healing chastity and solitude that it is regularly portrayed as today, comes to life as the most beautiful and sentient of erotic entities.
“The light belies the bony solidity of the land, playing over it like emotion on a face, and in this the desert is intensely alive, as the apparent mood of mountains changes hourly… as clouds promise rain that comes like passion and leaves like redemption…” – Rebecca Solnit (2006).