Nothing comes out of a vacuum, but then the desert is about as close to a vacuum as cinema gets: an arid, often featureless zone of negative space through which people wander and, if they linger too long, die. Daniel Kremer’s film essay It’s a Zabriskie, Zabriskie, Zabriskie, Zabriskie Point is a study of the presentation and semiology of deserts on film (especially in the road movie), but it is also concerned with other gaping gulfs – between different times, different genres and different ideologies, between noise and silence, and between dry, dusty reality and (cinematic) mirage – that all demand to be filled with something. The desert is a harsh, sparse, unforgiving place where the past is either buried or exposed, and where wayward visitors tune out, get lost and occasionally find themselves. With its vast panoramas dwarfing our petty affairs, the desert puts viewers in their place, reducing the human condition itself to an insignificant scale. Needless to say, the desert makes a perfect stage for cinema’s dramas.
Kremer’s film takes two such human dramas as its poles, straddling the assassination of President John F. Kennedy which would throw the forward momentum of America’s postwar optimism into something more hesitant, questioning and aimless. The first of these films, premièring just days before Kennedy’s death in Dealey Plaza, is Stanley Kramer’s escapist caper It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), in which zany characters dash across America in pursuit of buried treasure, and are repeatedly, hilariously undone by their own driven greed. The second is Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970), an arthouse outsider’s view of the often violent clash between American culture and counterculture. Both these films featured fugitive characters, long-distance phone calls, commandeered planes, capitalist excesses, and of course desert locations – and Kremer improbably, if seamlessly, mashes up scenes from them to suggest an incongruous, absurdist conversation across the void.
On this quest for meaning in the sweltering emptiness, Kremer’s narration takes in many other desert road movies, from the ensemble comedies inspired by Kramer’s film, to the nihilist sojourns that followed Antonioni’s, occasionally digressing onto news reel, television clips, the Zapruder film and archival interviews with Zabriskie Point stars Mark Flechette and Daria Halprin, and even makes a U-turn back to the down-and-dirty despair of Edgar Ulmer’s low-budget road movie Detour (1945), and further back to Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, which, in 1924, was the first film ever to have sequences shot on location, like Kramer’s and Antonioni’s films, in Death Valley. Kremer also references his own feature Overwhelm The Sky (2019), which ends in a desert, and which, as Kremer points out, contains an unlikely, thoroughly recontextualised, quote from It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World.
It makes sense that the director should include his own film, in what is after all an essay as much about Kremer himself as about the sandswept films that he elucidates and conflates through an imaginative nexus of associations. It’s a Zabriskie, Zabriskie, Zabriskie, Zabriskie Point begins and (almost) ends with Kremer. For in its opening scene, we see a young boy being asked what his favourite movie is, and stuttering out the response Zabriskie Point. That boy is a 12-year-old Kremer, and the footage was shot for Peter Nicks’ documentary Danny and the Scatman (1999) about Kremer’s ‘severe speech disorder’. Painfully struggling to express himself, young Kremer retreated into cinema and into Antonioni’s mysterious desert – and emerges over two decades later a changed man, using his own acerbic, ironising, but most importantly now articulate, voiceover to guide us through the beloved desert movies of his childhood, and to find, in their barrenness, his own self-expression. Yet for Kremer, the Death Valley of Kramer’s and Antonioni’s films is an imaginarium, a mere idea of uprootedness and annihilation beyond his actual experience – and it is only near the end of this essay that, as an adult, he visits the real Death Valley and Zabriskie Point for his first time, following in the footsteps of those films’ characters, and implicating in their fictions all at once himself, his own filmography and his formative identity.
So this work, sprawling and singular, idiosyncratic and encyclopaedic, takes into its wide purview an individual’s strange journey and a nation’s shifting sands, with the evolution of cinema itself tracing the conflicting, polarised histories of America. It is a deeply personal trek through an alluring yet dangerous country where even the driest and most sterile of environments can prove fertile for ideas. For here, it turns out that we are all defined in relation to the nothingness that engulfs us, and that something can, after all, come out of a vacuum, echoing across space and time in a big bang that is both beginning and end, where everything, eventually, comes to a point.
strap: Daniel Kremer’s free-associative film essay maps out meaning across American desert-set road movies
© Anton Bitel