There aren’t many festivals where you can watch Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriske Point (1970) in the same strand, let alone bookending the same day. Shot just two years apart, the films appear to present two radically different portraits of the US by two established European auteurs. And yet, in capturing the moment when one era died and another lay on the horizon, they aren’t so dissimilar.
Leone’s epic draws a line under almost every Western that came before it. (In the way it negates the romantic image of the West, the film attracted the ire of one critic who was himself on the cusp of becoming a filmmaker and chronicler of the American landscape, Wim Wenders.) Leone’s Dollar trilogy (1964-66) had already presented a deeply cynical world, where the values of the Hollywood West were infused with realpolitik. Once Upon a Time went a step further, giving audiences a devastating attack on the rapaciousness of capitalism and big business, in the form of a railway line slowly edging its way across the New Frontier, destroying anything – and anyone – in its path. Leone would go even further with A Fistful of Dynamite (1971, aka Duck, You Sucker), but that film ultimately lacked focus, bite and is undermined by its cruel misogyny.
Antonioni had already defined one kind of 1960s culture with Blow-Up (1966). It revelled in the hedonism of youth in Swingin’ London, but also hinted at something darker with the film’s protagonist, a fashion photographer, thinking he has witnessed a murder. Antonioni subsequently travelled to the US, arriving at a time when the country was descending into chaos. Demonstrations against the conflict in Vietnam were taking place across the US, citizens were being shot by law enforcement agencies, talk of revolution was no longer peaceful and a younger generation was rejecting the values held dear by those in power. Out of this discontent, Antonioni chose to sculpt his film.
Leone’s Western was hailed as a masterpiece while Antonioni’s drama was written off as one of his weakest films. Four decades on and little has changed. Yet there is something compelling about much of Zabriske Point. Moreover, Antonioni’s was arguably the greater challenge. Leone had 100 years of hindsight through which to filter his tale of four souls converging on one town-in-the-making in the middle of nowhere. Antonioni chose to film his in the present.
Leone’s film profits from an exceptional cast: Charles Bronson’s vengeful harmonica player, Claudia Cardinale’s justice-seeking widow, Jason Robard’s gun-slinging rogue and – best of all – Henry Fonda’s blue-eyed psychopath. Antonioni wasn’t so lucky. His two leads may still look pretty, but they lack any screen charisma. The few sequences with Hollywood veteran Rod Taylor highlight just how bad they are. But if you’re going to watch Zabriske Point, it’s not for the acting.
Antonioni is one of cinema’s great stylists, whether it’s accentuating the vacuous lives of the wealthy classes in l’Avventura (1960), that stunning montage sequence at the end of L’Eclisse (1962) or his use of colour in The Red Desert (1964). When Zabriske Point is talked about, it’s because of its visual style. Particularly the explosive end. If Sergio Leone transformed the shootout into a 10-minute waiting game at the beginning of Once Upon a Time, Antonioni eschews conventional narrative for his finale, choosing instead to suggest that the world needs to be blown apart to remedy itself. It isn’t just the ideologies that are wrong but the way life is lived. If Once Upon a Time in the West acknowledges the death of an old world – the old West – and warns about the way progress is enacted, Zabriske Point confirms that progress led us in the wrong direction and perhaps we needed to start again.
Ian Haydn Smith