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Tuesday Morning Foreign Region DVD Report, Caveat Emptor Edition: "Zabriskie Point" (Antonioni, 1970)

One of the most provocative, problematic, and eye-popping films in Antonioni's oeuvre, 1970's Zabriskie Point is a film that grows riper for reassessment the further it gets, temporally, from the counter-culture milieu in which it was set and made and which it seemed to utterly fail to "get" at the time. Freed from the demands for verisimilitude that seemed built into the project at the time, it's mutated into something less awkward, more enigmatic. Back in the day critics and audiences howled at the flat intonations of the young rebels played by neophyte actors Daria Halprin and Mark Frechette. Looking at them in a context in which they no longer bear the responsibility of being generational signifiers, there's something fresh in the naivete of their approaches.  At a screening recently of a beautiful print of the film at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Rose Cinema, a packed house, largely made up of 20-somethings, didn't snicker once.
So the Region 2 DVD of the film from French Warner, the first official DVD release of the film, ought to be a cause for celebration and some of the above-mentioned reassessment. No freaking dice, alas. While the transfer of the film is a good one, seemingly taken from a very nice print, this particular disc is not optimized for 16 x 9 televisions. If you're watching it on a CRT TV with a 4:3 screen, that's not a huge deal—you'll see the film in a letterboxed version. Although it is something of a deal, as transfers that are thus optimized will give better detail on any television. Now if you're watching the disc on a widescreen television, it's a disaster. Had the disc been optimized for 16 x 9, the screen cap above would be a fairly accurate representation of the picture. On a 4X 3 set, the screen cap below is what you'll get. The sorry picture at the very bottom of this post—a shot of my own 16 x 9 display—is what you get before using the 16X 9 zoom function, which as noted compromizes detail.
In order to get the picture to fill your 16 x 9 screen, you have to go to the 16 x 9 zoom setting. And the attendant loss of detail is, in fact noticeable.
One wonders what bonehead made the decision overseas, at a time when practically everyone and his mother knows that all DVDs ought to be optimized for 16 x 9 displays, to go ahead and put a 4:3 picture on this disc. It kind of makes you wanna blow something up.
Domestic Warner, hear our plea: Put this picture out right. In standard definition AND Blu-ray, because why not. Please.
People — 20-somethings and up — freely snickered, hooted and howled at “Zabriskie Point” when I saw it just a couple of years ago. Time can reverse our view of certain movies, but it can also be unforgiving: there are bad ideas that do not magically get better, shoddy writing that does not become imaginative, and penny-dreadful acting that remains just that. The scene with all the hippies making love in the desert in particular drew a lot of derision. It didn’t look sexy, just really, really unpleasant and uncomfortable.

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