HOLLYWOOD - There is nobody who can tell you what Michelangelo Antonioni's new film is about, not even Antonioni. On a quiet Saturday morning, he sits curled at one end of a sofa and talks about the futility of it all.
"I never discuss the plots of my film," he says. "I never release a synopsis before I begin shooting. How could I? Until the film is edited, I have no idea myself what it will be about. And perhaps not even then. Perhaps the film will only be a mood, or a statement about a style of life. Perhaps it has no plot at all, in the way you use the word."
Antonioni speaks softly, almost to himself. He uses English well and with a great deal of precision. You get the impression, however, that he dislikes talking about his new film, because it remains so tentative in his own mind. He is like a juggler who can keep the act going only as long as he doesn't think about what he's doing.
"I depart from the script constantly," he says. "I may film scenes I had no intention of filming; things suggest themselves on location, and we improvise. I try not to think about it too much. Then, in the cutting room, I take the film and start to put it together, and only then do I begin to get an idea of what it is about."
Since last September, Antonioni has been on location in Death Valley and Los Angeles, shooting "Zabriskie Point." It is his first film in America; the early ideas for it took shape during a long trip he made across the United States in 1967. The trip was arranged by MGM, eager to finance another Antonioni film after the international success of "Blow-Up." In some way, "Zabriskie Point" will be a statement on the current moment in American society, Antonioni suggests, just as "Blow-Up" was about the feel of London in the 1960s and his earlier trilogy ("L'Avventura," "La Notte," "L'Eclisse") examined Italian society in the late 1950s.
But that is too simple. Antonioni never deals obviously with social themes. He is more likely to use only two or three characters and examine just a day or two in their lives. He suggests his message, or it grows out of the mood of his films; he never points to things, or preaches, or uses didactic speeches. He is about as far away from Stanley Kramer as you can get and still be in the same racket.
"I would say my films are political, but not about politics," he says. "They are political in their approach; they are made from a definite point of view. And they may be political in the effect they have on people. 'Blow-Up,' for example, was not only about a certain life style in London, but it expressed a feeling about that style. And yet I wouldn't want to put that feeling into words..."I went across the United States and saw a good many things. Then I went back to Rome and looked over my notes and gradually decided to do a film about two young Americans.
"In August, just before we were going to begin shooting, I went to Chicago for the Democratic convention. What I saw there - the behavior of the police, the spirit of the young people - impressed me as deeply as anything else I've seen in America. To some degree, 'Zabriskie Point' is influenced by what happened in the streets of Chicago. Not directly, you understand; the film is not about Chicago. But my ideas about young Americans were shaped by what happened in Chicago, and that will somehow be expressed in the film."
"Zabriskie Point," which has about four weeks of shooting left, stars two unknowns: Mark Frechette, 21, and Daria Halprin, 20, both acting for the first time. They will have their own names in the film. Antonioni found Miss Halprin at Berkeley, where she was a freshman studying English and anthropology.
Frechette, who is married and has a 2-year-old son, was working as a carpenter in Boston when an MGM casting agent spotted him standing at a bus stop and shouting in anger at somebody in a second-floor window. He may stay in acting, or he might go back to carpentry after the movie is finished; he has seen several of Antonioni's films and doesn't like them: "Nothing happens, man; it's just a lot of people going nowhere."
The nearest Antonioni will come to discussing the story of "Zabriskie Point" is to talk about his young actors. "What happens to them in the film is not important," he says. "I could have them do one thing, or another thing. People think that the events in a film are what the film is about. Not true.
"The film is about the characters, about changes going on inside them. The experiences they have during the course of the film are simply things that 'happen to happen' to characters who do not begin and end when the film does.
"In 'Blow-Up,' a lot of energy was wasted by people trying to decide if there was a murder, or wasn't a murder, when in fact the film was not about a murder but about a photographer. Those pictures he took were simply one of the things that happened to him, but anything could have happened to him: He was a person living in that world, possessing that personality. "With 'Zabriskie Point,' it will be the same. It is about Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin. That is why they will have their own names in the film. To some degree, I am making a film about youth in America by taking two American young people and making a film about them."
In an interview shortly after "Blow-Up" was released, Antonioni said: "An actor must arrive on the set in a state of virginity. I, too, must come to the set in a state of mental virginity. I force myself not to over-intellectualize."
You get the impression Antonioni is rather pleased, for example, that Mark Frechette doesn't like his films. That makes Frechette an easier clay to mold. People who work on the set say Antonioni rarely explains the rationale of a scene before filming it. He talks about how the scene is to be shot, but not why. During the lunch hour, he goes into his trailer and sits quietly, they say. Nobody ever joins him for lunch. He is thinking.
But on this Saturday morning, the week's shooting is completed and he can draw back for a moment to a wider view.
"I think the theme of most of my films is loneliness," he says. "Often my characters are isolated; they are individuals looking for social institutions that will support them, for personal relationships that will absorb them. But most often they find little to sustain them. They are looking for a home." Looking for a home in a wider sense, is that the subject of all your films?
"Yes, I suppose so."
And you are looking for a home as well?
"Yes. There is no place in the world where I feel truly at home, not even Rome. And yet I do not feel particularly alienated here in Los Angeles. It is a city that no one likes at first, but after a while you can find places, little corners, places in the city that you can begin to like."
And the film takes place in Los Angeles and in the desert?
"Yes. The desert and the city. Here the people can go into the desert. It is only an hour or two away by car. And yet it is so different. Here you are in Los Angeles and that is right over there, the desert is right there.
"And the desert is nothing. It is an enormous area of nothing. We do not have spaces like that in Europe. Perhaps the existence of these great spaces so close to the city says something to me about America. "You see, this is how I work, putting these things together and seeing what result there is. I try to compress my feelings about my subject.
"When I was making 'Blow-Up,' there was a lot of discussion about the fact that I had a road and a building painted. Antonioni paints the grass, people said. To some degree, all directors paint and arrange or change things on a location, and it amused me that so much was made of it in my case.
"In 'Zabriskie Point,' I have done some painting again. An airport runway, and some hangars, and some other things. And I put up some billboards in the front lawns of the houses across the street from the airport. But what of that? Airports must have billboards around them. And it gives me an opportunity to work in American advertising, which is so photogenic, so expressive.
"When I do something like this, it is not so much to make the scene more attractive visually -- it is to compress. I can only show so much. In 'Blow-Up' there were only so many scenes, and yet there were many things I wanted to show. So by painting a house or a road, I was able to compress, to show more in fewer shots..."
All interviewers ask you about painting that house, or about the murder in "Blow-Up," all the obvious things. Yet there must be questions you want to be asked, and the interviewer never comes up with them. Isn't that right?
"Yes, but you see when you ask me that, my mind goes blank." Antonioni smiles. "I cannot think of what to say..."
Another obvious question, then. The name of your film is "Zabriskie Point," and you have said this refers to a natural outcropping in Death Valley that attracted your attention. Is Zabriskie Point meant to be a center place, a symbol of some sort?
"I would not say that. It is in the center, but the center of nothing..."
What function does it have in the film?
"I would not want to say. Or perhaps I do not know."