Careful with that Axe, Eugene | On titles

Daria Halprin watches the world explode in the finale of Michelangelo Antonioni's film Zabriskie Point.Daria Halprin watches the world explode in the finale of Michelangelo Antonioni's film Zabriskie Point.

When Adolf Hitler marched to the centre of Munich in 1932, bounded by approximately 2000 men, with the intention to overthrow the then State Commissioner Gustav Ritter von Kahr, he couldn’t have imagined—even in his most feverish moments of ambitious delerium—that his act of political and social defiance (which would be lionised upon his becoming Fuhrer as a significant chapter in the development of Nazi party mythology) would one day result in an American Stand-up Comedian—Doug Stanhope—taking said event’s name and adapting it for use as the title of a comedy special, replete with provocative unconventional thinking, commentary about the absurdity of modern existence, dick jokes and one hell of an awesomely bad seventies-era suit (the type that you might expect to see on a stereotypically sleazy car salesman).

The Beer Hall Putsch coup attempt of 1932—to which Adolf Hitler, and his fellow senior Nazi’s, attributed so much meaning, remembrance, ceremony and respect—through the creative vandalism of comedian Doug Stanhope—is scaled from Hitler’s intended solemn, valourous, memorial and symbolic heights, to a moniker atop one particularly sharp hour of a scruffy looking guy standing on a comedy room stage, telling off-colour jokes to a bunch of (frequently) laughing people who are most likely only a little more under the influence than he is.

Beer Hall Putsch (the comedy special, not the historical event) did one thing to me other than make me laugh heartily, its title provoked me to think about my own relationship to titles of significance: that is, to titles that I can’t get out of my mind, that have followed me for years, or decades, that have some special significance or resonance to me whether due to or in spite of their creator’s original intent. Here then are two such titles.

Apocalypse Now, the title of Francis Ford Coppola’s acerbic look at (specifically) the Vietnam war (and more generally, at the state of warfare and what it does to people, and what it makes them do) is one such memorable title. In fact, in my estimation, as a title it is one of the all time greats. Its lineage is worth recounting briefly; reportedly writer John Millius thought apocalypse now a suitable sarcastic rebuke to a popular hippie button of the nineteen sixties: Nirvana Now. As a descriptor of the film it couldn’t be more appropriate, truly Apocalpyse Now is about the end of times; churning from one scene of civilisation in collapse to another. Whether morally or physically, the whole place is going down (the film concluding in orgiastic, violent death and a rainy downpour that washes away its ephemeral and ghost-like characters—back into a murky ether from whence they first emerged). Apocalypse Now, the title, conjures up a canvas full of images of Bosch-like horrors which Francis Ford Coppola then, more than capably, delivers to the screen.

Zabriskie Point is the name of a visually unique eroded-lattice landscape region in Death Valley National Park, California. It is also the enigmatic title of a 1970 film by Michelangelo Antonioni. There’s no hint as to what the film may be about from its title alone, except to say that it may be about a place. Upon viewing Zabriskie Point one may well suggest that it is more a film about the experience of places (a university, the business world, and various natural evironments untouched by the presence of man) and man’s sense of displacement when faced with each of these—his lack of belonging no matter where he finds himself in spite of his own best efforts to ‘fit in’. This is, after all, the film in which the lead female protagonist joyfully imagines the erasure (obliteration through explosion after explosion) of the man made world from its unceasing encroachment on the world of nature.

Upon release Zabriskie Point became a spectacular box office bomb, its critical reputation seems never to have fully recovered with some assessments suggesting that it is notable principally for its soundtrack (I’ll get to a key part of that later) and its cinematography (in particular, that spectacular, explosive ending sequence). But, I am rather fond of Zabriskie Point and have been since I first saw it as a child. It is an unconventional film in that its characters purposely exist outside of the world that they inhabit—an element of design that perhaps assisted to embolden distributor MGM to the idea that it would appeal to 60’s-era counter-cultural youth, perhaps in the hope that they would have the next Easy Rider on their hands. But, it’s clear from the opening scenes of a politically charged college campus (shot in claustrophobic fashion by Antonioni) that our lead male protagonist no more belongs to the world of the counter-culture than he does to the opposing establishment police force who later amass to disperse protesting college students with force. Antonioni’s sympathies lie with the individual, not with movements or with the preoccupations of any given generation. In the film’s explosive finale the only place that the lead female protagonist is truly accepted and is free is inside of her own mind.

Zabriskie Point, then, is a state of mind as much as it is a place—a place where people can be free (free and naked, as the film shows in another notable sequence which visually suggests man’s return and reconnection to a more natural state).

My fondness for Zabriskie Point extends far beyond nostalgia, it remains as fresh and as lively as the day it was first released, and, given the present-day, tumultuous political positioning that now grips all spheres of society—the way in which the ‘personal’ individual is so aggressively and consistently assailed by pundits, zealous ideologues and mobs of their dedicated followers to incorporate the ‘political’ into every sphere of individual existence—the films message that personal fulfilment is best derived from following a path toward the realisation of one’s own individual identity—even if that act is one as as ultimately isolating and alienating as the journey of Zabriskie Point’s male and female protagonist—seems as equally important today as it ever was in 1970.

For me, both titles Zabriskie Point and Apocalypse Now are sparkling and resplendent; they are never far from mental reach. These two title’s longevity, and eminence, speak to the unique qualities of their design and impact (their distinctiveness, their originality, their ability to inspire, to provoke, to challenge and, of course, their relationship to the very films to which they are permanently attached) and, as well, to their simple, functional utility. Apocalypse Now is a handy mental reference point and rejoinder to have when faced with evidence of social, economic and political dysfunction (Milius maximal rebuke awesomely dwarfs any other proportion instantly) while Zabriskie Point suggests that the answers to all of those ills are not to be found by working through them but by shutting them out of oneself entirely, blocking them out of the world and forbidding them entry to the sanctity of the individual mind at any cost (or, as the film’s finale figuratively suggests: blowing them the fuck up).

One final thing. In this conversation about titles I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the title to this article. Careful with that Axe, Eugene is the title of a musical composition (its minimalist lyric simply repeats the composition’s title in an almost-whisper over and over) by Pink Floyd which was re-recorded (without lyric) for use in the final explosive scene of Zabriskie Point and retitled Come in Number 51, Your Time Is Up (that title was apparently taken from a line by English surrealist comic Spike Milligan). My original intent was to use the first provocative line of The Beatles song Revolution for this article’s title before reconsidering and briefly adopting Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond before finally settling on the much more provocative and impressionistic Careful with that Axe, Eugene. Careful… is also, of course, much more in keeping with the unexpectedly jolting nature of Doug Stanhope’s comedy special title, and thus my foray into examining memorable titles has arrived at full circle.

View the excellent ending to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point which features Pink Floyd’s Come in Number 51, Your Time Is Up, it’s well worth seeing and hearing.

For a bit of fun, here’s Director Stephane Sednaoui referencing Zabriskie Point’s naked couples in landscape scene in the form of Smashing Pumpkins’ film clip for their song Today, from the 1993 album Siamese Dream. Rock on!

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