Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Passenger

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2006)

For as long as I can remember, Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger has been central to my notion of serious cinema. I can no longer remember clearly how I came across the film. I suppose it must have been on a rental video, but if so, finding it on the shelf in the small Welsh town where I grew up would have been as great a miracle as the Criterion Collection opening up an outlet in Wawa. Either way, I watched it many times in fairly rapid succession, and when people ask me my favourite movie, I reply The Passenger more than any other. It’s never out of my top ten. This has been increasingly a matter of faith though, since I had not seen it for well over a decade. Apparently the film’s star, Jack Nicholson, bought up the rights and would then only allow it to be screened on rare occasions.

A Film Returned

Its absence is now over. The film reappeared at the Cinematheque this January, and then went on for a couple of weeks at the Carlton. It is finally out on DVD as well. And so the inevitable question arises – is it still my favourite film?

If you don’t know, Nicholson plays a journalist on assignment in Africa, staying in a remote hotel. The place has only one other Western guest, and when Nicholson enters that man’s room one night, he finds him dead on his bed. Without too much consideration, Nicholson swaps his own identity for that of the dead man (the film is from the era when you could peel off a passport photo and glue in a new one), and follows the other man’s course, based on entries in his appointment book. It transpires that the man was a gunrunner, making Nicholson’s project keenly dangerous; meanwhile, his wife and a colleague gradually realize that something is wrong, and come on his trail. The other lead actor is Maria Schneider, from Last Tango In Paris, as a wandering student who joins her path to his.

From its title (although the Italian original was Professione: Reporter) and that brief synopsis, you get the sense that the film is about identity, destiny, alienation, chance, the relationship of man to his environment – all Antonioni’s classic themes. It’s plotted as a chase thriller in many ways, but it’s deliberately paced and enigmatic, allowing only limited certainty over Nicholson’s motives, or the events that overtake him. And then there’s the famous closing shot, a masterpiece of technical precision and logistical flourish lasting over seven minutes– during which the camera travels between the bars of a hotel window. Certainly in the pre-digital age, that shot seemed barely tethered to physical realities, and supported a transcendental or mystical view of the film.

This World Or Another?

One of the biggest surprises for me on seeing it again though was how solid and grounded it generally felt. Events may be mysterious and confounding, but they’re also very precisely articulated and constructed. The film doesn’t feel fanciful or merely escapist – it seems utterly rational and psychologically grounded, even if we can’t completely articulate the nature of that grounding. The film has a certain quota of political content – through various video interviews recorded by the journalist, and the dead man’s connections. In one instance we see an African interviewee chide Nicholson for his approach and turn the camera on him, and the switch – while seemingly intended in part to release Nicholson from the tedious and hopeless pursuit of “truth” – actually has the effect of bringing him closer to the centre of causes he’s merely been toying with. I used to think this aspect was incidental, but this time it struck me differently. By their nature, these elements – grainy, committed (such as the real footage of a prisoner being executed), connoting violence rooted in real need and oppression – allow both a counterpoint to Nicholson’s more existential quest and a possible alternate key to it.

The film has always been luxuriated in, whereas it seems to be now that it exists to be dissected – Nicholson creates too specific a character, and the details visited on him are too precise, too rooted in real landscapes and events and consequences, for it to be otherwise. So I’m no longer much taken, for example, by David Thomson’s admiring but utterly fanciful tribute: “Melodrama and regret are replaced by the serene faith in a world of light, space and providence. The steady attempt of the camera to move away from people seems a truly mystical claim…(the final shot) inhales a warm, idle universe beyond intrigue, as if the movie were about space travel.”

Except that the film is all too obviously about the challenges of living on this planet, not another – it’s too fascinated by the workings of real things – like tape recorders and video machines and date books and car rental companies – that facilitate a privileged means of engaging with the world while at the same time trapping one within it. Nicholson has a screaming fit near the beginning that establishes the depth of his frustration; after that he’s remarkably self-contained, with emotional expression largely replaced by the propulsion of living. But this is very much a human quest rather than an otherworldly one.

Who Knows?

It is indeed in that final shot that you feel most liberated from the people in the film. But on this occasion, for me that was more a function of the very explicit assertion of cinema. As the camera moves slowly toward that window, the mechanics of shot-making, of the handling of the machinery, become palpable: it’s impossible (for me anyway) not to become divorced from the stated situation and to enter almost a new game, in which the famous shot looms before you like the course for a hundred meter track final. It still delivers, of course. But then Antonioni ends the film on a relatively innocuous note, with a lyrical closing shot of the hotel exterior at night. Wherever we may have felt ourselves travel, we are still here, and life goes on.

These are just a few almost random observations, of course, and they leave me uncertain where to rank the film now (plainly I will need to watch it again, perhaps resuming the regular relationship I used to have with it). Clearly the film now seems more approachable to me, but I can’t yet determine if that is ultimately a good thing. I will admit that although I was fascinated and gripped by it, I’m not sure I was carried away to the extent you might expect of your all-time favourite film. But maybe that says more about my own wear and tear than that of the movie?

On the same day I watched it I also watched (for a third time) Jacques Rivette’s admired but much less heralded Va Savoir, and actually found the Rivette film more truly stimulating in some respects. But choosing between such alternatives is hardly the definition of a problem. The Passenger is back in the game, to be experienced and mused over and (perhaps better for a film that lends itself too easily to musing) argued over. See it now!

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