[Originally published in Queen Anne News, Nov. 16, 2005]
[The Passenger screens at the Seattle Art Museum on Tuesday, March 24; details here]
My wife and I saw Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger at a matinee in 1975 and went straight to the studios of KRAB-FM to talk about it. There we discovered—on the air—that one of us thought it was pretentious hooey and the other thought it was a brilliant, radical, and probably great film. We still cherish memories of that argument, although after revisiting the picture a couple of years later there was no daylight between us: we both knew we’d seen a masterpiece.
Antonioni’s oeuvre was distinctive from the outset, though never easy or comfortable. In the Fifties, in films such as The Story of a Love Affair and The Girlfriends (films that wouldn’t be seen in the States till decades later), he showed himself to be the cinema’s closest equivalent to a modern novelist, exploring nuances of behavior and (mostly) alienation as his characters moved through an increasingly chilly, inorganic world. L’avventura in 1960 was one of the movies that set benchmarks for modern film artistry and set the tone for a decade of increased seriousness about filmgoing on the part of American audiences—at least, of those that frequented the arthouses. With Blowup in 1966 Antonioni crossed over into English-language filmmaking and regular moviehouses; his work remained as enigmatic—and as essentially nonverbal—as ever, but now he had Hollywood patronage (MGM) going for him, and the more or less coincidental whiffs of sensationalism deriving from a Swinging London milieu and a little envelope-pushing nudity. Zabriskie Point (1970), his first (and only) film set in America and a dubious contribution to “the Revolution” much bruited about at the time, proved to be a fiasco with critics and public alike. But in The Passenger, or Profession: Reporter, as the Italian version was titled, he had the star of the zeitgeist, Jack Nicholson, as a key collaborator. And he had what L’avventura and Blowup had also had: enough of a story—a mystery—to suck an audience in for whatever other itinerary the director might care to lead them on.
Antonioni’s mysteries weren’t meant to be solved. Halfway into L’avventura, one of the main characters disappears during a stopover on an island, and her lover (male) and best friend (female) spend the rest of the movie trying to find her. Except that, after a while—and after the questers have become a couple, of sorts—there is less and less sense that they are still looking for the missing woman, even though that remains the pretext for their continuing journey, which has come to seem simultaneously desperate, distracted and becalmed.
The mystery in Blowup nudges closer to movie convention. Idly shooting pictures in a London park, a hip fashion photographer snaps what he takes to be a dalliance between a young woman and an older man. Back in his darkroom, enlarging the pictures, pushing deeper and deeper into their grain, he comes to believe that he has photographed the prelude to, perhaps the very moment of, a murder. Various someones, including the young woman, show intense interest in him and his film. There is a body in the park; then there isn’t a body in the park. Menace builds, then is gone, along with the photographer’s pictures. He visits another park, and disappears into his own enigma.
The Passenger is enigmatic from the word go, although as a matter of fact the first quarter-hour of the film contains scarcely any words at all. An American journalist is at large somewhere in the deserts of North Africa. Where, exactly? Who is he? What story is he seeking? He doesn’t speak the language of the people he meets, something so taken for granted that scarcely anyone attempts to communicate except through looks, pauses, finger snaps. People come and go within the frame of his, our, awareness. Eventually, from a hilltop, he spies a distant column of riders—and hides from them. His Land Rover gets stuck in the sand and he screams, with no one to hear: “I don’t care!”
Somewhere in this desert, he has a hotel room. Returning to it, and drifting next door to touch base with the only other white man within miles, he finds that the fellow has died peacefully in his sleep. He also notices, in a remarkable “exchange” of looks with the dead man, that the two of them bear a strong resemblance to each other. Impulsively, he sets about switching IDs and rooms with the corpse, then reports to the perfunctorily polite black man at the hotel desk: “The gentleman in the next room—he seems to be dead.” Resting assured that all white guys look the same to blacks, a man named Locke becomes a man named Robertson, and vice-versa. The reporter in search of a story leaves his own story behind—but, relieved of an existential burden, and curious about the story he has now become, Locke-turned-Robertson sets out to follow the itinerary he discerns from the dead man’s papers.
You know that I don’t want to tell you much more about what happens from there on. All movies are journeys; with The Passenger, even more so. It’s essential that the viewer go with what Antonioni sets before him or her. Anything might mean something—or nothing, which can be a powerful form of “something.” The movie is pitched on the highest and lowest levels of viewer sophistication. It’s as if Antonioni had rediscovered the ultimate in cinematic abstraction in the primitive forms of an old-time serial, where simply noticing an unknown figure on the periphery of a shot was enough to stimulate paranoid apprehensions. When—after “Robertson”’s itinerary has taken us to Europe—a black face appears in an airport or a street crowd, is it simply a statistically unremarkable black guy or an agent of one side or another in the African struggle that Locke the journalist had been covering? The original Robertson—who seemed in flashback memory to be a laidback, globetrotting philosopher-without-portfolio (with apparently independent means to permit such a lifestyle)—turns out to have had an identity, and a mission, more fraught than Locke guessed. Now that Locke is Robertson, what is he to do about it, and where is it going to get him?
Meanwhile, there are other journeys, and other movies, as it were. There are the movies, literally, that Locke the documentarian had filmed. We see them as some people in yet another movie—Locke’s wife (Jenny Runacre) and his producer (Ian Hendry)—sift through his journalistic “remains” trying to put together a posthumous tribute to him, and also to figure out just who their respective mate and colleague really was. The point is made that Locke always kept himself off camera in the footage he shot; or, as his wife observed to him at one point, “You involve yourself in real situations, but you’ve got no dialogue.” Cutting between these various movies, and reencountering the past as it seamlessly flows into the evolving present, Antonioni assembles a portrait of a man who wasn’t there, even before he “died.” And eventually, “characters” from one movie are stepping into another.
Landscape is always extraordinary in Antonioni’s films, be it natural, manmade, or a startling blend of the two. And always, it tends toward emptiness, even in the midst of a metropolis. Facile readings of Antonioni often content themselves with the conceit that this emptiness, which pulls so beguilingly at the eye and the conceptual sensibility, reflects the emptiness of the characters and their lives. But that doesn’t account for his films’ power, or the piercing, challenging acuity the best of them have in their every moment. The Passenger—with its literary overtones of a Borgesian labyrinth, of an appointment in Samarra—is a haunting meditation on a man’s slippery relationship with, and possible irrelevance to, the world he moves through.
The picture famously concludes (well, almost) with an amazing shot of some seven or eight minutes duration, when the camera eye moves away from Locke/Robertson in another hotel room, contemplates the zone outside the window and the sundry incidental details and actions that float through it like Brownian movement, then passes through the very real bars on that window to turn and contemplate a decisively transformed reality. It’s a literally metaphysical movement, a comment on individual significance both devastating and transcendent, and the logical yet entirely unforeseeable culmination of this film’s journey.
It’s remarkable how many current reviews of the film, by writers as astute as Michael Wilmington and Roger Ebert, note that the critic was put off by the movie in 1975 (a year well supplied with cinematic excellence) yet has come to esteem it thirty years hence. The good movies are what they are, and eventually achieve the recognition they deserve, once eyes really see them. The Passenger has remained unseen for too much of the intervening three decades. That it’s been triumphantly returned to screens is largely the doing of its star, Jack Nicholson, who knew he’d been part of something great. He still is, and always will be.
Copyright © 2005 by Richard T. Jameson