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40 Years On, 'The Passenger' Offers Lessons In Distance

26/05/2016 8:12 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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UNDATED PICTURE OF ITALIAN MOVIE DIRECTOR MICHELANGELO ANTONIONI. (AP-PHOTO) 09/30/1996

In a conversation with Renee Epstein in 1975, Michelangelo Antonioni, the Italian virtuoso brings up dramatist Luigi Pirandello. The playwright was once asked, "Why does that character behave like that?" To which, Pirandello had replied, "I don't know why, I'm only the author." This brand of detachment -- a kind of curious standoffishness from his subject, is often exercised by Antonioni himself. He was once asked about Anna's disappearance in L'Avventura and he had answered with a cool "I do not know." Epstein, during their conversation, points out the workings of his lenses. His camera too, as she says, picks up on his clues and can be funny in its "disengagement". Epstein brings up the sequence in the movie The Passenger, in which Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider are seated at a roadside cafe and the camera takes an amusing amount of time to actually bring them into focus. There is an obscurity, a rather deliberate one, in several of Antonioni's sequences. There are times when he does not pry into the moments shared by his characters. He lets the man walk away, he lets the train leave the station. Much like the gaze of photography -- or to be specific, the gaze of a still, long shot. The subject of photography does come up in the Epstein conversation. She brings up Edward Weston and his relationship with the landscape. Interestingly, Weston can be pretty demanding of his viewer (one can never really unsee the mushroom). But most importantly, Weston understands the notion of going beyond visibility, as did Antonioni, in pursuit of his conviction.

There are times when he does not pry into the moments shared by his characters. He lets the man walk away, he lets the train leave the station.

Forty-one years after its release, The Passenger still remains one of the most intriguing of Antonioni's creations. I remember reading an essay, where Satyajit Ray praises his "no-frill" cinematography in the movie; but Ray is possibly one of the very few people who could successfully understand Antonioni's fixation with his cinematography. Antonioni himself, it was said, was the possible inspiration behind the creation of David Locke, the journalist played by Jack Nicholson. This supposition was due to several reasons, but specifically because of Locke's projection as a documentarian. Many people still believe, that Antonioni's documentaries ( which he had made early on in his career), are unarguably the way to understanding the maestro's cinematic purpose. If you read Theodore Price's article on The Passenger, in Senses of Cinema, you are familiar with his charges against Antonioni's viewers and critics. He believes, most people who claim to have understood the movie's intent, are simply bluffing. He may be right in thinking so. No other movie, except a few sterling exceptions (like Tarkovsky's Stalker or Rossellini's Rome, Open City) has amassed such enthusiasm or rather an intellectual and socio-political maelstrom directed towards its legitimate significance. What did he mean? Why was it so captured? But The Passenger, if nothing else, is a case study on deliverance. At the end of the movie, Rachel, Locke's wife looks at his corpse and says she never knew him. While Schneider's character identifies him as a different man -- the one Locke was impersonating. This was unanimously agreed to be a stellar move.

In the movie, there is an unmistakable subtextual disinterest, which runs along with the characterization and sometimes seeps into the surface.

In the movie, there is an unmistakable subtextual disinterest, which runs along with the characterization and sometimes seeps into the surface. Antonioni confirms to Epstein, that Locke definitely does not have an existential problem. He knows what he has, he knows what he doesn't have. He does not know what he wants. He is not happy with his marriage, or his work. He fails to completely engage himself with the documentary on African guerrilla warfare, which is why he is there in the first place. He takes on the identity of a gunrunner (identified as the "active" element in contrast to the "passive" Locke), he runs off to Spain with a girl he has just met. He "escapes" several altercations with his past and imminent dangers. The "unemotional oeuvre" which Davis and Needham found in Warhol's Brillo Boxes and the Campbell's soup tins, makes its presence felt richly in Antonioni's 1975 masterpiece. Once in an interview with Charles Thomas Samuels, in Vogue magazine in 1970, Antonioni praised Warhol's freedom- his signature contemptuousness. This is the kind of freedom that Antonioni utilizes in order to compose the seven-minute scene in The Passenger at the Hotel de la Gloria. As the camera passes through the bars of the window, it is as if it perceives a different reality altogether. This shot has gone down in history as the definition of cinematic beauteousness, but is nonetheless considered to be gory due to its association.

The Passenger has made people think and resist and it has made them disassociate -- which at this moment, may be the most important accomplishment of all.

The cinema of escape has a surrealistic relationship with the freeze frame and jump cut techniques (the most spectacular demonstration of the freeze frame being, the last image of Truffaut's Les 400 Coups). But Antonioni makes a very minimalistic use of these styles in The Passenger. The movie has an undertone of classicism throughout its journey, as pointed out by Ray. The brilliance of the movie, is simply in its detailing. The beauty of its vision reflects through Antoni Gaudí's Casa Milà, captured in an incredulous motion by the director. Gaudí - being the secondary cornerstone of this movie. It is absolutely essential to relate to Gaudí's philosophy, if one wishes to understand the movie at all. Locke and the girl first speak at Palau Güell - -- the conversation, being short but spellbinding:

Locke: "What is it do you know? I came in by accident."

(The word 'accident' is momentous, as it also relates to Gaudí's death from being hit by a tram). Gaudí, much like Dante of Divine Comedy, found his true calling, halfway through life. It wasn't until late in his career that he acquired the nickname of "God's Architect". Locke too, takes on a name -- a possible mid-life crisis statement. But how is The Passenger autobiographical, really? Is it the distance of the narrator, projected by Antonioni, as well as Locke, the filmmaker? A very telling idea is found in the Epstein interview, as Antonioni begins by saying, "I cannot use words. A director in some ways is a man of action, even if this action is intellectual." It is a very necessary indistinctiveness, that he gives in to as an artiste. The Passenger also may be autobiographical, in the way every one of Antonioni's films, or any film ever made is autobiographical- -- "What's important is who I am in the moment of shooting," Antonioni says to Bachmann. "That's where it becomes autobiographical." But as one looks at Antonioni's filmography -- his documentary on China or Red Desert, one re-discovers the director's true vision, what he had really wanted to say. The Passenger was the most political of Antonioni's films (not considering the documentaries, of course) and often termed as his most "desperate". His disengagement becomes ironic, as one looks at a film like Chung Kuo -- Cina. It is quite impossible to comprehend something so emphatic, unless one is completely immersed in the process of creation. In the last four decades, The Passenger has made people think and resist and it has made them disassociate -- which at this moment, may be the most important accomplishment of all.

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