Dir. Michelangelo Antonioni
Viewed: On the Couch
In keeping with our visitations to recently re-released classics, let's take a look at Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger (don't know why they didn't keep the "Professione: reporter" title, usually in these situations the international title is the more literal one, not the other way around), which I imagine may be the best movie of his to start a neophyte on. I suspect there might be more that a few who have embarked on long delayed adventures into Antonioni and Bergman territory since the recent departure of those two iconic filmmakers.
The Passenger starts out with our main man Jack Nicholson (already 37 years old and fresh off of the Chinatown shoot) as John Locke, a man experiencing the end of his profession as a reporter making films for a BBC news type outfit -- though we don't really know this yet. The film is a series of questions with answers that reveal themselves in bits and pieces as the story goes on. What is this guy doing out in the middle of a desert in Africa? is the first question you'll find yourself asking. But really, it's best not to ask and just let the movie wash over you. Your patience will be rewarded.
John Locke fails out there in the desert and from the looks of it, this might have been the last straw. He screams to the sky that he gives up, just doesn't care anymore. As he drags himself back to his sweaty hotel room you can tell that he wants nothing to do with the life that's led him to this moment. But what can he do besides wash off the dirt? He goes to ask his neighbor Robertson for some soap -- but Robertson has something better than soap, he has a way out -- Robertson is dead, and it looks like natural causes. And wouldn't you know it that upon first glance, Robertson might even look a bit like Locke, at least to the hotel staff anyway. So Locke takes the leap and as he puts it, "trades up" as Robertson, the "business man".
After he successfully convinces the African authorities to pronounce John Locke dead, we follow this Locke/Robertson as he figures out exactly what his new life is all about during which we also figure out what Locke's old life was all about. The transitions are handled masterfully. When a new scene begins we're never sure exactly where in the timeline we are. Nicholson, in a very worthwhile, conversational style commentary track on the DVD, describes Antonioni's style as New Mystery -- a variation on France's New Wave. In one of my favorite transitions, we think that we're dealing with a flashback only to have the camera pull back and reveal that we're in the present looking at footage Locke had shot on one of his old, especially poignant, interviews alongside Locke's ex-wife and old colleagues. His old life is being combed through which results in his ex-wife and former boss to come looking for this Robertson to see if he can shed any light on Locke's death. With the help of the always curious Maria Schneider, in a role that may in fact be the prototypical manic-pixie-dream-girl, Locke/Robertson is able to keep one step ahead of his past.
All of this results in a beautifully photographed and acted meditation on what could casually be called the meaning of life. More specifically we're talking about identity, fate, duality and how we try to define ourselves vs. how others define us. It actually reminded me of how well, despite what Padraic thinks, these same themes were also dealt with in The Fountain which then simply made me marvel at the malleability of cinema. Stylistically, these two movies couldn't be more different. But both are personal takes on what it is we're supposed to be doing with the time we have. Are we simply part of an infinite cycle? Are we merely a passenger or are we in control? Can we help but have it be anything but our relationships that end up defining our lives?
The Passenger mulls over these questions while picking over small moments of what leads a man to change his identity and how that decision effects the rest of his life. But we never really get that close to him. This was a common choice made in films from the 70's. Nowadays, even if you're Michael Myers you need to have a very specific answer as to what makes you tick and any kind of mystery stripped away. But these answers don't necessarily make your character any more interesting or identifiable. You could look at Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle as one of the more interesting characters from 1970's and notice that we never really got that close to this guy. We got bits and pieces of his history but he was already unstable when we first meet him. There's a mystery and today's filmmakers would be wise to notice that this mystery can lead to better stories and more memorable characters. It allows the viewer to invest more of themselves into the story and in especially great movies like this it can make the whole experience more personal and memorable.
I hand the wheel over to Padraic:
Better stories and more memorable characters? Who wants that?
A few weeks ago, you were trying to turn one of the masters of story and character (Wes Anderson) into an action director!
Yes, The Passenger is a very welcome break from the formulaic arc that is a part of most movies today. I was speaking with a Film History professor the other day and he said that in most Hollywood movies, you can pick out when the major breaks will happen to within seconds. Like this creepy product, Hollywood movies are simply well engineered consumer products, little different from Swiffer mops or storage bins: they give people what they think they want, and they cost money. There are a few independent directors out there, but even most of the movies from the studio's independent divisions follow this path.
It's amazing to think that The Passenger was not some art-house flick showing in the Village, but an actual real MGM production, with a bona fide superstar in the lead role. Nicholson here has to suppress most of his charm, but he is still good as the elusive Locke.
I really like your idea Sean as the movie as metaphor for life as a passenger. Locke, by giving up control, frees himself from not only responsibility to other people, but for determining his life's course. Instead, it is the international arms market that controls his movement, and what had only been an abstract world of hate and violence becomes the guiding force (if not principle) for his life. I think the addition of the wild underground makes it superior to a lot of "drop-out" films Time Out or Into the Wild, and more similar to the novels of Paul Auster.
If there is one flaw in the film, it is in the writing. While there is not much dialogue, there is a painfully written scene late in the movie where Locke and "The Girl" are on the bed, discussing life. Locke tells a tragic story of his friend that is so overwrought with obvious symbolism that you wish it would have been cut from the film. It is something I think would have been perfect if written in a novel, but feels forced. Fortunately, after this scene we are treated to a masterful long take that surely must be one of the great shots in history. The slow framing of the bars, the elusive Girl, and the obstructed view of the action all capture the layered meanings of the movie: the impossibility of control, the freedom in loss, and ultimately, the impossibility of complete freedom in life. It may be a cultural stereotype to say that an Italian director like Antinoini films like a painter, but the intricate composition and the way he lingers over a shot make it an obvious comparison.
Just a beautiful film.
Sean wraps up another winner!
Is there some language barrier here? Can we go one review without you painfully misquoting me? What's with the Wes Anderson remark? What the fuck does it have to do with this movie? Is your hard-on for him that bad that you have to bring him up without provocation? I said, as a remark after watching the trailer for The Darjeeling Limited, "I'd love to see Wes do something at least a little different than this. He seems to love picking at quirky families with issues. I wish he actually was working on some international thriller with bayonet tipped revolvers." Am I saying I want him to turn into an "action director". Fuck no. "At least a little different" I said. Lord almighty.
And what's with the sarcasm? Do you feel the need to antagonize me because we're in agreement the majority of the time? Mercy! Uncle! How many Hollywood movies is it going to take before you drop the cliches? Your precious Anderson swims in the same fucking water as the rest of them. Oh Mangold's the exception, oh Nolan's the exception, oh Kurt Russell is the exception! You know what -- it's either a good movie or it isn't. How about we stick to what makes it a good movie and what doesn't -- you know, the story, the acting, the directing, the photography, etc. Who gives two flying monkey fucks what studio it came out of? Do you even know how a production company works? MGM released Antonioni, Kubrick, Peckinpah, Polanski... Drop the goddamn pretense and bullshit. You know who produced Bottle Rocket? The same fucking guy who produced The Simpson's Movie. Get over it. Summer's over. You can start your lame broken record bitchfest rolling again in 9 months.
In the meantime, can we just get down to business and take movies/tv/whathaveyou to task for their lack of merits and not because of their pedigree? Can we not pass judgement on things we haven't seen and dial down the hot air being let out in here? It's making me irritable.
I'll leave this bitch of a review with a recent quote taken from a hell of a good film critic -- he's answering a different question than the one you pose Paddy, but I think there's a whole lotta wisdom for you in this statement:
What you don’t want to do is become one of those willfully ignorant movie buffs who becomes convinced that film art has been perfected in the last ten years or so and that everything that came before was just a trial run, not worth studying in and of itself. That’s such a shallow, arrogant, wasteful way to approach art. It’s basically saying, “Since I only want to see what’s familiar and immediately enjoyable to me, yet I still want to think of myself as a person of taste and intelligence, I have to find some way to assert that the things that I already like are the best, and the things I don’t want to deal with are inferior.” Brian, you seen smart and well-meaning… please, don’t be that guy.