A new semester begins. I have a hundred names to memorize in the next week or two (I’m uncomfortable pointing to students in class — and using first names always works like magic) and I have two master’s classes rather than my usual one, which’ll mean a lot more work. But Duke Ellington once pointed out that he wouldn’t have written a single piece of music if it wasn’t for a deadline and so I’m happy for my new burdens — they’ll force me to manage my time better, and if I'm lucky, learn more.
A few days ago, I saw a sparkling new print of Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975) and I really should record something about it before my semesterly cares start to nudge it out of my mind by week’s end. There are three things I’d like to say about this movie:
Over the years, I’ve become progressively more director-centered (and slightly less actor- or performance-centered) in my movie watching. I still appreciate and enjoy good acting but I’m more likely to do it within the larger context of a director-driven work, and I rarely seek out films solely for the quality of their performances. The Passenger is ultimately and clearly a director's movie but I have to say that Jack Nicholson’s performance in it is a thing of wonder: it’s scrupulously minimal, completely instinctive, and you could write a small book about its profuse subtleties. I could not take my eyes off him. The prematurely receding hairline, the quaintly ugly seventies attire, the miniscule amount of dialogue — none of these come close to detracting from his charisma. Suddenly, I realized the great potency of his speech inflections, the effortless precision of his body movements, and the size of his repertoire of fleeting gestures and facial expressions, all of which he wields spontaneously like a musician’s never-ending bag of licks. But it took this willfully spare and languid film to make them stand out in relief, and speak with greater power than they might have in a more conventionally story- and dialogue-driven film where the swirl of narrative dust might have clouded their encyclopedic nuance.
The movie’s most famous detail is the seven-minute tracking shot with which it concludes, the camera moving through a hotel room, then (impossibly) through the bars on the window, into the sandy courtyard, floating there awhile, then doubling back slowly from whence it came. Maybe it’s because I was raised Hindu, but a curious thought popped into my head. P. Adams Sitney has talked about the camera in Stan Brakhage’s “lyrical films” operating like a first-person consciousness (the camera-eye and the artist fuse into one), and here it seemed like the consciousness belonged to a spirit slowly detaching from a host body, gliding away, hovering about, and casting one last glance at this just-shuffled-off mortal coil before proceeding along its fated trajectory (of reincarnation?). Perhaps Gus van Sant caught sight of a similar spirit (albeit through a “third-person” camera) at the conclusion of Last Days; I was certainly reminded of that film.
Setting and place hold a supreme importance in Antonioni’s films: the rocky island in L’Avventura, the desolate Rome of L’Eclisse, the chemically despoiled Red Desert. And in The Passenger, which begins in the scorched Chad desert, moves to London, Munich and Barcelona before coming to rest somewhere near Gibraltar. The solidity, expanse, and indifference of these physical contexts seem to only exaggerate the rootlessness, indecision and malaise of the humans who wander through them. There’s a funny paradox operating here: the landscapes and physical environments appear so much more awe-inspiring and resolute than the humans, even when the structures are (as in the case of the Gaudi buildings in Barcelona) human-made. Let alone nature, even what we make with our own hands somehow transcends and dwarfs who we are.