Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Passenger

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.


Blogger girish said...

Optional question:
Your favorite Antonioni films? And why?

January 18, 2006 5:15 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Darren on Robert Benton's (and Philip Roth's) The Human Stain.

January 18, 2006 6:08 PM  
Blogger girish said...

I haven't linked to Maud in a while.

January 18, 2006 6:11 PM  
Blogger girish said...

I mean, don't get me wrong.
He's one of my favorite critics, but sometimes it's hard to tell whether he's recommending a movie or not.
I know it doesn't matter much in many or most cases (since there are a million other people reviewing new movies on the Net) but I'm really interested in how worthwhile this movie is. (I'll be seeing it either way, I think.)

January 18, 2006 6:17 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Nicholas Rombes:
"I think that in recent years (decades?) "theory" as conceived of as a Bad-and-Easily-Mocked-MLA-Session has taken a rap not because theory has gotten worse, but because it hasn't gotten better. More precisely, at least since Pop Art, swaths of pop culture have become adept at theorizing themselves, or at least exposing the narrative paradigms that allow them to find audiences. In fact, self-critique has become a dominant cultural form. As Robert Ray has argued (in his book How a Film Theory Got Lost), the old cultural studies models of film and media theory lost much of their power once film itself began acknowledging its invisible codes."

January 18, 2006 7:00 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

I saw the Passenger this fall and Zabriskie Point shortly after. I wish I'd had the opportunity to make the trip in reverse, because I suspect seeing them chronologically might have helped me appreciate the Passenger more than I did; I honestly found it so arid that it felt slight, the MacGuffin of a plot not helping matters. The use of landscape didn't feel like anything more than tourism and I accused Antonioni of resting on Gaudi's laurels.

On the other hand Zabriskie Point worked perfectly for me (perhaps because it flows more naturally from his earlier work that I'm familiar with? Perhaps because I'd had my expectations altered by my the Passenger viewing? Perhaps because it was on a double-bill with North by Northwest, which it seemed an extremely loose remake of, pictorally anyway? Perhaps simply because the screen was larger and I was sitting closer to it?) and it now rests among my favorite Antonioni films (along with L'Eclisse and Red Desert. I consider myself a near tabula rasa when it comes to this director, though, even though I've now seen eight of his films. I do not understand what he's doing, I only am able to trust what my instinctual, emotional reactions to what he puts on screen are.

January 18, 2006 7:32 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Brian, great points about the contextual variables altering your impressions of a film; I've been meaning to do a post about it, and you give me some ideas.

I've liked, fairly strongly, everything I've seen by Antonioni (about ten films) except Beyond The Clouds and the Eros segment, both of which I disliked. My faves are the same as yours, only I'd add L'Avventura, which becomes more elusive and mysterious with each viewing (and I've seen it four times now).

However, I've never seen Zabriskie Point. I've had a pan-scan VHS tape of it for years, but I've resisted watching it. In this instance, I shall hold out for the big screen.

January 18, 2006 9:38 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Screen capture quizzes this week: Aaron's (on which I know only 1 of 3 right now) and Filmbrain's, which I know even less.
Oh, and no need to remind me of my disgrace last week when I missed all three Verhoeven images that Aaron posted. Yeesh. I should be retrospectively exccommunicated from the Showgirls Orgy.

January 18, 2006 11:11 PM  
Anonymous Aaron Hillis said...

We still love ya anyway, Girish.

This should be exciting news to you: Word on the street is that Nicholson is doing a DVD commentary for The Passenger, which drops 3/14.

January 19, 2006 12:52 AM  
Blogger Mark Asch said...

The performance that really struck me in The Passenger was Schneider's, actually. I felt like I could sort of see her, in this very twentysomething philosophy student way, making a Very Serious Consideration of what was going on here, and it sort of flattered Nicholson's (and the movie's) very dry-air existentialism to be grounded in something so haltingly earnest...

January 19, 2006 1:02 AM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Girish, I don't know if I've mentioned this to you, but, next to Godard, Antonioni is my favorite director, although, embarassingly, I have not seen The Passenger. Your thoughtful comments on it here will come in handy when I do so see it. My Antonioni favorites are the typical ones:

L'Avventura: because when I first started watching films seriously a few years ago, this movie taught me about the sheer potential of cinema. In addition to its formal radicalism and breathtaking imagery, I admired its emotional content -- both its scathing theme of disconnection and, in contrast, Claudia's emotional evolution (plus, there may be more amazing shots per second in that film than in any I've seen).

La Notte: sadly, I've only seen this in the terrible Fox Lorber DVD transfer, which makes me feel as if I am watching the film through a dirty window. Nevertheless, for all of its intellectualism, it is (again) the film's emotionalism that impresses me the most; as I was telling someone the other day, La Notte might have the most emotionally devastating ending I've seen.

L'Eclisse: gradually, it's becoming my favorite; I think the hallmarks of the previous two films really coalesce here. And while many people talk about the famous ending (which is magnificent) it's the beginning that, to me, is something else: chilling and masterfully shot.

(P.S. When I was teaching, it would take me about three or four weeks to memorize the students' names ... and then I'd forget 75% of those names within a week or two after the class ended.)

January 19, 2006 2:16 AM  
Anonymous rakesh said...

Beautiful writing!!!This article and the previous one...

January 19, 2006 4:00 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks for the comments, folks.
Aaron--great news about the DVD; had no idea...
Mark--I admired Schneider's performance too. Very warm and natural, and I also liked how she played the role of his conscience in a way.
Michael--I had no idea you loved Antonioni so. I too have seen La Notte only on the Fox Lorber DVD.
It was very interesting to see a couple of his earlier films, El Grido (1957), and Le Amiche (1955), because they are more modest and less ambitious compared to his later work but strongly foreshadow his concerns and his direction. I really enjoyed seeing them after I had seen his 60's films; it was like watching a cinema history flashback.
And I just ordered Story Of A Love Affair from Netflix; it was made even earlier.

January 19, 2006 7:31 AM  
Blogger girish said...

A Reply from Matt To Zach.

January 19, 2006 7:34 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Oh and Michael--it's funny. I have a memory for stray detail (not the really important stuff.) Like album names and movie names and years. This helps me with student names. I also have students fill out cards with some info about themselves on the first day of class. I can use that to refresh my memory years later if I run into a student or I'm trying to recall one.

January 19, 2006 7:40 AM  
Anonymous Matt said...

I've only seen the two, unfortunately: L'Avventura, which I was indifferent towards the first time I saw it and loved unconditionally the second; and L'Eclisse, which I have to wholeheartedly agree with Michael on as regards that opening scene, which is shot with such shards-of-glass sharpness it's unbearable, so chilling it burns, like ice.

As for Filmbrain's screen capture quiz, Girish, I can't wait for next Wednesday so you find out what the film is and track it down immediately.

What did you think of the response to Zach? I'm feel I'm in this constant struggle to match him as a writer and thinker, I swear. My writing seems so brutish next to his and his posts are so good I nearly throw in the towel every time I read one. I'm not kidding!

January 19, 2006 8:04 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Matt, I really enjoyed reading your response. Don't be too worried about *matching* Zach (none of us write or think as lucidly as he can!). The fact is: his post spurred you to respond with new and interesting ideas; that's what matters.

My own rudimentary belief has been: Try to think and write regularly; pay attention to process; and the quality of writing will take care of itself. It can't help but get better with time.
Also, for all the formidable clarity and thinking in Zach's posts, I don't at all find their tone and "space" intimidating. I think they invite discourse rather than seal it off.
So, nice work, Matt.

January 19, 2006 8:31 AM  
Anonymous Matt said...

If they ever make a film about me, it's likely to be called Matthew Clayfield: Fishing for Compliments.

But then I doubt they're ever going to make a film about me, so...

Don't get me wrong. I love Zach's post. I just love being the centre of attention more. Obviously.

January 19, 2006 8:36 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Matt, you are the ONLY one among us to have an "homage blog" maintained and run by someone else out of sheer adulation (or obsession)!

January 19, 2006 9:14 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Think I'll start a crank homage blog to Zach's.
And call it Delusive Lucidity. :-)

January 19, 2006 9:19 AM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

I haven't seen Eros yet, but I did like Beyond the Clouds. My favorite Antonioni is L'Eclisse, but in pondering Girish's question and the responses, I have to say that maybe what we love about Antonioni is the way he ends his films. Examples include the series of shots at the end of L'Eclisse, the traveling shot at the end of The Passenger, the walk through the park and the mimed tennis game at the end of Blow-Up.

January 19, 2006 9:28 AM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

I saw The Passenger back in October at the NYFF, which was 20+ years since I had last seen it. What struck me this time around was how straightforward the narrative is -- I had remembered it being more like Zabriskie Point, but that just isn't the case.

The problem with showing films like this at film festivals is that it dwarfs many of the other films. I had this experience at the Berlinale when I saw Barry Lyndon on the closing night -- suddenly everything else I had seen at the festival (save for The Wayward Cloud) seemed so much more superficial.

January 19, 2006 9:45 AM  
Blogger Zach Campbell said...

I haven't seen a ton of Antonioni--and The Passenger is one of them that I've missed thus far. So no comment other than that I'll try to see it someday, Girish.

And I'm tickled pink that you're saying nice things about me, Matt & Girish, but you're being way too kind. I'm in a hurry to catch up with everyone else, including you two!

January 19, 2006 10:50 AM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Girish, I'd say I find Antonioni's film rapturous in ways that I rarely find others, and I think it's in large part because Antonioni interpreted the world in ways I hadn't thought possible before I saw his films. But, also, I think it's the aesthetic experience that's just as important here, the way he visually conceives the world (his use of architecture, the slow tracking shot in the deserted town in L'Avventura, Monica Vitti wandering the empty streets of Rome in L'Eclisse, how he frames his characters, etc.). These films are, to me, magnificent achievements, not just in cinema, but in the arts generally. (And I think your characterization of El Grido and Le Amiche is spot-on.)

On another note, I have a tendency to associate names with faces, and I think that's why I would forget students' names so quickly -- once I no longer saw them in class, I could no longer recall their names. And when I go back through my grade books and look at names, I can hardly recall who these people were. And yet I can never forget what year an album came out or who starred in what movie. Go figure.

January 19, 2006 12:31 PM  
Anonymous Matt said...

"And call it Delusive Lucidity."

That's golden.

January 19, 2006 3:19 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Done with week 1 of classes--always tough.
The ideas and words flow reluctantly; you're out of practice, and it shows. It's like picking up an instrument after having neglected it for a month.

Yes, festivals can be weird places to see classic films. Last year at TIFF, one of the very best things I saw was Quebecois director Michel Brault's Entre La Mer Et L'Eau Douce (1967), with Genevieve Bujold. It got no attention whatsoever, and it was every bit as good as, for example, Three Times or Caché, or any of the other well-reviewed films there. The screening was half-empty, but I did see Atom Egoyan scurrying in a few seconds after it began and positioning himself in the center in the first row, like he usually does.

Michael & Peter--Nice points about Antonioni. Don't why I (mistakenly) remembered L'Eclisse as being set in Milan, and not Rome...

Now, what better way to wind down from the week than to...write a blog post.

January 19, 2006 5:16 PM  
Blogger Richard Gibson said...

I finally saw this last year but not on the big screen. The NFT here in London had a full Antonioni retrospective but sadly at that time couldn't show this unless Antonioni was present. Now since he came to the opening and is very unwell he couldn't make the trip and so it wasn't shown.

It was however shown for the first time in years at LFF in October/November time, the re-release that Sony Pictures Classics have out in North America right now. I can't wait to see it on the big screen.

Antonioni is great with architecture and using buildings to great effect. The London scenes are actually very interesting indeed, although minor he chose around 'The Brunswick Centre' which is unusual in many ways and very modern. It still looks interesting to this day but has lost some of it's former glory.

Have a good weekend Girish, great post by the way.

January 22, 2006 7:39 AM  

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