Sunday, May 31, 2015

1/4: The Passenger (1975)


For me, The Passenger is ultimately a film about experiencing beauty (I don't know what genre this would make it, if there is such a genre) that masquerades as a thriller. These are opposite poles of cinematic experience and they speak to opposite poles of life experience. On the one hand is an experience of pleasure, leisure and peacefulness and on the other tension, anxiety and fear. The attempt, let alone the stunning success of putting these poles together in the same film is awe-inspiring and makes this one of my favorite films.

On three separate occasions it is pointed out to David Locke (Jack Nicholson) — himself masquerading for most of the film as a dead acquaintance, David Robertson — that the surrounding environment is beautiful. The first is in the Sahara Desert, and comes as a question from Robertson when he was alive and well. As they both gaze out to the desert from just outside Locke's hotel room, Robertson remarks at its beauty. Locke isn't sure if it is beautiful. The second occurs just after Locke, now identifying as Robertson, arrives in Barcelona, as per Robertson's itinerary. It is pointed out by an elderly man, a fellow passenger on an aerial tram, that it is beautiful from up there in the tram with its view of Barcelona. Locke leans out the window and spreads his arms as if gliding carelessly and joyfully, high above the water. The third time comes from the Girl (Maria Schneider) now traveling with Locke, just after they've evaded capture by the police by pulling off the road into the rugged terrain, barren excepting the grassy shrubs which hide them. Locke's car is damaged from their evasion. As he tries to decide what to do, realizing that his options are narrowing, the Girl asks, "isn't is beautiful here?" This time, despite his dilemma, Locke looks out on the terrain and replies, "Yes, it's very beautiful."

This last occasion for recognizing the surrounding beauty is contrasted with the first time we see Locke having car trouble. This is early in the film, when Locke is still Locke, a reporter trying to gather information on guerrilla fighters in the Sahara Desert. Exhausted, hot and frustrated at his failed attempts to make contact with the guerrillas, he starts back to the hotel only to get his Land Rover irrevocably lodged in a sand dune. He is unable to see how his surroundings are anything but a hindrance or an obstacle to be overcome.

Ironically perhaps, Robertson, who we find out after his death to be an arms trafficker and supplier for the guerrilla forces, has no trouble losing himself in the open spaces, the quietude and the barrenness. He is rootless and free. It is perhaps only his conviction that can point to something about Robertson, the man, himself. He believes in the guerrillas' cause, though he only reveals to Locke that he is, vaguely, a businessman. Locke envies Robertson's freedom, and when the opportunity presents itself to trade places with him, like trading in a car — after Locke is tired and fed up, after this rootless acquaintance with "no family, no friends" unexpectedly and suddenly dies (and who happens to look very much like Locke) — Locke does so. Locke sees identity as a constant, and as such sees the only escape from his endless pattern of expected behavior to be to dump his identity onto the recently deceased Robertson and take up Robertson's as his own. What Locke doesn't realize is that no matter how perfect the circumstances for this bizarre trade-up might seem, a total escape is more complicated, like a vacation is not an escape from reality, just a break from the normal run of things. And of course this becomes complicated in the extreme by Robertson's gunrunning activities, which become known to Locke later.

There are allusions to tourism and traveling everywhere in the film. Locke travels throughout the film. Random cars are followed by the camera's eye as they traverse the frame, one in one direction, another in the opposite direction, and so on. Airports, flight schedules, itineraries, rental car offices, hotels, tourist destinations and language barriers are all prominent and shape the story that unfolds. A sign (in Spanish) that says, "thank you for visiting." All the while, Locke is only doing the best he can to keep the appointments in Robertson's itinerary, as if it's a script for the part he's playing, not knowing what will come of his appointments or for what particular reason they were made. He is driven into places to evade capture, discovery or both. But the places Locke finds himself are places one would visit as a tourist — grand hotels, picturesque landscapes, landmark buildings. The phrase "getting away" comes to mind — a phrase used both for escaping capture and taking a vacation.

Going to places as a tourist and as a man on the run are conflated. It's a strange but intriguing idea that is as much an excuse to give viewers the experience of peaceful leisure and views of beautiful sites as it is about Locke and his path. This is why it seems to me that the experience of beauty is not just a theme here, but a genre all its own somehow, in counterpoint to the thriller-type plot. The feel of the movie is more peaceful than tense, more easygoing than frantic. There is often lovely Spanish guitar music accompanying the images in the film. Slow pans along the Sahara horizon or a rendezvous on the roof of Gaudi's Casa MilĂ  with its fantastical chimneys are not just incidental. They suggest a way of appreciating the world around us, both the natural and the man-made, even though it is also a world of ugliness and war.

Locke's story about the blind man near the end of the film speaks to the ugliness of the world. This story has similarities to Locke's but is far from parallel. My take on this is that it tells of a very black and white, all or nothing way of seeing things. As a reporter, Locke removed himself from the frame, but his questions were revealing about himself. He did not know how subjective he was despite his efforts to be objective. Even so, his wife claimed that he accepted too much and didn't challenge his subjects. In addition, there is evidence from his wife's brief flashback of a despair or madness within Locke (which makes him a perfect character for Nicholson). The bits and pieces we get about Locke lead only to conjecture about who he really was or why he felt compelled to kill off Locke and become Robertson. What matters more is that what we see in the film is Locke experiencing pleasure, I think genuinely. This is not to say exclusively. He knows there is ugliness in the world, but there is also beauty.

(Spoilers ahead? Watch the movie, then read the rest. Or just read the rest anyway.)

Locke is never able to fully escape from himself. By trading identities with a dead man, he conceptually kills himself off, and while he continued to breathe and move in a body identified as Robertson's, this conceptual killing of Locke puts into motion his own real death. This is not directly connected, but suggests his reaching the end of the line. It would ultimately be the only way he could truly escape himself. The act of becoming Robertson could only ever be just playing a part or going along for a ride. By the same token, one could say that Robertson didn't fully die until the end, when Locke's murder takes place off screen, at the hands of those mistaking Locke for Robertson, never to be the wiser. Why would it matter?

Yet, unlike most, if not all of Antonioni's other main characters, a connection was made between Locke and the Girl. There was no unspoken tension or invisible walls between them. And in the end, when asked by the police if she recognized him, she replies yes. Ironically, by becoming Robertson, he was able to reveal himself to the Girl in a way he never did with his wife, and maybe to be himself in a way he was not able to before.

Also, in contrast to many Antonioni endings, it is a peaceful one, despite a murder having taken place. Life goes on. Children play and elderly couples bicker as they did repeatedly throughout the movie, and as they have done throughout all time. Locke had come to find his patterns intolerable, maybe even these general patterns a sign of stagnation or a kind of prison. People die, patterns remain and beauty still exists.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Susan O'Malley

A tragic story and message of authentic optimism

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Root Division on front page!

of SF Chronicle. Really great article by J.K. Dineen about Root Division, the plight of arts organizations in San Francisco and the work being done by the city to help out. Here's Root Division's official announcement.

Friday, January 16, 2015


PAINTING COMPLEX from Blake Gibson on Vimeo.

10 years ago yesterday, I performed PAINTING COMPLEX at the Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe, NM. Heavily influenced by my experiences in the Land Arts of the American West program, it still stands as my most ambitious project to date.