Sunday, May 31, 2015

Michelangelo Antonioni, Part 1: "The Passenger" (1975)

For me, "The Passenger" is a film about pleasure 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 beauty, leisure and peacefulness and on the other tension, anxiety and fear.

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), a tourist 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 Saharan Africa fighting against an unspecified government. 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 stuck 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 to 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 is complicated in the extreme by Robertson's gunrunning activities, which become partially known to Locke later. Interestingly, after a surprise encounter and transaction with his weapons buyers in Munich, Locke changes his travel plans to correspond to Robertson's itinerary, with the intention of keeping the next scheduled appointment in Barcelona.

There are allusions to tourism and traveling everywhere in the film. Airports, flight schedules, itineraries, rental car offices, hotels, tourist destinations and language barriers are all prominent and shape the story that unfolds. 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. A sign (in Spanish) that says, "Thanks for your visit." All the while, Locke wanders carelessly into places, hides in places to avoid discovery or goes to places according to Robertson's itinerary. 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. Robertson's itinerary is like a vacation planner, with women's names written down as reminders for which girlfriend to expect at each rendezvous. But these names are likely code names and the meetings are about illegal arms trafficking. With each rendezvous, however, Locke's contact fails to show. This doesn't alarm Locke the way it should perhaps, given the type of dealings in which he's involved, but it does effectively remove these dealings from his direct proximity, leaving him with plenty of time to listen to an old man's life story in a Barcelona park, for example, or to take a nap in a citrus orchard. Ironically, each time Locke shows up to these risky appointments with no one to meet him, he is left with moments of peaceful leisure rather than the stress of rebel warfare. It's a strange but intriguing occurrence that is as much an excuse to give viewers the experience of peacefulness and views of beautiful sites as it is about Locke's activities. This is why it seems to me that the experience of pleasure is not just a theme here, but a genre all its own somehow, in counterpoint to the thriller-type plot. Slow pans along the Sahara horizon or a meeting 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.

We know through his wife's flashback that Locke was disturbed, though how much, how little or in what manner is not clear. His frustration with his patterns was apparent, but there was an instability beyond this, a disquiet. Robertson's peace of mind had something to do with his convictions. I believe Locke achieves peace of mind as well, but not by believing as Robertson believes — this is entirely too personal — and not at the expense of his disquiet. I believe he achieves this by giving himself over to Robertson's itinerary. This is itself a kind of conviction. It is a leap of faith that is risky, exhilarating and cathartic. Nor does he achieve this on his own. The Girl keeps him committed when he doubts. She understands that believing in something is important, otherwise there is only running away. That Robertson believed in something has value to her, and so it should even more to Locke. Locke's goal was to escape himself, but the only real way things could change is if Locke owned his decision to become Robertson. The surest way to do this was to keep the appointments in the itinerary. Despite the limited information at the time, this is what Locke signed on to do when he decided to take up Robertson's identity. With the help of the Girl, Locke is able to stay true to his commitment, which under these bizarre circumstances also means he is able to stay true to himself.

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

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

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