Favorite Film: THE PASSENGER (1975)

November 9, 2013 § Leave a comment

It is noted once on a television round-table about the journalistic career of the recently deceased David Locke, and then a second time in his obituary, that the reporter had a philosophical detachment from his work. Born in Britain but raised in the States—a man without a fixed homeland—Locke is said to have had a unique perspective on Britain’s role as a colonialist power that lent his role as a BBC war correspondent in post-colonial Africa a certain distinction. But his wife doesn’t appear to have thought so. In a flashback to the aftermath of a television interview he gives with the president of Chad, a north-African country plagued by guerilla warfare, Rachel chides her husband for his refusal to challenge the tyrant’s brazenly dishonest answers. “Those are the rules,” he disinterestedly informs her.

Of course, David Locke isn’t really dead. He has stolen the identity of another man in an effort to escape from those “rules”—or as he puts it elsewhere, “habits”—that have governed his professional life, one marked by the weary acceptance of a troubling status quo. The actual corpse belongs to David Robertson, a gunrunner for the north-African rebels fronting vaguely as a businessman. The two have been staying at the same hotel in the middle of the Sahara desert, where they have struck up something of an acquaintanceship. When Robertson is struck by a fatal heart attack, Locke seizes the opportunity to switch passport photos, exchange clothing, and, he believes, make a new man of himself. But by the time he comes to understand the nature of his new profession—one that gives him the opportunity to directly challenge the despotic governments he could only passively observe as a ‘neutral’ reporter—he has fallen back into the same habits. He’s merely abandoned his old itinerary for a new one.

Michelangelo Antonioni directed The Passenger as the third in a series of co-productions with MGM that also included Blow-Up in Britain and Zabriskie Point in the United States, films that bring a ‘philosophically detached’ outsider perspective to two vibrant cultural moments: the Swinging London of the 1960s and the revolutionary youth movement of countercultural America. They also feature protagonists who serve as obvious blueprints for David Locke (played in The Passenger by Jack Nicholson), one an ambitious photographer who finds himself too numbed and distracted to get to the bottom of a murder mystery, and the other a student revolutionary who resigns himself to an imminent death at the hands of the police. Both characters find themselves involved in some greater plot or controversy, but, afflicted as they are by the ennui that is Antonioni’s trademark, any excitement they muster inevitably defaults to an indifference that eventually annihilates them (figuratively in Thomas’s case, literally in Mark’s). David Locke rounds out this trio of doomed outsiders as Antonioni’s most philosophically stimulating variation on the theme.

Like Thomas in Blow-Up, Locke is an image-maker by profession, one who filters life through representational media. But Locke’s problem is not phenomenological but ethical and existential. Safeguarded by his television camera and adherent to conservative broadcasting guidelines, he asks safe, one-sided questions of his interview subjects and paints incomplete portraits of complex political crises. We come to find that he is ineffectual not only by profession but also by nature, his journalistic neutrality typical of a blankness at the heart of his very person. In an interview with a village shaman, Locke’s patronizing questions prompt the subject to reverse the direction of the camera, a philosophical maneuver forcing Locke to abandon his smokescreen of professionalism and reveal something of his actual essence to the viewer. The interview ends immediately.

At the center of The Passenger is the idea that one’s experience of the surrounding world is innately limited. Perspective is inundated by habit to the point of becoming ‘locked’ into place. To become another person, Locke believes, is to acquire a new way of living and, by extension, of seeing the world. But even as he learns of his potential for effective political action or momentarily abandons himself to a carefree existence in Barcelona, he never breaks free of his dispassionate mindset. Locke finds himself laden with the same diffidence and exhaustion—only his name is different.

This disappointment finds echoes throughout the film. When Locke approaches a Spanish elder at the height of enchantment with his existential rebirth, the man only makes the telling observation of some nearby children that they will never stray far from their parents, no matter how much hope for the future they represent. The point is made visually in shots that center on Locke before slowly panning away (usually opposite whatever direction he’s looking) until he is no longer in the frame, creating the sensation that an entire spatial universe exists outside his perception, and always will.

Locke’s inevitable failure is accelerated by the goings on in multiple subplots involving his wife, his former BBC employers, and the Chad government, all of whom attempt to track him down in various capacities. The one character willing to assist him in his prolonged escape from his former life is an unnamed architecture student played by Maria Schneider, whose willingness to abandon her studies and flee with him at his beckoning makes her perhaps the most fancifully romantic character in all of Antonioni’s cinema. Acting as both his lover and spiritual advisor, she urges him to make his gunrunning appointments and tie up the loose ends that Robertson left behind. By this time she and Locke have been barreling across the sunbaked Spanish landscape in a rented car, stopping at wayside hotels and narrowly evading the police, the escape now a slow-burning trek toward defeat. The soundtrack arid, the pacing glacial, and the strange beauty of the surrounding desert somewhere on the periphery of Locke’s vision, the tone is one of lumbering resignation to a grim fate

It finally arrives in the film’s transformative penultimate shot, occurring soon after Locke and the girl have checked into adjacent rooms at what is to be their last stop. Starting from a distanced survey of Locke’s hotel room as he lies down on his bed, the camera slowly lurches forward toward his grated window until he is no longer in the frame. Steadily, the camera’s field of vision comes to occupy that of the window, through which we see documentary-like bits and pieces of activity, minor characters moving in and out of frame in bursts of motion wholly inconsequential to the story of David Locke. Slowly and miraculously, the camera continues to move forward, passes through the window grating, and, once outside, pans back around in sync with the arrival of Rachel and the police, who enter his hotel room to find him dead.

In The Passenger, it is existence that is tragic. Death is liberating. This shot, a seven-minute tour de force and triumph over the technical obstacles of the day, finally embraces the vivid world ever on the fringes of Locke’s single-minded existence. Throughout the film Antonioni, through his frequent roaming camera movements, has teased departure from the central narrative into pockets of activity accessible only to his omniscient eye. Now, as the camera takes permanent leave of Locke, distraction becomes the ultimate catharsis—the perceptual limitations of his body and the experiential limitations of narrative, both symbolized in the iron bars of his hotel room window, are finally permeable. – Stuart

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