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The Passenger

The Habits of Existence

Inan interview talking about The Passenger, Michelangelo Antonioni says, “the location is the very substance of which the shot is made. Those colors, that light, those trees, those objects, those faces. How could I leave the choice of all this to my assistants? Their choice would be entirely different from mine. Who knows the film I am making better than me?” (The Architecture of Vision). Yet in another interview, he quotes the playwright Luigi Pirandello saying when asked about the meaning of his work, “how should I know? I’m the author.” (Architecture of Vision) There need be no contradiction here, however, but instead a textured awareness of the singularity of intention meeting the ambiguity of meaning. Few filmmakers seem more specific in their vision than Antonioni, while few directors can generate out of that specificity such manifold meaningfulness. This often has little to do with Antonioni altering mise-en-scene but instead finding original ways to frame what we see. When he says of The Passenger “we have not tampered with reality. I looked at it with the same eye with which the hero, a reporter, looks at the events he is reporting on” (Architecture of Vision), we may be inclined to disagree. We would claim no Antonioni film (from Red Desert to Blow-Up, from La Notte to The Eclipse) could claim for itself the documentative, partly because the director’s camera is what we might call contemplatively contextual. In other words, Antonioni frames to create meaning not only to show it. We can think of the scene where Nicholson has a meeting in Hivernacle Parc de la Ciutadella. The camera passes along the glass house containing the park before showing us Nicholson sitting on a bench in the next shot. In many a filmmaker’s work, this opening shot would have been either superfluous or predictable. It could have been removed or offered as the establishing shot of the park from a distance before cutting to the medium close-up of Nicholson on the bench. Equally, when David Locke (Jack Nicholson) chats with the receptionist at an Avis office in Barcelona, the film pans from a car arriving at the depot to Locke chatting with the woman. Usually, we would assume it would be our central character arriving in the car, or the film would establish the shot of the building from outside and cut to Locke at the desk. There are numerous examples in the film of Antonioni finding distinctive ways in which to enter the scene, and does so we can assume to call constantly into question the centrality of narrative focus and characterisational singularity. Locke is obviously our central character, but the film’s very problematic is to call into question this assumption, and Antonioni’s purpose is to find in film form a provisional answer to the freedom of a given self. However, he does little to alter the mise-en-scene in the process, yet documentary doesn’t cover the film’s aesthetic either. The realities are found, rather than recreated, but the framing is constantly creating suggestive meaning.

Quite early in the film, in a flashback sequence, Locke is talking to the ‘businessman’ whose identity he will take when the latter dies. The man discusses how everywhere finally looks more or less the same. Locke disagrees and says the problem lies in ourselves: that our environment might keep changing but our habits don’t: we just convert new experiences into predictable ones. Locke’s name hardly sounds accidental and Ismar Badsic in Philosophy Now believes the film is an homage finally to the empirical tradition where the question of habit is vital. “The film raises philosophical questions about existentialism and utilitarianism as well as personal identity (another being the question of whether ‘David Locke’ is an homage to philosophers David Hume and John Locke).” Both Locke and Hume were very interested in habit, or custom, a means by which to understand the empirical. As Hume says: “custom, then, is the great guide of human life. It is that principle alone which renders our experience useful to us, and makes us expect, for the future, a similar train of events with those which have appeared in the past.” (Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding) Locke, his predecessor, was also an empiricist interested in the question of habit, but as John Passmore explores in A Hundred Years of Philosophy, there were problems other modern thinkers picked up on. Passmore says that while Locke asked what “a word means and assumes it refers to an ‘idea in our mind’ – as if he had only to take into account two things, the sign and its object” C. S. Peirce was vital to a new discipline of signs, semiotics, to understand the potential complexity of comprehending their relation with perception. Antonioni’s co-screenwriter Peter Wollen used Peirce for his books Signs and Meanings in Cinema, a book that came out at the end of the sixties. If David Locke is an amalgam of Hume and John then we must see it is a critique as readily as an homage. Habit is constantly undercut in Antonioni’s work as both form and feeling, as narrative expectation and character assumption.

Of course numerous characters go missing in one form or another in Antonioni’s films: Anna disappears after being our leading character in L’avventura, the two leading characters fail to turn up for an appointment at the end of The Eclipse, a body goes missing in Blow Up, and the central character in Identification of a Woman goes in search of his lover when she disappears. Locke here tries to change his identity and lose his old life. In the film, The Girl (Maria Schneider) talks of people disappearing all the time, and Locke replies “every time people leave the room”. As Stanley Cavell says, “obviously absence is a root topic in Antonioni” (The World Viewed) Why does Antonioni find the idea of people absenting themselves from the world so fascinating, and how does he literally frame these disappearing acts? Cavell fascinatingly explores this question more generally in the book when he says “I have spoken of film satisfying the wish for the magical reproduction of the world by enabling us to view it unseen. What we wish to see in this way is the world itself – that is to say, everything.” Many films, however, give us privileged viewing without suggesting the world is seen in its entirety. It is seen in a happy partiality: we watch the film believing the camera is in the right place, the characters will leave one shot and turn up in the next, and that the story will conclude with enough completeness to eschew our dissatisfaction. If Antonioni is a great director of absences, it rests not on a contrarian aesthetic that refuses a mode of production and perception, but that instead seizes on the problem of knowing, aware that we cannot see the world whole. Antonioni asks us to acknowledge in film form its impossibility, instead of pretending that we have ready access to the world as we so often find in films ignoring their partiality. When at the end of The Eclipse the film gives us images of various locations to which the central characters fail to show up, we sense the presence of their absence, thus creating a twofold presence. They are not there, which means they are somewhere else, but where else might they be? We can speculate but we cannot know. When characters turn up as we expect, then the presence is singular: they are there and there is no absence, no space to hypothesise.

In The Passenger it is as though Antonioni wanted to explore in narrative form, in almost suspense form, the presence of absence and the absence of presence. Not long after Locke assumes the identity of the dead Robertson in a hotel in a small town in Africa, and everyone back in London believes Locke to be dead, Locke returns to his home city and wanders around it like a revenant. He pays a visit to the home he shares with his wife, and sees a note from her lover pinned to the wall. He passes through the streets he will be so familiar with but with a new unfamiliarity. He seems to have found the very freedom he had talked to Robertson of: he can return to familiar places but with uncanny surprise.

David Thomson intriguingly suggests that The Passenger “is a spiritual film, and it reminds us of how in a 1957 interview, when asked what was the problem closest to his heart, Antonioni replied ‘can there exist a saint without God?’ Religious authority never has a foothold in his films. Social institutions are regarded as prisons. But with his camera, Antonioni has tried to detect holiness, and gradually he has taught audiences his own reverence for desolation.” (Movies of the Sixties) One sees Thomson’s remarks coinciding in some ways with Cavell’s, with the spirit occupying a place in the director’s work not as God’s presence or absence, but as a point of view. The cinema has the potential to film absence as readily as presence but usually chooses the former over the latter. It wants to show the anthropocentric, to illustrate that we are the centre of the world as a species. In this sense telling stories can seem like advertisements for ourselves, telling a human story is to tell a story about humans. Antonioni’s films always suggest that there is another story at work alongside this human tale, and The Passenger might be the film where he most completely offers the ontological problem of knowing oneself as others sees us, and the formal problem of generating an aesthetic based on absence. Numerous commentators have talked of rarefied spaces in the director’s work, and we might note how often characters enter and exit empty frames to give us a sense of the potential emptiness of existence. But what is of great interest here is the question of freeing ourselves from the gaze of the other upon us so that we can gaze at them, where we possess the omnipotence of our absence instead of the prosaic nature of our presence. In one scene in flashback, Locke’s wife visits him in Africa and it is clear they are no longer close, but there is no sense why this might be. Earlier in the film (but later in time), when Locke finds the lover’s note at the house in London, he has the information that he would seem not to have in Africa: that his wife has a lover. No doubt this wouldn’t be the only reason why they argue, and at the time the wife says that she has a problem with the way he interviews people – that he isn’t interrogatory enough – but while he is present to the argument, he is not privy it would seem to why she is ill-disposed towards him. One of those reasons would seem to be a lover back in London, information he gleans readily as a dead man walking back into his own home. Frequently what we perceive in our interactions with others as sub-text could be easily resolved if we possessed an invisible self. A deep secret a friend or lover won’t share with us, may be overheard by a stranger in a cafe when she divulges it to a close friend of hers. The prosaic meets the ontologically impossible: anyone else could eavesdrop on this information but we could not because it concerns us, and we cannot be present to such an event without being other than who we are. The invention of film, visual and audio, was a potential resolution of this impossibility, and of course has been central to surveillance technology. It would be, technologically, very easy now to become that eavesdropper with long lens technology and radio mics. The ontological problem, however, remains. How to become other than oneself, and to see how others see us in our absence? Is this why numerous people fake their own deaths, and partly why Locke swaps identities?

What we can say with some confidence is that Locke’s crisis is epistemological, existential and spiritual: that he has a crisis in relation to how he perceives information, how he sees his life and his career, and how Antonioni frames these crises to suggest a metaphysical impossibility. During the flashback sequence (instigated by Locke listening to a recording of the conversation after Robertson’s death) Locke talks to Robertson as they discuss that no matter where we go the same habits occur, and Robertson says, “Airport, taxi, hotel. They are all the same in the end.” This is where Locke disagrees. “It’s us who remain the same. We translate every situation, every experience into the same old codes. We just condition ourselves.” Robertson replies: “We are creatures of habit. Is that what you mean?” Locke sort of agrees, saying “no matter how hard you try it is difficult getting away from your old habits.” This is David Locke’s epistemological problem that we suggested hints at Locke and Hume, and also suggests Peirce’s more complex approach to habit through a more complex approach to sign systems than hitherto had been offered – hence to the creation of semiotics where he could explore the “labyrinth of distinctions”. (100 Years of Philosophy) Now central to the development of semiotics (in the work of Roland Barthes for example, who praised Antonioni’s capacity for ambiguity), is seeing that nothing can be taken for granted; that what we take for categorical meaning is often just the predictability of habit. As Barthes says “myth hides nothing and flaunts nothing: it distorts; myth is neither a lie nor a confession: it is an inflection.” Barthes later adds, “What the world supplies to myth is a historical reality, defined, even if this goes back quite a while, by the way in which men have produced or used it; and what myth gives in return is a natural image of this reality.” (Mythologies) In Barthes’ formulation, our habits allow us to accept myths and codes as they are without realising that in their unnaturalness they can be changed. This is why much political thought of the 20th century has been influenced by semiology (through Peirce and especially de Saussure), because a revolutionary consciousness can see that the nature of belief is often arbitrary and not given. This is what would seem to create the epistemological crisis in Locke, that leads to the existential one concerning his own career and life. When at one moment, in flashback, while interviewing a rebel leader in Africa, the rebel turns the camera back on Locke, and asks him to muse over the questions he is asking, Locke’s eurocentric questions can only provide very limited answers.

This would seem to lead to the existential crisis. He no longer appears to believe in the work he is doing and Antonioni opens the film with Locke exhausted and frustrated, lost in the middle of Africa, his car stuck in the sand. He traipses back to the village on last, tired legs. He returns to the hotel where he met Robertson, and now finds the other man dead. A low point in his career and the death of a man who bears a passing resemblance to him leads Locke to assume a new identity, to escape his crisis as fundamentally as he can: by adopting a new self altogether. There is something initially exciting about following another man’s life for Locke – it possesses a mystery that his own no longer has as he goes from Munich to Barcelona following the demands of Robertson’s diary. If he believes in his own work there is a predictable distance from the struggles he is writing about and filming, as Robertson he is inside a life he doesn’t yet understand. Yet in Munich, as he receives a large payout and gets told that they are happy with his work despite the absence of anti-aircraft missiles, he realises his new job is as a gun runner and that he is helping the rebel cause. In Barcelona he also picks up a new lover, The Girl (Maria Schneider), and at one moment says that he recognises her from before: that he had seen her very briefly in London sitting reading on a park bench. He never really believed in coincidences, but now he sees them all the time. In the space of a few weeks he has changed his life around in common parlance, but in a way that needn’t remotely have changed himself, only the external reality of his existence. The television has reported his death, and he is free of responsibilities: no journalistic demands, no wife to report to, no home he has to return to except as a surreptitious stranger. Yet while he can take on a new personality he cannot quite shake off the old one as he finds himself still following through on his old habits, having to meet the expectations placed upon him by Robertson’s diary, and finding as well that his work colleague and his ex-wife are trying to find Robertson to talk to him about Locke. So much for a new found existential freedom.

It might be an exaggeration to say that Locke suffers a spiritual crisis, but that is perhaps where Antonioni’s formal examination of the story comes in. The director may well talk about the film as a report, but there is a dimension of experience here that would seem to go beyond following Locke’s movements, and never more so than in the famous penultimate shot. Here the camera starts by showing Locke lying down on the bed as the camera drifts away from his body towards the window, passes through the railings and out and round the courtyard, before circling back towards the room where from outside the window we see The Girl, Locke’s wife and various others commenting on his death. That was a relatively easy sentence to write, but it was undeniably a difficult sequence to film as Antonioni’s insisted on somehow managing to pass the camera through the bars of the window. We only talk in passing about these difficulties because to concentrate on them would be to admire the director’s virtuoso achievement, while to ignore the fiendishly difficult shot would be to miss the point of what Antonioni was seeking to achieve by utilising such a camera movement. Numerous filmmakers have made things difficult on themselves but less we sense because they want acclaim; more because they want the challenge. Taking into account Antonioni’s initial remark about the location being the very substance of the film, then how does the director extract a substance of their own from the environment in which they shoot?

Whether it is Tarkovsky showing a house burning in Sacrifice in one take, Herzog determined to haul a real boat over a real mountain in Fitzcarraldo, or Antonioni here, we sense the challenge over the achievement. This is partly why no matter how impressive a CGI effect might be, it lacks the nature of a challenge as we are defining it. If we were to know that computer generated imagery allowed the camera to pass through the bars of the window then it would have been an achievement but not quite a challenge, or rather any challenge evident would have little to do with the director onset, and much more to do with the computer team working on post-production. It would seem extraneous to the nerve tissue of authorship, while the examples we give from Antonioni, Herzog and Tarkovsky – no matter the immense importance of their cameramen, Luciano Tovoli, Thomas Mauch and Sven Nykvist respectively – suggest a struggle in the making that is part of an ontological struggle with what cinema happens to be. They all accept that film is a medium of the real out of which they must sculpt a narrative: hence the title of Tarkovsky’s book Sculpting in Time. The challenge is to take from the real what can generate a vision, and The Passenger‘s penultimate shot doesn’t only function as a remarkable sequence, but also as vital to the thematic in Antonioni’s work. It brings together the fascination over absence with its manifestation in cinematic form. We don’t know exactly what is happening in the room during those minutes where the camera absences itself has. Has Locke taken his own life or has he been murdered? Has the wife or The Girl been involved in the killing, or are they innocents of a different kind? After finding the body, Locke’s wife says she never knew him; the Girl claims that she did. Is the wife saying she never knew her husband because he always remained a stranger to her, or is she saying it because she is protecting his new identity in death and allowing him to die as Robertson? Is the Girl claiming to know him as a soulful companion for a brief period of time, or playing the role of identifying the body so that he can be buried as Robertson rather than as Locke?

The film allows all these possibilities to play out in the mind, but of course the director could have made this possible without the impossible shot. Yet does the shot not give us a much greater sense of absence than a series of cuts would have achieved? We sense when the camera starts to drift away from Locke that it has taken on a life of its own; that it is freeing itself from the body as though Antonioni’s work is always capable of doing so. This is an extension of the director’s interest in absence. A self is never given in his work so that whether a camera drifts away from a character or the character leaves the story, the purpose is the same: to show as world without man as a potentiality. This is perhaps the spiritual side to Antonioni that Thomson sees, but we want to be clear that this doesn’t indicate the theological as it might in anyone from Bresson to Dreyer, Tarkovsky to Sokurov. What interests Antonioni more than the theologically spiritual is the human spirit as energy. How does one energise a tired body he seems to ask, but within the formula Freud proposed by saying what makes us happy is work and love. Often in Antonioni these are the very things that are not offering satisfaction, and never more so than in The Passenger, with Locke obviously dissatisfied in his work and unhappy in his marriage. They are enervating his spirit, so that what he looks for isn’t a higher being; simply another identity to occupy. When the camera leaves Locke on the bed and travels towards the window it might be more useful to think of this as a moment where Locke no longer feels he can escape his self in the identity of Robertson, but where else is his self to go?

Yet to call this spirituality would seem to us to be misunderstanding Antonioni’s preoccupations. We shouldn’t see the shot as a moment of transcendence, but as an escape from the enervation of the spirit. There is no higher life Locke will be escaping to, but there is a world from which his dead body will have escaped from. If Antonioni is fascinated by disappearance, its ontologial companion is suicide: Giuliana attempts it in The Red Desert; in Il Grido the central character succeeds in the ambivalently motivated ending of the film. Concerning a suicide in Les Amiche, an adaptation of Cesare Pavese’s novel – a writer whose work often hovers over the suicidal and who took his own life – Antonioni said: “we should remember that love as a motive for suicide, in the film, is nothing more than the last straw in a boredom with living, an inability to connect with life, which are also Pavese’s motivations.” (Architecture of Vision) Antonioni is a master of ambiguity not only because he wants the viewer to possess a freedom often absent in many films, but also because he wouldn’t seem to see an action unambiguously when the motive can be manifold. Like the character in Les Amiche, Locke would seem to be bored with life, a certain exhausting of the possible, which is quite different from a ready assumption of despair. If Antonioni keeps in abeyance the nature of Locke’s death perhaps it isn’t to create ambiguity per se (to insist on the openness of interpretation), but to suggest that whether Locke takes his own life or his life is taken from him, the same principle holds. The possible has been exhausted as his life closes down either internally or externally. He cannot escape himself it would seem, illustrated when he talks to The Girl about the futility of his efforts; that his habits start kicking in again. Antonioni’s penultimate shot indicates that we needn’t concern ourselves too much with the nature of his death; more with the nature of his life, and by extension our own. What is it to live; how can we construct an existence that isn’t constantly closing down on us and demanding that we succumb to our fate?

We use fate here as Kundera talks about it in The Art of the Novel. “There comes a moment when the image of our life parts company with the life itself, stands free and, little by little, rules us.” Is this what Locke seeks to escape, what Kundera would call his non-fate? When he changes identity with Robertson he radically and fundamentally changes his fate, the fate that includes the job he has, and the wife and the house in London. Yet it seems a life so evolved cannot be so easily escaped from, and every life we might adopt also has a fate of its own. Robertson may give the impression of being a free man when he tells Locke that he isn’t married and has no responsibilities, but few lives can extricate themselves from the conditions of a social existence. By the end of the film Locke hasn’t escaped his fate but is living two lives, exemplified when the Girl and his wife are in the same room looking at his dead body.

When Locke talks about the importance of coincidence he does so as if wondering whether the chance encounter is the means by which we can escape the predictability of our lives. He can take Robertson’s identity after he dies because ‘luckily’ Locke finds the gun runner’s body just after his death. He also looks like the dead man: enough for staff at the hotel to confuse the two of them. The girl he will have an affair with is someone he was struck by in London and sees again in Barcelona. Yet the question then concerns what we happen to do with the coincidental; how to live it without turning it into our fate? When Kundera talks of a character in his novel, Life is Elsewhere, he says that this middle-aged man has escaped his non-fate: “a hedonist resists the transformation of his life into a fate. Fate vampirzes us, it weighs us down, it like the ball and chain locked to our ankles.” (The Art of the Novel)

Antonioni has been resistant to seeing any meaning in the film beyond the immediate practicalities of Locke’s life. When an interviewer at the time of the film’s release invoked Camus’ The Outsider Antonioni said, “I think that it is fundamentally wrong. Meursault has ‘existential; problems, abstract problems, My character, David Locke, has very concrete problems.” (Sight and Sound). Yet of course Antonioni has invited us to disagree with him – in the same interview he offers once again the Pirandello quote about being only the author. Antonioni is entitled to say that “he is frustrated with his life. His marriage is a failure. He is not completely satisfied with his job…”, but in an article by Ted Perry accomanying the interview, Perry discusses in detail a formal manoeuvre Antonioni consistently makes, and that we have touched upon. This is what he calls “retroactive thinking, assertive camera, and dynamization of off-screen space.” “Throughout the Passenger”, he says, the viewer is led to anticipate that something surely must exist off-screen which when it finally appears, will restore the narrative focus of the film.” He gives as examples the moment when “the camera slowly pans the quiet desert ending on what seems to be a road. The silence is gradually broken, however, and the shot becomes directly involved with the narrative as the sound of a vehicle approaches off-screen. Then the Land Rover whizzes into frame and goes off down the road.” Perry adds, “it is the same assertive, independent camera which tilts up the white wall, passing a black bug and following an electrical wire, in the hotel room of Locke’s African hotel.” (Sight and Sound) Perry makes clear whatever the film happens to be about, it isn’t simply telling a story. Whether we choose to invoke the philosophical to help explain what these deviations might be alluding to is our own business, but if someone is inclined to see in Antonioni’s work the explorations of the existential or the metaphysical, the ideas would seem to stick more readily than in many a film that is less inclined to be so querying in its form. What Perry’s article does suggest is that the director consistently wants us to break our habits of viewing, to find in film form an approach that means we cannot take our assumptions for granted, and is this not central to the sort of existential philosophy of Sartre and Camus?

Vitally, however, we believe Antonioni’s films explore the atrophy of habit and the necessity of spirit – how can we exist in this world on terms that aren’t detrimental to our energy? If Antonioni’s films explore so often states of exhaustion, mental and physical, it is partly because the characters cannot fake energy out of old habits, but must try and find new energy out of different ways of seeing the world. Perhaps they don’t easily succeed. Old habits die hard and creating new ones demands the sort of energy levels many of his characters no longer have because of debilitations elsewhere. Yet Antonioni’s images themselves are part of a new ontology, a way of at least seeing the world afresh even if many aren’t quite ready to act upon these changes, or in acting upon them the sinews of ourselves cannot extricate themselves from the past.

©Tony McKibbin