THE PASSENGER (PROFESSION: REPORTER)

 

Michelangelo Antonioni, 1975

MICHELANGELO ANTONIONI, ‘THE PASSENGER’ (‘PROFESSION: REPORTER’)

In the Name of Something New

 

Richard Jonathan

Jack Nicholson, The Passenger, Michelangelo Antonioni

Springtime starts and then it stops in the name of something new, and all the senses rise against this coming back to you.

 

Leonard Cohen, ‘Coming Back to You’. Various Positions, CBS (Sony), 1984

 

David Locke, ‘midway on his life’s journey’, has had enough. Enough of his job as a television journalist, where the questions he asks and the answers he gets both ring hollow. Enough of his marriage, in which all words have become vain and tender gestures impossible. Enough of the world, the world where there’s nothing new under the sun.

Jack Nicholson, The Passenger, Michelangelo Antonioni

Finishing a documentary somewhere in the Sahara (trying to interview a rebel leader), he meets David Robinson, a gunrunner, staying in the room adjoining his at the hotel. The man dies of a heart attack; David Locke assumes his identity. Resolving to keep the appointments in Robinson’s diary, he sets out on a new life.

David Robinson & David Locke, The Passenger, Michelangelo Antonioni

Things become complicated, with not only David’s wife, Rachel, hard on his heels, but also a journalist colleague, government assassins, and rebel leaders. Appearing not to recognize the danger the assassins represent, David puts all his efforts into evading his wife and colleague. In this, he solicits the help of an architecture student (known only as ‘the Girl’) that he meets in Barcelona. She will become his guardian angel.

Maria Schneider, The Passenger, Michelangelo Antonioni

But David is too far gone in his death wish to recognize that angels can bring the promise of a new life just as much as they can guide one to one’s death. As he and the Girl drive south from Barcelona, she asks him, ‘What are you running away from?’. He answers, ‘Turn your back to the front seat’. We see the face of the Girl as she kneels on the back seat of the convertible, we see the tree-lined road receding to the vanishing point: David is running away from his past.

Maria Schneider, The Passenger. Michelangelo Antonioni

With a little imagination (and a touch of grandiloquence), this image of the Girl (as many critics have noted) can be seen to resemble the angel in Paul Klee’s painting, Angelus Novus, which has become Walter Benjamin’s ‘angel of history’ (more on this below). David Locke, however, is so disengaged from the world—despite all his reporting on global conflicts—that it is not history he is fleeing from. What, then? In a flashback, we see him in his garden in London, gleefully making a bonfire of autumn leaves and small branches—as if celebrating—and we sense that his malaise, at least in part, has to do with his marriage (the house and garden, the wife wondering what’s going on).

Jenny Runacre & Jack Nicholson, The Passenger, Michelangelo Antonioni

Could the Girl have given him a way back to himself, a way back into the world? She travels light, but the lightness of her touch belies the relevance of her remarks: Intuitively, she understands David, and gives him sure guidance. But David cannot bring himself to see the tenderness between them as an opportunity for renewal. Passively he awaits death, which duly comes in the form of government assassins.

Maria Schneider & Jack Nicholson, The Passenger, Michelangelo Antonioni

At the end of film, the police inspector asks Rachel, ‘Do you recognize him?’. She answers, ‘I never knew him’. To the same question, the Girl answers, ‘Yes’.

Jenny Runacre & Jack Nicholson, The Passenger, Michelangelo Antonioni

A little love can go a long way. But sometimes it’s just not enough.

Jack Nicholson & Maria Schneider, The Passenger, Michelangelo Antonioni

The epigraph of this essay hints at Locke’s predicament; let us now examine it more closely. Springtime starts and then it stops:  Locke’s springtime (new beginning, fresh start) was his assumption of Robertson’s identity; his ‘acceptance’ of an assassin’s bullet put a stop to it, and to his own life. In the name of something new:  Locke’s quest for renewal got off to a daring start, and then quickly petered out: In Robertson’s skin, he remained the same old Locke (his ‘renewal’ was ‘in name’ only). All the senses rise against this coming back to you:  As in every quest, what the seeker is really seeking is himself: ‘you’ is really ‘I’. Locke was seeking to find and affirm his individuality, uncorrupted by compromise with convention, be it journalistic or conjugal. However, he never attained sufficient distance to himself to realize what his frustration was really about. The result? When ‘all the senses rise against this coming back to you’, he did not fight back (for ‘senses’, read ‘habits’; for ‘you’, read ‘the uncorrupted me’). From an existential and psychological perspective, then, this is the key to understanding Locke’s predicament.

Jack Nicholson, The Passenger, Michelangelo Antonioni

It is not easy to change oneself—we endlessly replay our traumas in new scenarios, hoping that, this time, the outcome will be different. Locke, however, is particularly stuck in a cycle of repetition. Even when he meets the Girl—someone who clearly is uncorrupted by convention, someone whose sparkling freshness testifies to the vitality of her being—he still cannot get out of his primary mode of expression: whining.

Maria Schneider & Jack Nicholson, The Passenger, Michelangelo Antonioni

He is like a dog chasing its own tail, going round in circles, taking the tail for an enemy without instead of understanding the real trouble lies within. For Locke to break his cycle of repetition and start living, the Girl would have to have been more than an open invitation to stop whining. In terms of love, as I alluded to earlier, she’d have to have loved him a lot more.

The Passenger, Michelangelo Antonioni

‘You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink’: If he himself lacked the will to face his demons and do battle, no amount of love could have turned spring into summer for David Locke. The receding trees that speed into the vanishing point were not his past, as he believed, but his future: ‘No future’. By running away from himself, Locke sealed his fate. (Just like the girl in the horror story who barricaded herself in her house only to discover that the killer was already inside.)

Jack Nicholson & Maria Schneider, The Passenger, Michelangelo Antonioni

Instead of fleeing his past, he needed to return to it. This, of course, is the foundational insight of psychoanalysis. ‘One must be an adult to have childhood memories’: Locke, lacking the courage to take by the hand the child he once was, spent his time tilting at the windmills of other people’s problems. ‘World-weary’ (a fashionable stance that makes one appear wise but quickly becomes boring to both oneself and others), he was stuck in a no-man’s land, neither responsible adult nor revisited child: ‘Nowhere Man’.

Jack Nicholson, The Passenger, Michelangelo Antonioni

Dropping the premise of the film (‘Locke has lost the will to live’) but drawing on the material in it (‘Locke has journalistic skills’), we can imagine that he could have abandoned his documentary and turned to making (or writing) a fiction film. That would have required him to play, to explore, to indulge his fantasies and confront his fears—in a word, to create something from the stuff of himself. In so doing, he might have found a way to ‘re-present’ his experience via words and images that create an opening for self-transformation. Instead, failing to understand that the long way round (confronting oneself) is the shortest way there (being fully alive), he took a shortcut (David Robinson) that, inevitably, turned out to be a dead end.

Jack Nicholson & Maria Schneider, The Passenger, Michelangelo Antonioni

Always whining, always at one remove from everyone and everything—the desert conflict, David Robinson, the Girl, wife, job, and above all, his own feelings—David Locke refused the possibilities his situation offered him to discover and assume his own desire. In so doing, he condemned himself to death-in-life—and then to death, period. Indeed, even in his own suicide, he played a passive role: the passenger passed without leaving a trace of his individuality. In the memory of those who crossed his path, he left nothing but a taste of his alienated state. In the desert of his life, David Locke’s desire—desire being that which keeps one alive—was not even a mirage.

Jack Nicholson, The Passenger, Michelangelo Antonioni

‘Springtime starts and then it stops in the name of something new’: Despite the scintillating sun of the Sahara, despite the dazzling Mediterranean light, the season of The Passenger  is winter.

Jack Nicholson, The Passenger, Michelangelo Antonioni

MARA, MARIETTA: A LOVE STORY IN 77 BEDROOMS

A literary novel by Richard Jonathan

Available from AMAZON (paper | ebook) & iBOOKS, GOOGLE PLAY, KOBO & NOOK (see LINKS below)

‘THE PASSENGER’ AND ‘THE ANGEL OF HISTORY’

Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, IX

From Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (NY: Schocken Books, 1969): 257-58

 Maria Schneider | Paul Klee, Angelus Novus, 1920 | The Passenger, Antonioni

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

HOMAGE TO MARIA SCHNEIDER

The Gift of her Performance in ‘The Passenger’

 

Richard Jonathan

Maria Schneider, in The Passenger, is like music: she simply is. ‘Is’ as in ‘being’: poise, presence, grace; ease, elegance, finesse. She plays the Girl, a young woman as comfortable in her skin as David Locke, the passenger, is not.

Maria Schneider & Jack Nicholson, The Passenger, Michelangelo Antonioni

If the novel grants us direct access to someone else’s consciousness, film makes available to us someone’s presence, unmediated by being-for-others. In the simulacrum of being we call ‘real life’, these two privileged moments are extremely rare. Which is why I call Maria’s performance in The Passenger a gift.

Maria Schneider, The Passenger, Michelangelo Antonioni

And yet, in ‘real life’, nothing predisposed her to the quality of presence she brings to The Passenger. Born out of wedlock to a teenage mother, not recognized by the father, she lived until ten in the care of others; back ‘home’, she was, at age fifteen, kicked out again because, her cousin reports, her mother may have caught the step-father in Maria’s bed.

 

These biographical facts are reported in Vanessa Schneider’s book, Tu t’appelais Maria Schneider, and are summarized in this article (in French): ‘Maria Schneider, une muse pas comme les autres’.

Maria Schneider, The Passenger, Michelangelo Antonioni

Bertolucci used Maria brilliantly as an actress in Last Tango in Paris but—sacrificing her innocence (she was nineteen) on the alter of art—abused her as a person. What’s more, despite the millions the film made, she was paid only a pitiful $5,000 for her work.

Maria Schneider & Marlon Brando, Last Tango in Paris, Bernardo Bertolucci

In bed and by her side, Maria preferred women to men. The measure of happiness she found on that front is heartening, for after The Passenger she spent a lot of time in the ‘heaven where nothing ever happens’: heroin. In the desert of female parts in film she was offered the dust; disenchanted with cinema, she became a wanderer.

Maria Schneider, The Passenger, Michelangelo Antonioni

I recall, in 1996, how my heart sank when I saw Maria as the ‘madwoman in the attic’ in Zeffirelli’s Jane Eyre. That was a cruel bit of casting and, for me, a sign of Maria’s desperate state. Fifteen years later, at age 58, she was dead.

Maria Schneider, Jane Eyre, Franco Zeffirelli

We see, then, that the intersection of presence and grace is unpredictable.

Jack Nicholson & Maria Schneider, The Passenger, Michelangelo Antonioni

I, for one, will be forever grateful to Antonioni for giving Maria, in a film about the impossible, the part of the possible.

Maria Schneider, The Passenger, Michelangelo Antonioni

She played it beautifully, taking the side of being against the side of having, the side of interiority against the side of expression, and (to borrow a verse from Leonard Cohen), ‘the side that’s always lost against the side of heaven, the side of snake-eyes tossed against the side of seven’*.

 

* Leonard Cohen, ‘The Captain’. Various Positions, CBS (Sony), 1984

Maria Schneider & Jack Nicholson, The Passenger, Michelangelo Antonioni

THE PASSENGER: A CAROUSEL OF STILLS, IN SEQUENCE

SPRAGUE’S ‘SELF-PORTRAIT IN TEN FILMS’ THAT HE GIVES MARIETTA AS SHE LEAVES HIM

CLICK ON AN IMAGE TO GO TO AN ILLUSTRATED ARTICLE ON THE FILM

Possession, Zulawski

Last Tango in Paris, Bertolucci

Maman / Putain, Eustache

Realm of the Senses, Oshima

Teorema, Pasolini

Cul de Sac, Polanski

The Passenger, Antonioni

Damnation, Bela Tarr

Element of Crime, Lars von Trier

American Soldier, Fassbinder