Saturday, August 4, 2007

A New Career In A New Town

"I met a new me at 8 am, the other one got lost,
this was not a trade in, although I wouldn't believe the cost.
I woke up crying as we said goodbye,
me an my old self, each day he vanished more and more
as I became someone else."
-Lou Reed, Trade In-

"I am the passenger
I stay under glass
I look through my window so bright
I see the stars come out tonight
I see the bright and hollow sky."
-David Bowie, Iggy Pop, The Passenger-

When thinking about Antonioni's greatest film it is RED DESERT that typically pops into my mind. However I find as I am getting older it is his 1975 feature THE PASSENGER that I return to more and more.
I first saw THE PASSENGER just after I got my drivers licence when I was sixteen. There was an Evansville video store that had a small foreign section and it was here that I found Antonioni's masterpiece in one of those oversize clam shell boxes that was covered in dust. The cover shot of a beautifully bruised and tragic looking Jack Nicholson standing in a doorway was incredibly evocative and I have been sorry to not see it used more.

While I admired the film on that first viewing, I think I was perhaps too young to completely appreciate what it was that Nicholson's David Locke was running from. Add that on to the fact that that old full frame and faded VHS copy did everything it could to drain all the artistic life out of Michelangelo's film. Although I saw this film several times in this way throughout my teens and twenties, I didn't truly experience it until I saw it a couple of years back at a Louisville theater for it's re-release.
That theatrical experience was interesting. The theater was surprisingly crowded and there have only been a handful of films that I had ever been more excited to see. I have also never been more personally offended by a series of walk outs in a film, as there were a few. Seeing THE PASSENGER restored and on a big screen was for me a remarkable and hypnotic experience.
There were several things that jumped out at me that afternoon in the theater. The color of the sky in the opening shots of this film in indescribable and throughout the picture Luciano Tavoli's color photography is nearly too beautiful to look at. It literally was like seeing a different film than that old VHS copy. Another thing that stood out was Maria Schneider, the sometimes maligned LAST TANGO IN PARIS star is so effective in this picture as the girl who might be controlling much more than anyone can imagine. The shot of her standing in the car with her arms outstretched as the treetops envelope her from behind is one of the most remarkably composed shots of Antonioni's career, and Schneider looks like one of the great lost Art House icons of all time in it.

A few other thoughts I had were that Jack Nicholson, easily one of the greatest American actors, has never been better in a role. There is such an intensity to his performance in this film and I can think of very few American stars who would have been willing to play a role like this, and even less who could have done it so beautifully.
The final thought I had about the film, and it came to me shortly after the astonishing seven minute long one shot take that still baffles me even though I have heard it explained. The thought was this, that THE PASSENGER was the closing chapter to the great European Art House movement. That's not to suggest that there haven't been other art house films, or films as a completely pure and sacred art form (Kieslowski's THREE COLORS TRILOGY certainly springs to mind) but after 1975 things did surely change. Much like RAGING BULL and BLOW-OUT feel like the furious last gasps of the American film movement of the Seventies, then indeed THE PASSENGER seems like a hypnotic coda to a remarkable period when it wasn't just possible to make a film like this but also a time when anyone would bother.
The only other time I can remember being so hypnotized by a theatrical experience was when I saw the restored print of Peter Weir's PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK in the mid nineties. Coming out of the theater that afternoon the sun felt positively blinding and I was so wiped out emotionally that Islept for what felt like hours when I got home that afternoon.
I think it wasn't just Michelangelo's remarkable direction of THE PASSENGER that got me so much but it was a real personal connection to the lost David Locke. In the past decade I have felt more and more like that character, who wants nothing more than not only a new life but the ability to erase his old one (or as David Bowie would put it two years after this film, "A New Career In A New Town). Antonioni finally suggests that perhaps finding this way out, this trade in, might not be all its made out to be. Maybe we are all in our own way looking for a our own personal trade in but sometimes just going along for life's ride is the only way out. I don't know, I find it difficult to express my emotions about David Locke and Antonioni's film, all I know is that there are few films that have spoken to me more about the increasingly disconnected nature of my life that this one.
THE PASSENGER might not ever be held in the same esteem as the trilogy of black and white films Antonioni shot in the early sixties but I suspect it will continue to grow in prestige. It is a remarkable film that is, much like the man who made it, truly timeless.


cinebeats said...

Really terrific review Jeremy! I feel a lot like yourself about this film.

I had only seen a washed out crappy full-screen print of the movie on video about 15 years ago until the recent DVD release and the movie effected me so much more on my second viewing. I think my age had a lot to do with my better appreciation of the film and the quality of the DVD print didn't hurt either.

I find the open ending of the film really perfect. Antonioni always ends his films with a level of mystery which can be interpreted various ways and I think that's one reason I love his work so much.

It would really be impossible for me to pick a favorite Antonioni film since I love all the ones I've seen, but I do hope the Red Desert gets a better DVD release soon. It's such an incredible film and I haven't seen it in many years. I would really love to experience it again.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks so much Kimberly for the nice thoughts and personal memories.
I agree about his endings, they remain among the most intriguing in all of cinema and are so refreshingly different than most we are subjected to now.
It is hard to pick a favorite but this and Red Desert are near the top for me...thanks again