The Passenger
Antonioni’s narrative design

by Martin Walsh

from Jump Cut, no. 8, 1975, pp. 7-10
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1975, 2004

Despite the critical accolades of most of the “daily” reviewers, the box-office success of Antonioni’s new film has, at least in this part of the world (London, Ontario), not been overwhelming. Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times that it is “probably his most entertaining (film) ... it could also become his most popular ... a superior suspense melodrama.” Yet the bulk of the audience here reported boredom as their dominant emotion, complaining that “nothing happened.” On the other hand, no one that I spoke to could give even a moderately accurate synopsis of what happens. The variety of interpretations of Nicholson’s death at the end somewhat undercuts Canby’s suggestion of a “superior suspense melodrama,” insofar as melodrama’s structural properties are normally quite clear-cut: everyone knows who is out for whom. People I talked to had explanations for the main character’s death ranging from suicide to heart attack, through assassinationion by revolutionary forces, and murder by governmental powers, And yet Canby is right: the plot of the film is essentially melodramatic, albeit obliquely so. There is no mystery as to why what happens does so, nor even any obscurity as to what happens. The film provides all the answers—but not necessarily on a first viewing. Indeed the manager of the cinema where THE PASSENGER played out a sparse two weeks (in a city of a quarter million inhabitants) told me that he couldn't remember showing a film to which so many people returned for a second and even a third look.

What is the root of this apparent obscurity? Is it a function of the fact that the film has been trimmed down to its current two hours from reputedly over three? Is this version simply overburdened by narrative ellipses? Or is there something else—something we may attribute to Antonioni’s interest in narrative forms?

Antonioni, after BLOW-UP and ZABRISKIE POINT, was under contract to Carlo Ponti for one further film, i.e., a predominantly commercial undertaking. Antonioni wanted to shoot a project entitled TECHNICALLY SWEET up the Amazon. But Ponti vetoed it and imposed on Antonioni instead the film PROFESSION: REPORTER (called THE PASSENGER in the United States and Britain). Perhaps “imposition” is too hard a word. The script had been prepared by Mark Peploe, who had worked on BLOW-UP and ZABRISKIE POINT, and Peter Wollen (author of signs and Meanings in the Cinema), and clearly it had much in synch with Antonioni’s preoccupations.

At one point early in the film Nicholson points out that “we translate every experience into the same old codes.” Whether the line comes from Peploe, Wollen, or Antonioni is not of importance (though I'd bet on Wollen: the emphasis on codes links to the interest in semiotics he has been pursuing for some years). Its importance for our understanding of THE PASSENGER is of crucial significance. On one level, it helps make sense of Nicholson’s desire to cease being David Locke, to adopt a new identity, to escape the tyranny of the co-ordinates of his present existence, to re-open his life to new experiences. However, the way in which David Locke attempts to recharge his life proves fraught with unanticipated, uncontrollable dangers which ultimately lead to his death. The idea of a complete break from the past (as it was for Godard and Gorin in TOUT VA BIEN) is shown to be illusory, even self-defeating. Such a radical severance from the structures of one’s identity leads clearly to disaster.

But an alternative mode, another response is posed within the film, in Antonioni’s handling of the narrative discourse itself. And it is here that a second meaning of “we translate every experience into the same old codes” manifests itself. Antonioni’s narrative is devoted, we might say, to transforming the codes of narrative at work in his discourse even as he uses them. The narrative codes at points are placed against the meanings we infer, conventionally, from the diachronic ordering of the images. An example: David Locke, now Robertson, sits alone in a huge glasshouse, awaiting a rendezvous. An old guy approaches him, Robertson speaks to him. Although he is not the man Robertson awaits, he cheerfully stops to talk awhile, and launches into the story of his life: “One day, very far from here ...” he begins, at which sound and image fade, as if in flashback. They are replaced by the faded greens of a 16mm newsreel, which turns out to be of the public executions on a beach (the new governments attempts to discourage armed robbery). When the sequence ends, we find the newsreel is being watched on a Steenbeck editing table back in a London studio. The real context of the footage is that it was shot by David Locke, reporter.

In other words, Antonioni feeds us a false tradition: If we read the sequence of images in the way U.S. narratives have taught us to do, if we simply “translate every experience into the same old codes,” the narrative becomes momentarily opaque, refuses to make sense, since it is difficult to invent a connection between the old man and the executions, (unless we choose to read the old man as Locke’s “conscience” visiting him, reminding him of his own past—and even here we can only grasp this possible reading after the fact—i.e., when we know this footage was shot by David Locke).

This single example is only one of the film’s many narrative ambiguities. In itself it doesn't warrant the attention I have paid to it (particularly since we so rapidly get embroiled in the implications of the way in which the execution sequence is handled, implications to which I shall return shortly). But it is symptomatic of Antonioni’s strategy in this film—a consistently varied deflection of the normative transitions from shot to shot. And it is the root of many people’s inability to read the events of the film. I cited various interpretations of the Locke/Robertson death at the end of the film. This confusion arises from Antonioni’s displacements of the diegetic centrality of the action, the plot.

The narrative’s tentative quality is explicit from the outset. The opening desert sequences, in which Locke is led further and further into a desolate landscape, establish an alien culture that does not respond to Western expectations, through Locke’s complete disorientation in face of the behavior of the people around him. Again, let us take one characteristic moment: Locke has been deserted by his boy-guide. He now sits with his Landrover in the midst of the desert; a camel ridden by a man slowly approaches. Locke gets up to greet the man, who rides past the Landrover and Locke as if they don't exist (insofar as they are irrelevant to the coordinates of his world, they don't exist). We see him ignoring Locke’s waved greeting, continuing to rub the camel’s neck with the brisk rhythmic movement of his feet quite unfaltering. The camera follows the camel, heaving Locke behind, out of frame. So tentatively fixed is the direction of the narrative at this movement that we feel we could easily leave Locke behind forever (except, of course, Nicholson can't be dumped this soon in the movie).

This is, of course, exactly what Buñuel does do in THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY, in which no story ever achieves its resolution on the screen. The narrative is always sidestepping into another, parallel, discourse before it reaches a conclusion. For Buñuel, this is a strategy of frustration. For Antonioni it serves to emphasize the arbitrariness of fixing on one man as the locus of narrative. PHANTOM OF LIBERTY consists of several intersecting texts, each of which claims narrative primacy at different moments. THE PASSENGER is less diffuse in this sense, diegetic plurality remaining immanent. We keep returning to the same center, in the figure of Jack Nicholson. However, it is a center that itself shifts in the course of the film. Locke becomes Robertson; a journalist becomes a gun-runner, (a nice metaphor that, for revolution: observation becomes activity); pursuer becomes pursued.

We observe Locke’s ineptitude in his alien environment. Look for instance at the Landrover he drives. Only a fool drives in the Sahara without extra water cans and a complete set of spare tires. When he gets stuck in the sanddrift he doesn't even put it into four-wheel drive. Locke cannot use the tools he has in his grasp, neither Landrover, nor camera, as we later find out. But the most important single inference to be drawn from the opening minutes of the film, as we observe an alien culture that is opaque to Western expectations, is that a parallel statement is proffered vis-à-vis Antonioni’s narrative design. This is a film (a commercial feature, etc.) that may not conform to our expectations of narrative (the narrative of the commercial feature, that is). The camera, for instance, often seems to have an autonomy, a life of its own that responds as much to the environment   as to character. (We could take THE PASSENGER as a documentary on architectural anthropology.) It takes off on languid vertical explorations of a light cord, insects clustered around on the white wall. It spins along the white lettering on the red Hertz wall. It moves as if a second narrative, an alternative discourse, were only just around the corner. The camera detaches itself from the central, primary, narrative. It displaces Nicholson’s centrality, pushes him to the edge of the frame, discovers him “accidentally” (as at the airport), or relegates him to the rear of a composition. At one point, we see Nicholson on the phone in rear, while the foreground is dominated by a waiter filling beer mugs with engrossing efficiency (and beer) that forces our eyes to desert Nicholson’s drama.

At other points, Antonioni’s choice of camera position, its axis of orientation toward the events that it records, is deliberately “inadequate,” as far as direct, transparent, communication of the plot is concerned. Thus, four black thugs enter a hotel and violently apprehend a fifth man, whom they forcibly lead away. Antonioni’s camera, however, is placed in such a way that we can only partially decipher what is going on through the prismatic sparkling of the fountain playing in the hotel courtyard. The fountain constitutes a deliberate visual interference with the linear revelation of plot. It forces other ideas and attitudes upon our attention. It questions the hegemony of plot over film or more precisely, of narrative codes over “cinema.”

In JUMP CUT No. 7, Sam Rohdie pointed out that

.”.. in the classic realist text narrative codes dominate codes of the symbolic, or the cultural, and it is these narrative codes which bestow sense, direction, and meaning to the text ... Films, as it were, repressed, kept hidden their pluricodicity through the dominance of narrative ... The repression of other codes by dominant codes arrests the activity and free play of those codes by literally assigning them a ‘place’ in a system in which the dominant codes are central, are dominant.”

THE PASSENGER does not, it seems to me, permit that dominance. Of course, to a certain extent most of Antonioni’s films have engaged in the transformation of narrative, a testing of its limits. It is well known that L'AVVENTURA, on its first appearance fifteen years ago, received the catcalls of an audience who read Antonioni’s refusal to cut a shot of Claudia running down the enormous length of a hotel corridor, as a mark of his cinematic incompetence. They expected such a scene to be edited in the normative, codified manner, whereby the central portion of Claudia’s “journey” would be elided, in the interests of narrative pace. In fact Antonioni’s intention seems close to that expressed recently by Alain Tanner (Cineaste, 6:4, p. 27):

“All the traditional narrative techniques brought to near perfection by Hollywood form the appearance of reality by the destruction of real space and time within a sequence or scene by fast-paced and quick cutting. This prevents the spectator from having a real view of space or time, and this is directly related to the ideological use of film in which the audience is led by the nose like a sleepwalker from the first scene to the last ... [If] you don't cut, instead of it being more real which it should be, in fact you are getting unreal because of the traditions in the eye of the spectator.”

Of course, there are many other levels apart from this concern with the subversion of the dominant cinematic codes of space and time. In LA NOTTE, for instance, Antonioni’s sense of framing frequently suggests, formally, a refusal of the primacy of the center of the screen. In an early scene in the hospital, the ostensible center of the image is the dying Tommaso, but Lidia’s arm is just within the left frame line with the rest of her body in off-screen space. She’s a minimal but tantalizing presence that has a curiously disruptive effect. The image establishes a sense of emotional disequilibrium, perhaps suggests Tommaso’s yearning for her but, equally important, it is a part of Antonioni’s work on the process of cinematic signification. Similarly his cutting frequently ruptures the expected continuity, and even creates a kind of “false” narrative, as when we move abruptly from Guido and the nymphomaniac in the hospital to Lidia crying outside. Lidia is not crying because of Guido’s near-infidelity (she is unaware of it) but because of Tommaso’s impending death. The cut suggests a “false” continuity, connection. Indeed, it establishes a paradigmatic or symbolic connection that supplements, if not contradicts, the syntagmatic level. That is to say, Lidia’s tears might as well be for Guido, since the rest of the film explores the emotional gulf that increasingly separates them. It’s a gulf prompted in part by Guido’s artistic alienation—the fact of his being a successful novelist who is being “lionized” by a millionaire industrialist who wants Guido to become a kind of cultural director for the rich man’s employees. Guido’s creative powers have been sterilized through his co-optation into the capitalist status quo. His role has been fixed, codified. He has become the sign of “the artist,” as Rohdie would put it.

Antonioni’s films often have some species of artist in a central role. Invariably Antonioni’s presence is in a dialectical relation to that figure. The creative paralysis of Sandro in L'AVVENTURA or Guido in LA NOTTE is in sharp opposition to Antonioni’s creative vitality in both films. And the crux of their difference lies in Antonioni’s analysis not only of the ideological imprisonment of his characters, but of the ideological self-awareness of his own practice, the self-reflexiveness of his films. Rather than being bound by predetermined narrative codes, Antonioni, to use Umberto Eco’s term, “sets the codes in crisis,” challenges their supremacy.

André Hodeir, a French jazz critic, has written,

“We should be capable of filming ourselves; for when we play on others, our behavior is no less important than theirs.”

In THE PASSENGER, David Locke is clearly not capable of filming himself, as his encounter with the witch doctor decisively demonstrates. The sequence opens with Locke asking the witch doctor a series of questions that reek of imperialist condescension. The witch doctor recognizes Locke’s stiltedly colonial stance when Locke speaks of the witch doctor’s ideology being rendered obsolete by the arrival of western ideas. He retorts that Locke would be able to learn nothing from his customs:

“Your questions are much more revealing about yourself than my answers would be about me.”

At that point the shaman grabs the camera and turns it on a very embarrassed Locke, whose only response is to reach forward and turn it off, crystallizing his total inability to engage with the issues opened before him. The sequence ends back in a London studio, where Locke’s wife and a mutual friend are watching this footage as traces of Locke’s identity. In other words the very situation of Locke’s documentary footage within THE PASSENGER invites our critical reflection. On four occasions we encounter this “film within a film” framework, and on each occasion it is presented as something to be closely examined. The first is the TV talk host whose tribute to/ analysis of the significance of David Locke’s career, his wife Rachel watching it at home, almost cynically, as she listens to the panegyrics. The other three are all sequences of Locke’s own footage. Each implicitly queries the relationship between “documentation” and political commitment, ideology, the nature of David Locke’s journalistic endeavor.

The first of these three is the interview with an African political leader, who speaks against the revolutionary forces in his country, concluding that in this case “the facts correspond to the official terminology.” This statement has an oblique relationship to the situation of Antonioni’s narrative vis-à-vis classical narrative form (“the official terminology”). The means/conventions of classical narrative do not suffice for Antonioni, although they seem to be fine for Locke, with his totally conventional notion of “interview.” Locke passively accepts whatever answers his questions receive, does not engage with the issues, or challenge the neocolonial paternalism of his subject. Even his wife Rachel criticizes him:

“You put yourself in real situations, but then you have no dialogue.”

It is Locke’s lack of a concrete position that cripples him. Indeed, it is precisely this recognition that propels him to abandon his identity, and become Robertson. Ironically, he believes Robertson to be a globetrotter who simply “takes life as it comes,” until events prove this to be the opposite of the truth, that Robertson is a man of commitment supplying arms for a revolutionary struggle.

The second of the three examples of Locke’s filmic activity is the Nigerian execution sequence. It isn't specified as being Nigeria in the film, so we could, I suppose, identify the sequence with the previous political leader’s repression of revolutionary forces. But it parallels an infamous event (1970 or 1971?) set up to demonstrate the “seriousness” of the new Nigerian government, and took place on Lagos’ public beach, everyone invited, the local populus, ambassadors, press, et al. This sequence which Antonioni has obtained, and represents as Locke’s own footage, is another classic of “impartial” documentation. The contours of the setting are ignored, and the camera avariciously revels in the agonizing death of the victim via a rapid zoom into the victim’s face, and twitching hands the moment the shots are fired. It is the voyeurist newsreel “par excellence,” that displays no analytic or moral responsibility of any kind.

The third example we have already examined: the witch-doctor sequence. Together, these three scenes constitute Antonioni’s first direct critique of cinematic forms. In earlier films, as I have suggested, he has manifested a concern with the creative sterility of certain artists: an architect in L'AVVENTURA, a writer in LA NOTTE, a photographer in BLOW-UP. The opening scenes of ZABRISKIE POINT suggest a critique of cinema-verité. The radical meeting was shot in handheld style. But a close look reveals that initially the camera picked up on people before they spoke—pointing, therefore, to a script, a preplanning—thus throwing doubt on the authenticity of the subsequent cinema-verité scenes. Antonioni’s point, obviously, is that cinema-verité is not less a style than any other, that its pretensions to a greater objectivity or truth cannot be upheld. But this position was not very fully developed in ZABRISKIE POINT. As we have seen, it is only in THE PASSENGER that Antonioni more fully attacks the problem.

Where in BLOW-UP the discourse about art, about illusion and reality and so on, was right out front—e.g., the scenes of Thomas’ recomposition of the crime—in THE PASSENGER it is more submerged. It is a reading which few have as yet commented upon, although it seems crucial to getting a grasp on the film. For THE PASSENGER, even as it tells its story, simultaneously engages in an ideologically self-aware examination of cinematic articulation. For instance, I have condemned the execution scene as voyeurist largely because of its lack of critical self-awareness; whereas Antonioni makes his voyeurism explicit as just that.

Take the section of THE PASSENGER which follows Locke and the woman played by Maria Schneider sitting in a cafe discussing Locke/Robertson’s new status as a gun-runner. Schneider comments that one doesn't get to know people merely by seeing them, but by “packing their things.” Nicholson replies, “It’s like listening in on a private phone conversation.” At that point Antonioni cuts to a long shot, clearly establishing the audience as voyeurs. The shots that follow further develop the idea of voyeurism/ eavesdropping as Nicholson and Schneider enter a hotel. The camera rests, still in long shot, on the closed door, through which the hotel porter exists, then listens at the door, giving the aural equivalent of our visual situation in the preceding scene. An exterior low angle shot follows, looking up at a window out of which Nicholson and Schneider are peering at the view. This is followed by a shot in through the window, at their naked bodies on the bed. We are made forcibly aware of our voyeurist status, since Antonioni enforces an awareness of the naturalistic impossibility of the shot, camera poised in mid-air forty feet above the ground. Detailed in this manner, the sequence may sound absurdly heavy-handed: it is not. There are of course other elements equally of significance within the sequence—I am simply isolating one aspect for examination, an aspect of particular interest since what follows its elaboration is the witchdoctor sequence. There Locke’s inability to handle the implications of his practice as an interviewer/ director is exposed, in contrast to Antonioni’s inquisitive assurance.

Earlier I was writing about the way in which the narrative of THE PASSENGER displaces the diegetic centrality of the plot, the melodramatic center. He prefers instead to test the limits of cinematic codes, suggest connections where there are, narratively, none. I cited the false transition from the old man’s story to the execution scene. Another instance occurs near the end of the film, when Locke/ Robertson sees the police awaiting him by his car. Cut to a shot of a road, into which a man with a coat over his head, herding a goat, enters. The audience immediately laughs, thinking Locke/ Robertson had disguised himself as a goatherd to escape the police. A couple of seconds later a taxi enters the frame—bearing Locke/ Robertson, to drop him at the hotel Gloria. Again, its a minor moment, but examples of this kind of play abound through the film.

Some are simply ironic. This is so in Antonioni’s initial refusal of a chase-scene (epitome of U.S. narrative), when the car following Schneider gets stopped by a set of red lights in the first five seconds. Then later Antonioni indulges in a hyperbolic chase, when Nicholson is stopped by police, only to break the rules of the game and drive off again as the police approach him on foot. Others seem to be near-quotations from Godard, as in the scene of Nicholson and Schneider in the cafe, traffic passing in the background. Instead of the camera holding on Nicholson and Schneider, it takes passing cars as its center of interest, and it pans rapidly from left to right with the cars, instead of holding conventionally on the stationary foreground.

One of the most exciting passages in the film occurs as Locke sits in his hotel room, shortly after having discovered Robertson’s dead body, listening to the tape-recording of his earlier conversation with the man. First there is a startling sound/ image disjunction. We have a medium close-up of Locke sitting, pensive. There’s a knock at the door. But as Robertson enters to visit Locke, this transpires to be not a knock at the door, but a recording of a knock at the door (or, to be more precise, not a recording of a knock, but a recording of a recording ...). (There is a variation on this play with out-of-frame sound later, when Rachel, during her search for Locke, is in a telephone booth in a hotel foyer. We see Locke standing at the reception desk. Rachel’s voice cuts into the frame as if from the past—the past he has tried to escape.) As Locke listens to the tape, he looks out of the windows of the room. The camera slowly pans to take in Locke’s field of view, the balcony. Then, without a cut of any kind, Robertson and Locke are on the balcony together, talking about the beauty of the landscape. A flashback has occurred within the shot, and yet there is no conventional demarcation of a time shift.

And Antonioni brings us back to “time present” in an equally extraordinary way. Locke and Robertson are in the room together, Robertson being seen (like Rachel, Locke/ Robertson, and Maria Schneider at other points in the film) in a mirror, from which the camera crisply pans to Locke—listening to the tape-recorder. And while this play upon, refusal of, the normative codes of “flashback” is going on, the tape-recorder discussion speaks of the need to avoid habit. “We translate every experience into the same old codes,” as Locke puts it. This line is answered in a double manner. First, narratively, it links to Locke’s decision to “become” Robertson, transform his habits. Second, we note its commentary upon Antonioni’s own discourse, which achieves a temporal shift of considerable audacity even as the words reach our ears.

Other kinds of play also deflect attention from the linear evolution of the central plot that culminates in Locke/Robertson’s death. I mentioned earlier the way in which the camera takes a certain autonomy, as when it traces the light-cord hanging over the bed in Locke’s hotel room in the desert. This vertical movement is repeated through the film—a tilt up a cord to the ceiling fan in Robertson’s room, a tilt up on a cord to a painting above Nicholson and Schneider on the bed in the hotel de la Gloria at the end of the film. This last instance has more than a purely formal resonance. Nicholson has just finished his tale of a blind man who regains vision and is so depressed by the ugliness of the world that he commits suicide. The painting above the bed is of an idyllic scene, only it is marred by a long slash of paint from the wall that defaces it, in parallel to Nicholson’s pessimistic fable. And there are many other formal connections through the film, many duplications of camera angles (vertical shot down on Nicholson over Barcelona harbor is reprised by the overhead shot of a couple arguing later on), and of compositions (Maria Schneider’s early, non-diegetic appearance in the film in London corresponds precisely to her position in the scene in Spain where she and Nicholson first speak). Twice we have vehicles immobilized in the desert, twice someone speaks on the beauty of the desert landscape. There are rarely direct, plot-motivated connections between these repetitions, variations on a theme. Yet they are essential to an understanding of the film’s interest in things around the plot, rather than the plot itself.

The already famous penultimate shot of the film, which lasts seven minutes, demonstrates this exquisitely. The camera tracks slowly out of Locke/ Robertson’s room (shades of Michael Snow’s WAVELENGTH) through the bars of the window (the perfect transparent camera), around the village square, back to Locke/ Robertson’s room, which we now peer into—from the outside. What is of vital importance here is not the technique itself, though the sheer accomplishment of the shot is ample cause for wonderment. Rather, it is the way in which all the loose strands of the plot are elliptically tied together, as much by visual suggestion as by direct evidence, even as other dramas are manifested—a boy chucking stones at an old guy, a learner driver puttering around, a young woman running across the square. And indeed we leave the film with the learner driver, with another potential story, as they drive off into the dusk. The narrative is over, Antonioni has fulfilled his contractual obligation to Carlo Ponti, but so much more, of real aesthetic achievement, has been attained.