Anomie? That’s when there’s only one of you, but he doesn’t know it. — Lester Bangs
THE RETURN OF MICHAELANGELO ANTONIONI’S THE PASSENGER
No one connects to anyone; most can neither understand nor feel a union with their own emotions, impulses or actions. We are either blind or powerless before our faults; petty selfishness and fear of social rejection undermines any noble thinking; effort comes to naught; bourgeois civility wrecks the spirit; perceptions mislead; love either betrays, deludes, erodes or is ignored; sexuality offers a brief respite from the ennui but so underlines our pathetic mortality that it seems hardly worth the struggle.
Given such a bleak outlook, how, then, can Antonioni’s films be so transcendent, worthy, magical, and affirming?
Jack Nicholson, a reporter on small wars in desolate forgotten Africa, can no longer bear the life he’s made. His Land Rover up to the gunnels in drifting sand, his shovel useless in the sweeping desert wind, Nicholson throws his hands to the sky and screams: “All right! All right!” He’s singular among Antonioni characters; at least he can express his frustration. That rarest thing in the movies—a credible coincidence—gives Nicholson an apparent chance at a new life. While the old life was fraught with existential paralysis and self-loathing, the new one features a handicap that brings the day-to-day into sharper focus: everywhere he goes, people want to kill him. How many pasts, how many selves, can Nicholson flee? As many as pile up in the wreckage of his life.
For Antonioni it’s an unusually frank statement of the spiritual dilemma of postmodern fluidity that he pursued more obliquely in earlier films. This rare overt presentation of theme does little to diminish the mystery of Antonioni’s methods. And it brings out the last layered, subtle performance of Nicholson’s career. Shortly after, he descended into the self-parody that’s been paying the bills ever since.
Maria Schneider, fresh from co-starring with Brando in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, also brings subtlety and understatement to her role, qualities that were seldom on display in Tango. That’s not a surprise; Antonioni always evokes astonishing performances, even if he claims he has no method for doing so. Antonioni has no use for “Method,” and takes a Hitchcockian view of the necessity for keeping actors in the dark. One star demanded that Antonioni take him through the script and, page by page, explain his character’s back-story. Antonioni did, making up every moment. He later said: “I told him what I thought he would like to think about the character.” Antonioni claims to seldom know what he’s after until the cameras roll. Then he can demand as many takes as Kubrick and with as little instruction to his players.
Nicholson and Schneider are very different actors, and at the time of the film they were also very different icons. Nicholson was the ultimate American movie star, all raw energy and wild chance-taking. This was his chance to establish serious art-movie credibility, and to work with the best of the European directors. Schneider had just been introduced to stardom in the most inflammatory way, as Marlon Brando’s shameless lover in Bertolucci’s Tango. She was regarded more as a crazy young girl on the scene than a serious actress. Her self-contained and surprisingly sensitive performance stands in contrast to the untamed histrionics that Bertolucci apparently preferred.
The characters come together, and Antonioni embarks on that (second to the Western) most American of film forms, the Road Movie. Landscape functioned as a character earlier in the film, but now Antonioni’s familiar relationship with the physical world returns. It’s a source of beauty, wonder, oppression, commentary on the pointlessness of our endeavors and, always, a metaphor for the emotional and spiritual state of the characters.
Antonioni’s characters are overwhelmed by space and time. The terrors raised by the vivid futility of life are symbolized by his wide-open skies and endless, reaching horizons—two key visual motifs of any road movie. Think of Antonioni’s landscapes as the absolute opposite of, say, Howard Hawks’. Antonioni does not showcase the mythifying effect of sky and horizon on story and character (as did all the directors of classic Westerns). He shoots sky and land to suggest a world balanced between oppression and freedom, between the limitless potential of the universe and the tinyness of our perceptions. Antonioni’s characters are surrounded by this crippling/liberating space, even when indoors.
Antonioni frames exterior narrative shots with a quirky eye for the compositional elements of landscape (watch how he uses mountains or roads or clouds in his frames). His exteriors feature a weirdly flat hyper-realism—as if he wanted to capture a non-dramatic, almost anti-cinematic normality akin to Photo-Realist painting. Or he might shoot landscapes in a lush, deceptively pleasant, 18th-century painterly way. When Antonioni shifts to close-ups, they can be deliberately and breathtakingly lovely (and The Passenger has some of the most sublimely beautiful moments in cinema), and are all the more powerful in contrast to his less emotional, more distanced exteriors. His rare large-scale exterior establishing shots seem both sad and exhilarating.
Like a shaman, Antonioni uses the processes of the natural world to underscore his narrative. In L’Avventura, Antonioni cuts from two lovers speaking of the future to a wave crashing against the shore, and as the wave moves somberly against the sky, you just know the two lovers will never get together. In The Passenger the desert becomes Antonioni’s metaphor for Jack Nicholson’s sense of empty questing, isolation, and emotional desolation.
Antonioni came of age during, and his aesthetic was shaped by (in rejection and acceptance of) Italian Neorealism. Neorealism pioneered the use of available light, street locations, non-actors in dramatic roles, and a gritty documentary-like quality in the film stock and composition. From this Antonioni retained a real-life sense of time unfolding, natural non-cinematic dialogue and a preference for unobtrusive lighting. What he rejected was a dramatic presentation of the so-called narrative of “real life.” Antonioni seeks a more subtle, complex and ephemeral narrative than simply “what happens.”
Though presented in a naturalist mise-en-scene, the suffocating pressure of modern ennui is represented by Antonioni’s slow, sure, dream-like sense of time. Antonioni’s pacing is matched by his poetic mise-en-scene. He places the camera to emphasize whatever is foremost to him that moment, be it narrative, character, waves upon an ocean, wind in the desert, the Sisyphisian effort of modern emotional interaction or the pleated red seat leather of a really cool car. Antonioni also relies on architecture to create a context for his characters. Note how he uses the bleak structures of Africa to mirror Nicholson’s blank emotional state, and contrast that with Antonioni’s use of the Gaudi churches of Spain to reflect Nicholson’s awakening to the enjoyable complexities of life.
Even when involved with the most tricky and artificial of cinematic constructs (like the renowned, astonishing, almost invisible, seven-minute shot that ends The Passenger), Antonioni’s lighting style remains grounded in Neorealism. He prefers to use or mimic natural light. Interior scenes seem lit by available sources: table lamps, windows, etc. He never lights expressively, in the mode of Film Noir or old Hollywood. However carefully he plans or creates his lighting plan, the effect is of natural lighting.
The Passenger follows a surprisingly event-driven plot. Usually, Antonioni is not interested in narrative flow. Or, rather, he’s not concerned with conventional narrative flow. All Antonioni films have a narrative, but sometimes it’s manifest in the interaction of the characters, sometimes in the color of the sky, sometimes in the actual chain of events unfolding. Antonioni’s narrative concerns remain mysterious. He tells a story; he believes in a dramatic structure of sequential acts leading to a climax and he makes films of great emotional punch. But that punch does not solely derive from watching the characters work through their various struggles.
Antonioni always places his characters in specific social scenes that either comment upon, reflect or stand in contrast to those struggles. He shows an uncanny and unmatched ability to capture the clothing, hair styles, manner of movement, rhythm of speech, posture, and attitude of the culture he explores. His presentation of post-Mod London in Blow-Up is even more amazing when you consider that Antonioni was in his late fifties when he made the film. An older artist attempting to parse youth-culture usually comes to grief, but Antonioni’s record of that scene reflects the skills of observation he honed as a documentarian and pioneering Neorealist. Likewise, his depiction of hippie/revolutionary California in Zabriskie Point seemed embarrassingly vacuous when the film came out, but preternaturally on-point today.
Antonioni’s rhythms are entirely his own. He might linger over a scene that seems pointless, he might race through the single most critical piece of information we need to understand the story. In The Passenger, Antonioni is at his most lucid, thankfully. And, as in all his stories, the narrative of character dominates the narrative of “plot.”
Antonioni’s signature style seemed, from his earliest work, recognizable, cogent, fully formed, and impenetrable. His pacing remains the most mysterious and effective aspect of his art. Few filmmakers have the artistic vision, courage, detachment, flexibility, and self-regard necessary to make the Antonioni approach work. He’s emotionally engaged by the story he tells and intellectually detached from it. His intense connection to, and perception of, the moment—the plot moment and the filmmaking moment—force him to be among the most rigorous of directors.
Sergio Leone, speaking of casting Henry Fonda for Once Upon A Time In The West, said: “When Fonda came into the dressing room on the first day I didn’t recognize him. He was just another old man. But in the act of putting on his hat, he transformed. He stood a bit straighter, he gazed to the horizon. Before my eyes he became Henry Fonda.”
No European just puts on a hat and becomes someone else. That could only happen in the wide-open spaces of America. Leone’s mordant wit barely conceals his genuine, sentimental love of the Western and for the individual freedom it promises. Leone was, in fact, a mythological immigrant. American movies—especially Westerns—worked for him as America works for its immigrants: they gave him a new vocabulary of hope. What he did with that vocabulary may appear ironic, mannered, or even destructive, but Leone’s films demonstrate his heartfelt belief in the Western form and in the ever-expanding, ever-embracing mythological America that so seduces its immigrants. But Leone also demonstrates his belief that this freedom would be undermined by violence and greed.
Only Leone could cast Western moral icon Fonda as a murderer of children. Only Leone would kill off Western character-actor avatars Woody Strode and Jack Elam before the opening credits in a bravura sequence of perversely restrained Cinemascope dementia…It’s compelling to read contemporaneous film critics on Once Upon… Wim Wenders rode a particularly high horse; he accused the film of a too-knowing postmodern decadence, of inexcusable meta-ness. He found in Leone’s operatic framing and seemingly endless enormous close-ups a tragic demise to the necessary sincerity that granted Westerns their narrative credibility. Well, he was half right; it was the beginning of the end.
However, those very stylistic excesses make it clear that Once Upon… is Leone’s least ironic, most sincere Western. Collaborating with screenwriters Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci, shooting in John Ford’s sacred landscape of Monument Valley, driven by (again) the least ironic, most haunting of Ennio Morricone’s scores, Leone focuses on romance, and makes sure we all see Charles Bronson for the god he was. Unlike the Eastwood triptych ( Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good The Bad and The Ugly ), Leone neither mocks nor undermines. He fairly worships at the altar not of the American west, but the Western.
And of all his films, Once Upon… most urgently demands the large screen to properly showcase the epic intentions and mythological composition of Leone’s frames.
ContributorDavid N. Meyer
David N. Meyer's Spring Semester cinema studies course at The New School begins January 26, The Desperate Horizon: Road Movies, Westerns, and the American Landscape.