The Passenger: Jack Nicholson and Michelangelo Antonioni have an identity crisis

Throughout the 70s and 80s, several Hollywood stars collaborated on projects with some of cinema’s biggest auteurs. Most notably, the likes of Robert De Niro – who, fresh off an Oscar win for Raging Bull, decided to fly out to Rome and work with Sergio Leone (who at that point hadn’t directed a movie in 13 years!) on what would be his last picture, Once Upon a Time in America – Donald Sutherland with his unpredictable turn in Fellini’s Casanova, and Oscar-nominated Elliot Gould taking center-stage in Ingmar Bergman’s The Touch showed that Hollywood was just not enough for those that dared to be personal and creative in their work. Hollywood could only go as far in terms of artistic vision.
One of the most accomplished pairings proved to be The Passenger, where the paths of iconoclast Michelangelo Antonioni and Hollywood superstar Jack Nicholson met, creating a perfect tandem of beliefs and ideas about the central question in Antonioni’s body of work: what does it mean to have an identity?

Michelangelo Antonioni and Jack Nicholson on set of The Passenger.

As part of a three-movie deal with MGM Studios that saw Antonioni direct Blowup (1966) – a critical and commercial success – Zabriskie Point (1970) – a critical and commercial failure – The Passenger was the nail in the coffin for Antonioni’s career in America. The movie was shelved following its initial release and only re-released decades later when Jack Nicholson got his hands on the movie’s rights. The Hollywood actor considered The Passenger the highlight of his career; an intimate piece of work that had been taken away from audiences and kept in the dark like a precious painting in times of war.
If there is a parable for how Hollywood operates it can be found in The Passenger, as the studio was desperate to turn things around and use Jack Nicholson’s name and star power to save this picture from sinking. What the studio failed to predict was that Antonioni would always, no matter what, go out of his way and avoid the clichés and tropes of typical studio movies. Moreover, the studio failed to predict that Jack Nicholson, the man who had just finished making Chinatown and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (and a longtime studio-system actor) would buy into Antonioni’s cinematic ideology and embrace the Italian’s way of making pictures. For Nicholson, The Passenger was the opportunity to get away from the glamour, noise and billboards of Sunset Boulevard. It was his shot at making something pure, something that did not taste of salted popcorn and soft drinks.

The moment Nicholson’s reporter gives up. He wants out.

In The Passenger, the story revolves around a war correspondent who, for some reason, cannot seem to find the war he’s looking for in Northern Africa. He has a sudden change of heart, and upon discovering the dead body of a man he had just met in a remote hotel, he decides to assume the dead man’s identity. Like a passenger, he hops on a ride, not knowing where this ride will take him.
This seemingly simple premise could have turned the movie into a run-off-the-mill thriller as Nicholson’s new identity corresponds to that of an arms dealer pursued by several enemy factions. Instead, Antonioni opts for something much deeper and closer in style to his ”alienation trilogy” of the 60s (L’Avventura, La Notte, L’Eclisse).
For Antonioni, the crux of the story is Nicholson’s crisis of identity and the decision to leave behind an entire life and replace it with a new one. How can a man simply wipe the slate clean, forget the people he’s met, the work he’s done? How can he pretend to walk in another man’s shoes without realizing the complexities that went into that man’s life?
The process of assuming the dead man’s identity is very basic in practical terms: Nicholson simply takes the photo of his passport and attaches it onto the dead man’s document. It is as simple as that, thinks our protagonist. But the truth is that one cannot possibly wish for another man’s life without taking on the other man’s burdens. Antonioni sets out to explore this dilemma.

Nicholson assumes the identity of an arms dealer.

What we find out is that Nicholson’s character is a man who has probably seen too much, but it’s also possible that he’s never fully understood the things he’s seen. As a war correspondent he’s ventured to far-away places and put his life at risk in order to interview war chiefs, presidents, generals, rebels and soldiers. The interviews he’s carried out were all meant to bring to light a community’s struggle and fight for ideals. But we soon find out that the reporter had by this point learned to distance himself too convincingly from the events he witnessed. He was a passenger there, too. He just didn’t know it. This is most evident in a scene where a man who Nicholson is interviewing, turns the camera around to face him and asks to repeat the same questions but with the camera rolling in Nicholson’s direction. Only by not hiding behind the camera will he be able to fully absorb the realities of the world he’s so busy documenting.
In a way, this scene effectively predicts today’s obsession of documenting everything around us without ever taking the time to live through these moments; these moments that we’re so determined to capture, record and store.
The movie continues to highlight Nicholson’s constant illusion of being someone else. At the start it’s an adventure as he meets the people the dead man was supposed to meet, goes to places the dead man was supposed to go to, and is free of whatever kept driving him into the ground in his previous life.
Soon he realizes that life at its core holds something we cannot get rid of: things like habits, codes of conduct, responsibility are omnipresent and will eventually find a way into anybody’s life.
At one point he says, “I’ve run out of everything; my wife — the house — an adopted child — a successful job — everything except a few bad habits I could not get rid of.”

Maria Schneider’s character becomes his companion for the journey.

The inevitable realization that we’re all somehow connected by the same problems, the same desires and obsessions in Antonioni’s world is a terrifying realization of doom. After all, Nicholson’s character wanted to escape. And yet, there is no escape for him. He cannot live a life without being part of the world.
The woman he meets in Barcelona, played by a wonderfully soulful Maria Schneider, tries to comfort him and play along like a partner in crime. Their conversations, however, constantly revolve around the inevitability of life. She is also, in a way, trying to escape, but her escape seems to be of temporary nature. She is young, bright and has the whole future ahead of her.
The two travel together across deserted parts of Spanish Almeria. At a certain point in their journey, she asks him a simple question: ”What are you running away from?” to which he replies, “Turn the other way so that your back faces the front seat.” As she does so in his open convertible, we are presented with her view of an endless row of trees and the road they’re leaving behind. It is at this point that we realize, there is no salvation for Nicholson’s character. Just the illusion of an escape.

She is also running away from something. Anything.

After making the film, Nicholson recalled that Antonioni saw his actors as nothing more than ”moving space.” This is most evident in Nicholson’s haunting performance. In The Passenger he’s at his most vulnerable as he plays a man who wants to blend in at all costs; a man who wants to be accepted and left alone. In other words, we watch one of the most bombastic, A-list dramatic actors turn in a performance that is both restrained and powerfully evocative.
Paired with Antonioni’s eye for architecture and landscapes, Jack’s performance fills the frame not with his usual, larger-than-life personality, but with a ghost-like desire. A desire to start from scratch. To be part of something.
The end result is essentially a quiet meditation on what it means to live a life. And despite featuring in large part themes of alienation and loneliness, I see The Passenger as a comforting film, where Nicholson’s character and Maria Schneider’s try to make sense of the world by supporting each other. It may be a lost fight, but the journey is ultimately fulfilling.
What the reporter forgets, is that a passenger must eventually know when to get off.

He wants to be accepted and left alone.


Dirty Harry: The Doomed Protagonist

In 1971 a young Clint Eastwood and veteran director Don Siegel collaborated on three occasions, including Play Misty for Me – Eastwood’s directorial debut (featuring a brief and rare acting cameo by Siegel) – The Beguiled – a Southern gothic thriller set in the American Civil War – and Dirty Harry – the story of detective Harry Callahan and his quest to stop the notorious serial killer Scorpio. All three titles are worth mentioning in their own right. Play Misty for Me launched the directing career of Eastwood, who would go on to direct forty more projects, including Unforgiven, The Bridges of Madison County, Mystic River and Gran Torino. The Beguiled, on the other hand, helped the young star in adding a new element to his on-screen persona – a sense of imminent threat and perversion. Finally, and most importantly, Dirty Harry was Eastwood’s first encounter with fame, after years and years of odd jobs on American TV (most notably, Rawhide) and Italian Spaghetti Westerns (the Dollars trilogy), and Siegel’s biggest box office hit in a career that spanned over three decades with little to no recognition. After that, the two would reunite almost a decade later on the set of Escape from Alcatraz, a sentimental, old-fashioned prison film. However, today I want to specifically look at the first entry in the Dirty Harry franchise, and what made the film gain an iconic status despite its controversial nature and how it fits into the context of 70s New Hollywood.

A new kind of evil threatens San Francisco.

New Hollywood was, in a way, all about fresh faces. Faces that communicated the willingness to start from scratch. Faces untouched by studios, contracts and reputations. These faces included the likes of Warren Beatty, Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, Dustin Hoffman and Julie Christie, among many others. Following the collapse of the studio system, American cinema was finally on its way to break taboos and throw conventions out the window. Critics and fans like to pinpoint the exact time this happened. Some argue that Bonnie and Clyde was the first movie to do so. Others like to mention Midnight Cowboy and The French Connection.
Personally, I think the definite breaking point is marked by Harry Callahan’s entrance on the crime scene of one of Scorpio’s victims on a poolside roof terrace in San Francisco. Eastwood’s pretty boy features here are hard, lean and mean. His blonde hair rough and uncombed. The dark sun-glasses the only recognizable item protecting him from the world he so passionately hates. He scans the site where the murder took place just hours ago and we immediately notice his cold, impassive attitude. Just another day on the job. Just another victim of a system that specializes in protecting the murderer.
Bruce Surtees’ luscious cinematography makes all the more evident the clash between the spectacularly rich and colorful city of San Francisco used a backdrop for all the violence and terror and our grounded, mean protagonist who is as much of an alien to his environment as the criminal he’s supposed to chase.

Harry is not your typical clean-cut hero.

What stands out about this seemingly run-off-mill cop thriller is in fact how straightforward and predictable it may seem at first glance. Like a lot of noir films from the 40s and 50s, we watch a handsome vigilante do anything he can in order to stop the evil that is threatening innocent by-standers. Hell, one of the first scenes involves Harry taking matters into his own hands as a robbery is underway across the street from his favorite burger joint. He lazily picks up his Magnum .44 and walks out to meet the gun-toting robbers. He shoots the driver and the guy in the passenger seat. He then proceeds to blow the arm off the man wielding a shotgun. So far, so good. But once he approaches the wounded criminal who is visibly trying to reach for his gun, Harry engages in the by-now famous monologue about the power of his Magnum .44 (”the most powerful handgun in the world”) and the consequences of a close-distance shot in the face. He concludes his monologue by looking straight into the camera and saying, ”You’ve gotta ask yourself a question. Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya… punk?”
At the time of its release, this was a line that had never been suggested and articulated in such a brutally honest manner. Our movie’s hero, instead of making a regular arrest or having an open conversation with the wounded perp – something a Humphrey Bogart or a Henry Fonda would have typically done – directly threatens the man in front of him and, more importantly, the audience watching the movie.
Siegel stages this confrontation without pulling any punches: one camera focuses on the robber’s arm, slowly reaching for his weapon, and another camera is set on Eastwood’s face as he looks directly at us. Simple, but effective. This initial stand-off acts as a checkpoint for whatever is to come in the movie’s remaining runtime. As an audience, we must nod our heads and admit that this is indeed the kind of movie we signed up for. This new Hollywood violence can be the stuff of nightmares. To make the point even clearer, the initial draft of the movie had the scene end with Harry placing his gun to his own temple and laughing at the perp. Talk about making a statement.

Violence, in Harry’s mind, is an inevitable remedy to evil.

This kind of straightforward, graphic violence was nothing new in other regions of the world and in other dimensions of American cinema, Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) being the prime example. However, nothing had really been done on such a massive commercial scale. Dirty Harry was supposed to be the new hero we could all get behind and cheer for, and yet, both Siegel and Eastwood were determined to keep fans at a distance. This guy was hateful, violent and broken inside. His only purpose was to play dirty on the behalf of the police department and the mayor’s office. A gun-for-hire, so to speak. How could he be the face of a franchise?
The commercial up-to-date stylization of characters and plot points we had already seen before (the strict, by-the-numbers police captain, Harry not getting along with his new partner, a failed attempt at catching the villain, etc) served as a reflection of the needs of modern day audiences. It’s not surprising that Roger Ebert, the famous movie critic, was shocked when confronted with the movie’s direct, vicious and as Ebert himself said it, ”fascist attitude,” but accepted it as an inevitable consequence of the pent up anger boiling inside our protagonist. Because on the one hand, Harry is angry and hateful – most of the time he is indifferent to the daily horror show surrounding him, similarly to Taxi Drivers Travis Bickle, he roams around the streets to his beloved city shaken by crime and waits for judgement day to come. On the other hand, he still believes that despite the odds being against him, he can still try and do the right thing.
What we get is not a black or white character, but a grey one. A character riddled with doubts and frustrations but motivated to act on his own terms out of a sense of duty. Dirty Harry ends as a mirror to a society responsible for creating and enabling men like Harry Callahan, men who feel like they’re above the law just because they can toss their badge away from time to time. Men who walk with a gun in their hand like it’s the Old Wild West.

Harry brutally interrogates Scorpio in an empty football stadium.

New Hollywood was all about characters like Callahan, just as it was about characters like Scorpio: ruthless villains (in this case, based on the real-life Zodiac killer) troubled by a traumatic past (it is hinted that Scorpio served in the military), bound to their twisted obsessions. Movies were not meant to please, satisfy and calm audiences. Quite the contrary. You had to be shocked. Movies like Dirty Harry refused to entertain for the sake of critical success. Both Siegel and Eastwood had a picture in mind and went about doing it the way they had envisioned it.
The hopeless task that Harry performs as he runs from telephone booth to telephone booth in search of the place where presumably Scorpio left a girl to die of suffocation is a perfect depiction of the unapologetically harsh way New Hollywood went about telling stories. You know the girl is dead. Hell, even Harry knows. But it’s the only thing he can do. Run around in circles in the name of the law. The futility of the violence he carries with him is what is bound to torment him for the rest of his days.
It does not matter whether the badge will still be strapped to his jacket or not. It’s something he simply cannot get rid of.

Was it really worth it?

Werner Herzog: The Power of Observation

How do we place ourselves in someone else’s shoes without intruding? Films are meant to actively participate, invading someone’s privacy, getting closer to the action, to the reality of someone’s life, their struggles, beliefs, and so on. It is undoubtedly a challenge that cinema has faced since birth. How to present a lifestyle in its full complexity without being offensive? How can we learn from merely observing? Even the best filmmakers have had difficulties answering these questions. Werner Herzog is known for intrusive, often manipulative style of documentary filmmaking. In numerous documentaries he openly staged various scenarios to fit his narrative (most notably in Bells from the Deep and Little Dieter Needs to Fly) and he often appears on screen as an intrusive stranger, almost like a detective sniffing around a crime scene (in Into the Abyss he literally questions witnesses to a murder and in The Grizzly Man he compulsively inspects Timothy Treadwell’s posthumous belongings).
However, I found interesting how different and yet just as revolutionary his approach was in one of his earliest documentaries, Land of Silence and Darkness from 1971, a film that I believe shifted the focus of documentaries from the filmmaker – the explorer, the conqueror, the protagonist who, like an anthropologist, immerses himself in another world, another culture, another lifestyle – to the subject(s).

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Fini, our protagonist, with her translator, before flying for the first time.

One of Herzog’s earliest adventures behind the camera is the study of Fini Straubinger, a deaf and blind woman and her work on behalf other deaf-blind people. Fini is an old woman – she suffered what would become a life-long impediment when she was a teenager and as a result was bed ridden for 30 long years, isolated from the outside world. Her mission is to relate with others who are in a similar situation, break the barrier of sound and vision and help them understand that there is a whole community of people just like them. That they’re not alone. The documentary follows Fini and her translator as they travel around Germany meeting and relating with those who have been institutionalized or abandoned by their families or who simply don’t have anyone to share their pain with. The camera witnesses as Fini embarks on her first airplane flight, visits a zoo, explores a botanic garden, organizes a poetry reading with fellow deaf-blind people and attends a learning session for deaf-blind children.

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Fini shows others that they’re not alone in this silence and darkness.

The secret in this film lies in its simplicity. This simplicity stems from the full belief in the power of observation. Herzog observes. He does not act. Does not try to intervene or modify the narrative. He stands behind the camera and follows along as Fini and other deaf-blind people make sense of this terrifying world. It is terrifying indeed. We may not realize it, but Fini and others do. Speeding cars that cannot be seen, thunderstorms that cannot be heard… the world these people live in is truly the land of silence and darkness, filled with angst, uncertainty and terror.
But instead of going in this direction, Herzog perseveres, showing us how these victims of cruel fate go through life by embracing the unknown and painting their own canvas their own way.  In the botanic garden, the group of deaf-blind visitors touch and feel rows of cactus plants. Their palms caress the spikes and as they do so, we see them react in awe. Tall, lean plants with spikes? How marvelous. How unsettling and marvelous at the same time. In the zoo, the playfulness of a baby chimpanzee overwhelms them. So does the curious and kind touch of the elephant’s trunk.

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The soft, kind breathing of an animal.

But perhaps, the most moving scene of all is the scene where Fini meets with a deaf-blind boy, Vladimir, aged 22, abandoned by his guardians and left in an institution. The boy has never been looked after properly. He can hardly chew food. His movements are uncoordinated. His body deformed by abuse suffered in the past. Fini places his hand in her hand and begins to communicate with him by stroking his head. The boy initially is wary of this strange and unusual soft and warm thing touching the top of his head. But as the scene goes on, he grows fond of it and insists on keeping Fini’s hand in his. Then, a radio is brought into the room. A radio? I asked myself, but he cannot hear. How is he going to enjoy it?
The camera keeps still as the boy’s hands begin to recreate the shape of the object. They move across and feel the antenna, and finally land on top of the speakers, from which a pop tune is playing. All of a sudden, he takes the radio and clutches it in his arms like his life depended on it. Then, as if in a state of pure bliss, Vladimir produces a faint but generous smile. A smile that can only inspire us to imagine what it must feel like to be Vladimir at that very moment.
It is in this particular scene that I thought myself in amazement, This is the power of observation. Had Herzog tried to cut away from the scene or shift his attention to something else, Vladimir’s smile would have been lost forever. Instead, whatever he was feeling at that particular moment in time, as he held on to that magnificent invention we call radio, was expressed through that smile and recorded in this movie for us, people like me, to see and experience, each one of us their own, personal way. Vladimir may not be alive anymore, as the fate of the people presented in this movie has not been clarified since, but his smile, through Herzog’s camera, is alive and well.

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Fini and Vladimir meet for the first time.

Film, like any other art form and generally man’s quest for meaning (just grab the first history book off your shelf), has always been mostly about intervention, transgression and manipulation. And Herzog, the man responsible for dragging a steamboat over a mountain in Fitzcarraldo, releasing thousands of live rats in the streets of Delft to film a scene in Nosferatu, and manipulating his entire cast and crew into almost killing each other like the characters in Aguirre, The Wrath of God, is the prime example of this notion.
However, what he did in Land of Silence and Darkness, a delicately told story about a community of disadvantaged individuals, is show us that choosing the other path, remaining invisible and steering clear of crossing boundaries that should not be crossed, can sometimes be much more insightful and rewarding. By purely observing the struggle Fini and her friends have to face each time they wake up we see beyond it. We see a struggle that if approached with the right mindset, like Fini does, can turn into the most beautiful of adventures. The adventure of discovering the world, bit by bit. Whether by touching  the spikes of a cactus plant, or feeling every branch of a cherry tree, or caressing the hairy back of a baby chimpanzee, the life these people live and the way they experience it opens for us a new way of looking at things. The details that we take for granted, through Herzog’s observing eye, become the subjects of so many feelings these people experience. Their lives, despite the silence and darkness, are rich. Richer than most.

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To truly make sense of this world, you have to feel it first.