The Passenger

Henry K bemoans the absence of one of Antonioni’s finest works from a season showing at London's National Film Theatre, and dissects its political importance.

By Henry K Miller

Typically Michelangelo Antonioni’s films are wrapped around absences, disappearances, and, in L’eclisse, no-shows, so it’s ‘ironic’, but mainly frustrating, that one of his very best, The Passenger (aka Professione: Reporter, 1975), is missing from the NFT’s season.

Aside from its underappreciated position in the director’s own oeuvre, the film occupies a curious space in British cinema, being based on a script co-authored by the pioneering theorist Peter Wollen, author of the seminal Signs and Meaning in the Cinema. The Passenger had been written about 1970, and by the time of its release five years later Wollen, with much of left-wing film intelligentsia after 1968, had come to reject the European art-house cinema tradition exemplified by Antonioni, and with Laura Mulvey had begun to make avant-garde films in his own right. He claimed at the time that ‘once you jump on the Hollywood monster, it would be too difficult, I’m sure, to distance oneself from it, to be able to think about film in any other than Hollywood terms.’ And yet The Passenger is a film that — for an instant — changed the terms of Hollywood.

Like many of Antonioni’s films, the bare plot resembles Hitchcock (North By Northwest in this case): a wrong-man story given an existentialist twist, set among gun-runners and terrorists in Spain and north Africa during an unspecified struggle for post-colonial independence. But the treatment aims not at all at suspense, and Antonioni translates the themes of identity loss and dislocation into his camera style, which sometimes abandons the lead characters altogether. It’s a mainstream movie that’s taken up with the concerns of the ’60s and ’70s avant-garde, and the legendary closing sequence is a kind of pop version of Michael Snow’s ‘structuralist’ landmark Wavelength (1967): a long travelling shot which seems to ‘ignore’ what is in conventional terms the scene’s dramatic centre.

This being so, Wollen’s fairly cool appraisal of the film is almost inexplicable. A few months after the film’s release, in a famous essay entitled ‘The Two Avant-Gardes’, he advocated a partial return to narrative cinema for the avant-garde which, following Snow’s innovation, had become increasingly concerned with the narrow issues of cinematic processes like projection and printing in themselves, and had no clear political content. Against this he championed the route taken by Godard after 1968 which, while concerned chiefly with deconstructing the process of storytelling in the manner of Brecht, also had definite political relevance. The Passenger uses the techniques of the avant-garde with clear political intentions, so bringing about the ‘convergence’ of avant-gardes wollen hoped for – and with Jack Nicholson and MGM’s millions on board the problem of finding an audience was easily skirted.

If Wollen didn’t recognize it, The Passenger stands, as David Thomson has it, as ‘key film of the ’70s’, but one from which little followed. It was the last film Antonioni was to make for MGM (he had been signed up in the mid-’60s to make Blow-Up), and from the early ’80s onward the conservatism that kept the ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’ generation out of favour in Hollywood afflicted European directors even more seriously. Meanwhile the avant-garde retreated from the cinemas, where it never had more than a toe-hold, into the art-world. So in a sense it’s right and proper that The Passenger remains invisible: perhaps it exerts more power as a permanent possibility, a film from a parallel world where Spielberg’s B-pictures stayed B-pictures, and the avant-garde went popcorn.
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