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To paraphrase a famous Orson Welles quote, what is there to say about a movie?
Obviously a lot in most cases, and sometimes nothing at all, but how much of what we say can hope to encapsulate a movie as it is? This is the problem of memory, inherited by cinema. How can memory hope to recall the world as it were? I'm not just waxing here. What I mean is this: how can we communicate what we like about a movie, essentially? That is, to give something back that we have gleamed, rather than simply take from it, something which is a true reflection of what we have seen, a true perception of that reflection of the world seen by the artist's eye.
Antonioni's movie brings me to this doublebind, not because it's a blank canvas filled with the inscrutable and peremptory (for that reason, also the eternal), but because it's filled with so much life as I know it to be true. The simple profound joy I get from it is the awakening of the senses, sensing the world with the entire body. A draught from an open window, the scorching heat reflecting from the stones of a dusty Andalusian village, the echo of footsteps reverberating in a giant hall, this is why the film enthralls me. Not the dazzling Gaudi rooftop in Barcelona, which is spectacle, but the ordinary rooftop across the street with laundry in a hangwire fluttering in the wind.
In a few scattered instances, Antonioni ruminates about life through his characters, but it feel superfluous, because what can the mind say that is true in the presence of the sensing body?
The film closes with a famous long shot slowly tracking out of a window. Outside, we can see life play out in all its quiet, meaningful, mundanity. This is the film for me, the awareness of a sense of place and a sense of time. Meaning I am in this place and time passes, and the simple solace that follows it. Or maybe this. A character standing in a verandah in a dusty forgotten part of Africa, looks out at the vastness of desert and says it feels like it's waiting for something. The film waits, but not for a god to make his presence felt like in a Bergman movie, but rather waits, come what may. Metaphysical questions are rather absent, or mute. The world is then a playground of possibilities, where new personalities and new guises can be adopted, where exciting espionage games with arm traffickers can be enacted.
Jack Nicholson is not up to this, though he will have to do. He's not his crazy self, but when he wearily ruminates or even walks he can't help but have that natural smirk of the smug bastard. The quiet dignity of an Alain Delon would elevate the movie.
I make it seem like The Passenger only observes, but that's not quite so. In the amazing opening, Antonioni gives us a full character with just a few sketches of camera. How the American hopes to make his presence felt in this strange African land, now offering cigarettes or trying to teach a boy the word "left", when that presence is barely acknowledged. An African in a camel passing him by doesn't even aknowledge his presence in the same desert.
Back to the conundrum expressed above, all this may be true for me, but does it describe the movie you saw or are about to?
By way of answer, an anecdote which I believe resonates deeply inside the film; it tells the story of a Confucian scholar who came up to Bodhidharma, the 28th patriarch of Buddhism, and asked him to pacify his soul. "Produce it and I will pacify it", was Bodhidharma's reply. The Confucian said, "That is my trouble, I cannot find it". And Bodhidharma said, "Your wish is granted".
Something to meditate upon while watching this.
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