The Passenger

Many months ago my co-worker Michael Alyn read this six-word story on my blog:

Identity thief cannot escape stolen identity.

and told me it reminded him of the 1975 Antonioni film The Passenger, starring Jack Nicholson. I had never heard of it and I put it on my Netflix queue. I finally watched it just a few days ago.

It was a good movie, though plainly an “art film” requiring a certain kind of engagement by the audience. Most moviegoers today would insist on more backstory to explain the choice of Jack Nicholson’s character to abandon his old, mostly good life on a seeming whim and switch identities with a dead stranger. But it succeeds — especially visually — as a rumination on the idea that no man is an island, no matter how alienated he feels.

However, the famous long tracking shot that is the climax of the film detracts from the viewing experience by conspicuousness of technique. (Spoiler follows.) The camera starts in Nicholson’s hotel room and tracks slowly toward an open door barred by a gate. In the courtyard beyond, various characters can be seen coming and going. There is some indistinct audio and the merest suggestion of what might be happening. All well and good — masterful, actually — but then the camera passes between the bars of the gate and out into the courtyard, pans around to follow some more action, and ends up pointing back into Nicholson’s room from the outside to find him dead.

As a way visually to indicate that Nicholson’s character is at an end, that henceforth his very perspective no longer exists, that we can only contemplate him from without, not from within, the shot is brilliant. But the space between the bars through which the camera passes is clearly too narrow. I cannot view or think about that scene without picturing the camera crew trundling toward the gate and signaling some stagehands the moment the bars go out of frame; the stagehands disassembling the trick gate to allow the camera to pass through; and then the same hands reassembling it and then dashing out of sight before the camera pans back around. The fourth wall is broken — almost literally!

About The Passenger, Michael Alyn told me, “It’s a strange movie; I watched it about 8 or 9 years ago and am not quite sure that I got it. I should probably watch it again and see if it makes any more sense after the second viewing.” I replied, “One strange-movie-requiring-multiple-viewings recommendation deserves another: Primer, the tangliest time-travel movie you’ll ever see.”

2 thoughts on “The Passenger”

  1. Holy crap! No, I didn’t, and damn, the movie is even more tangled than I thought. And someone online has way too much time on their hands. (Shocking.)

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