‘the Passenger’ in Terms of David Bordwell’s Analysis of the Elements That Characterise Art Cinema

Essay Question: Discuss The Passenger in terms of David Bordwell’s analysis of the elements that characterise art cinema. Cherish Perez de Tagle (12339949) [email protected] com European Cinema Since 1945 Module Code: 2FLM7H9 Ian Green January 10, 2011 Bordwell (1979) criticizes the idea that art cinema exists as an offshoot of classic narrative cinema. He argues that it is a way of storytelling in its own right. According to him, art cinema has a set of formal conventions relating to modes of production/consumption as well as having a discrete film practice and particular viewing conventions.

Art cinema is likewise situated within the historical existence of film practice. In this essay I will discuss how Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975) can be classed as an art film according to the elements that characterise art cinema as put forth by Bordwell. Historically speaking, the Passenger was made in 1975, post World War II, one of the conditions Bordwell states as being a contributor to the emergence of art cinema. Changes to the court’s statutes regarding film, the wane of the dominance of Hollywood cinema, together with an increase in international commerce, made the production of films for an international audience desirable.

Correspondingly, branching out into foreign markets opened up a niche for co-productions. The Passenger was likewise an Italian-French-Spanish co-production with American star Jack Nicholson, shot on location in Spain, Germany, North Africa, and the UK. Bordwell argues that whilst themes may differ across the broad range of films classified as art cinema, the functions of these themes within the individual films are in fact consistent and make use of certain narrative and stylistic principles. Of these he cites three principal traits that can be identified with art cinema – realism, authorship, and ambiguity.

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In terms of cinematic style, the use of specific types of cutting such as continuity, cross-cutting, and montage serve these ends, and characteristics of the mise-en-scene, cinematography, and sound further the plausibility and unity of the story-world. These techniques are employed for the primary goal of advancing the story. Other devices are utilized to create this unity of form such as the use of genre in order to not only create and likewise fulfil audience expectations but also to create discrete markets for production and distribution.

Whereas classical narrative cinema is founded on the above, Bordwell argues that the structure of art cinema is far looser, and not driven by the cause-effect linkage of events insomuch as the motivations of art cinema differ form those of classical narrative. Of the three predominant characteristics of art cinema identified, Bordwell states that the use of realism and authorship create unity and serve as the motivations in the art film rather than cause and effect or the pursuit of a goal.

Realism, meaning the use of real locations and real problems, also refers to what is considered “realistic”. By this, what is meant is psychologically complex characters and psychological causation as opposed to external situations and events that serve as the motivations for action or moving the story forward. Whereas in the classical narrative film the characters are defined by clearly defined goals/desires/objectives and clearly defined traits, art cinema characters can be inconsistent, and prone to question themselves about their goals.

Their choices are vague or non-existent. Realism in The Passenger After an initial decision to assume the identity of an acquaintance he finds dead in an adjacent room, protagonist David Locke throughout the rest of the film finds himself caught within situations as opposed to activating those situations. Superficially resembling a film from the thriller genre, Locke moves from city to city, according to a set of appointments defined by the diary of the deceased Robertson.

Upon changing identities by swapping passport pictures, Locke is taken from one situation to the next by events not of his own design but by those determined by the identity he has assumed. He finds plane tickets directing him to his next destination, and he goes to an airport security locker not knowing what he will find inside. Following the appointments, the man who was David Robertson unfolds, his work in Africa and elsewhere, his drives and purpose as a gunrunner to the African rebels.

There ensue further mysteries as Locke follows the trail of the diary including the unresolved mystery of the names within it. Who is Daisy? Inasmuch as these motivations are revealed to Locke they do not enable him to internally take them on for himself. Whilst externally assuming the person of Robertson the gunrunner, he is internally and psychologically trapped to forever be himself, David Locke. He questions himself throughout the film in regards to whether he will continue to live out Robertson’s mission as when he falters about whether or not to go to the appointment in Tangier.

Although he follows Robertson’s real and situation-driven commitments, his own reasons for taking on the new identity are psychologically driven. This psychological causation is what defines Nicholson’s character and the realism of his inner psychological torment. The desire to be someone other than himself, to run away from himself and his reality, are what drive him. Even so, these are not stated or admitted to himself. The film has little dialogue, and likewise even less of what could be considered as exposition. It is through the treatment of the film that Locke’s psychological drives are indicated.

Long shots, choice of framings in the extreme wide, focus on what may be regarded as empty space, and a drifting camera, serve to show not what would be thought of as important or regarded as the focal point in classical narrative. Rather the protagonist is placed in the context of the landscape, places, and situations around him. The camera seems at many times distant, disengaged from the action, wandering across a car-rental sign, or onto a small detail such as ants walking up a wall, or sometimes panning to nothing.

Thusly it is the opposite of causality in the classical narrative sense. In the way the camera moves are not motivated by an action, they emphasise isolation, leaving and being left. Rather than being told what to think via exposition, the audience is given opportunity to think about how the outer despondence of the central character are linked to his inner psychological workings, as those of a man in regards to his feeling of alienation; his failures in life are placed in context by the images of the barren, desolate, suburban landscape juxtaposed against him.

Likewise the realistic construction of Locke’s world is also achieved through the film’s use of sound. Throughout the entire film there are only four pieces of music. The choice to use a minimal use of music, instead emphasising the background, diagetic sounds draw attention to the feeling of being in Locke’s world, “You practically hear Nicholson’s sweat, hear his breath, feel his pulse”. [1] Moreover the quality of self-consciousness and the de-dramatisation of the action result in acting and characterization that are spare, subtle, restrained, forcing us to pay attention to every small movement or look.

The character is naturalistically portrayed through the understated use of body language and gestures. Although little action is occurring, the reading is directed toward tiny mimics, the look in Nicholson’s eyes, a flapping of his arms. Nicholson as a character and as an actor can also be said to be on his own in the film. He is psychologically alone, and physically there is no competition with other cast members. Even the female protagonist goes as “The Girl” in the credits.

And while the audience is on the one hand observing him from afar by way of the wide shots that don’t “get in there”, at the same time it is intertwined in Locke’s fate through a foreknowledge that he is doomed. Authorship According to Bordwell, authorial expressivity is the second salient characteristic of art cinema. Through the use of various conventions of style including technical touches, motifs, referencing to other films, and conscious choices in storytelling, the author is foregrounded as the narrative intelligence, as the shaping hand of the film. This is achieved by ay of certain authorial codes, including the conscious production of enigmas, not in terms of story, but of plot. For instance, rather than questioning who the murderer is, the audience is made to question who is telling the story, or why it is being told from a certain point of view as opposed to another. Other evidence of authorship include reference to other films as a means of situating the film within a certain ouvre, as well as playing with the idea of genre in order to set itself against genre as it is regarded and understood in classical narrative film.

For while The Passenger from the outset could be regarded as a thriller with the motifs of changing identity, the mystery surrounding the Robertson character, and the idea of being chased, the way in which these elements are treated do not hold true to the genre’s stereotypes in terms of moving the story forward or playing to audience expectations. Although these elements are utilized they do not pan out according to the expectations and outcomes they hold in the classical narrative genre film.

In the car chase sequence, the pursuit of Locke by the “bad guys”, would in a classical narrative genre film would be utilised for the building of tension and would end with a predictably expected getaway. In The Passenger, the car chase begins then ends abruptly and without the excitement of the good guys smartly and swiftly getting away. Likewise, the mystery of unravelling the Robertson character, of finding out who he actually was, is secondary to understanding the psychology of Locke that prompts his identity change.

And despite the fact that the penultimate scene fits in with the idea of a “big ending” characteristic of a thriller, it is done in an art house way. Authorship in The Passenger In The Passenger the camera functions as a character/protagonist in its own right. The audience sees what the camera chooses it see. And in this way, the audience sees what the author chooses it to see, at what time, and from what vantage point. These choices highlight the author’s presence in the shaping of the narrative.

Antonioni is notably known for his use of technical style and motifs in the film, for which alone the film has become famous. While some touches are more subtle and could go by almost unnoticed or are even noted only within the subconscious, others have become a spectacle discussed throughout film circles since the film’s release. Smaller motifs include the use of duplications such as when Locke sees The Girl in both London and Barcelona sitting in the same position. Others are the use of the image of a ceiling fan in different locations.

Homage or reference is also made to other films and directorial styles such as in the scene in the cafe where the focus does not stay on the characters but moves across to the cars outside reminiscent of scenes from Godard films like in the conversation between Paul and Camille in their apartment in Le Mepris. Self-reflexivity is also widely used as when Locke reads his own obituary or watches his obituary film on TV. Other instances include images of a film within a film, in news reports on TV, and interviews framed within a TV in the news room.

A highly notable way in which the author’s hand is evidenced in the film is through the disjunctures in time and space and how these are created. Antonioni utilizes elaborate set-ups both aurally and visually in order to achieve jumps in time without cutting in the camera. For example aural devices such as the sound of a knock are used when Locke is listening to a tape recording of a conversation he had with Robertson. The knock on the tape recording transitions the scene into the past when Robertson knocks and enters the room.

The use of the aural transition is further used when during the tape recording conversation the conversation with Robertson on the balcony flows seamlessly from present to past and back again. If this were not impressive enough, the flashback aural syncing is combined with a visual technical flourish when the camera pans from Locke in present time swapping photos between passports, to the window which frames Locke in the past with Robertson, their conversation from the tape recording flowing into the flashback.

The action within the onscreen image is able to remain fluid throughout these changes in time. In another instance Locke is about to meet the rebel supporters and the church he enters shifts from a site of a funeral to a wedding, separated by a shot of his feet walking over petals on the floor. The sophistication in which Antonioni blends the aural, visual, time and space in this scene are then repeated if not trumped by the much talked about penultimate scene of the film, regarded by some as the most famous scene in film history.

Although discussed countless times, this essay would not seem to do justice to the analysis of The Passenger without detailing it yet again in brief. In this seven-minute shot the camera captures Locke lying on his bed as The Girl leaves the room. Without any cutting in the shot, the camera tracks forwards, out the bars of the window, and into the courtyard and back round to frame the room from outside the bars wherein the next time Locke’s body is seen through the window from afar he is dead. In this scene, once again the hand of the author is seen on multiple levels.

On the most obvious level is the visual technique, on another is the use of sound and image to create ambiguities. These ambiguities will be discussed further in the next section. Ambiguity For Bordwell ambiguity in the art film is the way by which the contradiction between the disjuncture created by the interplay of realism and authorship can be resolved. Through the conscious and deliberate use of ambiguity, the gaps created by the contradictory use of realism and very self-conscious authorial commentary are resituated so that the violation of the norm is made to be questioned as part of the meaning of the film.

The conscious use of ambiguity forces the audience, when presented with a gap, to ask itself the question whether that gap was the result of a realistic motivation, psychologically driven, or an authorially significant statement or comment about the place of that event or situation in philosophical terms; whether that gap is something to be considered in the context of the world in which the characters, and moreover, people in life are faced with.

Antonioni, talking about The Passenger says that “I [also] consider it a political film as it is topical and fits with the dramatic rapport of the individual in today’s society…We are all dissatisfied…The international situation, politically and otherwise, is so unstable that the lack of stability is reflected within each individual. ” (Dignam, 1975).

Consequently, in The Passenger one is made to question the impact of the Third World struggle, the banality and norms of modern Western life, the alienation of the individual in society, and death amongst other things. Ambiguity in The Passenger Ambiguity is used throughout the film and even into the film’s end where the lack of clear-cut resolution creates an open-ended narrative, in which “the play of thematic interpretation” continues after the film’s end thereby baring the complexities of life. The art film reasserts that ambiguity is the dominant principle of intelligibility, that we are to watch less for the tale than the telling” (Bordwell, 1979:61) Ambiguity, lack of resolution, things leading to nowhere, are made explicit from the start when a man riding a camel approaches Locke in the desert and leaves, ignoring Locke’s attempt at greeting; furthermore the camera chooses to follow the man riding the camel as opposed to staying on Locke, illustrating immediately upon the film’s commencement the film’s major themes of alienation, being an outsider in the world, what it is to be invisible/meaningless (Walsh).

Likewise the identity of Nicholson’s character within the film is ambiguous. As a British reporter raised in America played by the quintessentially American Nicholson, inherent contradictions and questions foreground the film from the onset. His occupation as a reporter/foreign correspondent and what that is generally thought to evoke includes stereotypes of a thoughtful, politically attuned, ideals-driven individual.

If these stereotypes may have been held by the viewer at the outset, they are immediately challenged and stripped away in the first scenes where Locke’s helplessness, despondence, ideological weakness, and lack of inner purpose are revealed. When his jeep breaks down he futilely beats against the wheels with a shovel and in a position of weakness, failure, and submission he kneels beside the jeep stuck in the sand and throws up his arms saying “I don’t care”.

This is matched by further series of events that show his repeated failure: he fails to get information from the child he questions about the location of the rebel hideouts, only later to the trek up the rock face with a guide who is supposed to be taking him to the hideout but subsequently abandons him. Later in an interview with a rebel leader, the leader remarks without malice that the questions posed by the interviewer can be much more telling about the person asking the questions than the responses from the person they are asked of.

These instances early on reveal and challenge any such stereotypes and give the viewer an insight into Locke’s psychology from the outset. Meanwhile, on more obvious levels ambiguity is created in the resemblance between Locke and Robertson as in the fact that both of their first names are David. Throughout the film ambiguity, interchangeability and recurrence are used and explored (Gilliatt, 1975:6). The Passenger is rife with metaphors and double entendres.

In the scene with the cable car, Locke flaps his arms in a gesture that implies freedom, yet framed in the tiny car, dangling above the sea, Locke does not take on the look of the carefree. Instead the scene carries a weight of tension as he hovers, arms flapping as though not in control; quite the opposite to a show of joy or exhilaration. Later, when The Girl asks Locke what he is escaping from, he tells her to turn around while they are driving in the open-top car through the tree-lined boulevard. Memorable too is the story of the blind man Locke tells The Girl, one of the only keys the protagonist openly and verbally shares of himself.

Where metaphors colour the film, the contradictions which abound likewise serve to form a unified whole. The story, or perhaps better put, what is to be taken away by the audience from the lack of story, is made more striking and powerful through the interplay of such contradictory devices. For one thing Locke is a foreign correspondent yet he has an embarrassingly poor grasp of foreign languages, French and Spanish. He is a ridicule, a farce in his attempts to communicate or garner information. In the scene where Locke returns home, he approaches his own house but he approaches suspiciously as a burglar would.

The familiar is far-removed; the foreign is comforting; the distant places he travels to with The Girl are the only time it seems he can truly relax. Although she is a stranger she offers more support and comfort than the people in his family such as his wife and the adopted child that the film only so fleetingly refers to. His wife, his home, the familiar and close—these are the very things which undermine him and which he is trying to run away from; the foreign is where he is more at home and where he can simply stop and look at the view. Alternately, we are not made to empathize with the character.

The use of predominantly subjective shots results in creating little sympathy for Locke, nor do the depiction of his character as unprincipled, weak, and lacking in self-determination. Yet on the other hand we are made to see the universality of his situation, as an everyman character, he is made to represent the dissatisfaction inherent within modern society. Through him and his psychological plight the audience is made to question social norms through the vehicle of a subjective character study. Inevitably the viewer cannot but ask himself questions.

Antonioni uses all these aspects of camera, sound, non-linear structure, and ambiguity, so that the viewer cannot escape the philosophic questions of man’s place in the world, the search for meaning or non-search for it, as when witnessing the discontent, dissatisfaction, and desperation of the Locke character who on the surface fails to ask himself the stringent questions of life. Yet over the course of the film, the internal psychological workings of what he is not saying become inescapable even as we watch a man who seems to suppress asking himself those questions.

In the silences, as we are made to watch the details that he himself sees, we are brought to think about what is going on in the inner-workings of his mind, revealed only by his eyes, looks, gestures, and subtle movements. There are numerous narrative ambiguities or enigmas, random events that lead to nothing, as when Locke is waiting for someone on a bench when an old man approaches, stops to chat and makes a diversion from the story at hand to tell his life story. The image then changes as the man’s story is told against a newsreel of executions on a beach.

These then take the audience back to the newsroom where it is left to make the connection for itself of the relation between these events to one another. And what about The Girl? Does he really see her twice, sitting in the same position? If so what does this represent? Even as the penultimate scene serves a visual and technical spectacle tying up all the various threads of the story, ambiguity remains and is further generated in this scene. Is the sound of the car engine kicking actually the sound of a gunshot? Is The Girl implicated in Locke’s murder? Was she actually Robertson’s wife? 2] Locke is in the backseat, he is the passenger—the passenger in the former life he exchanged (his wife was cheating on him, he was not finding success in his job); a passenger in terms of life in a larger sense – without purpose or motivations of his own and simply taking on those of the new identity he’s adopted; passenger even as he’s taken on a new identity, his last chance so to speak, as he contemplates over whether to go to the next appointment in the diary in Tangier to fulfil a commitment that is not his own for a purpose that he cannot embody despite taking on the persona.

His very name “Locke” speaks to the plight of the character’s situation itself—he is locked in, running away, trapped. Multi-layered, open-ended, and open to multiple interpretations, the ambiguity that surround the meaning of the film’s title itself have sparked debate. Whether the title refers to the originally designed script wherein Locke is the passenger in the car[3], or whether it refers to The Girl in that she is the real hero of the film (Gilliat, 1975:7) attests to the success with which the film has and will continually challenge and provoke.

With each layer exposed, another unfolds. By all intents and purposes, art cinema as described by Bordwell is exemplified to the highest degree in Antonioni’s timeless masterpiece. Bibliography Bordwell, David. ‘The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice’, Film Criticism, vol. IV, no. 1 (Fall 1979). Bordwell, David. Narration in the Fiction Film (Chapter 10) Methuen, 1985). Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey. ‘Art Cinema’, in Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (ed. The Oxford History of World Cinema (Oxford, 1996). Lev, Peter. ‘The Art Film’, from his The Euro-American Cinema (University of Texas Press, 1993). Rosenbaum, Jonathon. Profesione: Reporter (The Passenger). Gilliatt, Penelope. ‘About Reprieve” from Dossier of Reviews: The Passenger in The New Yorker (14/04/1975). Robinson, David. The Passenger review in The Times (06/06/1975). Dignam, Virginia. The Passenger review in Morning Star (06/06/1975).

Andrews, Nigel. The Passenger review in Financial Times (06/06/1975). Walsh, Martin. Program Notes. (from reading packet given in the lectures) http://www. imdb. com/title/tt0073580/usercomments http://www. bookrags. com/wiki/The_Passenger_(film) ———————– [1] http://www. imdb. com/title/tt0073580/usercomments [2] http://www. bookrags. com/wiki/The_Passenger_(film) [3] http://www. bookrags. com/wiki/The_Passenger_(film)

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