by Jeffrey Harrison
Feature image: Adriaen van de Velde. Pastoral Landscape with Ruins, 1664. The Art Institute of Chicago.
I saw Antonioni’s The Passenger in September or October 1976, at the beginning of my freshman year at Columbia. It was the first “art house film” I ever saw, well before I’d heard that term. I was from Cincinnati, where apparently they didn’t have such things. I had just turned nineteen, or was about to. I was taking a writing class with Kenneth Koch, discovering Frank O’Hara and Rimbaud, and doing everything I could to peel or dissolve the suburban Midwestern scales from my eyes. In that pursuit, this movie was as important as the LSD I would drop for the first time a few weeks later. Not that it was hallucinatory—just the opposite, in fact . . . though in both cases, perhaps, it was “the visuals” that I liked best.
The film was playing at an auditorium on the Barnard campus, and I remember walking over there alone, being completely amazed by what I saw, and hurrying back to my Spartan dorm room to write excitedly about it in a notebook that is now long gone. I don’t remember what I wrote, but I know it wasn’t focused on Jack Nicholson, who plays a television reporter disillusioned with his life and work. Nor did I write much about the plot involving switched identities, riveting though it was. If I wrote about these things at all, it would have had to do with the way Antonioni de-emphasized Nicholson’s movie-star status and took the weight off a plot that would have been handled ponderously in a Hollywood movie, accompanied by ridiculous, tension-building background music. (I’d seen Jaws just the year before, which suddenly felt like ages ago.)
In fact, everything in The Passenger had a different emphasis than it did in the movies I had grown up seeing; everything about it felt refreshingly “un-American.” Nothing was explained: I was as clueless about what was going on as Nicholson’s character and, like him, had to figure things out as I went along—discovering, with him, that he’d taken on the life of a gunrunner in Africa (like Rimbaud!). The film’s pacing was slow, giving me time to think and, especially, to look. I was astonished by the long stretches of silence during which no one spoke at all. The minimalist approach made the movie feel not smaller but more expansive, making room for something else, which filled me with a calm excitement: beauty.
I remember being struck, in the early scene in which Nicholson’s character breaks down, by the gorgeous shots of the salmon-colored dunes against the blue sky in the saturated light of the African desert—then, in the scene where Nicholson’s character changes identities with the dead man in the room across the hall, by the turquoise walls of the hotel hallway he drags the body through, and by the contrasting yellow doors. If you haven’t seen the movie, this must sound crazy, but these, I think, are the things I wrote about in my notebook. And I’m sure I wrote about the shot of Nicholson from above, leaning out the window of an aerial tram and slowly flapping his arms like wings above the shimmering blue water of Barcelona’s harbor. And the shot of Maria Schneider kneeling backwards in the red leather backseat of a convertible, spreading her arms and smiling as the plane trees lining both sides of a country road flicker by, seemingly without end. And the long, penultimate shot in which the camera (instead of focusing on the murder taking place) seems to move right through the bars of a hotel room window out into a dusty town square like something from a de Chirico painting.
Of course, this would have all been written with the exuberance of my nineteen-year-old self, and I’m sure that notebook entry, if I read it now, would induce both nostalgia and embarrassment. I wasn’t inclined to interpret these images so much as bask in the way they opened me up to another way of seeing. When I watch the movie now, in middle age, I notice many other things, among them the theme of not being able to escape oneself. But one of the things I’m glad I can’t escape, or at least forget, is the intensity of my first encounter.
Jeffrey Harrison is the author of six full-length books of poetry, including, most recently, Between Lakes, which was published by Four Way Books in 2020, and Into Daylight, which won the Dorset Prize and was published by Tupelo Press in 2014. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, among other honors. His poems have appeared widely in magazines and journals, as well as in Best American Poetry, The Pushcart Prize volumes, and other anthologies.