Finally caught up with the new print of Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger last night and not a moment too soon: Finally, cinema to be thankful for as we enter the holiday season. Still, as glad as we should be to have a treasure like this available again (and in such glorious form) it’s simultaneously depressing to realize that one of the best movies on screens right now is 30 years old and that its time and place-specific dystopian worldview still feels frighteningly relevant. It’d been a long time since I first watched this, and seeing it again after Dumont’s masterpiece Twentynine Palms, it’s obvious that Zabriskie Point isn’t the only Antonioni touchstone Bruno took cues from.
What most struck me is how closely The Passenger fits in with that fertile 70s and early 80s cinema of more or less oblique protest (there’s a much better genre name for this out there…)—films like Ripstein’s The Change, Sembene’s Xala, Bresson’s The Devil, Probably, Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire, Fassbinder’s In a Year of Thirteen Moons, and Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia. A varied bunch of films that all strike me as channelling a palpable sense of societally-directed outrage at their core even if their narratives aren’t explicitly political. It’s the kind of movie I feel like we’re sorely lacking right now—the closest thing I can immediately call to mind from this year is Lord of War and I guess, to a lesser extent, Good Night and Good Luck but that’s so wrapped up a kind of wistful historical specificity that it’s practically a mausoleum. Either way, both of these are far cries from the sort of personal politics at play in The Passenger.
Supporters will probably cry, “How Now, Paradise Now?” which is a fine movie, I guess, but do I really need to take it seriously just because its main characters are suicide bombers? Especially given that “fine” is pretty generous for a movie that shoehorns its ending and political sentiments into its mix with a surprising lack of grace and delivers an intellectual complexity far below the gold-standard recently set by Avi Mograbi’s documentary Avenge But One of My Two Eyes (still without distribution). Two very different movies about different sides of the same conflict, but Mograbi takes his anger and channels into coolly rational accruing of facts and instances that overwhelms the senses where Hany Abu-Assad takes his and leaves us with…a pretty shopworn three-act’er of hott dudes running around in suits. I had hopes when the initial bombing run goes awry that this would turn into some sort of really odd Beckettian drama of a human explosive wandering around, lost, but Abu-Assad just never lets go of narrative drive. The conclusion is all but foregone from the opening credits.
We need filmmakers to stand up and start delivering political (not partisan) cinema. By that rationale, things like Hotel Rwanda and Paradise Now are steps in the right direction, I suppose, but neither of those strikes me as offering images as troubling as say, Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. Are our great narrative filmmakers of today hoping that the new crop of documentary films will take up the slack? If so, they should take a quick look at the films shortlisted for the documentary Academy Award and think again: Music! Kids! Clown Dancing! Yawn. I’ve only seen a handful of their picks, but of the bunch I haven’t seen, the only one I can conceive feeling regrets about missing would be Darwin’s Nightmare. I’m sure they’re mostly fine movies all, and inspiring more of than not (that does seem to be Academy stock in trade), but what are they inspiring us to do; besides feel safely inspired?