“Interstellar” - Christopher Nolan (2014)


Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014) is another mind-bending science fiction thriller – this time about astronauts searching for a new planet for human habitation in the not-too-distant future. The film was co-scripted with his brother Jonathon Nolan, who also had co-writing credits for Nolan’s earlier Memento (2000), The Prestige (2006), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Dark Knight Rises (2012). 

Here again, as with his Inception (2010), Nolan presents conventional action-adventure muscularity in a highly imaginative science-fiction-warped context.  And again Nolan apparently has a box-office bonanza on his hands.  From my perspective, though, there are problems with this film that make it unlikely to suit discerning tastes.

The story is somewhat complicated, but there are a couple of relatively straightforward elements that I will go over.

In the future, life on earth will apparently be run by peacenik socialists (probably the right-winger’s version of the apocalypse) who have eliminated war but have been unable to stop population growth and the depletion of natural resources.  To feed the human population, almost everyone is coerced into farming; but climate catastrophes and agrarian pestilence are now (at the start of the film) leading to looming disaster.

In this context we meet Cooper (played by Matthew McConaughey), an obstreperous Texan and former NASA test pilot who was forced into farming like everybody else. A widowed father, he lives on his mechanized farm with his father-in-law (John Lithgow) and his two children, one of whom, his 10-year-old daughter Murphy, thinks that she has received symbolic signals from a ghost. Though scoffing at the notion of ghosts, Cooper decodes these “messages” into geographic coordinates and seeks out their location, which is found to be a secret NASA research base led by the elderly Professor Brand (Michael Caine).


Cooper’s discovery of Brand’s secret laboratory and launching site turns out to be opportunistic, because Brand immediately recruits him to pilot NASA’s spaceship on a mission crucial to mankind’s survival.  The only way to save humanity, it seems, is to find another planet that is habitable and then transport everyone to go live there.  But the problem is: there are no known habitable planets within many light years of the Earth, and time for humanity is running out.  However, Brand and his researchers have discovered a “wormhole” near the planet Saturn that they believe has been conveniently placed there by benevolent aliens and which could provide a relativistic shortcut to other habitable planets. Three earlier missions had been sent out to that wormhole and may have found something on the other side, but there has been no communication with them since. Cooper’s mission is to find out if those earlier missions have found a good planet.  If a habitable planet can be found, then Brand has two alternative plans to save mankind:
  • Plan A.  Solve the problem of transporting all of humanity to that planet in a short space of time (remember, time is running out on Earth).  This apparently involves writing a lot of equations on the blackboard and looking for the “solution”.
  • Plan B. If Plan A doesn’t work, then send a few hundred frozen human embryos (presumably with a midwife or two for care giving) to the newly discovered planet.
Plan A is preferable, of course, since Plan B means that the existing human population on Earth would perish.
So Cooper sets out on the spacecraft Endurance with a crew that includes a geographer, a physicist, two English-speaking robots, and a pretty biologist and daughter of Professor Brand named Amelia (Anne Hathaway).  Everyone has a Ph.D and is a brilliant scientist, of course, except for the cowboy Cooper.  They reach the wormhole and learn how to trace the three previous missions, separately led by scientists Miller, Edmunds, and Mann.  First they head for Miller’s planet, but it orbits a powerful black hole whose gravitational field is so strong that it causes intense time dilatation – one hour on that planet corresponds to seven years back on Earth.  Cooper, Amelia, and the geographer leave the Endurance on a shuttle to visit Miller’s planet, but it turns out to be disastrous – the planet is uninhabitable, Miller is dead, the biologist is killed, and their few hours visit there means that 23 years have elapsed back on the Endurance and on Earth. 

This time shift turns out to be the key plot-element of the story: when Cooper and Amelia return to the Endurance, they are unchanged, but everyone else is 23 years older, including the now 50-ish physicist on the Endurance and the people on Earth. Cooper’s daughter Murphy (Jessica Chastain) back on Earth is now in her mid-30s and has become a theoretical physicist (of course) working in Professor Brand’s laboratory to further Plan A.  Just before Brand’s dies of old age, he confesses to her that he had long thought Plan A to be theoretically unachievable.  Murphy plows ahead anyway with her theoretical calculations, though, hoping to find a solution for Plan A.  So there are now two parallel threads of action: (a) Murphy on Earth working more or less hopelessly on Plan A and (b) Cooper and the Endurance out beyond the wormhole.


After some arguments between Cooper and Amelia, the Endurance is eventually directed to Mann’s planet, where Dr. Mann (Mat Damon) is still alive.  But this planet, too, proves to be uninhabitable, and the encounter with Mann ends in violence.  Eventually with the Endurance running low on fuel, it is sent back to Earth with Amelia, while Cooper and one of the intelligent robots separately navigate a small space shuttle into a black hole. Falling into the black hole, Cooper finds himself tumbling into an extra-dimensional space-time warp that enables him to connect with other points in space and time. Managing to connect with his 10-year-old daughter, Cooper, in an effort to save humanity, turns out to be the ghost who had earlier in the film sent Murphy messages.  He also sends the 33-year-old Murphy messages that eventually help her solve the problem of Plan A and rescue humanity.  So everyone gets saved thanks to Cooper and Murphy.
Over the course of Interstellar, the action moves along at a fast pace, but our ultimate satisfaction will depend on how the narrative evolves in a coherent fashion.  In most films there are two main narrative threads: an action thread involving some goal in the external world for the protagonist(s) and a narrative thread involving the evolution of one or more relationships.  In a science-fiction film the action thread is compounded by a scientific aspect that challenges the minds of the protagonists and the viewers. The filmmaker must present something that is scientifically imaginative but that is also scientifically plausible.  That’s what we have in Interstellar, too, but there are problems with this film along all of these lines.

In connection with the action thread, there are several issues.
  • The main idea of the action narrative is this Plan-A/Plan-B thing.  We get that basic outline OK, but the fundamental issue of Plan A is just passed of as some theoretical problem that must be solved by mathematical equations. The viewer is shown some equations on a blackboard, but there is no attempt at presenting a narrative trajectory about this. It’s just shown as a very hard, wonky problem that requires mathematical genius. Since Plan A is such a key aspect of the story, it leaves a big narrative hole in the film.
  • Gravity, particularly in connection with Coriolis “forces”, is always a problem in SciFi films set in outer space and I won’t be too strict on that score [1], but it still seems to be treated very casually in a film where gravity is an important issue. Nevertheless and despite the participation of physicist Kip Thorne in the production, there are some things that strike me as unrealistic.  When the astronauts on the other side of the wormhole are near a black hole and descend to Miller’s planet, they encounter such an intense gravitational field that it causes severe time dilatation, as described above. It seems to me that such an intense gravitational field would crush biological organisms and prevent normal biological processes.  But this is not addressed.
  • It also seems highly unrealistic that Professor Brand would immediately assign Cooper to pilot his spacecraft without any preparation.  It would seem to me that the complications associated with such a mission would require months of planning and training.  And if Brand knew that Cooper was a good choice, why didn’t he recruit him in the first place – Cooper showed up at Brand’s space laboratory on his own accord and somewhat by serendipity.
  • There are various narrative dead-ends in the story – narrative threads that are initiated and then dropped and forgotten.  For example at the beginning of the film, Cooper is interested in tracking drones launched by the Indian government that are flying over his farmland. He tries to commandeer these drones, but surely there should be something more significant to these events than merely making a toy for his 10-year-old daughter.
There are also problems with the relational narrative threads in the story.

  • The relationship between Cooper and his daughter, Murphy, which is presumably important, is never developed. Sure, Murphy always calls her, “Murph”, but that isn’t enough to establish an interesting relationship. And later in the story Murphy condemns and rejects her father for what she believes to be his commitment to Plan B. That’s not a very filial attitude to have toward’s one's parent if we are supposed to be looking at a meaningful relationship.
  • We are set up for a relationship to evolve between Cooper and Amelia Brand, but nothing much develops along these lines, either.  There is no chemistry, nothing interesting along the lines of personal interaction between these two characters.  At the end of the film, we are led to believe that Cooper will seek out Amelia, but we haven’t been given any reason or motivation to believe that this is interesting.
  • There is a presumed existing amorous relationship between Amelia and Edmunds, the astronaut who had gone on an earlier planet-exploration mission through the wormhole but had never returned.  But we never see Edmunds, and we are never given any information about what that relationship means to Amelia. This is another narrative hole in the story.
There is a potentially interesting relationship-narrative theme that could have been explored but was not.  It concerns one’s personal stance towards commitment to others.  It is curious that Professor Brand and others are wrathfully despised by some other people, such as Murphy and Amelia, for trying to work on Plan B.  If Plan A is really not feasible, is it so reprehensible to still strive to save humanity in some form?  In fact the film portrays four general ethical and empathic stances that one might take in life:

  • Selfish.  One is only concerned with his or her personal welfare. This could be attributed to Dr. Mann.  (Incidentally, I am not really a fan of Mat Damon, but I find that whenever he shows up in a movie, the story becomes more interesting – and this is the case in this film, too.)
  • Immediate close associates.  One strives primarily to help one’s family and loved ones.  This stance is taken by Amelia and Cooper.
  • Everyone.  One works on behalf of everyone living.  Murphy and Cooper seem to be concerned at this level.
  • Universal.  One works for the abstract, future benefit of people yet to be born. Professor Brand and Dr. Mann are concerned here.

These various empathic stances move from the personal to the abstract, and it is interesting that the women in this story occupy the middle layers, while the men are more associated with the more selfish and abstract.  A potentially interesting elaboration would have been the consideration of how the intelligent robots fit into this scheme (compare with Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)).  Anyway, this aspect of personal empathy is not really developed in Interstellar, while it was examined successfully in Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011).  In Malick’s film there are also a number of narrative threads, but he manages to endow each of those elements with a dramatic vitality that is missing in Nolan’s film.

It seems that Nolan has established a pattern for his films since Memento and Insomnia (2002) that constitutes his formula for success – start with a budget of around $200 million, make a near 3-hour epic with a convoluted plot structure, and artificially elevate the tension with a blaring and jarring musical score by Hans Zimmer. This may work at the box office with a public satisfied with the short-term distractions of video games, but it doesn’t live up to the real potential of science fiction, which is to explore the mysterious unknown of human existence.  It has been my observation in the past that British authors and filmmakers have understood this element better than those from America.  Great science fiction evokes from us a sense of wonder, if not horror, about the horizons of our world.  But Britisher Nolan is the exception here and to my mind is more like an American.  His films are essentially mechanical exercises strewn with gameplay and present a mechanical/reductionist view of reality, but they miss out on that crucial element of mystery.
★★

Notes:
  1. Dave Van Domelen, “Frame Effects on Space Stations”, Kansas State University Physics Education Research Group, 13 January 2008.

“The Passenger” - Michelangelo Antonioni (1975)


After the relatively modest results from Zabriskie Point (1970), even Michelangelo Antonioni’s loyal fans may have wondered if his powers of artistic expression were in permanent decline.  But with his next feature fiction film production, The Passenger (1975), the writer-director turned away from the political and returned to the philosophical existential themes that had driven such earlier artistic successes, as L'Avventura (1960), La Notte  (1961),  L'Eclisse (1962), Red Desert (1964), and Blow-Up (1966).  And on this occasion he was supported by having perhaps the two most magnetic and compelling screen personages of the time, Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider.  The result was one of Antonioni’s greatest works [1,2,3].

Actually, The Passenger initially does seem to have a political theme, since it concerns a television reporter’s investigation of revolutionary turbulence in North Africa.   But it eventually reveals itself to be an examination of existential dissatisfaction with contemporary personal and social narratives in our modernist world.  So the film very much situates itself within the thematic contexts of Antonioni’s earlier successes. 

Although some critics have likened The Passenger to L’Avventura, because they both share barren landscapes and a key missing person [4], the most thematically comparable of Antonioni’s earlier works here are Il Grido (1957) and Red Desert.  Both of those films involve principal characters who have reached a fundamental disconnect with the world – they are so alienated that they no longer see how to go on living. 

Now one might complain that such disaffection with reality arises only with bored people who have over-intellectualized what they see around them and have too much time on their hands.  But this film is not merely an intellectual enterprise; it is about direct experience. Here in The Passenger, as similarly with Red Desert and Blow-Up, Antonioni tells his tale not reflectively with words, but cinematically with sight and sound, giving the viewer the feel for the basically existential conditions under consideration.

And as with Red Desert and Blow-Up, the key theme is the narrative construction of reality [4]. It is in terms of the narratives that we construct our understanding of the world around us – and how we understand the past and indeed the temporality of the world, too [5,6,7].  And in fact we even understand ourselves primarily by means of and in terms of the stories we construct and memorize about ourselves.  These stories are our selves.  With respect to characteristic gender difference, Antonioni’s vision in La Notte, Red Desert, and Blow-Up was that men are more comfortable with constructing such narratives and sticking to them, while women are more observant and opportunistic, always ready to hitch on to a new narrative that appears before them.  The same tendencies hold here, too, in The Passenger.  So we can say that, as was the case with Blow-Up, the key theme underlying The Passenger is not about social responsibility, but more about what is ultimately real.  This is because it is Antonioni’s premise that what is real can only be understood in terms of some narrative that we have constructed (or at least co-constructed) from the situations that we are in.

This leads us to the problem that David Locke, the principal character in The Passenger, faces. He is a reporter interested in arriving at an "objective” picture of the world that he is reporting. But he realizes that what he is reporting is merely the narrative that he has constructed, and he is dissatisfied with the limitations of those narratives, because those limitations all come from the limitations that he sees in himself, i.e. his personal narrative.  He feels that he cannot find the “truth”, because, as he says at one point, “we translate every situation, every experience into the same old codes”.

Note that the genius of Antonioni is not only revealed by his construction of film narratives that are fundamentally about reality’s narrative nature, but also by his creative mise-en-scene that reflects this narrativity. In The Passenger he employs several cinematic techniques that highlight intuitive narrative construction on the part of the viewer:

  1. Slow disclosure.  The background contexts of many situations are not explained, so the viewer is forced, more so than in usual films, to build up the narrative context in his or her mind.  We know little about David Locke’s background and even less about the “Girl” that he meets later on.  I will refer to this maneuver as MeS1 (for mise-en-scene technique #1).
  2. Focalization of the invisible witness. The “invisible witness” is the viewer that is invisible to the participants on display but who is nevertheless watching what is going on.  What we mean by “focalization” is the perspective that this invisible witness is taking. Often the invisible witness is seeing things from the point-of-view of a particular character, even to the point of visualizing his or her thoughts. All cinema-goers are familiar with this convention, but Antonioni plays with it in order to highlight its nature in narrative construction. This makes the invisible witness more visible.  For example some shots appear to reflect the point-of-view of some player, but they then continuously curl back on themselves and focus on the perceiving player in a reflexive manner (MeS2).
  3. Distraction of the invisible witness.  There are other times when the invisible witness seems to be distracted by things going on in the vicinity. The camera wanders off momentarily looking at things that are not part of the main story, before it switches its attention back to the principal characters (MeS3).  For example, at one point the camera wanders of to track some bugs crawling up an electrical wire. This suggests that the narrative focus is sometimes lost, which is what happens to all of us when we are in the process of narrative co-construction.
  4. Mixing past and present perspectives. Another focalization issue concerns flashback memories.  Antonioni sometimes presents situations in which the viewer, via the invisible witness, may be confused as to whether what is being presented is happening now or is a memory (MeS4).
The cast of the film comprises five characters:
  • David Locke (played by Jack Nicholson) is a television reporter who covers contemporary news for documentary films produced by an English TV news channel.
  • David Robertson (Charles Mulvehill) is an illegal arms merchant who sells weapons to paramilitary groups in Africa.
  • “The Girl” (Maria Schneider) is a young, unnamed woman who meets and befriends Locke.
  • Rachel Locke (Jenny Runacre) is David Locke’s wife
  • Martin Knight (Ian Hendry) is a TV producer and film editor who has supervised Locke’s documentary productions.
The story goes through five phases of development, each of which traces a further stage of David Locke’s psychological disintegration.

1.  The Escape from Self
At the outset we see David Locke struggling to make contacts with locals in a bleak North African desert area (MeS1).  The only thing he can seem to understand is the gesture demanding that he offer them a cigarette. He’s apparently attempting to make contact with a rebel group out in the mountains, but he gets fooled by a local operative and winds up with his jeep stuck in the desert sands. After a characteristic Jack Nicholson temper tantrum during which he shouts out to the skies, “I don’t care!”, Locke makes the long trek back to the local village on foot.

Back in his hotel, Locke discovers that the occupant of the neighboring room and the only other European in the village has just died of a heart attack.  As a reporter, Locke had made a tape recording of a conversation he had earlier had with this man, David Robertson, but he had learned almost nothing about the man. 

There is an example of MeS2 and MeS4 here.  Starting from a shot of Locke listening in his room, the camera pans over to the window showing Locke and Robertson talking in an apparent flashback.  The next shot shows Locke and Robertson continuing another conversation and then, in the same shot, continuously panning over to Locke listening to his tape recorder.  Their conversation is significant.  Robertson says that as a traveler all the taxis, airports, and hotels become the same after awhile.  But Locke says that’s because we translate all those experiences into the same old code: “ however hard you try, it stays so difficult to get away from your old habits.”  Here Locke is referring to his frustration over trying to escape from his current narrative self-description.

In an effort to make a great escape from his current and unsatisfactory self-narrative, Locke suddenly decides to switch identities with the dead man. Thanks to the fact that the two of them looked somewhat similar, he switches the photos in their passports and moves the corpse over to his own hotel room. Then he telephones the hotel manager and informs him that David Locke has just died.

Soon the news of Locke’s death reaches London, and we see a shot of his wife, Rachel, looking bored and impassive while watching a TV interview of people reminiscing about the life of the well-known reporter Locke.

2.  Becoming David Robertson
Locke has now taken on the identity of Robertson, about whom he knows next to nothing – just that there is a reference to a storage box 58 in the Munich airport. First he goes to London and, now sporting a mustache for disguise, walks though a park where he happens to casually notice a pretty young woman sitting reading on a park bench.  This is the nameless “Girl” who will appear later in the story.  He then sneaks into his home and collects some useful personal documents that he will need. He notices dispassionately a note tacked onto a wall suggesting that his wife Rachel was having an affair with someone named Stephen while he was away in Africa. Clearly his relationship with his wife had been stale for some time.
Locke then travels to Munich and collects a satchel belonging to Robertson from Box 58 at the  airport. The contents of that satchel contain information about firearms and weapons that Robertson was evidently selling to his African clients. Enjoying his new identity, Robertson seems happy for once. He rents a car and stops off at a cemetery where there is a small church hosting a wedding ceremony, which Locke looks in on.  Here again there are some examples worth mentioning of Antonioni’s narrative digressions.  Locke is watching the wedding ceremony and then looks away as if bored, but the camera continues focusing on the wedding as if the invisible witness is more interested in the wedding than Locke is (MeS3).  Locke now has a flashback memory of himself back home demonically enjoying a big bonfire that he has made in his back yard, much to the consternation of his critical wife.  This emphasizes their disconnect.  Then the camera switches to Rachel looking out from their house onto the same backyard, which is now empty of Locke or any bonfire.  Is this Locke still in flashback, or is it a cut to Rachel, perhaps in the present, by the invisible witness (MeS2, MeS4)?

Locke’s ruminations in the now-empty church are interrupted when he is approached by two men, one of them a black man, who had observed him in the airport. Believing him to be Robertson, they ask Locke about his documents. Locke turns over to them his firearms info, and their delighted response is to hand him an envelope stuffed with cash.  They tell him that their next meeting will be in Barcelona. 


The action switches to London, where Rachel discusses things with Locke’s boss, Martin Knight in the TV editing room.  The cinematography in the Rachel sequences tends to be more straightforward and less representative of Locke’s narratively-compromised mind. She mentions to Knight her criticism that she thought her objectivity-seeking husband had always accepted too much in his interviews (meaning that he hadn’t incorporated his own narrative focus on these occasions), and she adds further that they hadn’t had a close relationship for the last couple of years. Indicative of that is an ensuing flashback of her one-day visit to Locke in Africa, and she watched while he interviewed the autocratic president of the North African country.  After the interview they have the following revealing exchange:
Rachel:  “You involve yourself in real situations, but you’ve got no real dialogue...."
                    "Why didn’t you tell that man..."
David:
  “. . . that he’s a liar?"
Rachel:  “Yes.”
David:  “I know, but those are the rules.”
Rachel:  “I don’t like to see you keep them.”
David:  “Then why did you come?”
Back in Munich, some government thug-assassins capture, torture, and presumably kill the rebel operatives who had met Locke in the Munich airport. Locke, meanwhile, is going through Robertson’s diary and looking at upcoming appointments that Robertson had planned.  He is supposed to be at the Parque Communal Ubraculo in Barcelona a couple of day hence.  Then two-days later he is supposed to pick up someone named Lucy in Barcelona and then a few days later see a “Daisy” at the Hotel de La Gloria in southern Spain. So he heads to Barcelona.

3.  Rendezvous in Barcelona
Locke arrives in Barcelona.  Meanwhile back in London, Rachel learns that there was another person, David Robertson, at the hotel where David Locke died, and she asks Martin Knight to see if he can locate this person. So Knight sets about investigating and eventually traces “Robertson” (now Locke, of course) to Barcelona and travels there to seek him out.


In Barcelona, Locke is alarmed to see Knight on the street and manages to sneak away unnoticed.  He randomly runs into one of the famous picturesque buildings designed by Antoni Gaudi and happens to see The Girl again, with whom he now strikes up an acquaintance.  Knight has booked a room in the same hotel that “Robertson” is staying in, so Locke enlists The Girl to go back to his hotel room and snatches his belongings.  Then the two of them take to the road in a car that Locke has rented.  As they drive down the road, The Girl asks Locke what he is running away from. He tells her to turn her back to the front seat and look backward, signifying that he is running away from everything past in the quest for freedom. The Girl does so joyously. 

They stop at a café, and the invisible witness (the camera) gets distracted by cars passing by outside before finally focusing on Locke and The Girl. Although The Girl, like many female characters in Antonioni’s narratives, is a narrative opportunist (i.e. with no fixed self-narrative and ready to hitch on to the narrative of an interesting man that she meets), her appearance at the halfway point in the story brings needed engagement and vitality to the story.  Locke is now, finally, at least sometimes meaningfully interacting with someone, and he tells her his story about his masked identity.  At a hotel they book that evening, they come together and make love.

4.  Locke and The Girl on the Road
With the urgings of The Girl to boost his flagging energy, Locke decides to continue attempting to keep up the appointments listed in Robertson’s diary. They head south for the next one, which is supposed to take place in the picturesque village of Plaza de la Iglesia. But noone shows up for the appointed meeting, which is not surprising to the viewer given the fact that the two rebel operatives were murdered by government assassins in Munich.

Meanwhile Rachel in London looks through Locke’s belongings that have been returned to her by the African country’s consular officer and discovers that Locke’s passport has the picture of a strange man (Robertson) on the identification page.  Something is clearly wrong, and she perhaps wonders if her husband is still alive somewhere.  So she heads to Spain, herself, and seeks the assistance there of the police.


As Locke fails to make Robertson’s connections and he becomes aware of Rachel’s and the police pursuit of him, he and The Girl flee again.  But Locke is becoming more depressed about the hopelessness of establishing a new narrative foundation for his life. He realizes he can’t escape from the “self” that has been built up by his past.  He suggests to The Girl that they escape to Tangier, but she tells him, “you can’t be like that . . . just escaping. . . . Keep the appointment” (in Osuna). So he sends her off on a bus so that they can rendezvous later in Tangier, while he heads for Osuna and the Hotel de La Gloria.

5.  Finale at the Hotel de La Gloria
The final section of the film is really a smooth continuation of the previous section, but it is aesthetically so gloomy and elegiacal that I have identified it separately.  Barely escaping from the police searching for Robertson, Locke manages to hitch a ride to the Hotel de La Gloria.  When he checks in, he is informed by the concierge that “Mrs. Robertson arrived hours ago. . . We don’t need your passport.”  When he goes to his room, he sees that The Girl is there in the adjoining room. She hasn’t gone to Tangier, and she is sticking with him.  Locke disconsolately relates to her a story about a man who had been blind since birth but who had regained his sight at the age of forty.  At first this man was delighted by the wonders that he saw, but then gradually he saw the world was filled with filth and clutter – aspects which had not been part of his previous imaginings.  After a few days this newly-sighted man committed suicide. The man could not forge interesting narratives from the world that he encountered.  So, too, Locke expresses to the girl his submission to defeat. Life no longer holds any interest for him, since he cannot escape the self that he despises. He rhetorically asks her why she even bothers to stick around with him.  Then he instructs her to leave him.


The Girl goes out into the courtyard, and Locke is left morosely smoking his cigarette in the hotel room.  There follows the almost wordless ending of the film that lasts ten minutes, including a celebrated 6½-minute dirge-like tracking shot (manifesting MeS2 and MeS3) that has been the subject of much critical attention.  This gradually shifting view of the invisible witness starts in Locke’s hotel room and gazes out of the barred window into the courtyard, where various minor events take place: a driver-training car passes through, some boys are playing ball, The Girl passes by, and another car with the previously-seen government assassins comes in and stops.  Through all this the camera slowly tracks forward towards the window and eventually evidently passes through the window bars and comes into the courtyard.  During this period there are various random background noises heard, including a possible off-camera gunshot sound. Then the view pans around to the right as a police car carrying Rachel comes into the courtyard and stops.
Finally the camera pans around, completing an about-face, and looks through the same room window again, this time from the outside looking in, as The Girl, the concierge, and Rachel come in to look upon Locke’s motionless body on the bed.

The final shot shows stasis.  The narrative course for David Locke and the film has come to a dead end.  Locke had entered into Robertson’s narrative course, but he was unable to engage it or alter its course.  Rachel’s final words as she contemplates Locke’s body are telling – “I never knew him”.  Locke struggled and failed to know himself, too.
In Antonioni’s earlier films, the issue was concerned with the apparent impossibility of finding a meaningful and eternal love relationship.  Narrative construction on the part of the characters was important, but subservient to the goal of forming a meaningful relationship.  Thus, for example, the novelist Giovanni in La Notte was an expert at narrative construction, but he couldn’t construct a love narrative for himself that would last.  But as we move to later films, such as Red Desert and Blow-Up, the level of alienation becomes more severe, and the issue is how to relate to the external world – how to find out something, anything, that is “objectively” true.  In The Passenger, both of these concerns are at issue.  The fact that Antonioni can convey these feelings by showing how the perception of the entire world is colored by inner psychological turmoil (by, for example the various mise-en-scene techniques) make the presentation aesthetically expressionistic.

Note that the original title of the film was Profession: Reporter, which called attention to Locke’s profession as a person whose job it was to report the truth.  But like the photographer Thomas in Blow-Up, Locke began to see that what he was reporting as objectively “true” was merely someone’s prejudicial narrative-based perspective.  At one point Rachel listens to a tape-recording of Locke speaking to Robertson during which Locke remarks:
“Wouldn’t it be good if we could just forget everything that happens and just throw is all away, day by day. . . . People believe what I write and why? Because it conforms to their expectations, and mine as well, which is worse.”
Locke was frustrated that he couldn’t find a truth that wasn’t besmirched and rendered questionable by his self – a self that he had become bored with and from which he wanted to escape.  This is the fundamental theme of this excellent film.

In the critical literature concerning The Passenger, there are two items that should perhaps be addressed.  One concerns that penultimate 6½-minute tracking shot, which has been compared with Michel Snow’s 45-minute film, Wavelength (1967), which consists of a single and excruciatingly slow 45-minute zoom shot. However, the two films are not comparable.  Wavelength was essentially an experiment, and a not very successful one, at that.  The zoom there is so slow in that film that the viewer is barely aware of any frame movement at all – in fact that is presumably the point.  But the camera movement is more observable (the viewer is more aware of it) in the long tracking shot in The Passenger.  So I don’t think there is any point in comparing Snow’s dry effort with Antonioni’s film.

The other critical item raised is more interesting and concerns the suggestion that The Girl is actually the estranged wife of David Robertson and is following her own agenda [3,8].  In fact she may be Lucy or Daisy.  In support of this possibility, it is pointed out that
  1. The Girl sees Locke in London (it is argued that this was not accidental).
  2. The Girl urges Locke to continue following up on Robertson’s appointments in his diary.
  3. The Girl checked into the Hotel de La Gloria as Robertson’s wife and so must have had convincing documentation to convince the concierge.
Although this is an intriguing theory, I don’t subscribe to it.  Locke’s initial encounters with The Girl are too contingent to have been part of a planned operation.  Moreover, The Girl as portrayed by Schneider is too spontaneous to be part of a larger subterfuge.


Returning to an overall assessment of the film, it is worth remarking that since The Passenger unites the two Antonioni existential themes – the frustrations in finding meaningful (a) personal relationships and (b) world relationships (i.e. objective reality) – we might conclude that this film is Antonioni’s culminating achievement.  I am tempted to believe that this is indeed the case. Certainly Antonioni was immeasurably aided in this enterprise by the participation of his two stars.  Jack Nicholson, who was adept at displaying emotional outbursts in other films, gives here a controlled performance.  (This was characteristic of people directed by Antonioni, who also coaxed low-key performances out of other potentially volatile male actors, such as Marcello Mastroianni and Richard Harris.)  Nevertheless, it is Maria Schneider’s presence that truly elevates the film to another level.  To me, she was one of the most beautiful actresses ever to appear on screen, and this was her most memorable performance.  She is the perfect contrast to Jenny Runacre’s characterization of Rachel, who comes across as a calculating person perpetually seeking self-satisfaction.  Schneider’s natural beauty and innocence were just what was needed to convey the possibility of an ideal: genuine, loving engagement. 

In some ways The Passenger is closest to Antonioni’s Il Grido.  Both films feature a man relentlessly descending into despair and ultimate alienation (and annihilation).  But Aldo, in Il Grido, is hopelessly looking for a meaningful loving relationship.  On the other hand, Locke here is hopelessly looking for another but fo r himself.  What Locke really needed was right there in front of him – The Girl. But he couldn’t see it in time. Had he entered more fully into the relationship with her, he could have found himself, and life, too.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. Andrew Sarris, “An End to Antonioniennui”, The Village Voice, April 14, 1975, pp. 75-76.
  2.  Nick Schager, “The Passenger”, Slant, October 5, 2005.
  3.  Jack Turner,“Antonioni's The Passenger as Lacanian Text”, Other Voices, 1 (3), January 1999.
  4. Mike Grost, “The Passenger”, Classic Film and Television, http://mikegrost.com/antonion.htm#Passenger.
  5. By “narrative” I mean the broad psychological concept or temporal ordering, not the narrow, reductionist focus on “language games”.
  6. Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, volumes 1, 2, and 3, (1984, 1985, 1988), The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  7. Jerome Bruner, "The Narrative Construction of Reality" (1991). Critical Inquiry, 18:1, 1-21.
  8. Juli Kearns, “Film - Antonioni’s The Passenger", Idyllopus Press.

“The Home and the World” - Satyajit Ray (1984)

Satyajit Ray’s, The Home and the World (Ghare Baire, 1984) has the distinctive quality, reminiscent of his earlier The Chess Players (Shatranj Ke Khiladi, 1977), of combining Ray’s traditional concerns about individual human hopes and aspirations with concerns about larger political issues that affect society as a whole. The story is based on the famous novel of the same name published in 1916 by the great Bengali intellectual and artist, Rabindranath Tagore.  It is inspired by Tagore’s own experiences in connection with his involvement in the radical Swadeshi political movement in India during the early part of the 20th century.

Ray had a longstanding connection with Tagore and with this story, in particular.  Tagore had been a friend of Ray’s father, and Satyajit attended a university in 1940 that was founded by Tagore.  In the early 1940s, the youthful Ray prepared his first full film script that was an adaptation of Tagore’s novel, The Home and the World. Although he at first had a film producer interested in funding a production of his script, Ray ran into subsequent disagreements, and the whole project was cancelled in 1946.  But Ray never abandoned his plans to someday make a film of Tagore’s story.  Nevertheless, Tagore and his other stories continued to be of interest to Ray once his film-directing career got under way.  His Teen Kanya (literally “Three Daughters” but released in English as Two Daughters, 1961) was based on short stories by Tagore.  He also produced and narrated a documentary film, Rabindranath Tagore about the author in that same year.  Then Ray’s celebrated Charulata (1964) was based on a novella by Tagore.  Finally, twenty years after Charulata, Ray once more took up the subject of his long-delayed The Home and the World, although this time with a new, more sophisticated scenario that benefitted from his accumulated experience and artistic development.

Set in the year 1907, the story of The Home and the World takes place in the manor and associated town of a Bengali maharaja, and it revolves around the extended visit made by the maharaja's old friennd who had his own political agenda. Since the story primarily concerns a contest of ideas, much of the film consists of conversations involving one or more of the three principal characters:
  • Nikhilesh (“Nikhil”) Choudhury (played by Victor Banerjee) is the maharaja.
  • Sandip Mukherjee (played by Soumitra Chatterjee, a Satyajit Ray favorite) is Nikhil’s friend from university days who has come to promote his political movement.
  • Bimala Choudhury (Swatilekha Sengupta) is Nikhil’s wife, who finds herself inspired by Sandip’s rhetoric.
Two other minor characters of interest are
  • “Sister-in-law” (the widow of Nikhil’s deceased brother and played by Gopa Aich) had to keep her hair cut short, wear a plain white sari, shun adornments, and could not leave the house.  She shows the low status of widows in Indian domestic life of that period and also represents a foreboding portent. 
  • Miss Gilby, the English and piano teacher, was played by Jennifer Kendal, in her last role before her untimely death.  In the real world Ms. Kendal spent most of her life in India and was the spouse of Indian film star Shashi Kapoor.  Her career as a performer in a traveling theater group in India was an inspiration for the film Shakespeare Wallah (1965).
1.  Introduction
Bimala begins by describing her life as a proper Hindu wife of a maharaja. Ever since her marriage ten years earlier, she has been confined, like her widowed sister-in-law, to the inner chambers of the palace.  Her husband, Nikhil, though, is a refined and liberal-minded aristocrat who wants to break away from some of these traditions and have his wife become a modern educated woman.  So he has her tutored by an English woman, Miss Gilby. He also tells his wife that he wants to introduce her to some of his male friends, such as Sandip Mukherjee, a classmate from his university days who is now a leader of the Swadeshi political movement and has come to their town of Sukhsayar to deliver a speech.

By way of background it is useful to know that the Swadeshi movement sought grassroots support for Indian independence from British rule, which was claimed to be systematically extracting wealth from the country and leaving India in poverty.  Popular anger with British rule had increased as a result of two recent and devastating famines in India, one in 1896-1897 and one in 1899-1900, each of which caused many millions of deaths [1,2,3].  The British were accused of insensitivity to Indian suffering and of following questionable quasi-laissez-faire economic policies that made them indifferent to offering welfare relief.  Indeed, the Viceroy of India at the time of The Home and the World’s action, George Curzon, had been in office during that 1899-1900 famine and had been quoted as remarking, 
"any government which imperiled the financial position of India in the interests of prodigal philanthropy would be open to serious criticism; but any government which by indiscriminate alms-giving weakened the fibre and demoralized the self-reliance of the population, would be guilty of a public crime." [4,5]
In 1905 Curzon had further inflamed Indians by announcing the partition of Bengal into two parts which created a separation based largely on religious affiliation, with West Bengal comprising mostly Hindus and East Bengal comprising mostly Muslims.  This was just another example of the detested British divide-and-rule policy that many Indians blamed for all their misfortunes.

The Swadeshi movement’s primary policies were directed at rousing popular nationalism and achieving independence by boycotting all British-made (in fact all foreign-made) goods.  They held large rallies at which locals were urged toss all foreign-made goods into public bonfires.  Of course for such a boycott to be effective it had to be universally applied, and so the Swadeshi engaged in both persuasive and coercive acts in an effort to enforce full participation [6].

With these underlying issues in the backgrounds of his listeners’ minds, Sandip delivered his fiery speech in support of Swadeshi policies, while Bimala looked on with rapt attention from a shaded balcony window.

2.  Two Political Perspectives
After Sandip’s speech, Bimala is allowed to break all convention by coming outside of the inner palace chamber area (to which she had been confined for the past ten years) to have a face-to-visit with Sandip in an outer chamber.  There she has a chance to hear Sandip and Nikhil discuss politics, and indeed this section of the film is devoted to hearing their distinct political perspectives.   

Sandip’s approach is highly emotional, and he sings a Swadeshi rallying song almost in Bollywood style.  In the song, he utters the Swadeshi rallying cry, “Vande Mataran!” (in English, “Hail to the Mother(land)!”, and throughout the rest of the film Sandip and his followers repeat this mantra.  Bimala is moved by Sandip’s enthusiasm, but she notices that he is smoking foreign-produced cigarettes and asks him whether he has the will power to give them up for his cause.  Sandip smiles and says that if she joins his movement, he will give up smoking.

Nikhil, though, is less enthusiastic about the Swadeshi movement.  Though he supports his friend and Indian independence, he thinks that the Swadeshi movement is just slogans and propaganda.  After the meeting, he confides to Bimala that “the less one knows Sandip, the better one likes him.” 

Nikhil believes that boycotting foreign goods only harms the poor people and accomplishes nothing of substance.  And at another meeting the next day, he tells Sandip, “I believe that coercing the poor can only harm our country.”  Later he tells Bimala that what the Swadeshi people really care about is not the people, but an abstract ideal for the country – the country as Mother Goddess.  It’s all: “Worship our mother, work for our mother, pray to our mother.”


But Sandip means to employ more than just propaganda, particularly at Sukhsayar, where the maharaja, Nikhil, refuses to prohibit foreign goods in the local market, since he believes that such a move would only impoverish the Muslim traders there. So Sandip’s sends out gangs of Swadeshi supporters to forcibly confiscate foreign clothing from people and toss them onto their raging bonfires. He also has a meeting with Mr. Kulada, the cynical manager of Nikhil’s estate, who tells him that the best way to suppress foreign products in Sukhsayar is to sink the traders’ boats that bring in the goods.  So Sandip bribes Kulada to do just that. 

Thus in this section of the film we see that Sandip believes that any means can be taken in support of his noble ends – the ends justify the means.  If people don’t follow his way, then they must be forced.  Nikhil, on the other hand, is highly principled and believes in individual autonomy and human rights.  But that, according to Sandip, will just leave India with the status quo.  In this context it is worth recalling some words of Isaiah Berlin:
If you are truly convinced that there is some solution to all human problems, that one can conceive an ideal society which men can reach if only they do what is necessary to attain it, then you and your followers must believe that no price can be too high to pay in order to open the gates of such a paradise. Only the stupid and malevolent will resist once certain simple truths are put to them. Those who resist must be persuaded; if they cannot be persuaded, laws must be passed to restrain them; if that does not work, then coercion, if need be violence, will inevitably have to be used—if necessary, terror, slaughter. Lenin believed this after reading Das Kapital, and consistently taught that if a just, peaceful, happy, free, virtuous society could be created by the means he advocated, then the end justified any methods that needed to be used, literally any. [7]

3.  Bimala and Sandip
Bimala is moved by Sandip’s energy and passion and becomes his willing follower. Of course, she is still confined to the palace, but she now has private meetings in the outer chamber with Sandip almost every day. And she seems unmindful that Sandip continues to smoke his cigarettes despite his promise. She tells Sandip that Nikhil is too placid and that she will work for him despite her husband’s opposition to the Swadeshi movement.  She even offers to supply him with money by stealing gold coins from the family safe. 

Nikhil and his sister-in-law gradually perceive what is happening.  He notices that Bimala freshens her forehead bindi with vermillion whenever she is about to see Sandip.  Bimala is becoming seduced by the charismatic Sandip, and the growing attachment of Bimala and Sandip is the focus of this section of the film. Sandip is equally attracted, sincerely it seems, to Bimala, and he begins calling her his “Queen Bee”.  He says he wants to stay for awhile in Sukhsayer so that he can be near her. 


Eventually, Bimala does steal a considerable quantity of gold coins from the palace safe and gives them to Sandip.  At another private meeting Sandip sings to her two more songs – the first one is political, but the second song is a sweet love song. When he mentions that he might have to leave the area soon, she cries, and they then embrace and exchange a passionate kiss.  (Showing kisses in Indian films was extremely rare, and this was the first kiss shown in a Satyajit Ray film).

Meanwhile Nikhil tries to take measures to curb the growing Swadeshi-influenced violence in the countryside.  But his calls for reason and nonviolence fall on deaf ears.

4.  Bimala’s Return
Bimala is now in love with Sandip, but she begins to realize that, despite his idealistic demeanor, he is ultimately selfish and willing to compromise basic moral standards that Nikhil would always uphold.   So she takes leave of Sandip.


With violence spinning out of control, Nikhil arranges for his family (he, Bimala, and his sister-in-law) to travel to Calcutta the next day. To Bimala’s alarm, however, he feels that it is his duty to go out that evening before they leave and try to quell the violence in his township. Reconciled and full of newfound admiration for her principled husband, Bimala welcomes his passionate embrace. She pleads with him not to go outside the palace that night on such a noble but doom-laden mission.  But her pleadings are in vain, and she knows what will be his and her fate.
Setting aside the dishonesty of Sandip, the two political perspectives presented in The Home and the Wold, that of Sandip and Nikhil, both have their logical justifications to them and are given a fair hearing.  One gets the impression that Tagore’s writing of the novel was his way of working through these confounding issues. But Ray added his own touches, too.  Like Tagore, who excelled as a composer, writer, poet, and painter, Ray was also a polymath – he directed the film, wrote the script (from Tagore’s novel), supervised the editing, and composed the music.  Unfortunately, during the post-production of the film, Ray suffered a heart attack that curtailed his activities in his remaining years.

Ray’s casting of Soumitra Chatterjee in the role of Sandip was a good choice, because Chatterjee’s unquenchable innocence and sincerity help make the Sandip character more sympathetic and interesting.  Conveniently, Chatterjee had a talent for poetic recitations – he made a career as a recitator outside the cinema world – and he puts this on display at various times in the film when he woos Bimala.  However, the most compelling and crucial performance in the film is that of Victor Banerjee in the role of Nikhil.  He conveys the feelings of a troubled, sensitive man who is trying to find the best path for all concerned without forcing his own preferences.


The overall look to the film is lush, with bright saturated colors decorating the interiors, where most of the action takes place. Accentuating the psychological complexity of the presentation was Ray’s apparent love of mirror shots –  there are numerous compositions featuring characters looking away and addressing each other via their mirror reflections.  And in the apparent interests of showing realistic settings, the interiors are often shown with the dim artificial illumination that was typical of evening habitation during that early period.  Unfortunately, surviving prints of the film do not have the luminance range to show the subtleties of some of these low-illumination shots, and the dimly lit nuances are sometimes lost in the shade.

There are a number of underlying themes present in The Home and the World, including the place of women in a changing Indian society and the pace at which modernism will enter and change traditional Indian culture.  However, to get to the most essential theme of the film, one should perhaps compare it to Ray’s Charulata, made twenty years earlier and with which The Home and the World shares a number of close and interesting commonalities:
  • Both films were based on stories by Tagore.  Charulata was based on Tagore’s novella, Nastanirh (The Broken Nest) published in 1901.
  • Both stories were based on Tagore’s personal experiences.
  • Both involve a married woman who is childless after some ten years of marriage to a rather bookish husband. 
  • In both stories, the woman’s rather humdrum existence is opened up when one of her husband’s associates comes for a visit and recites poetry to her.
  • In both films, the visitor is played by Soumitra Chatterjee.
  • In both films the married woman is amorously attracted to the visitor, which disturbs her watchful, but passive, husband.  But in the end she remains faithful to her husband.

Despite these similarities, though, the philosophical differences between the two films are profound.  In Charulata, the woman is faced with a choice between two different schemes for fulfilment: moral propriety or the blissful aesthetic union of romantic love. In The Home and the World, on the other hand, Bimala's dilemma encompasses issues at the level of political and social meaning.  And that is what makes this film somewhat deeper on the philosophical level (though perhaps less satisfying on the aesthetic level).  The Home and the World considers three levels of interactive involvement:
  1. Close personal relations with other individuals
  2. Social relations with acquaintances from a larger circle
  3. Relations on the community or state level
Nikhil’s relationship landscape is consistent and authentic on all three levels.  He would treat a citizen of his community with the same respect and in the same way  that he would treat an intimate friend.  And he would give them the autonomy to make their free decisions as to how to behave.  Inherently, he believes that if everyone were to follow his model, then we would have an ideal, fair-minded society.  There would be an “invisible hand” that would guide us all towards an aggregated optimal fulfilment.

Sandip, on the other hand, dismisses Nikhil’s idealistic belief that everything will work out on the macro-level, as long as things are good on the micro-level.  He has no such faith in a bottom-up beneficial influence that will lead to the common good.   But that means that his own approach does will not have consistency across the three above-listed strata.  On the state level, he sees one way of doing things, which can involve ruthless coercion if required.  On the other hand, on the personal level, he can be genuinely sincere and kind.  But ultimately his overall relationship landscape model more or less forces him to be a liar. Yet he presumably believes that his own compromised way is best for the common good, because it directly addresses the larger social context and seeks remedies on that level.

Which brings us back to the title of Tagore’s novel and of the film.  Is it possible to have a fully consistent approach for both home (the micro-level) and the world (the maco-level)? This is the tension that Tagore was wrestling with, and it is the important kernel issue that Ray managed to convey and explore in this film.  Tagore’s’ answer was in the direction of Nikhil’s humanistic way.
★★★

Notes:
  1. “Indian famine of 1896–97", Wikipedia, 2014.
  2.  “Indian famine of 1899–1900", Wikipedia, 2014.
  3. “Famine in India”, Wikipedia, 2014.
  4. “George Curzon, 1st Marquess Curzon of Kedleston”, Wikipedia, 2014.
  5. Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts, 1. Verso, 2000. ISBN 1-85984-739-0, pg 158.
  6. The Swadeshi policy of promoting Indian economic independence by boycotting foreign-made goods and buying only locally-produced products was later taken up by Mohandas Gandhi.
  7. Isaiah Berlin, “A Message to the 21st Century”, The New York Review of Books, October 23, 2014,

“Once Upon a Time in the West” - Sergio Leone (1968)


After rounding out his famous “Dollars”,  (aka “Man With No Name”) trilogy – A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) – Sergio Leone’s intention was to move on from Westerns to other forms. However, American production companies only wanted to fund another “Spaghetti Western”.  So Leone set about erecting his epic commemoration of the Old West narrative: Once Upon a Time in the West (C’era una Volta il West, 1968). 

The film was constructed to go beyond even the grandiosity of Leone’s big box-office hit, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.  But when it was released, critics and the public alike found Once Upon a Time in the West to be confusing and ponderous. The film bombed at the American box office.  Over time, however, the film’s reputation has grown, and it is now considered by many people to be Leone’s masterpiece. 


In my view the film does have some serious flaws, but those are outweighed by the work’s considerable virtues.  Curiously, one could say that the sum of the film’s many wondrous parts amounts to greater than its whole.  In many ways, nevertheless, as I will try to explain, the film stands as a unique monument of cinematic expression.  One of Leone’s problems with the critics was that, like Alfred Hitchcock, he was sometimes dismissed as a hack showman who lacked artistic talent and subtlety. That was because Leone’s dramatic deployment of visual compositions and sounds was so emphatic and absorbing that the viewer felt overwhelmed.  Anyway, specific artistic accreditation is not the focus here; this cinematic work was the collaborative product of numerous talents.
  • The script was based on a commissioned story by Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argeneto, two young film writers who would go on to have considerable success of their own.  Bertolucci, then still only in his twenties, was an established film director even then, having already made La Commare Secca (The Grip Reaper, 1962) and Prima Della Rivoluzione (Before the Revolution, 1964). 
  • From that story the screenplay was written by Leone and Sergio Donati.
  • The breathtaking cinematography was handled by Tonino Delli Colli, who besides working on Leone’s films, also handled the cinematography for films directed by Roman Polanski, Louis Malle, Jean-Jacques Annaud, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Federico Fellini
  • The music, always a crucial element to Leone’s films, was once again composed by Leone’s friend and former classmate, Ennio Morricone. 
The resulting tale that these creative talents put together concerns the fates of four principal characters who have distinct personality types that represent almost archetypal narrative character attitudes:

  • Harmonica (played by Charles Bronson)  is the iconic, taciturn, and mysterious “Man With No Name” in this story and is only identified by his frequent harmonica playing.  Indeed the original Man With No Name role in the Dollars trilogy had been offered to and rejected by Bronson before it was taken by Clint Eastwood.  But in some ways Bronson is the truly perfect embodiment of this character.  As a character type in the story he is the Relentless Avenger.
  • Frank (Henry Fonda) is the epitome of cruelty and evil, the Sadistic Narcissist. Casting Fonda, whose entire career was spent playing upright and morally self-assured characters, in this dark role was a stroke of genius.
  • Cheyenne (Jason Robards, Jr.) is an outlaw who becomes entangled in the story against his will.  As the Reflective Outsider, he offers assessments as to what is going on.  Another case of interesting casting, Robards’s raspy voice reinforces his commentary.
  • Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) is the Pragmatic Cooperator. The inclusion of her role added depth and humanity to Leone’s story. 
The story itself has several concurrent threads and is sometimes obscure, partly because significant information is withheld from the viewer for the narrative purposes of slow disclosure.  In fact the narrative comprises a set of discrete scenes, most of which can stand on their own as fascinating and memorable mini-narratives.  Perhaps the best of such is the opening scene at the railway station.
1.  The Killings
The unforgettable opening scene of about 12 minutes, which is shown while the film’s title and opening credits roll across the screen, offers an extremely slow and deliberate buildup of tension.  Three armed men with murderous intent are waiting for a train to arrive at a remote railway station in Arizona.  The train arrives and a lone passenger, Harmonica, gets off looking for someone named Frank. There is a deadly shootout that results in the deaths of the three gunmen, but no motivations are given for what has happened.

The action cuts to another setting, a homestead where a widowed father, Brett McBain (Frank Wolff), is preparing for his wedding party with his three children.  Frank suddenly arrives with some companions and, with a sadistic smile on his face, cruelly murders the defenseless family.  Again, no reason is given.


Jill McBain, the new second wife of the father just killed, arrives by train in Flagstone and arranges to travel by horse and buggy to the McBain homestead, known as “Sweetwater”.  On the way there, as her buggy is shown passing through Monument Valley in Arizona [1], her driver stops at a way station saloon which at that moment is also visited by Cheyenne, an outlaw gangster who has just escaped from jail.  Harmonica is there, too, and accuses Cheyenne’s men of being behind the assassination attempt on his life in the opening scene, because those men wore the long duster coats characteristic of Cheyenne’s gang.  Jill then goes on to Sweetwater and learns that her intended family has been massacred.

At this point we are 50 minutes into the film and have been introduced to the four main characters, but they are all disconnected and there are many unanswered questions.

2.  Connections
In this section of the film a few connections between the main characters are made. Framed for the Sweetwater killings and trying to find out why, the outlaw Cheyenne goes to Sweetwater and talks to Jill.  Neither he nor Jill knows what Frank’s men were after, but we do at least learn that Cheyenne likes coffee and that Jill used to be a prostitute in New Orleans before meeting Brett McBain.  The scene cuts to an isolated railway car luxuriously outfitted to hold the mobile office of a terminally ill and crippled railway baron, Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), who is in a discussion with Frank.  The ever-westward spreading railroad line has so far only reached Flagstone (we periodically see shots of new railroad track continually being laid down by workers extending the line west of Flagstone).  In this connection Morton has hired Frank to get hold of the Sweetwater property that lies a little further to the west.  Meanwhile back at Sweetwater, Cheyenne departs, but Harmonica shows up and guns down two more of Frank’s assassins who had apparently come to kill Jill.

There are now, halfway through the film, three principal locations for further actions: the town of Flagstone, Morton’s railway car, and the Sweetwater homestead.  We still don’t know
  • why Morton and Frank are after the McBains
  • why Frank and Harmonica want to kill each other
  • what Cheyenne is doing in this story.
3.  Some Answers About Sweetwater
Separately seeking answers, Harmonica and Cheyenne sneak over to Morton’s parked railway car to spy.  Harmonica is captured by Frank, but on the urging of Morton, Frank passes up the chance to kill his mysterious nemesis and merely has him tied up while he rushes away on horseback to deal with Jill McBain, himself.  Cheyenne then makes his presence known and kills all four of Frank’s men guarding the tied-up Harmonica, whom he frees.

Back at Sweetwater, Harmonica explains the mystery of Sweetwater’s importance.  It has the only water well in a region west of the built railway, and therefore its land is a highly valuable site for a future town.


4.  The Sweetwater Auction
Meanwhile Frank captures Jill and forces her to have sex with him.  This is a further revelation of Jill’s character – she will cooperate in whatever way necessary in order to survive.  Frank forces her to sell the Sweetwater property at a rigged auction in town.  However before the final gavel comes down, Harmonica shows up (he has this practice of mysteriously showing up at critical moments) holding at gunpoint Cheyenne, whom he turns him over to the town sheriff for the reward money, which he uses to win the auction.  Cheyenne is then to be sent back on the railway to a jail in another town.

Afterwards at the town bar, Frank and Harmonica confront each other once more, but again they only exchange words, not bullets.  There is then another assassination attempt – this time on Frank by four of his own men who have been bribed by Morton to kill him. But with the unexpected help of Harmonica, Frank escapes, and his attackers are all killed. 

Frank rides out to Morton’s railway car and discovers the results of another deadly shootout: 10 more dead bodies, plus Morton, who is dying of a mortal wound, much to the grinning delight of the sadistic Frank.

5.  The Coming Together
The scene shifts back to Sweetwater, where Harmonica watches the relentless laying down of railway track that is now within sight of Jill McBain’s new train station and surrounding town under construction.  Cheyenne arrives (so we must infer, at least in the version of the film that I saw, that he somehow escaped his jailers) and has another coffee chat with Jill.

Frank arrives for what we know will be the final confrontation with Harmonica.  But again Leone draws out the scene, like that with the matador and the bull, for its full dramatic effect.  We learn at this point that Harmonica’s single-minded mission has always been to take revenge for a murder Frank committed long ago.

There are still some other narrative threads to be tied up, though.  Harmonica and then Cheyenne take their leave of Jill and head to unknown destinies.  Only afterwards do we learn that Cheyenne received a fatal wound sometime earlier, apparently at the railway car shootout mentioned in Act 4. This means that when Cheyenne was having coffee with Jill in Act 5, he was suffering from a mortal gunshot wound.

The final long shot shows Jill attending to the railway construction workers, while Harmonica departs on horseback with Cheyenne’s dead body.
Once Upon a Time in the West is a varied cinematic potpourri, with both effective and ineffective elements.  The weaknesses are mainly associated with the narrative, itself.  Certainly it lacks sufficient realism, even for a horse opera. Though we are generally willing largely to suspend our disbelief and immerse ourselves in the mythology of the Old West, some of the things depicted here are too much of a stretch even under those circumstances.  For example, Harmonica and Frank meet several times during the story, during which they could have come to their final accounting.  But instead, though we know they are bent on killing one another, they merely engage in aphoristic discourse. 


Another narrative weakness is the issue of the Cheyenne character.  Why is he so prominent in this story? Setting aside the unrealism of the extended time period during which he shows no ill effects despite suffering from the effects of a concealed mortal wound, his entire character seems to be an odd throw-in to this story.  He is a notorious outlaw who freely kills Frank’s men on occasions, and yet at other times he seems to be thoughtful and sensitive to others. 

A third weakness to the film is the insensitivity to killing (the film has a vast body count) and the celebration of vengeance as a worthy mission to undertake.  Harmonica, the presumed hero of the story, has no other interest than to satisfy his thirst for revenge.  We don’t even know why he wants revenge until the very end, but his relentless pursuit of old-fashioned “justice” is chilling.

And yet the film does have its undeniable strengths.  Leone’s magisterial cinematography is so compelling that it is an artistic end in itself.  His use of deep-focus shots in depth goes further than just about any film I have seen. And these shots don’t just stand out on their own, but are woven into a visual tapestry that fits together into a smooth-flowing dreamworld.  On top of that is Leone’s characteristic coupling of wide-view long shots and extreme close-ups. This creates a more intense and interior emotional involvement in what is being presented. 

In general, Leone understands that presence requires neighboring absence, and so sound requires closely occurring silence. Thus with respect to the temporal interweaving of effects, the use of sound in the two opening killing scenes is notable. In that wonderful first scene at the train station, the sound of the squeaky windmill and the buzzing fly portend something awful that is about to happen.  And in the second killing scene, at the McBain residence, the momentary cessation of the cricket buzzing is eerily disturbing and cause for existential alarm.

The grandest use of sound, of course, is the musical score, which drives the "inner” emotional narrative that is always under construction in the viewer’s mind.  Ennio Morricone has surpassed himself here by constructing a score that does justice to Leone’s monumental cinematography.  Each of the four main characters has a musical theme that serves as an aural motif for when he or she makes an appearance.  The way these themes are blended together during interactive scenes of the principal characters adds further to the cognitive experience. As usual with the Leone-Morricone collaboration, the score was produced before the shooting was begun so that Leone could engage in the shooting with the musical themes in his mind.  But on this occasion and since the film was, as usual, not shot with synchronous sound (all sound was dubbed in the editing phase), Leone had Morricone’s music playing on the set during the shooting.  This was used to inspire the acting performances with the operatic mood that Leone wanted to achieve.

Leone also liked to use the technique of slow disclosure to great effect.  For example, for a long time we don’t know why the McBains were murdered or why Harmonica is after Frank.  The slow disclosure of Jill’s screen entry enables the viewer to have a slowly revealed and circumspect view of her character and the Western town that she has traveled to.  These slow disclosure effects, in combination with Leone’s juxtapositions of long landscape shots with extreme close-ups, build up a pervasive sense of tension and expectation that runs throughout the film. 

Some reviewers have remarked that Once Upon a Time in the West has, more than Leone’s earlier films, characters that are deeper and that evolve during the course of the story.  I don’t think this is true.  The four main characters are types, as listed above, that don’t change much during the story.  What is unique here, though, is the fact that these principal characters spend much of their time trying to make out what makes the other main characters tick. In that sense they show some empathetic instincts that engage out attention. Like the viewers watching the film, they are all trying to figure out what is going on and why. 

So what is ultimately going on with all these characters?  Are there larger themes above that of revenge?  I would say so.  And I would say that the story is more than just a depiction of the coming of technological civilization, as symbolized by the railroad, to a barbarous territory.  All societies and civilizations have their narratives that underlie how they see themselves.  The Old West had its own narratives, too, about integrity and manhood, toughness and independence.  This film presumes that the viewer from the outset is very familiar with that Old West mythology, and this is supplemented by the inclusion of a number of familiar Hollywood images  (e.g. Monument Valley) and character actors, including Jack Elam, Keenan Wynn, Woody Strode, and Lionel Stander. In this connection the film often invokes, and sometimes inverts, some of the classic Old Western film themes from American cinema, as typified by the productions of John Ford.


In particular, Frank represents the ultimate narcissistic adulteration of these characteristics – a representation of how simple Old West norms can be perverted in the direction of nihilistic perfidy. Jill, on the other hand, represents compassion, compromise, and working for a communal harmony.  The fact that Leone had this character played by the extraordinarily beautiful Claudia Cardinale (to me, the most beautiful of all screen actresses) is an indication that this was the real hero (heroine) of his story.  She is not just a passively pretty image; instead her soulful, expressive eyes and her graceful physical movements indicate that she wants to be compassionately involved with those around her.  Her character does not force a programmatic scheme of how to act on others; instead she is willing to compromise and make the best of any situation. 

This suggests to me that an underlying theme of this film is that American promotion of simplistic and self-righteous independence (and hence selfishness), as exemplified by the Old West mythology, was passing away.  It was time for a new cooperative sense of humanism to take its place. In that sense we can see Once Upon a Time in the West for the masterfully expressionistic elegy for the overdue passing of the Old West narrative that it really is.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. Most of the film was shot in Spain, but there was some exterior shooting done in Arizona.