“An Enemy of the People” - by Satyajit Ray (1989)


Satyajit Ray’s An Enemy of the People (Ganashatru, 1989) came several years after his previous feature, Home and the World (1984), an interlude caused by a serious heart attack that the great writer/director/composer suffered in 1983 and had left him debilitated for some time. In fact even with this resumption of his filmmaking, it seems that Ray’s customarily masterful mise-en-scene was held in restraint and limited to fairly static studio situations.

The film script is a fairly straightforward adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play of the same name (in Norwegian: En Folkefiende) describing the travails of a doctor who seeks to warn his community about a dangerous public health risk. In Ibsen’s time the concerns were apparently Victorian moral hypocrisy and public resistance to scientific modernism, issues that persist in today’s world but are perhaps even more relevant to societies that feature a mixture of modernist and traditional cultures like that of India.  So Ray’s translation of Ibsen’s story into an Indian context is particularly apt.  It is worth noting that Dariush Mehrjui’s very faithful adaptation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879) for his Sara (1992) is similarly appropriately rendered and very relevant to his modern Iranian context.

The story proceeds through four relatively static scenes in just a couple of locations that cover progressions in the doctor’s efforts to thwart a potential epidemic.
1.  The Threat of an Epidemic

The first section, lasting almost half of the film, takes place at the home of Doctor Ashok Gupta (played by Soumitra Chatterjee), who receives confirmation from a chemical laboratory of his suspicions that the densely populated area of Bhuvanpulli in his local town of Chandipur has a polluted water supply that is causing people to come down with jaundice and infectious hepatitis.  This could lead to an epidemic and widespread loss of life.  He contacts the local newspaper, Janavarta, to publish a notice warning people that the water supply in a densely populated area has health risks. 

But this warning immediately meets up with official resistance.  It turns out that Dr. Dupta’s brother, Nisith, is Chandipur’s mayor, and he has a vested interest in seeing to it that this news is blocked. Nisith was instrumental in establishing the local Tripureshwar temple in Bhuvanpulli, where faithful Hindus are given “holy” water to sip in order to cure their ailments. The town’s financial prosperity is now dependent on the business associated with the temple, and any panic about the water would severely affect revenues. So Nisith warns his brother not to publish anything further about the crisis (which could lead to shutting off the water supply in Bhuvanpulli). Of course the public postuers of Nisith and another wealthy civic leader, Mr. Bhargava are not those of greedy businessmen, but rather those of devout and dedicated Hindus.  Their public claim is that the holy temple’s blessed tulsi leaves will purify any foreign or injurious elements in the water and will protect the faithful. 

Despite this opposition, Dr. Gupta does have a few purported allies. Janavarta’s avowedly progressive editor, Haridas Bagchi, and its publisher, Adhir Mukherjee, assure Dr. Gupta that they will see to it that the public is properly informed about the health menace.

2.  Backing Away
The second section takes place at the editorial office of the Janavarta newspaper.  Disregarding his brother’s warning, Dr. Gupta goes there to submit his own more detailed article identifying the temple area as the source of the polluted water and the steps that must be taken by the civic authorities in order to avert a health disaster.  At the newspaper office Dr. Gupta is greeted by assistant editor Biresh Guha, who heaps warm praise on the doctor for his public heroism. 

However, before long pervasive hypocrisy is revealed.  It turns out that editor Haridas and publisher Adhir are cowed by Nisith and the civic authorities, and they decide not to publish Gupta’s article.  In fact we learn that Haridas’s alleged progressivism is really just a cover for his attempts to woo Dr. Gupta’s daughter, Indrani.

Nisith, Haridas, and Adhir go on to say that they will block any attempt by Dr. Gupta to reveal the scientific findings.  So Dr. Gupta decides to hold a public meeting and has messages about it posted on all the public signboards.

3.  The Public Meeting

Despite official obstructions, Dr. Gupta manages to hold his public meeting, and a large crowd is attracted to hear the doctor read his unpublished article. Before the doctor can read his letter to the gathering, however, Nisith, Haridas, and Adhir disrupt the proceedings and convince the volatile crowd that the doctor is a “public enemy”.  Then the crowd is dispersed in panic by explosions apparently set of by Nisith's hired hooligans.

4.  The Aftermath
Back at Dr. Gupta’s home the next day, rioters opposed to the "public enemy" are hurling rocks through his windows.  He also gets the news that he will be forced to move out of this apartment and that he has also lost his job at the hospital.  In addition, his daughter Indrani has been fired from her job as a schoolteacher.  He seems to be beaten and has been abandoned by everyone but his family.  However, he then gets the upbeat news that his daughter’s fiancé, Ronen, has organized his friends in the local drama society to support him.  They vow to distribute his unpublished article door-to-door to everyone in town.  In addition Biresh Guha comes over and announces that he has resigned from the hypocritical Janavarta newspaper and now as a freelance writer intends to send articles to the big-city newspapers in Calcutta telling them the truth about what has happened in Chandipur.  Thrilled by this support, Dr. Gupta is energized to carry on his fight for the public good.
Although Satyajit Ray stayed pretty close to Ibsen’s story and situated it appropriately in an Indian context, the production values here are not what you would expect from a Ray film.  Though the cast featured a number of veteran actors and actresses, the performances are mostly wooden and artificial.  In fact the entire production had the air of a 1960s television studio play, with the characters just reading their lines without conviction. The one bright spot is Soumitra Chatterjee in the role of Dr. Gupta.  Chatterjee was a Ray favorite and had appeared in many of his great films, including his debut performance some thirty years earlier in The World of Apu (Apur Sansar, 1959).  Chatterjee invariably evinces a certain naive and infectious optimism about the world and his place in it that helps give life to the films he is in.

Ray does add a few touches to Ibsen’s story that have value.  The support that Doctor Gupta receives from Ronen and Biresh Guha at the close of the story gives a positive uplift that was missing from Ibsen’s more downbeat closing.  Indeed, Ibsen apparently intended his stageplay to be something of a black comedy (before that notion hit the mass market), leaving the audience with a scathing view of modern hypocrisy. Ray’s closing is more hopeful and uplifting.

Another Ray addition is the presentation of scientific issues around epidemic threats, which facilitates a useful comparison to some modern concerns – particularly that of global warming and climate change.  Nisith argues with his brother that the majority of people who drink the temple’s holy water don’t fall ill – therefore there couldn’t be anything wrong with that water.  But Dr. Gupta responds by pointing out that although some people have the natural immunity to resist the pathogens in the water, there are still many people not so immune and so the contaminated water is still most likely to lead to a devastating epidemic unless something is done.  The statistical probabilities of a massive epidemic are too high to be ignored.  This echoes the current public debate about climate change, where those with vested interests in fossil fuel production try to raise doubts concerning the scientific predictions that predict climate change disaster as a strong near-term likelihood, but not with absolute certainty.  Thus extractive elites try to turn the cautious skepticism of scientific reasoning back on itself in order to dismiss all science-based warnings.


In addition there is also a higher-level concern in An Enemy of the People connected with how society should be organized, and this applies to Ibsen’s Norway, Mehrjui’s Iran, Ray’s India, and wherever you live, too. Since the emergence of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, there has been a recognition of rationally-based social principles that apply universally. Though there are varying opinions concerning the details, their overarching nature can be summarized in four basic principles which I refer to as RMDL, and which I have discussed before in connection with my reviews of Mohammad Rasoul’s Head Wind (2008) and Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012). Here in An Enemy of the People, Dr. Gupta aligns himself with the RMDL principles:
  • (Human) Rights.  Dr. Gupta recognizes the basic right-to-life of all people, no matter what station they have in life. In addition he recognizes the everyone’s’ right individual to self expression. His brother Nisith stood in opposition to these common rights.
  • Markets.  This principle concerns a society’s need to support the free exchange of goods and services for all people.  Although not explicitly addressed in the film, Dr. Gupta’s allies’ plans to promote his ideas door-to-door indicate their faith in the opportunity to market their ideas.
  • Democracy.  Society should be governed by the consent of all people.  Dr. Gupta’s public meeting reflects his faith that presenting evidence before the people gives them the opportunity to choose what to do.  Brother Nisith chose to block this process.
  • Rule of Law.  This principle calls for a written set of publicly-known laws that can be adjusted by democratic processes.  Dr. Gupta said he planned to exercise his legal rights, but Nisith informed him that the town’s legal magistrate, a devout Hindu, was in his own pocket and would thwart due legal processes.
While Dr. Gupta espouses the RMDL principles, his brother Nisith and other cicic leaders persistently try to block them.  So despite the film’s talky presentation, Ray did manage to cast his light on issues of contemporary concern.
★★½

“To Joy” - Ingmar Bergman (1950)


After the rather over-heated theatrics of Thirst (Törst, aka Three Strange Loves, 1949), Ingmar Bergman turned to a more personal and inward perspective for his next film, To Joy (Till Glädje, 1950), which he also scripted. This thematic redirection may have been motivated by a personal event in Bergman’s life that occurred at that time – the dissolution of his 2nd marriage. In any case, what we see in To Joy is a much more subtle portrayal of a romantic relationship and the ups and downs that happen to the couple over an eight-year period.

Some people might say that this is just another cinematic love story – a theatrical “scenes from a marriage”, if you will.  But I would say that this film has an almost philosophical perspective, as suggested by its title, that elevates this story above the usual offerings of this nature.  Behind the  story about two musicians who fall in love, there is the overlying theme of harmonic resonance – as overtly manifested by symphonic orchestral collaboration – that pervades the entire film. 

In fact the theme of harmonious collaborative production was something in which Bergman undoubtedly took a serious personal interest.  He had a masterful way of starting with a theatrical, almost stagy, and dramatic conception and crafting it into a compelling cinematic narrative. And he repeatedly accomplished this feat by working closely and collaboratively with his actors, camera crew, and production team [1]. Here, as with his other films, especially those in collaboration with the outstanding cinematographer Gunnar Fischer, Bergman’s camera movements (sometimes over the course of a shot lasting several minutes) are melded together with the dramatically motivated movements of the actors to create a natural narrative movement to the presentation.  All of this is done to convey a feeling for what Bergman had in mind in connection with “joy”.

The story of the film concerns the passion-filled experiences of a 25-year-old musician, Stig Eriksson, who, like most young men, seeks greatness.  In the case for Stig, this means greatness as a solo violinist.  He wants to be a star, above all others, and he feels that he has the capabilities to do so.  However, the film’s title, “To Joy”, which has an explicit musical reference in the story, points thematically to some kind of greatness that transcends Stig’s personal view.  To a certain extent what transpires in the film is a depiction of Stig’s journey to see what this means.

That explicit reference of the film’s title is to Friedrich Schiller’s poem, “Ode to Joy” (1785, 1803) [2], which was used as a choral element to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (1824).  If you read that poem, you will see that Schiller was not evoking mundane pleasures, but something rapturous, almost ecstatic.  Indeed, joy for Schiller has cosmic importance [3]:

    Joy is the name of the strong spring
    In eternal nature.
    Joy, joy drives the wheels
    In the great clock of worlds.
    She lures flowers from the buds,
    Suns out of the firmament,
    She rolls spheres in the spaces
    That the seer's telescope does not know.

And yet as can be seen in the film, these rapturous moments are really usually embedded in ordinary experiences that feature a harmonious interpersonal resonance.  It takes years for Stig Eriksson to experience this epiphany.  For us to experience his journey first-hand, Bergman presents almost everything from Stig’s point of view.  Because of his earnest, almost childish, innocence, we can empathize with Stig along the way, although his selfish narcissism is sometimes off-putting.  So despite our seeing (almost) everything from Stig’s personal perspective, our sympathies and ultimate appreciation come to focus on the source of Stig’s ultimate epiphany – his loving wife, Marta Olsson.

The story of To Joy moves through six phases or acts, with the key inner four of these acts depicting flashback episodes in which Stig’s self-centeredness causes a problem.
1.  Tragic News
Violinist Stig Eriksson (played by Stig Olin) is interrupted from an orchestra rehearsal to receive the tragic news of his wife’s death.  She had been visiting family and had burned to death in a cottage fire when a kerosene stove exploded.  As is typical of Bergman’s cinematography when key emotional events take place, the news is conveyed in a single extended shot, this one lasting 85 seconds.  As the grieving Stig reflects on his loss, the film moves into a flashback reflection, signified by the image of a harp playing.

2.  Stig and Marta Meet
Stig and Marta (Maj-Britt Nilsson) are introduced as new violinists in a symphony orchestra conducted by Sönderby (Victor Sjöström), a stern task-master. Here we are shown one of the many visually compelling and suggestive tracking shots of orchestra players combining their skills to achieve a grand harmony that goes beyond the talents of any one player. This is the visual motif behind the story of Stig and Marta.

It is immediately clear that the naive Stig is inexperienced and no social match for the attractive and sociable Marta – especially when he compares himself to the super-confidant, suave, and somewhat oily fellow musician Marcel (Birger Malmsten).  At Marta’s birthday party that evening, Stig gets very drunk and launches into an embarrassingly boastful tirade about his artistic talents and integrity.  He’s so drunk in fact that he passes out, and Marta has to let him sleep it off on her couch.  In the morning Stig gives her a teddy-bear gift he had bought for her, and this is the first of the “key relationship scenes” (KRS1) in the film.  Like other such scenes, it features a lengthy (92 seconds) moving-camera shot of the two of them interacting in medium-shot and closeup range.

3.  Stig and Marta Get Together
It is now Autumn and Stig and Marta are more intimate and talking of love.  Marta is the experienced one – she has been married before – and while talking of love she maneuvers the conversation over to the idea that they should move in together (KRS2).

Later they decide to get married. While preparing for the marriage ceremony, Marta tells Stig (in a 3-minute shot) that she is already pregnant. The news shocks and disturbs Stig, who doesn’t want a baby, and Marta responds by telling him that he is childish, selfish, and cruel. This is followed by a second 3-minute shot in which Stig manages to make up to her and restore their relationship (KRS3).  They then go ahead with the marriage ceremony (KRS4) as planned, with Marta silently showing her rapturous pleasure.

4.  Going Solo
Stig’s goal is not just to remain an ensemble violinist, but to be a featured soloist.  He gets his chance to be a star, but his performance at a public event in a key solo movement is a failure. Afterwards unable to soothe his disappointments, he quarrels with Marta and rejects her consolation by telling her, “inside, you’re always alone.”

Somewhat later Marta is having labor pains, and she is taken to and left with the doctor.  Shortly thereafter during a rehearsal, Stig is interrupted with the joyous news that his child has been born. (This scene reverberates with the opening scene when he was interrupted to hear about his wife’s death.)  Stig rushes to the hospital delivery room to meet Marta, and they silently embrace (KRS5).

5.  Quarreling and Making Up
It is now three years later, and Stig is still obsessed with making it as a soloist. He is also having an affair with Nelly (Margit Carlqvist), the wife of the orchestra manager. At home in a key 140-second shot (KRS6), Marta accuses him about the affair, and he coldly criticizes her for having had affairs before they knew each other. Losing his temper, Stig slaps Marta around in the bed, and their relationship appears to have reached its end.  Marta moves out with their two kids.

But three months later Stig writes to Marta renewing his love, and she welcomes him back.  He takes the train to meet her, and they reunite in love (KRS7).

Some years later in a brief scene, Stig and Marta are shown living happily together with their two children, who appear now to be about six and seven years of age. While they are preparing for Marta to go off with one of the children to visit grandmother’s place, they are shown taking along a kerosene stove that will be used for them to stay in a cottage next to grandmother’s house.

6.  Return to the Present
The harp playing is again shown, indicating that the flashback recollections are over.  Stig is gripped in grief, but returns to the rehearsal to prepare for a performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.  The conductor Sönderby tries to convey to his performers the idea of what is meant by the “Ode to Joy” 4th movement:
Not the joy expressed in laughter or the joy that says, ‘I’m happy’”. . . What I mean is a joy so great, so special, that it lies beyond pain and boundless despair.  It’s a joy beyond all understanding.
As they play, Stig sadly reflects on his years with Marta, visualizing moments from all their key relationship scenes.

As usual, Bergman worked with a small, theatrically-experienced acting ensemble in order to externalize the intense human emotions that are presented in his work. The role of orchestra conductor Sönderby was played by noted film director Victor Sjöström, who would later more famously play the lead role in Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957).  Stig Olin, in the role of Stig Eriksson, was a Bergman regular, and as the center of focalization, he performs well.  But it is the performance of Maj-Britt Nilsson, as Marta, that really makes the film memorable. She evokes the selfless empathy and compassion that makes joy possible.

In fact the narrative mode of focalization is almost an issue in To Joy.  While the focalization is almost entirely focused on Stig’s journey, it is not exclusively so.  There are conspicuous moments when the focalization shifts over to Sönderby and to Marta, and this is somewhat disturbing to the narrative flow.  But perhaps this was an explicit effort on Bergman’s part to heighten the awareness of harmonious collaboration.  After all, it is this convergence of diverse feelings and perspectives that brings about joy.
★★★

Notes:
  1. See for example, “Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie” (Vilgot Sjöman, 1963), The Film Sufi, 2014.
  2. Friedrich Schiller, “Ode to Joy”, presented in Scott Horton, “Schiller’s Freedom Hymn”, Harper’s Blog, November 9, 2008. 
  3. Friedrich Schiller, “Ode to Joy”, “Wikisource”.

“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 off 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.