Michelangelo Antonioni, San Francisco May 1975 Photograph : Nacio Jan Brown
An excerpt from an interview with the director that was conducted in Antonioni’s hotel suite at the Fairmont in San Francsico during his visit to the Bay area in promotion of his just released film, The Passenger. Antonioni had not experieced a particularly fun time of it in Berkeley earlier in the week where his documentary on China —Chung Kuo,Cina–was met by a surly contigent of local Maoists and their assorted comrades (Yes. It was like that there back then.) On this day Antonioni was bemused and gracious, keeping my wine glass filled as the afternoon meandered on to twilight.
— When and why did the title of this film get changed again?
— The last one was Profession:Reporter.
A: Profession: Reporter. Yes. In the rest of the world it is still Profession: Reporter, just in United States and England it is The Passenger.
–Was that your idea, The Passenger?
A: It is my idea, but in Italian “the passenger” — “empasagera” doesn’t work at all. It is a bad title. In English it seems to be good. Also there was a problem on TV there is a program called The Reporter.
— Is that how you’ve been feeling since Blow-Up, as a passenger?
A: How do you mean?
–Moving. You haven’t made a film for several years in Italy, you’ve been making films around the world. You’ve been operating perhaps in the world Locke (character portrayed by Jack Nicholson in The Passenger) occupies in the film: hotel to hotel, airport counters, so it is a veneer of a world you see. Is that, a correspondence to your own situation?
A: Maybe, maybe. For I decided to make this film when the script came to me and there was something in my subconscious that pushed me to do it, because of these reasons as you’ve said. Yes, I would say so. And also because I made many trips to Africa.
— I understand that in the 1940s you were a journalist in Africa.
–You feel close to that landscape, the desert.
A: Also I must say I need sometimes to get out of our context, our civilization and get into a different context, a historical hew context. I need that. Even Zabriskie Point. And this one,and another story I wanted to shoot called Technically Sweet.
— You were working on Technically Sweet on the Amazon when I understand you got the word on this script and Carlo Ponti called you to do this film?
A: Yes. I had been working on that script for one year, a lot. I wanted to do that one.
–Are you going to do it?
A: No. The character is very similar to this one! It is about someone. . .he doesn’t want to get rid of his identity, he wants to forget himself for some reasons. So, it is similar. He wants to get rid of his milieu you know. Some relations.
–Do you think about doing another documentary after China?
A: Well… who knows?
–Let’s say a film without narrative structure.
A: Yes. Maybe. I like that context very much.
— Was there a transposition of Locke’s character to being an American? Was he an American in the original script?
A: No. In the original script he was English but my working is very simple. That is to say I always face the reality. As my leading character in this film does. He is a reporter. And in someway in this film I am a reporter, me too. All this reality which is the film: that story, these actors, etc. etc. Jack Nicholson: this was my reality. So I had to face this. It was very natural to me to move, to change my original character and make him born in England and educated in America.
–A reporter is an international character, and even being so American he still has this universal peculiarity. Cynical enough. Blind enough
–You used a Wescam in this film. (Wescam is a special camera mounted with a gyroscope enabling virtually unlimited movement while retaining a steady frame.) In the last sequence of this film.
Antonioni on set for The Passenger, the Wescam is to his right.
— That was the only sequence you used it in?
— Have you seen any of Michael Snow’s films?
— He made a film called Wavelength.
A: Oh, Wavelength. I heard of it.
— Seen any Ken Jacobs’ films? Or any other independent filmmakers?
–You seem to be closer to such work than any other commercial director. Do you think the narrative veneer is really necessary to make a major film?
–A narrative surface, the convention of the narrative, a structure whether it’s a man who changes identities and what’s going to happen to him next and the audience identifying with the character. In this film I don’t think there’s any chance, the way you made the film, to identify with the character of Nicholson because the camera is simply as a witness. They way you handle the camera.
A: Yes. It’s true.
— The way you handle pans in the film, you don’t simply pan, you linger on objects moving away from a character. So there’s no chance at identification with a character to where the audience is sucked in.
A: Yes. Yes. It’s true. The camera is free. For the first time.
— In a major film, but in independent films it isn’t.
A: Yes. I know.
— The best moments in Zabriskie Point were that way, the sequences in LA were magnificient, the narrative structure was very weak. I don’t think the picture was a loss, you did LA very well, manipulating the architecture, even though there isn’t any there.
A: By the way, the music at the end was not my idea. The last song is awful. They changed it without telling me.
–You are the only filmmaker who makes commercial pictures, that I can think of off-hand, who could carry off a film without narrative. Letting the objects, whatever the camera sees, well up in the audience to mean something. You came really close to it this time.
A: Yes, I agree.
–The actors are like images that talk.
A: They are another element of the image. Very often they are not the most important, there is something else. That’s why I can’t explain to the actors. Sometimes they claim I don’t talk enough, I don’t explain enough. But I’m afraid they become director of themselves and they begin to look at thefilm through their character, which is a very private thing and not the same as I move.
I had the idea of the final sequence from the beginning, but I didn’t know how to do it yet. While I was shooting that shot, Carlo Ponti (the producer) screamed over the phone because I took eleven days to shoot it. Ponti went crazy.
–It was worth it. (The sequence begins in hotel room, the camera looking through a barred window to the street, tracks in to the window, through the window, into the street, pans right and reverses angle back into the building in one unbroken take) Did you shoot the execution sequence?
A: No. It’s true.
– I know. It’s true.
A: I cut it.
— Where did you get it?
A: I promised not to tell. It is from a country in central Africa, very close to Chad.
–You shot the desert sequences in Chad?
A: No, I couldn’t because at that moment Tombalbaye was alive. I went to Chad but they wouldn’t allow me. So I selected the mountain Haga, 4000 km. south of Algiers. Which is very similar to Tibestin. I used clothes like in Chad, soldiers like in Chad, I brought all those black people, I took them with me all along the film because I didn’t want to lose them. They have the accent of that country, the peculiarities of the head of that country. Everything is true.
— Do you have any sympathies for Locke, aside from watching him?
A: I don’t know . In Italy sympathy has a different meaning.
–It has a couple of meanings here, too. I mean sympathy in the sense of identification.
A: I am very different. I am not as pessimistic as he is. I am doing films, I insist on doing films which means to be optimistic.
–I guess Locke doesn’t have to be an American, he just has to be a Westerner from this civilization. He doesn’t have the presence of mind in the middle of the desert to turn off the shower and insists on a big car when merely a car would be necessary, which is symptomatic of a mentality which is blind. As he relates the story of the blind man he gets to wake up just before he is killed. All that time he is not a victim of his circumstances as he is of himself.
A: Yes. Wittgenstein says, “To be means to be in the world.” He is not in the world anymore at that point of the film, the world is out of the window. That’s why I look at the window and not at him. I am not interested in which way he is going to die. The world is there, not here.
–The last twenty minutes are really tightly done. With her describing what’s outside the window. I don’t know whether it was a mistake or not, but it was nice: she describes what’s outside the window. So the audience is watching to see if she describes it accurately and she leaves something out, the boy on the bicycle. Was that intentional?
A: A little mixture of chance and deliberation. I believe in chance. I exploit it.
–Asking about Zabriskie Point, I don’t know if you had any expectations with that movie, so I don’t want to use the word failure, maybe you had no expectations of what you were going to find over here, but do you think you were tricked?
A: Well, the first idea originally was very different. Then it came out that way, I don’t know what happened.
— Do you think you were tricked by what you say?
A: Yes. In some ways, yes. But being here for six months, at that moment, the Democratic Convention in Chicago, all these troubles, etc., etc. In Los Angeles some riots, it was a very tough moment, so maybe I was influenced by it. Also maybe by my collaborators. To select the right ones when you don’t know them. The other thing I remember is, the first person I met was Tom Hayden. He was a very, very calm and pacific man. He said, “No revolution here is possible.” It’s true.
Afterwards something else happened, somebody tried to do something. And then I met him in Chicago and he had a helmet and a gas mask, suddenly he was like a soldier.
— He’s running for Senate. That’s what he’s doing now.
A: Do you think he will win?
— I don’t know. These elections aren’t going to make much difference.
–I didn’t go to the Pacific Film Archive screening last night. How was that?
A: It was an experience. (Laughs)
–You haven’t worked in Italy in years, what is your next project?
A: I am planning to make a film in Italy now. I feel like going back. To get my roots. But I don’t know if I can. Mostly because the situation is very bad in Italy at the moment. There are a lot of things I would feel guilty if I avoided them. But at the same time I don’t want to be influenced by them, these things that make my country so different from what makes my country in my mind. So I don’t know. I have to go back and see. I have several ideas but they are very different.
–What was the effect of China on you?
A: Well, it was very exciting to do it. And very exciting to see it. The first reaction of the Chinese was they loved it. Then something happened.
— The same week as Beethoven.
A: And Confucius.
–They all went out.
A: I was very disappointed. Not because of this because I can understand that. Art doesn’t exist there. I’m not saying my documentary is Art, but I come from that kind of aesthetics. There was my culture behind me and they could understand it. Their critical concept is very different. Everything for them is propaganda. They have to make violence on everything on that purpose. If they saw themselves on the stage they have to face themselves, even in concerts. Maybe I could have done it, it wouldn’t have been so difficult.
–Jasper Johns, the American painter says: “I can imagine a society in which there is no art. And it is not a bad society.”
A: Yes. What is the use of art? Now I don’t see any use because people who can buy good paintings are rich people who get them and put them in the bank. What’s the use of this painting? Nothing. Just to go around in a museum and look at them all together is the worst way. I don’t see any use at the moment for this kind of art.
–You studied architecture and painting?
A: I painted. I didn’t study architecture. I loved when I was a child to draw things.
— You still find living in the world mysterious?
A: Well. . .in some way.
— But maybe after each picture, not so much.
A: No. (Laughs) I went. . .I am not interested in this kind of thing.. In Los Angeles I went to a psychic, the tarot cards and the first thing he said to me was, “You’re going to die at 81.” But I told him, “At 80, I’ll go and see someone else.”
(Anontioni died in 2007 , aged 94)
In a certain way I avoided a stronger plot in this film. I could have done something more, more with a different pace,as faster pace. Because I had someone who is escaping, following him, chasing him. It would have been very easy to cut it like Griffith.
A: Or Hitchcock. I avoided it. Absolutely, I didn’t want to do something like that. I feel very strongly that this kind of atmosphere, detective atmosphere, spy atmosphere is around us. Now in Italy when I go to a cocktail party at a friends, it happened just a few nights ago, there was someone there with a gun in his pocket. Which is unbelievable.
“Why a gun?”
“Because I live in the country.”
It is this kind of thing, Ponti, the producer, they tried to kidnap him. It’s true to have something like that around us without exploiting these sort of things.
–Do you think things are going to get worse?
A: Depends. Sometimes I feel. . .Yes. Sometimes not.
A: Yeah. Sometimes I have a kind of flash. We are already very, very low. I don’t know if we can go deeper.
–Sure we can.
A: We can?
–Unfortunately, we can.
A: From that bottom we have to come up.
–Oh yeah, that’s going on too. But like Bill Burroughs said when he was here, he thinks the whole thing is going to go up.
A: “Le grand du mal.” Gide.
–Uh huh. The whole thing is going to go up. I had a presence of that in your film, The Passenger.
— Going to go up, at any moment. And that’s the world we live in now. You’ve read Borges?
–You read Closing Time by Norman Brown?
–That’s what I was thinking of when I said it could get worse. It’s got to bottom out.
A: Yes. Sometimes I fall in love with someone, a writer. If I like him I force myself not to shoot anything on a book. I did it once, for L’Amiche a film I did in ’55. It happened to me, the best pages of the book, at least the pages I liked most were the worst for the screen. Impossible. It is difficult.
I met someone in New York who said “You are going to Los Angeles? You want to meet Nixon?” I was so embarrassed. I didn’t know what to say. I just said “I don’t know what to tell him. How to talk to him, I just don’t know how to do that.”