MOVIE OBJECTS (17)

By: Annie Nocenti
May 19, 2020

One in a series of 25 nonfiction narratives about significant objects spotted in movies. Presented to HILOBROW’s readers by Project:Object.

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PASSPORT | THE PASSENGER | d. MICHELANGELO ANTONIONI | 1975

Do you ever stop and wonder what got you to this particular bend in the road? If a situation presented itself, an offer to change your life, would you take it? Get out of your own skin? You could try…

In The Passenger, television journalist David Locke (Jack Nicholson) wanders a desert town, trading cigarettes and vague glances in pursuit of a story about a rebel resistance. He heads out on a punishing desert chase which ends with his jeep stuck in sand. He stupidly grinds the engine, literally spinning his wheels and digging his own hole. With a gesture of epic futility, he beats the stuck tire with a shovel. Is he mad at the tire or sick of being himself?

When a sweaty Locke finally makes it to his hotel, hopeful of a shower, the porter informs him there’s no soap (of course there isn’t). Locke discovers that his drinking buddy, English businessman Robertson (Charles Mulvehill) dead in the room next door. Locke opens the dead man’s passport, realizes they resemble each other, and a door opens. Locke contemplates the corpse’s face, next to which lies an unfinished chess game.

A ceiling fan spins helplessly against the heat. A bug crawls up a wall. Antonioni’s camera lingers on the detritus of identification. Locke slips out of his own clothes and into Robertson’s life. As Locke switches his passport photo for Robertson’s, he listens to a tape of Robertson speaking, as if trying on his new voice. A desperate kind of hope emerges. The film’s meandering pace, which pauses to let a dog piss and a little girl blow a bubblegum bubble, lets the film breathe. That lingering is transfixing. As casually as pouring his next gin, Locke reports his own death.

Locke is handsome, smart, a celebrated journalist. How to parse the forensics of his self-annihilation? The film drops a few clues. A story is told of a blind man, who — when he could finally see — killed himself. Locke sneaks into his own home, sees his own obituary on his wife’s bed, along with a note from her lover. Has she anticipated his vanishing? It’s a litter of clues that don’t really add up.

Locke meets a young architecture student (Maria Schneider) and begins an affair, as if what he really wants is a witness to his inevitable demise. He recklessly keeps the dead man’s appointments with an arms smuggler, allowing his new fate to take him over. It’s random, with intent. As his wife says in the end, “I never really knew him.” It’s a line that seems to echo an earlier film, Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, in which one of Marie Schneider’s last comments is: “I don’t even know his name.”

For most, a passport is just a necessary convenience. For Locke, who trafficks in innuendo, and is at home in inscrutable situations, a passport becomes a doorway, a way to offer himself up as another mystery.

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MOVIE OBJECTS: INTRODUCTION | Ramona Lyons on EYE OF THE SERPENT (CONAN THE BARBARIAN) | Faythe Levine on BEDKNOB (BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS) | Gerald Peary on CUP OF COFFEE (THE BIG HEAT) | Christopher Orr on TOM’S HAT (MILLER’S CROSSING) | Lynn Peril on TRANSISTOR RADIO (DR. STRANGELOVE) | Whitney Bowers on DUCT TAPE (NOW AND THEN) | Kio Stark on CANDLE (DEBBIE DOES DALLAS) | Tom Roston on CALCULATOR WATCH (BREAKFAST CLUB) | Miranda Mellis on LIMOUSINE (MELANCHOLIA) | Carolina A. Miranda on HAUNTED ACCORDION (THE WIND JOURNEYS) | Vanessa Berry on FIBREGLASS MARLIN (LOVE SERENADE) | June Thomas on CERAMIC DUCKS (A TASTE OF HONEY) | Madeline Ashby on LETTERS OF TRANSIT (CASABLANCA) | Dave Walker on ETTINAUER 226-XL (REAL LIFE) | Jonathan Lethem on SINGLE-JACK HAMMER (EARTH ABIDES) | Guy Trebay on STAMPS (CHARADE) | Annie Nocenti on PASSPORT (THE PASSENGER) | Tony Arcabascio on SHEEPSKIN COAT (BEAT STREET) | Alix Lambert on TYPEWRITER (MARY AND MAX) | John Sellers on WHITEBOARD (A QUIET PLACE) | Carlo Rotella on POWDERING CONE (REIGN OF TERROR) | Laura Miller on SEVERED EAR (BLUE VELVET) | Josh Glenn on CASSETTE TAPE (BREATHLESS) | Vicente Lozano on NOTEBOOK (WHERE IS THE FRIEND’S HOME?) | Jeff Malmberg on SPAGHETTI SAUCE (THE GODFATHER).

LOST OBJECTS (vol. 2): INTRODUCTION | Joe Yonan on MACRAMÉ ART (ill. Theo Ellsworth) | Ben Katchor on LUCITE CARRYING CASE | Debbie Millman on GLASS POODLE | Lydia Millet on ROCKY HORROR NOVEL (ill. Berta Valló) | Ben Greenman on WARHOL CAN (ill. Clara Selina Bach) | & 20 MORE.

FETISHES: INTRODUCTION | Josh Foer on DEATH MASK | Beth Lisick on MURDERED-OUT KFC BUCKET | Christina Couch on LEECH ACTION FIGURE | Kenneth Goldsmith on THEWLIS SOCK | Abby Rapoport on MAGNATILES | & 20 MORE.

FOSSILS: INTRODUCTION | Allegra Huston on SKATAWAY JACKET | Kevin Obsatz on HOMEMADE NUNCHUKS | Ian Bogost on DESKTOP TELEPHONE | Jeff Lewonczyk on CHA-CHA JACKET SCRAP | Kelly Horan on VOLVO KEY | & 20 MORE.

FLAIR: INTRODUCTION | Cliff Kuang on ROLEX DATEJUST | Ethan Zuckerman on LAPTOP STICKERS | Ann Shoket on LEATHER JACKET | Kembrew McLeod on KEMBREW MERCH | Paola Antonelli on MERMAID TEARS | & 20 MORE.

LOST OBJECTS (vol. 1): INTRODUCTION | Kate Bernheimer on MULLET WIG (ill. Amy Evans) | Dan Piepenbring on COLOGNE (ill. Josh Neufeld) | Doug Dorst on STRATOCASTER (ill. John Holbo) | Paul Lukas on VANILLA BEAN (ill. Alison Bamcat) | Mimi Lipson on DODGE DART (ill. Mister Reusch) | & 20 MORE.

ILLICIT OBJECTS: INTRODUCTION | Kio Stark on PEEPSHOW TOKEN | Sari Wilson on TOMBSTONE PARTS | Annalee Newitz on CAR-BOMB REMNANT | Tito Bottitta on MOONINITE DEVICE | Eric Bennett on DIRTY MAGAZINE | & 20 MORE.

TALISMANIC OBJECTS: INTRODUCTION | Veda Hille on CROCHET SHEEP | Gary Panter on DINOSAUR BONES | Jami Attenberg on SELENITE CRYSTAL | Annie Nocenti on MINIATURE DICE | Wayne Curtis on CLOCK WINDING KEY | & 20 MORE.

POLITICAL OBJECTS: INTRODUCTION | Luc Sante on CAMPAIGN PAMPHLETS | Lydia Millet on PVC POLAR BEAR | Ben Greenman on MATCHBOX CAR | Rob Baedeker on PRESIDENTS PLACEMAT | L.A. Kauffman on WHEATPASTE POSTER | & 20 MORE.

SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS at HILOBROW: PROJECT:OBJECT homepage | PROJECT:OBJECT newsletter | PROJECT:OBJECT objects (Threadless shop — all profits donated to the ACLU) | POLITICAL OBJECTS series (1Q2017) | TALISMANIC OBJECTS series (2Q2017) | ILLICIT OBJECTS series (3Q2017) | LOST OBJECTS vol. 1 series (4Q2017) | FLAIR series (2Q2018) | FOSSIL series (4Q2018) | FETISHES series (2Q2019) | LOST OBJECTS vol. 2 series (4Q2019) | MOVIE OBJECTS series (2Q2020). ALSO SEE: SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS website | SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS collection, ed. Rob Walker and Josh Glenn (Fantagraphics, 2012) | TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY, ed. Josh Glenn (Princeton Architectural Press, 2007) | TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY excerpts.

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