Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

The Cinephilic Pleasures of DVD Commentary: Watching the Passenger (1975) with Jack Nicholson

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

The Cinephilic Pleasures of DVD Commentary: Watching the Passenger (1975) with Jack Nicholson

Article excerpt

We're rolling now, so . . . I suppose the thing about an interlinear to this picture should be about Michelangelo Antonioni. In this period they had what they called the "art film. We first became aware of Antonioni with a picture called L'avventura. And this picture, The Passenger, was probably the biggest adventure in filming that I ever had in my life.

-Jack Nicholson, commentary track for The Passenger

with the preceding words, jack nich- olson begins his commentary track for the 2006 DVD release of Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger (1975). The words are enough to create a powerful tinge of cinephilic excite- ment. Here is the most iconic male star to emerge from 1970s Hollywood sitting down without an interviewer to narrate a film from one of the most enigmatic directors of the twentieth century. Since he rarely does inter- views, the relaxed attitude of the famous man with the famous voice at first startled me since it is unaccompanied by the dramatic layers of performance that I have come to expect from the actor. Instead, with casual ease, Nichol- son simply muses on a then thirty-year-old film-with (seemingly) no notes and no recent viewing to refresh his memory. (Whether these two impressions are true matters little since, as the viewer, it feels like an impromptu view- ing by Nicholson.) As his first words imply, this commentary does not consist of an actor sim- ply relaying behind-the-scenes stories about the filming. Instead, this peculiar narration oscillates between fleeting memories of the production and an appreciative cinephilic com- mentary that unabashedly celebrates Antonioni as one of Nicholson's filmmaking heroes. As suggested by Nicholson's characterization of the "art film," the commentary also often takes on an educational tone, with the famous voice informing the viewer of the legendary auteur's thematic and aesthetic preoccupations.

Despite these promises, in many regards, listening to the track can be characterized as a frustrating experience, especially when Nich- olson allows for long lulls in his commentary. Also, for fans of the actor, he does not give many concrete insights into his performance choices. Instead, he stays true to his originally stated intention of celebrating Antonioni, often veering into pseudo-philosophical readings of the visuals and the narrative as indicative of the interpretive ambiguities characteristic of the director. If one is looking for a detailed exposé on how it was to work with one of the biggest names in midcentury art cinema, this commentary would not be the best choice. Yet despite these shortcomings, there is something remarkably pleasurable about listening to the track. This enjoyment is partly based in the illusion of sitting down next to a megastar such as "Jack" and hearing his insights-playing out a movie geek's dream of visiting the actor's home and listening to him ramble on about his long career. But beyond this cinephilic fantasy, which is fleeting at best, there is something more profound involved in hearing the famous voice over the visual poetry of Antonioni, some- thing innately tied to the enigmatic images we see unfold onscreen.

Of course, the original film without the com- mentary track is already a worthy object of fascination-a complex filmic interplay between different perceptions of reality and identity that ranks among the auteur's greatest works. Similar to Antonioni's other "art film" classics- such as L'avventura (1960), L'eclisse (1962), and Blow-Up (1966)-The Passenger defines itself by narrative and thematic ambiguities, at least compared to the formal definitions of clas- sical cinema. In the film, documentary reporter David Locke (Nicholson, in easily the most passive performance of his career), for reasons never fully explained, trades his identity with that of another man who resembles him and who died in an adjacent hotel room in a small African village. Taking the dead man's passport and appointment book, Locke-now as David Robertson-follows his new identity's schedule only to discover Robertson was a gunrunner for African soldiers. …

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