Aug 12 2007

Death of a Passenger

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 5:51 PM

The recent death of Michelangelo Antonioni reminded me that perhaps greatest European film set in Africa — and the most neglected Africa-based film of all time — was Antonioni’s 1975 film, The Passenger, starring Jack Nicholson as a burnt-out journalist named David Locke. Locke is on assignment somewhere in the Sahara — Sudan? — and he is shown disgusted by both the emptiness of an African leader he interviews and the very forms of journalism that allow genuine inquiry into current affairs to be turned into a dark comedy. Locke wants out and he takes an unlikely exit: he finds a dead man in another room in his hotel and takes his identity. He turns out to have become an arms dealer wanted by some shadowy aggrieved customer. Locke travels to Europe, where he meets Maria Schneider, who either sets him up for his assasination, or innocently brings him to such a remote destination that his murder can be easily carried out.

As in most movies that brings Europeans and Americans to Africa, the “dark continent” ignites some dark impulses in these otherwise good characters. Africa both liberates and spoils them. This is the grand “heart of darkness” theme that began with Joseph Conrad and continues to be repeated to this day (see the young British doctor in Last King of Scotland; he becomes unhinged morally and mentally by his encounter with Idi Amin). Nicholson-as-Locke also become unhinged through his encounter with Africa, though clearly the only damage he does is to himself.

Perhaps because the existential themes in The Passenger are so dominant, I can forgive Antonioni for using Africa in such a banal way. The dark ending of the movie is of course a reflection of the Italian director’s own dark view of the world, informed by the crackup of European civilization that culminated in the rise of fascism and in the blood and gore of World War II. Antonioni and countless other post-war European intellectuals and artists saw no avenues for moral redemption (there was “no exist” from condemnation and ennui, in Sartre’s terms). So Africa, as everywhere else, becomes a terrain to act out the existentially-inevitable collapse of Western rationality and ethics. The Passenger thus presents Africa as both the cause of the crackup of a well-meaning journalist and an irrelevant backdrop.

Since my own personal project is to locate, identify and amplify the sources of redemption in the Western encounter with Africa (and the collision between Africans of different ethnicities and backgrounds too), my own journalism about Africa moves along a very different pathway than the one chosen by Antonioni’s David Locke character. Locke sought out the Big Man in Africa and then listened to his lies, unable to adequately address them through his craft of journalism. I seek out the Little Man (and woman) in Africa — then give voice to their hopes and document their (often modest) achievements, aiming to raise the possibility of redemption from within Africa — redemption by Africans and for Africans. Not incidentally, there exists the possibility of finding my own redemption in this process of discovery. For like Locke, Zachary the journalist is the creation of a morally bankrupt civilization whose best-intended people seek to escape the immorality of their own society’s by finding real and spurious ways to “uplift” Africans. That these do-gooders often cannot tell the difference between the real and the spurious is their existential tragedy. Antonioni was too old to address such a contradiction in a film. The tasks awaits a younger movie-maker.

Comments are closed.