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Doom generation: (l-r) Nicholson and Schneider in The Passenger.

The Old Ennui

By Ann Morrow

The Passenger

Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni

The Passenger is a pivotal film in the ’70s wave of European cinema that expanded the boundaries of the medium. Released in 1975, it stars Jack Nicholson as a disaffected reporter who drifts to his doom in the company of a sexy waif. Regarded as an existentialist masterpiece, the film has been rereleased by Sony Pictures Classics on the impetus of Nicholson, who owns the rights. Since this film-school staple was rarely revived anywhere (and is not yet available on DVD), its rerelease is a welcome event, especially considering that the story is largely told through Michelangelo Antonioni’s evocative and unnerving visuals (Nicholson calls it a tone poem). Though its slow pace may try the patience of younger moviegoers unaccustomed to meditative cinematography, The Passenger has a peculiar resonance that is increased, rather than diminished, by the greater global awareness of today.

Nicholson’s reporter, David Locke, is in North Africa on assignment, and the first impression the film makes is of his alienation from his surroundings, shown by the vast expanse of desert he angrily navigates after his jeep bogs down in the sand. From his desert trek, the narrative moves both backward and forward. Returning to his hotel—the structure itself is a poetic study in isolation and poverty—he discovers that a man has died in a nearby room.

In a well-known sequence that retains its narrative intrigue, Locke plays a tape of a conversation he had with the man, an English businessman called Robertson. As the tape plays, the film skips back to Locke’s encounter with his fellow traveler. For no apparent reason, Locke then exchanges identities with the dead man and leaves Africa for Europe. In Germany, he passes himself off as Robertson and unwittingly becomes involved in an illegal arms deal with an African guerrilla force. Through flashbacks, we learn that Locke’s marriage was dissolving and that he was ineffectual in making a documentary on guerrilla factions. But no concrete motive for his wandering is discernable, and though his situation is rife with political intrigue, he has little interest in it.

In Spain, he hooks up with a pretty drifter (Marie Schneider, the sexpot from Last Tango in Paris). She latches on to him, and for vaguely voyeuristic reasons of her own, she encourages him to continue to keep Robertson’s appointments. At the same time, his wife (Jenny Runacre, every inch an icon of 1960s beauty) suddenly decides to follow the leads that he didn’t bother to hide.

Nicholson is at the height of his star power here, and set against the film’s forlorn and mysterious settings, his onscreen magnetism is startlingly virile. Those settings (a London neighborhood, an Orthodox church, a Spanish scrub desert), seemingly untouched by outside influences, freshly underscore Locke’s estrangement from his own actions. With only a few strains of a melancholy flute for a soundtrack, the sounds of Locke’s travels—people talking, cars going by, a rustle of wind—augment the minimal dialogue to a discomfiting degree. The spare but heightened naturalism of Antonioni’s style has only intensified with time, and so has Locke’s oblivion to the cultures he passes through. Outside of its 1970s context, the existentialist narrative evasions of The Passenger are often more frustrating than contemplative. But the conviction of its final sequence still has the power to awe and dismay.

Repeating History 101

Why We Fight

Directed by Eugene Jarecki

The documentary Why We Fight is a frustrating one, and not because it fails to match the declarative nature of its title. By movie’s end, no viewer can think that director Eugene Jarecki intended Why We Fight as a rhetorical exercise. It’s an essay and an argument. We fight, the movie contends, because we are a capitalist, imperialist superpower ruled by a self-perpetuating plutocracy composed of weapons manufacturers, servile and opportunistic politicians and—under the euphemism “think tanks”—extragovernmental policymakers free from accountability to the electorate.

Well, duh.

Not to be glib, but this is old news. In fact, Why We Fight comes across like just that: a compilation, a CNN’s Greatest Hits of the Military Industrial Complex, intended to confirm the despair of the American left. As a kind of Classics Illustrated-style run through the postwar build-up of the arms industry and the integration of that industry’s needs into American foreign policy, Why We Fight is useful and effective. It could be shown—perhaps should be shown—in high-school history classes. The movie also reiterates facts of more recent history: The Bush administration consciously manipulated intelligence and knowingly lied to the American people to justify its invasion of Iraq, an invasion that serves the needs of contractors like Halliburton more immediately than it does the security of U.S. citizens.

Any American adult for whom this is news should be ashamed. If you’ve regularly read to even the third paragraph of newspaper and magazine accounts of the “liberation” of Iraq, you know this already. So, why do we need Why We Fight?

Gore Vidal, one of many left-leaning talking heads in the movie, provides a possible answer when he refers to the “United States of Amnesia,” the country in which news is quickly old news, old news is history and history is forgotten. Political scientist and author Chalmers Johnson gets at it, too, when he explains the concept of “blowback,” That is, retaliation against the United States by targets of American covert operations, operations in cluding but not limited to secret assassinations, governmental overthrows, the installation of puppet governments, the support of sketchy allies of convenience and strategy (in the persons of “presentable young men” such as Saddam Hussein, for example), and so on. Johnson points out that these clandestine activities—by their very nature as secret—create a divorce of cause and effect for the American public in whose name they are carried out.

Why We Fight is bookended by excerpts from president Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell speech, in which he calls for American vigilance, vigilance not against an external enemy but against the unchecked power and influence of a permanent military industry. Without a sense of our own history, without a clear view of our government’s actions, vigilance is a difficult task, so a prod from time to time—however repetitive—is warranted. Because depressing as Jarecki’s answer is, it’s less fatalistic than “Because we’re too lazy not to.”

—John Rodat

Theory of Devolution

Ice Age: The Meltdown

Directed by Carlos Saldanha

The first Ice Age, back in 2002, was a lovely surprise: elegant animation, snappy story, spot-on vocal talent and, mostly, a joyous sense of fun and lunacy. In short, it worked.

The same cannot be said of its sequel, Ice Age: The Meltdown, which has the trio of wooly mammoth Manny (Ray Romano), sabre-toothed tiger Diego (Denis Leary) and goofy sloth Sid (John Leguizamo), desperately trying to reach safety before the ensuing flood, courtesy of global warming. OK, so maybe it’s not actually global warming 2006, but Carlos Saldanha’s movie plays fast and loose with a number of details, such as historic timing and what exactly was around, be it animal or fauna, during the actual Ice Age. I’m no scientist, but did wooly mammoths really cohabitate with cuddly hippos and snarky anteaters, and did any of the above take shelter under weeping willows? For that matter, whence comes that ever-elusive acorn for which the returning squirrel/rat Scrat (original Ice Age director Chris Wedge) maintains hot pursuit?

This time around, fun is provided mostly by the presence of the effervescent Leguizamo, who gives his dimwitted character enough sweetness and humanity to elevate Sid from mere comic relief, and, of course, Scrat. Indeed, just when the movie seems like it can’t move any faster than, well, Manny, Saldanha inserts a Looney Toons-inspired moment in which Scrat battles improbable glaciers and what-have-you in quest of that darn acorn. Sadly, these are the only moments that rise to a level of inspiration and sophistication. The majority of the movie concerns Manny’s loneliness, which is suddenly offset by the appearance of a female wooly, Ellie (Queen Latifah); Ellie, unfortunately, thinks she’s a possum. There’s absolutely no chemistry between the mammoths as animated or Romano and Latifah as vocal talents, and maybe that’s a good thing—this is, after all, a PG movie.

Will the two woolies unite and make little woolies? What effect will such pairing have on the “tribe” of Manny, Diego and Sid? Who gets voted off the iceberg? Perhaps a little injection of Survivor might have invigorated this limping production, which in the end provides only a perfect example of a sequel that had absolutely no purpose.

—Laura Leon

Crotch Rot

Basic Instinct 2

Directed by Michael Caton-Jones

By now, what’s best remembered about 1992’s trashy-but-provocative thriller, Basic Instinct, is the crotch shot of Sharon Stone. And so not unexpectedly, the sequel tries to match that notoriety with even more prurience, and this is it: After a teasing panty shot, director Michael Caton-Jones treats the audience to a close-up of Stone’s boob job. Hopefully, this spoiler will discourage anyone from actually seeing Basic Instinct 2, because it stinks. Sleazy instead of steamy, the film is cheaply titillating claptrap that is not at all redeemed by the (barely involved) presence of respectable British actors like David Thewlis and Charlotte Rampling.

Stone is Catherine Tramell, the psychotic vamp who either commits murders or gets involved with murders for fodder for her sex-and-violence novels. Fourteen years after getting off in San Francisco, Catherine is again on trial, this time in England, where she causes a death while getting her kicks at 110 mph. Her next victim is the court-appointed psychiatrist, Dr. Glass (David Morrissey), who evaluates her. He diagnoses her as a risk addict with an omnipotence complex, and rising to the challenge, Catherine sets out prove that she is indeed omnipotent, as least when it comes to unbelievably stupid and suggestible psychiatrists. Catherine is in bed, either literally or figuratively (mostly literally) with almost every person the doctor is in contact with, including his journalist nemesis, his ex-wife, his colleague (Rampling), a drug dealer, and a hardboiled detective (Thewlis). Most of these people will be murdered, but Catherine’s come-ons are so corny, the audience may spend more time wondering why no one laughs in her face than trying to guess who is doing the killing.

Everyone is in danger, everyone is a suspect, and everyone is a red herring, so there’s barely any suspense. Not that any of the characters are at all interesting, especially not Catherine, who responds to every encounter with salacious hostility. At least in the original, she had Michael Douglas’ seedily charismatic cop to play off of, but Morrissey’s blank-faced idiot couldn’t carry a scene with a wheelbarrow. As for Stone, this is her worst performance ever, even taking into account the porn-for-morons dialogue. Everything about Catherine is laughably phony, including her American accent (yes, Stone is American).

—Ann Morrow

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