On Antonioni’s Late Modernism

Curator's Note

In 1975 African Cinema ceased being a terra incognita of film culture – the Senegalese directors Ousmane Sembene and Djibril Diop Mambéty, for example, have already emerged with major films like Xala (1974) or Touki Bouki (1974) to name only the most famous works of this period. While I don’t want to claim any direct correspondence between Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975) and those works, it is nonetheless striking how a director, who embodies the legacy of European high culture maybe like no other, exposes his film to a possible self-critique of its informing colonial imaginaries and its afterlives. That Antonioni’s modernism is late could also be understood in the sense that the status of European art as the very epicenter of modernism is beginning to crumble, paving the way not only for “American” postmodernism, but also for a new modernism or new modernisms to emerge from the former “Third World.” This movement from Europe to America to Africa is the very trajectory that Antonioni’s three MGM productions are tracking from the London of Blow-up to the Los Angeles of Zabriskie Point to the African deserts of The Passenger. And if we take the title of the film at its word, the spatial movement of The Passenger traces a subsequent passage from North to South in Locke’s (Jack Nicholson) journey from London to Munich to Barcelona to Osuna in the Southern Spanish community of Sevilla close to the gulf of Gibraltar. In this passage between North and South, Europa and Africa, Spain and Morocco, the film finds its ending with what is most likely one of the most virtuoso long take-sequences in the history of cinema: I am, of course, talking about the seven uncut minutes in which the camera impossibly moves out of the barred windows of Locke’s hotel room and slowly encircles the place in front of the hotel to finally return its gaze to the outside of the same window through which we see that Locke has meanwhile been killed— in the off-screen.

The adventure of the passenger ends in a nameless death in a hotel named “Gloria.” Despite the bitter pessimism of the mortal unhappy end, there is undoubtedly some glorying here in the absolute aestheticism of Antonioni’s camera that is the very signature of his modernism. Whatever this camera movement might mean, it first and foremost “means itself”; it signifies its own beauty. As if taking the famous MGM-logo “Ars gratia Artis” at its most literal, the pure aesthetic reigns supreme in this long take. But it should have become clear that Antonioni’s modernism is political not despite its aestheticism but precisely due to it. It is precisely in the aestheticist autonomy of the camera, its dispersion and laterality, that The Passenger articulates a politics of form that escapes the pitfalls of postmodern irony, and likewise postrevolutionary melancholy. For it is of decisive importance not to misunderstand this final moment as an ironic or melancholic detachment from history.

To conclude with some thoughts on Antonioni’s political aestheticism: What Fredric Jameson is not tired of teaching us is to reverse the traditional question of the form of the content to the content of the form itself. So, bluntly asked: what’s the content of the form in the case of the final shot? I will restrict myself to only one possible, speculative answer: The topographical dwelling of the camera in the dusky materiality of the town’s seemingly pre-modern, archaic architecture and desert grounds is the spatial allegory of a (geo)political interspace and interval that opens a new configuration between Europe and Africa in a passage that separates and unites them at the same time: A synchronicity of the nonsynchronous, temporally and spatially, diachronic and synchronic. Maybe “utopia” is too much of a messianic notion to grasp this allegorical space that emerges at the end of the Passenger precisely as a “passage.” Its transcultural intermediacy also points toward a postcolonial and post-imperialistic reconciliation of hitherto antagonistic geopolitical spaces. In an important passage of his Signatures of the Visible about the intertwinement of the aesthetic autonomy and its historical outside, Jameson claims that imperialism is the historical determinant of high modernism:

The very emergence of the term language in this sense—the “language” of film, say—is itself symptomatic of the way in which a dwelling in that new autonomous aesthetic space and an attention to the material qualities and properties of its specific “language” now begin to peel the sign from off the referent and to reorganize the former into an object in its own right—that is to say, into something possessing “autonomy.” What is absolutely presupposed here is the identity between this historical process and what we call high modernism itself, which will be understood, not as the designation of specific artistic movements, nor first and foremost as a matter of style, but rather as the cultural dominant of a specific mode of production (or rather, of a specific stage or moment of such a mode of production: since I argue elsewhere that “modernism” characterizes the second stage of capitalism—its monopoly stage or the so-called “age of imperialism”).[i]

If Jameson understands high modernism as the cultural dominant of the imperialist stage of capitalism, then late modernism perhaps is not the dominant but the latent undercurrent of a postimperialist and postcolonial stage. This is condensed as the content of the form of the very final shot of The Passenger that concludes the film like a short musical coda. In the mesmerizing dusk of the evening, a car departs as the camera pans right to put the entrance of Hotel Gloria into view in a long shot. An old man with a dog, whom we’ve seen before in the background of the previous shot, walks along the streets while the hotel owner steps out of the hotel door. Gentle Spanish guitar music is heard on the soundtrack as the final credits appear.

We should resist the temptation to see only a further twist of aestheticist indifference in this strange turn from the cinematic tour de force of the free-floating camera to an image of contemplative calmness and natural beauty in which the signs of modernity leave the frame with the off-screen exit of the car. As argued above, I see this last image of the film as the culmination of a spatial allegory of a postcolonial interspace between Europe and Africa, “First World” and “Third World,” modernity and tradition – a hybrid space that seems pacified by a short moment of the transitional passage from day to night in the glow of dusk. No longer haunted anymore by the persisting gaze of a modernist camera, the final shot seems to stage a return to a neorealist belief in the redemptive potency of the image and its capacity to capture the very concreteness of the physical world. After working through the abstractions of postmodern culture in late capitalism, Antonioni returns to the neorealist gesture of his earliest works. So curious is Antonioni’s late modernism. It is for us to decide if the glorious dusk of this lateness will pave the way for a new dawn of a utopic space that seems not only in endless deferral, but concretely appears in the here and now of The Passenger’s late and last image.


[i] Jameson, Fredric: Signatures of the Visible, London 1992, pp. 278-279.

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.