“Profession: Passenger” by Asya Graf

Leaf Vignette | Vir Kaur Khalsa

Profession: Passenger

Three months after your last memorial I finally searched the public library catalog for your favorite movie. I admit I was procrastinating, but I had my reasons. I believed that the longer I put off the so-called work of mourning, the longer you’d stick around. But three months passed and you were not exactly around, so I figured I’d better get the movie quick. The movie was mentioned by several speakers at both of your memorial services and at a commemorative panel at an academic conference. A clip from the film was even shown. The clip followed a PowerPoint presentation of your photos, assembled by your parents, and the continuity from photos to film made me first mistake the clip for a home video shot by your parents, and the actress for you. I think you would have welcomed this confusion.

We were driving to Walden Pond that first summer I knew you, when I was supposed to be finishing my dissertation and you were supposed to be advising me. The windows were down and we were trying to clap and olé to Diego El Cigala, two Russians doing their best flamenco rendition as we fled from our American college town. The wind was tossing your hair around, and, apropos, you told me about Antonioni’s The Passenger, or in Italian, Professione: Reporter, or in Russian, Professiya: Reportyor, with stress on the last syllable like in French. You told me how you first saw the movie when it opened in Leningrad in the late seventies, and how you kept going back until you had the lines down. You were waiting for your exit visa, and because you had been expelled from university as a traitor to the motherland, you had time on your hands. The film reminded me, you said, why I wanted to emigrate: to move across borders with ease and style, with wind blowing through my hair as it did through the hair of the Girl played by Maria Schneider. I hadn’t seen the movie and couldn’t then call to mind an image of Maria Schneider, but looking over at you in the passenger seat brushing back a stray bit of hair from your mouth, your fingers skimming the air currents out the window, I thought, why bother with the movie when here is the real thing?

 

In the winter of last year, when I no longer had the real thing nor any hope of another memorial, I set about trying to locate a copy of The Passenger, a task that proved to be more difficult than I had imagined. According to a catalog search I ran at home, our neighborhood branch of the public library had a copy of The Passenger, among other Antonioni films, including L’Avventura, which the writer Geoff Dyer describes as the closest he’s come to cinematic agony. I do not share this impression because you told me to watch L’Avventura and since then, Monica Vitti has never failed to remind me of you, with the result that two hours of Monica Vitti close-ups as she searches for her vanished friend is far from agonizing. Of course that was before, whereas now I might agree with Geoff Dyer in finding the experience agonizing, although for reasons different from his.

My search results notwithstanding, The Passenger was very much absent from the library shelves when I went down to retrieve the movie later that day. I did, however, find two copies of L’Avventura with Monica Vitti’s distressed face against a monochrome background in which a pyramid or a volcano is erupting but her missing friend is nowhere to be found. Where the film should have been, between two other titles beginning with P, there was an empty space just large enough for a DVD. On my way out I checked the catalog one more time and saw that the central library at the entrance to the park also showed the film as available, a designation I was beginning to distrust.

For three months before your last memorial and for three months after, I was in no great rush to find The Passenger, but now, the movie receding like a mirage as I drew near, nothing could prevent me from exhausting all avenues in a single day. So after leaving the neighborhood branch, I biked to the central library, but there too the movie was not on the Italian shelf, though I did find two copies of L’Avventura. Beginning to think you were behind all this, I even glanced over my shoulder, but saw only the teenager at the helpdesk. Reluctantly, he looked up from his cell phone and searched for the film in the catalog, but his search yielded zero results. However, in his case it was because he typed passanger, twice. I came around to look at the screen and we reviewed the spelling of passenger. After that, our search showed the film as available, and even available here, albeit in the English language section. I’d forgotten the movie was in English. Now I wondered if it had been there all along at our branch, and I had missed it, or wanted to miss it so as to have reason to keep looking.

 

The film packed away in my saddlebag, the urgency to go home and watch it had diminished. In fact, it was now most urgent to find a way not to watch it for as long as possible. Likewise, I had put away for later reading the essays you sent me, in the final weeks of your life, from a project we had begun together, then abandoned, and though I have since read and reread your essays, I have not yet reread your email that accompanied them. As long as the email is there, you still have something left to say to me. Just as in your last email you said, I can hear your voice in my head, so I too reserve the right to hear your voice at will, and the way I do so is by putting off uncovering all the clues you’ve left behind.

Back home and having run out of excuses to stall, I inserted the DVD into my laptop, but some five minutes after the opening credits, the disc spun and froze. I tried to restart and again it caught on the same segment, Jack Nicholson driving out into the desert in his manly Jeep, some half an hour before Maria Schneider makes an entrance. I tried to eject and replay, but each time when reaching the same segment, the disc whirred with a whiny clatter like alien beings sending desperate communications from another dimension.

I conceded defeat and ordered the DVD from Amazon. It was supposed to arrive in two days, but in two days I got a message from the post office claiming that an attempt had been made to deliver the package and a slip left on my door. There was no slip and no one rang my buzzer though I was home all day. At the post office the next day, I waited in line, commiserating with the others about the deplorable conditions of this post office located in a neighborhood that necessitates barbed wire around the roof, though none of us could say who would attempt a mail heist via the roof or why. After an hour I left with, presumably, a working copy of The Passenger, some three months and one week after your last memorial.

 

Not long after one of our Walden Pond excursions, you sat me down and made me watch The Passenger. You joked how, as my mentor, it was your job to educate me, though it had been months since we’d met for any proper advisement. It was early October and the air had turned fragrant and brittle. As the nights grew longer so did the time I spent traveling the familiar sequence of blocks to visit you, around the corner and then another from my apartment. On my way home I’d pass the women’s college common, turn left onto the main street for a short block past the conservatory, and another left onto my street. My building was one door down from where Nabokov lived the year he finished Pnin, his novel of a bumbling, tragic Russian professor in a college town not unlike ours. Nabokov, we agreed, would have shared our crush on Maria Schneider’s character of the peripatetic Girl, having mastered, like her, like you, the art of turning homelessness into inspired emigration, an extended expedition for rare butterflies.

Now, watching the movie for the second time, I realized how little of it I actually saw with you. Impatient to show me the best parts, or your favorite sequences, which as far as you were concerned came down to the same thing, you fast-forwarded around so that the film has remained in my mind a jumble of scenes from a long, hot road trip, a series of hotels, people languidly leaning against sides of buildings in the Saharan or Andalusian sun, not minding time not passing.

This time, I was immediately disappointed by the amount of camera time taken by Nicholson’s character, the reporter John Locke. It’s clear from the American version of the film title, and also clear to any sensible viewer, that it is the Girl, the cute passenger along for the ride, who is the emotional and aesthetic focus of the movie. Antonioni, however, didn’t intend it that way and had meant the film to be called The Passenger, so the story goes, because he imagined Schneider doing the driving, Nicholson the riding. These roles were meant to represent Locke’s, not the Girl’s, existential plight of passenger, someone who is, as the word suggests, both passive and transitory. However, early on in the filming it was discovered that Schneider didn’t know how to drive and Nicholson had to take over at the wheel. Ultimately, the title was changed to Professione: Reporter in the European release, including Russian, redirecting our focus back to Nicholson’s character. But I think The Passenger works much better. The passenger can apply to both Locke and the Girl, and this ambiguity begs the question: if both are passengers in their own lives, how do their styles differ and what’s at stake? If both make a go of self-liberation, I think you would agree that the Girl does it better and has more fun doing it.

Minutes after meeting the Girl in one of Gaudí’s apartment buildings in Barcelona, where she says she is studying the architecture, Locke asks her to help him evade his pursuers, which by now include Chadian rebels, his ex-wife, and the police. The Girl agrees and joins him on what turns out to be one of the sexiest, and most doomed, road trips in cinematic road trip history. Just after the two leave Barcelona, we come to your favorite scene. Locke and the Girl are driving down a country road between two rows of trees, every trunk painted with a white band, forming a tunnel behind and before them. Sunlight filters down through the leaves. Through the trees one glimpses the parched land, orchards, trellised grapes. It’s the kind of road made for a road trip movie, more an allegory of a journey than a real road.

“Can I ask you one question now?” says the Girl after a languid stretch in the back seat. Her pan-European accent has never been cuter.

“One you can, yeah,” Locke answers over his shoulder, as playful as Locke gets.

“Only one, always the same,” she says, suddenly looking serious. “What are you running away from?”

“Turn your back to the front seat,” Locke instructs her.

She balances on her knees in the back seat of the convertible, and as she faces backward, her hair blowing in the wind, the trees recede in a tunnel behind her as the car speeds forward. She spreads her arms out, like Locke did earlier in the cable car in Barcelona, floating over the expanse of water and the docks of La Barceloneta. Then the camera changes direction and now we’re facing forward, in the direction of motion, transfixed by Maria Schneider’s face framed against another tunnel of trees, this one sucking her in as the car speeds on. With so much motion going in so many directions, Antonioni here succeeds in showing what may be the essence of the whole film: motion for motion’s sake, anything rather than stasis, which in the film amounts to death in a rented room.

 

This scene always seemed to me light and joyful and exuberant, because I wanted to see it the way you did. Now I wasn’t so sure. As I watched the film again, I wondered what it was that the Girl’s backward gaze clarified—that is, how did it answer her original question to Locke? After the gorgeous shot of Maria Schneider against the advancing treetops, the camera gazes back, to show us what she sees: a never-ending road, always the same, two identical rows of trees, dappled shade on the pavement, white stripes on the trunks like armbands on two rows of soldiers, the elements of composition few and their repetition infinite. Was this a joyride or a forced march?

Emigration from the Soviet Union was, even when political, also an existential flight. Any hope for change in the wake of Stalin’s death lasted barely into the early sixties. Even before Khrushchev’s thaw officially ended and Brezhnev’s stagnation began, old habits of paranoia, silence, and conformity had regained their rightful place. The years of monotony and drudgery stretched backward and forward in time. I wonder now if you, coming of age in the stagnant seventies, felt an affinity not only with the Girl, but also with Locke, the man who would rather die a second death than live out his given life. Locke, after all, pastes his own photo into the passport of a dead stranger in order to shed his life, just as you were willing to surrender your passport without any guarantee that you wouldn’t linger as a refusenik in Soviet legal limbo. Perhaps for you, Locke and the Girl represented the two tangled threads of emigration—its joyful, nomadic spirit, and its bureaucratically curtailed, prosaic reality.

But this is all retroactive sleuthing, watching the film alone to understand what I could have just asked. Whatever the answer to the Girl’s question, the wind in Maria Schneider’s hair seems reason enough to keep driving, and to keep watching. If only I could find a DVD that would stall on this scene every time, playing it on a loop, much as you did throughout your life to remember what freedom could look like, even if, more often than not, it failed to live up to your expectations.

 

This is the scene that was played at your last official memorial, held at the central library where I checked out the damaged DVD. As we sat in the darkened auditorium watching the slideshow of your photos, Maria Schneider’s sudden appearance after your parents’ PowerPoint could not be interpreted as other than a visitation, given how much you resembled Maria Schneider around the time of The Passenger. Since then, your features grew softer and fuller, while Maria Schneider’s became more angular and spare. Maria Schneider died of cancer at the age of fifty-eight, two years older than you were, and three years before you did.

What would you have said had I asked you what this movie really meant to you? The idea of freedom? A lust for life lived in motion, resisting the need—­legal, nostalgic, romantic—to settle into an idea of home? I know you won’t mind if I mistake the Girl’s answer for yours and say that for you, as for the Girl, passenger did not mean a passive existential resignation. Rather, it was a kind of profession, a calling for exploration, a state of permanent transit and movement, an exit visa in perpetuity.

 

The memorials are long over, as is my quest for a working DVD of The Passenger. I would have liked the disc to arrive damaged from Amazon, to go missing, or to vanish in a post office heist, barbed wire around the roof notwithstanding. I would have liked to keep counting blocks, measuring out my passage from branch to branch of the library, chasing after the eponymous passengers and myself becoming one in the process. And even after I’ve succeeded in locating the movie, I’d like to find reasons to extend the record of these mundane details of my search. So let me tell you in plain language what I’ve put off saying by telling you instead of the movie you already knew: I have clocked in more hours and more miles traveling to your memorials, and trying to retrieve your favorite film, than I did traveling to see you in all the last months of your life. And none of those miles or hours will bring me any closer to you than I was that day we first drove out to Walden Pond, when the wind was in our hair and you cranked up the volume on Bebo and Cigala’s rendition of “La bien pagá,” singing along: I owe you nothing, I ask you for nothing, I’m leaving you, so forget me.

Just as you edited the film to craft your own myth of freedom, so let me also take creative license. In my version of The Passenger, which I think you’d like, Locke has come to a bad end, as we always knew he would, but the Girl has driven off before the police could confiscate the convertible. She’s still out there, crossing borders without passport hassles, turning up now in London, now in Barcelona, and maybe even going home now and then, wherever that may be, leaving as lightly as she arrived.

—For Svetlana Boym

 

Asya Graf’s poetry, essays, and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in Absinthe, Aethlon, Boxcar, Cimarron Review, Comparative Literature, Sport Literate, and Vestal Review, among other journals. She is currently completing a collection of essays about swimming.

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