Helvetica, September 2003

Passenger / Mark Frechette

by Justin Beal

The reality in which we live is invisible, hence we have to be satisfied with what we see

—Michelangelo Antonioni

In the opening sequence of Antonioni's 1975 film, The Passenger, British journalist David Locke (Jack Nicholson) returns to his hotel in North Africa where he finds an acquaintance, Robertson, dead in his room. With a straight razor pinched between his thumb and forefinger, Locke slices Robertson's photo out of his passport and replaces it with his own. He packs the clothes, gun and small black appointment book in Robertson's room before reporting his own death to the hotel management. Locke keeps the appointments in Robertson's black book as he gradually pieces together his assumed career as an illegal arms dealer. The film is punctuated with staged clips of Locke's indifferent interviews with political leaders and haunting, grainy footage of an actual execution filmed, in secret, by two members of Antonioni's camera crew while on location in North Africa. The film ends with a beautiful drawn out sequence in which Locke, still impersonating Robertson, is found dead on his hotel bed exactly as he found the true Robertson in the opening scenes of the film.

The Passenger was the third in a three-film contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (following Blow-Up in 1966 and Zabriskie Point in 1970). After the enormous success of Blow-Up, Zabriskie Point was a critical and commercial catastrophe. The psychedelic film about a radical student who kills a police officer before eventually being shot by the police himself, lasted only a few weeks in the theater, earning less than 10% of what it cost to make. The unknown protagonist was a 20-year-old French-Canadian high school dropout named Mark Frechette. Frechette worked as a carpenter in Boston and was a loyal follower of Avatar – the underground tabloid put out by the hippie guru Mel Lyman's Fort Hill commune. Antonioni's scouts found Frechette yelling "motherfucker" on a Boston street corner and approached him to play the lead in Zabriskie Point. Antonioni cast an equally inexperienced Daria Halprin as the female lead and named the couple in the screenplay Mark and Daria, leaving an ambiguous distance between the actors and their eponymous characters. As if by Antonioni's design, the documentary-style realism was further complicated when Frechette and Halprin became involved over the two years it took to complete the film.

After production of Zabriskie Point was completed, Frechette and Halprin returned to Boston to join the Fort Hill commune. Avatar had been shut down by the Boston police department in 1968 on charges of obscenity and Frechette donated the $60,000 he made from Zabriskie Point to Mel Lyman. In August of 1973, Frechette got involved in an impulsive bank robbery with two other Lyman devotees only blocks away from the commune in Roxbury. Frechette watched the police kill his accomplice and close friend, Hercules Thein, before he dropped is own gun, which was later discovered to be unloaded. He was sentenced to 6-15 years in a minimum-security prison in Norfolk Massachusetts. Hours before the trial, Frechette told the Boston Phoenix that, "there was no way to stop what was going to happen. We just reached the point where all the three of us really wanted to do was hold up a bank. It would be like a direct attack on everything that is choking this country to death. There didn't seem to be anyone else..." Frechette was two years into his sentence when The Passenger was released in theaters in April of 1975. Six months later, a fellow inmate found Frechette in the prison gym with a 150-pound barbell resting on his throat. The autopsy revealed that he had died of asphyxiation and though the evidence was inconclusive, the official police report claimed the bar had simply slipped from his hand while he was exercising.

Just as Robertson dies two mysterious deaths in The Passenger, first as himself and later as he is impersonated by Locke, Frechette dies twice in the hands of authority, once on film and again as himself. Frechette's path makes an apparently seamless transition from his life into his role as the scripted Mark and back again. While Nicholson acts brilliantly as a character who does a clumsy job trying to play someone else – Nicholson playing Locke playing Robertson – Frechette proves a mediocre actor in a part that is meant to be nothing if not autobiographical. While Antonioni allowed the scripted Mark to evolve under Frechette's influence, Frechette himself seems incapable of escaping from the shadow of the character whom he, unknowingly, helped to create.

Mel Lyman