“It’ll never be known how this has to be told, in the first person or the second, using the third person plural or continually inventing modes that will serve for nothing.”
– Julio Cortázar, “Blow-Up”
You may have seen Antonioni’s film adaptation of Cortázar’s short story – the film where the legendary Yardbirds play to a zombified London club scene. I saw the Yardbirds play once – we were seventh graders, never been to a rock concert, didn’t know what to wear. Bill had the right idea – jeans, Madras shirt, penny loafers. Jimmy was completely wrong in his suit and tie. Positioned somewhere in the middle, I felt comfortable enough to enjoy the show. Eric Clapton had left the band by then: so was it Jeff Beck on lead guitar, or Jimmie Page? Or both? No idea – I didn’t know any of these guys yet. Both, definitely.
Antonioni said this about filmmaking: “The periods of filming are the times when I live most intensely.” Don’t try to explain or understand a film; instead, “penetrate and enjoy the inner being of the film.” He’s still alive, Antonioni. Cortázar was alive when the film was made – I wonder what he thought of it. David Hemmings died this year, a bloated white-haired old man; he was the skinny young mod photographer back then.
As Antonioni’s film begins, an anarchic band of merrymakers surges up from a deserted concrete plaza fronting a stark concrete-and-glass office building. This, it turns out, is 25 St. James’s Street: now the headquarters for the publishers of The Economist, it was the first work of Modern architecture in this part of London, famous among the architectural avant-garde when it was put up in the sixties. The merrymakers, it turns out, are architecture students working as extras in the film. They’re dressed in carnivale costumes, their faces painted black and white. They are mute.
Cortázar’s story begins in the photographer’s studio. The photographer is the narrator, and despite the ambivalence of his first sentence he settles into the first person singular, present tense. He imagines his Remington typewriter writing the story by itself, the camera taking the photograph by itself – get him out of the way altogether; let it be a purely objective telling and showing. “But I have the dumb luck to know that if I go this Remington will sit turned to stone on top of the table with the air of being twice as quiet that mobile things have when they are not moving. So, I have to write.”
The cinematographer follows the merrymakers through the crowded London streets. The camera watches a soldier marching behind the merrymakers; talking amicably with one another, two black nuns in white habits pass the soldier in the opposite direction; the soldier about-faces and, still marching, follows the nuns. Another camera is positioned outside the gates of a factory; the besooted and overalled workers, carrying their lunchpails, are leaving for the day. After talking with his comrades, one of the workers walks down the street and climbs into a new convertible sportscar – this is David Hemmings. The merrymakers surround the car. Hemmings, seemingly happy to see them, reaches into the back seat for a one-pound note, hands it to them, they go on their way. The money was hidden under a newspaper – “Sniper in Town” reads the headline. The newspaper also covers his camera. Hemmings drives: all the other cars are blue and yellow; his is black. The camera is above the car now, following it, spying on the driver through the open roof. Hemmings picks up his CB mike (an obsolete technology now): “Blue 439,” he says into it.
We could go back to Cortázar’s narrator now, see how he and his machines are progressing, see whether he can rouse himself from immobility in order to tell the story. (We know that he does, of course – otherwise Cortázar would never have read it, written his name on it, put it in his book.) We could witness the precise moment when the narrator switches to the first person plural present and then to the traditional third-singular-past, when we discover that the narrator isn’t David Hemmings but Roberto Michel, a French-Chilean translator (Cortázar was a French-Argentinian translator); not a professional like Antonioni’s photographer but an amateur; a resident of Paris, not London. But we must do something else now. There was some other point I had in mind. Was it something about Hemmings’ studio (Hemmings was an exhibited painter; later he would become a director for television series like Magnum P.I.), or the fashion models looking like birds in their feathered dresses. “Love, love, love for me, yes, yes,” he croons to the emaciated, nearly-naked model as he snaps the shutter again and again; then he’s done, he looks away, he only sees for the camera. No, this isn’t it either.
I wanted to show you something about Genesis 1, about God’s persistent vacillation between first and third person, about man as image and likeness of this singular plural God, about the invisibility of the one who narrates this story – as if the story was writing itself. But you’ll have to look for yourself now.
“I raised the camera, pretended to study a focus which did not include them, and waited and watched closely, sure that I would finally catch the revealing expression, one that would sum it all up, life that is rhythmed by movement but which a stiff image destroys, taking time in cross section, if we do not choose the essential imperceptible fraction of it.”