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Final Undergraduate Essay, Spring 2017 (Cortázar, Antonini)

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Works cited

Blow-up: https://jessbarga.wikispaces.com/file/view/Cort%C3%A1zar%2C+Blow+up.pdf

Blow-up: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-blow-up-1966 [Find a download yourself, we can't risk anything here.]

Blowing Up Representation: Tracing the Aftermath of an Attempt and Failure to Capture Chaos

Like a sort of explosion, the expansion exacted in this essay has a distinct detonation point. A photo, taken by Sergio Larraín, reveals the presence of a couple whom he had not noticed prior. The magnitude of this event should thoroughly shake us, as it constitutes a revelation that machines are beginning to perform the functions of their creators more diligently than those who built them. And its blast radius is undeniable, extending far beyond the photograph to inspire and frustrate the efforts of post-modern writers and filmic geniuses to develop some response to our newfound subjection to the truth-regime of the image. In this essay, I will consider two such responses: Julio Cortázar’s short story Las Babas del Diablo, a textual ekphrasis which runs up against the railings of verbal representation in its attempt to capture a scene from the perspective of the nothingness which is the inevitable remainder or excess occluded by any photograph; and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-up, a thorough and harrowing exploration of the camera’s power of fixation and the ontological and moral quandaries accompanying the paradoxical agency of a captured subject.

My intention is not to capture the definitive meaning of the positions taken by these texts on the questions which they raise. Instead, I attempt to demonstrate that the works formally attempt to frustrate such attempts at finality by disintegrating and criticizing the customs of their mediums. By attuning to the differences in how this occurs across text and film, my analysis seeks insight into the distinct challenges which face both modes of representation in their attempt to retain a trace or hint of that which cannot be fixed: an ineffable and inimitable flux of dynamic interactions. Explicit discussion of narration and perspective is an important component of this project insofar as it attempts to jolt the reader or viewer into an awareness that they too are participating in the construction of the story which is being presented to them, the angle from which it is observed.

From its aperture to its completion, Cortázar’s short story sets up, deconstructs, and rearranges the basic building blocks used to stage narrative scenes. Pronouns, tenses, and narrative perspective are all called into question immediately, available to be dismissed with abandon or reconsidered thoughtfully. Thrown into a frenzy of total reversibility and substitutability amongst signifiers, the reader is stunned immediately, presumably reacting in exactly the manner stated by the writer themselves: “What the hell” (114). This admission of the text’s potential inscrutability draws the author into a union with the supposedly separate reader, as they are both puzzled and intrigued parties who have caught a glimpse of an occurrence but cannot quite discern its precise contours. However, there is perhaps one bit of wisdom to which our narrator claims to be uniquely privy: that it will never (can never) be known how this story has to be told. With this simple but true declaration, the yoke of critical scrutiny is cast off effortlessly, and the reader freed to read.

Yet while all the formal elements of storytelling are critically challenged and changed, the text quickly begins to distinguish and categorize various inputs which will serve as the stable material out of which this work shall be carved. The jumble of words which confused initially is now itemized as a grouping of machines compared to the very instrument by which the story is told: the typewriter. Only by understanding the pieces as distinct and stable entities can we work towards piecing together their possible functions and combinations. Our first clue to approaching this task comes in the form of a rare declarative assertion from the author which distinguishes two classes of objects: “A car: like saying a lighted streetlamp, a park bench. Never like saying wind, sunlight, those elements always new to the skin and the eyes” (122).  Why are such utterances incomparable? Let us consider what Cortázar has to say about these crucial keywords in the text.

Wind and sunlight represent natural elements to which we are constitutively exposed and environments within which we are constantly enveloped. Notably, neither entity can be truly captured and fixed in a photograph; in fact, the opposite is suggested when Michel is “caught and fixed by the sun, giving it [his] face and ears and hands” (118). Such forces are beyond the scope of human mastery, a powerful flux of energy and movement which exceeds and precedes our methods of representational capture. The car and park bench, however, are unmistakably modern markers of a distinct mode of civilizational enclosure, in which the captured subject is cloistered from total exposure to light and air. In two separate instances, Cortázar suggests that such machines can work to displace or rework humans’ relationship to things like wind and sunlight.

First, the man watching the couple on the bench is characterized as having disappeared within his car, “that wretched, private cage” (122). His immersion within infrastructure is so great that even his mouth is characterized as a machine moving “on wheels, independent and involuntary” (125). While his existence is connoted with abjection and emptiness, Cortázar suggests a second possible mode of capture via the camera, which is the catalyst engendering the miraculous and poetic flight on the part of the young boy, “disappearing like a gossamer filament of angel-spit in the morning air” (125). Michel’s lens captures an eternal and primordial scene: prey escaping its predator by means of a chance distraction. And yet the scene must necessarily exceed its representation, for the camera cannot impress upon us the adrenaline of the moment, felt only from the perspective of the boy dashing away madly, protected and “illumined by a total love, by the availability analogous to the wind and the streets” (121). This analogy can only be deduced experientially, in situ, never via a negative which records nothing at all about the wind.

So, we have a transient youth who disappears like a gust of wind and a soulless, fallen man who seeks to capture him using a woman as a kind of tool, in fact “a metal weathercock” (119). This impossible yet eternal cat-and-mouse game provides the basic outline for the opposition and conflict occurring on the actual stage of the city plaza, but this story ends somewhere else, alone in a fifth-floor apartment poring over the photographic aftermath. Michel at first weakly attempts to insist that his gizmo was the key spur which saved the child, but such a paltry justification for his act quickly collapses. As he dizzies into a spiral of revision and reinterpretation attempting to understand what he has actually done, Michel completely loses grasp of his sense of agency and temporality, mirroring the reader’s initial experience. Michel realizes he is utterly powerless to control the mutually-inevitable outcomes of capture and escape in the endless dance of hunter and hunted. In a gruesome metamorphosis, he becomes imprisoned within his own machine, condemned “to be only the lens of my camera, something fixed, rigid, incapable of intervention” (130). But this state of extreme dissociation triggers a miracle revealing the image utterly anew.

As Michel approaches the photograph and fully exposes himself to it, something strange happens: he disappears. In Cortázar’s words: “There was nothing left of me, a phrase in French which I would never have to finish, a typewriter on the floor, a chair that squeaked and shook, fog” (128). Once the narrator dissipates into a mist leaving behind only the tools of their trade, readers are bound to be curious how the story might possibly continue. The answer is rather surprising: instead of returning to the formal experiments which opened the work, Cortázar describes a fantastical reanimation of the photographical scene in which the subjects “were alive, moving, they were deciding and had decided” (129). Such an inversion of the traditional order of agency allows the boy to stage a second escape, a miracle which takes him to “his precarious paradise” (131).

Michel’s experience with the photograph hints towards an ecstatic mode of reading (textual and visual) which takes the work as a site of an opening for an offering which threads one’s own gossamer angel-spittle into the flux and flow of wind and sun surrounding the literary subject so that it might be (re)animated via an act of reading which bridges between the represented something and the utterly inimitable “nothingness, the true solidifier of the scene” (126). The openness and exposure which characterizes such a massive phenomenon requires relinquishing the notion of understanding-as-possession. Michel briefly realizes this fact before noticing the couple and readying his camera, while “watching the red and black motorboats passing below without it occurring to me to think photographically of the scenes, nothing more than letting myself go in the letting go of objects, running immobile in the stream of time” (118). This mutual letting-go (which one might read along the lines of Heidegger’s notion of Gelassenheit or ‘release-ment’) provides a way to experience the flow of the scene without the camera’s injunction to fix and explain it.

In a reversal of our normal explanations for truth, Cortázar points us towards the viewer’s changing, subjective interpretation rather than the static, objective object of the photograph itself. But who exactly is interpreting this image? The narrator’s words are a thicket of trickery (116):
It’s going to be difficult because nobody really knows who it is telling it, if I am I or what actually occurred or what I’m seeing (clouds, and once in a while a pigeon) or if, simply, I’m telling a truth which is only my truth, and then is the truth only for my stomach, for this impulse to go running out and to finish up in some manner with, this, whatever it is.
So, with whom are we speaking? Is it ‘I’ telling the tale or is it Michel? Are the two different? Such questions echo the confusions engendered by the pronominal experimentation at the opening and should remind the reader that Cortázar is explicitly asking his reader to insert their own subjective presence into the text, to take up a position within this experimental stand-off which he has organized. After all, Michel’s account (if it even is truly his own) is peppered with admissions of inadequacy and unreliability—why ought the reader to even accede to this version of events?

Despite the concealment or disappearance of our narrator, the doer accountable for the deed, Cortázar’s text is filled with a staggering array of justifications for why the story must be told by this ‘I’ who needs to relieve their stomach of its overwhelming queasiness. We are given at least three distinct reasons. First, “I’m less compromised than the rest” (115), an assertion of moral distance and impartiality. Second, I “see only the clouds and can think without being distracted, write without being distracted (there goes another, with a grey edge)” (115), an ironic invocation of focus and clear-headedness that is fogged by another notable appearance of a cloud. Third, I “am dead (and I’m alive, I’m not trying to fool anybody” (115). Such contradictory and confusing claims make a strange argument in favor of our narrator’s credibility. No wonder there are such pains undertaken to quell anxieties about the suitability of this candidate. But if we let go of the perspective which requires the story to be a scene we can discern, an object we can hold, then perhaps there appears a different revelation about the relationship between writer and reader.

This story’s seminal secret is scripted in the sky with shape-shifting signs—little wonder, then, that it should be so difficult to discover. The clouds which pass outside the lens’ field of vision are noted by the narrator in parenthetical passages throughout the story, providing directional clues for our interpretive focus. Clouds appear initially when the narrator is declaring his initial focus, later when he “imagine[s] the possible endings” (123), and finally with Michel in tears during the ultimate breakdown of both the story and the psyche, beneath a “big white cloud, as on all these days, all this untellable time. What remains to be said is always a cloud” (131). Clouds emerge within the flux and flow of wind and sun, not from our mouths in our language. And yet they are the only thing remaining to be spoken at the end, but this final moment is also “the one at the beginning, which in the end is the best of the periods when you want to tell something” (115).  The reader experiences the story’s beginning after its end, utterly disjointed from the temporality of the writer who is suspended between posthumous speech and mute death. The story’s ‘life’ (if it is to be called that) thus cannot be found via a linear, plot-based reading; rather, the interpreter must measure its movement according to the cyclical, cosmic time which governs the flux and flow of wind patterns and celestial rotations, relinquishing one’s own firm understanding of temporality in order to let the sun and clouds deliver their own ineffable narrative.

However, it is important to keep in mind that Michel only experiences this ecstatic vision after many maddening reexaminations of the image. He must allow himself to be captured and fixed by the photograph in order to surrender his agency to its newly-reanimated subjects. This experience asks of the shot’s composer a god-like capacity containing a great danger. The risks inherent to the vivifying powers of representation and interpretation are beautifully explored in Antonioni’s film adaptation, which brilliantly uses its medium to place the viewer in the position of the camera itself. Our protagonist is again a photographer, albeit with a very different approach to the craft than Michel’s. Thomas is a high-fashion photographer who thoughtlessly manipulates and uses women as props for artificially-staged productions, a far cry from Michel’s seemingly-innocent quest to capture a candid kiss in the wild. Yet when Thomas ventures beyond his studio into the park, his surprise shot catalyzes a truly intriguing encounter with the photographic subject.

Unlike Michel, Thomas meets with the subject of his photograph after the image is taken. She, like her Cortázarian counterpart, is upset with having being caught unawares. Thomas does not merely believe that he is justified in photographing her, but haughtily asserts that most women would pay for her opportunity. Within Thomas’ work-context, women are not essentially subjects but rather extensions of the photographic enterprise of capturing feminine beauty (a project which doubtless lures little boys nearly as effectively as the trap laid in the Parisian plaza). This frame is disrupted at the moment in which the photographic subject asserts her claim to her own image.

This negotiation over the rights of the recorded to their own recordings occurs strangely: through a flirtatious exchange of choreographed offers and deferrals. Barred between false screens and monochromatic backdrops, man and woman dodge one another through a duel of deception. Motive and feelings are not divulged but implied in unanswered questions and unfinished thoughts. After refusing Thomas’ ridiculous requests to model for him and deal with his wife’s phone call, Jane bares her breasts in an attempt to end the back-and-forth and finally acquire her desired film. Thomas, desensitized to such voyeuristic pleasures, is unimpressed: “Even the beautiful girls—you look at them, and that’s that.” But after realizing that she has reached her wit’s end, he gives up the game and flatly agrees to acquiesce to her request. Once it is no longer a bargaining chip, the roll of film is discarded immediately for a kiss whose authentic pleasure seemingly transcends the vulgar economy of exchange in which it was initially offered. This utopian moment does not culminate in coitus, but rather a truly beautiful and utopian moment of separation, wherein the two figures stand opposite one another, half-exposed and half-united by the nothingness between them.

However, this moment passes as soon as it comes, interrupted by the arrival of the absurd and unnecessary propeller into an abstract and useless white space. With this phallus lying inept, their drive to embrace one another is extinguished and Jane laughs carelessly, her natural beauty now given its own free expression without Thomas capturing it manually or photographically. Shortly afterwards, she leaves unknowingly carrying the wrong roll of film—the game of deceit never truly ended. In fact, Thomas transitions to playing a solitary variant of it as soon as he loses his partner, deluding himself into thinking his photograph not only honored Jane but saved her life. Inflated by this triumph, Thomas leaps head-first into another bizarre encounter with femininity, the infamous ‘casual orgy’ which razes his apartment in a blur of chaotic deconstruction.

Whereas Jane and Thomas’ dance feels effortlessly guided according to unspoken rules, the following group frenzy recklessly crosses all boundaries of consent and custom. The camera lurches behind the girls as they undress, voyeuristically inserting the viewer along with Thomas into a position of proximity and power over their exposed vulnerability. Despite previously abstaining, Thomas seizes this opportunity crudely and aggressively, ripping the dress off of her. His attempted or perhaps actualized assault is quickly transformed or concealed as a mere playful invitation to a raucous romp wherein all three characters gleefully smash up the studio apartment. In tearing down and swimming in the purple pool which was once Thomas’ backdrop, the girls insert their own inscrutable subjectivity into the previously-objectifying site of the photograph. That the viewer cannot discern the extent of their consent is precisely the point, in that this very ambiguity is exactly what exceeds and disrupts the authority of the image to truly represent them. Essential, too, to the internalization of this disruptive potential is Thomas’ willingness to disrobe, paralleling Michel’s utter exposure and submission which reanimates the image with agency anew.

It is only after this unruly mess has utterly mangled Thomas’ objectifying instruments that he is able to really see what he has photographed. Jane is not a passive victim but an active agent, and a murderous one at that—her true reason for requesting the film is to destroy the evidence. Thomas realizes this by tracing her own line of sight, a truth only viewable from her perspective. Whereas Cortázar’s woman is staring at her commander for instructions, Antionini’s Jane stands proudly facing the camera with not a backwards glance for her victim who lies fallen behind her. The ruthless image and the finality of its truth deeply disturbs Thomas, just as it haunted Michel. And yet, as if he still cannot truly believe in her capacity to act, Thomas dashes back to the park to confirm the corpse’s reality, abandoning the only evidence of the act which is promptly stolen.

Whereas Michel remains glued to the photograph, surrendering his very soul to the seduction of the image, Thomas abandons his evidence and quests out into the sunlight and wind. But the corpse too has disappeared, and all that is left of his grand conspiracy is his own word. Faced with the futility and absurdity of attempting to solve a murder mystery which only starts to develop after its fatal conclusion, Thomas wanders the roads alone, almost dissipating in the mist. Until he chances into a more absurd confrontation with the rowdy band of rule-breaking mimes. Just as the clouds provided the opening and closing hints to interpreting Cortázar’s short story, these inscrutable white-faced impersonators are inviting us to depart from Thomas’ perspective and join in a game whose very object is the nothingness which surrounds and solidifies each scene. Such a mode of play is categorically distinct from the other scenes which we have considered, however, in that it does not take up the material image as either an exchangeable commodity or a destructible icon. Rather, the mimes assert the separation and independence of their agency from its possible photographic capture, both deriving their pleasure from that which is invisible and cannot be represented and scream-laughing in a betrayal of their trade which calls to attention the audio-recording capacity of Antonioni’s film, a sensory layer supposedly augmenting its realism.

But it should be sufficiently obvious from this game of imaginary tennis that the film is laying no claim to definitive representation. Its final act is a disappearance, not only of the ball but of Thomas himself into the green sea which lies under the white blanket of clouds and sky. Zooming out beyond human games and guises, the film ends with a simple gesture towards a larger world which is beyond its own representation, a moment very similar to Cortázar’s conclusion. But the critical viewer must examine the differences in the two paths taken to arrive at this point. Such distinctions and commonalities are peppered throughout the preceding paragraphs, and doubtless more can be found each time one revisits these texts. Rather than attempting to corral them all into confinement within the space of a few final sentences, I humbly elect to suggest that my reader try to envision their task as a sort of challenge to offer their reading as a gift to the text. By this, I do not mean submitting oneself to an external truth that the work already contains within itself; rather, it is opening reading as a spiritual conduit in which the lost perspectives of those who have been captured can coalesce once again with the cosmic chaos from which they came.

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