The Devil’s Blow-up


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According to Keith Oatley, emeritus professor in the Department of Human Development and Applied Psychology at the University of Toronto, reading a novel can lead to a change in the personality of readers, albeit to a small extent. Books have the power to change self-awareness thanks to the unique individual experience everyone has while reading, as well as the learning of certain life lessons featured on their pages. Is there a difference in the effect of reading a story and watching its film incarnation on the recipient?

The author of Blow-up (“Las babas del diablo”) Julio Cortázar is one of the most influential Latin American writers of the twentieth century of Argentine origin, born in 1914 in German-occupied Brussels. After the war, the family returned to Argentina. In 1951, after the anti-Peronist movement failed, Cortázar emigrated and lived in France, where he remained for the rest of his life. In the 1960s, he actively engaged with leftist ideas, supporting the Cuban Revolution, and his efforts were aimed at helping some Latin American regimes of the countries of Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Nicaragua – in the struggle for human rights. His political orientation led to his works being translated into Bulgarian in the 1970s, even though their aesthetics and formalism were at odds with the ideology of the time. He worked as a translator for UNESCO, while also translating fiction. He is the author of thirty books of prose and poetry and several experimental novels. The Argentine writer’s pen is so bright and cinematic that many of his stories have screen versions. Cortázar loved experiments – very often his books can be put together like a puzzle or read from end to beginning. His characteristic feature is to present the important things of life with irony. Together with Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Mario Vargas Llosa and Juan Rulfo, he is one of the ‘father shamans’ of Latin American magic realism. The ideas of French surrealism, postmodernism, and Kafka largely influenced the world of Cortázar, in which every detail, every blink of an eyelid, or every passing shadow of a cloud, the flight of a dove, were important. The Argentinean was a master of the short story, and his stories do not resemble or follow the familiar formulas. He collects the obvious facts, mixes dreams and supposedly superfluous details, sometimes diverts his attention just as a man tells a story and throws a glance out the window. All the while he treads boldly in the deep waters of psychology, while his stories flow in a rhythm that should not be disturbed. From the very first pages, his readers are divided into camps – those who become his passionate admirers, and those who get lost along the way and fail to get into his rhythm. This is very reminiscent of the attitude towards jazz – a person either falls in love with it at first sight, or does not understand it at all. Cortázar himself often caught the trumpet, and the passion for jazz can be detected in his stories. He said writing made him feel free: “Very often I have an idea for a story, but I don’t have any characters yet. For example, I have a strange idea: something happens in a country house, I see it… when I write, I am very visual, I see everything, I see how it happens…”.

Blow-up is part of the book Secret Weapons, which immerses readers directly in jazz. It is a literary analogue of the author’s favourite music, which brings together the fantastic and the real in variations of a literary jam session. These are five texts on the topic of sadness and confusion, from which music sounds. The atmosphere is surreal, the characters move to the edge of understanding, and sometimes slide beyond it.

The specific story is of a photographer and his accidental photo discovery in Paris during the 1960s. At the perfect moment for the perfect photo, the story turns into a spacious description of the relationship between women and men and love on loan in a changing landscape of clouds and pigeons. A short and inspiring story about the things we don’t see, but which exist just like the ‘devil’s drool’ – cobwebs floating in the air in the summer in Argentina, known in France as ‘Mary’s yarn’. The situations in life can be so delicately different… The line between what is permissible and what is criminal can be so thin. In this case, a world dominated by deception is described, where a sense of timelessness is created – people and surrounding objects are woven into a network.

The artistic images are presented according to their appearance and internal states, i.e., they are made with a psychological characteristic that, together with the open finish, gives room for different interpretations. The author uses references and suggestions to orient the reader who cannot remain indifferent. The protagonist’s monologue also plays an important role in determining his rich inner world. The author manages to get the reader to remember the scenes, twists, and turns of the characters. The narrative provokes continuous thought processes and manages to keep the focus in the story with the impatience of how it will end. There are no unnecessary descriptions and distraction dialogues. Cortázar’s emotions and the experiences of his characters are transferred to the reader, with the final scene having the strongest emotional impact – there are glimpses of hope in it, albeit imaginary.

The film Blow-up, by Michelangelo Antonioni, was inspired by Las babas del diablo. The Italian director often develops in his works the theme of loneliness, alienation from oneself and the surrounding world of modern bourgeois society. He was born in 1912 in the town of Ferrara, north-eastern Italy. He studied business and economics at the University of Bologna, and then worked at a bank for a while. Subsequently, he wrote film criticism for a local newspaper, and in 1939 moved to the capital city of Rome. He was interested in painting, music (a wonderful violinist) and cinema. His first professional contact with the seventh art was in 1942, and in the following years he made short films and wrote screenplays. He made his first feature film in 1950, but became world-famous 10 years later with The Adventure. The film is dedicated to the alienation and inability of people in modern society to communicate with each other due to their emotional mutilation. The main female role is played by Monica Vitti, who, after the release of the film became an international star and the director’s life partner. The Night, The Eclipse, Red Desert, Zabriskie Point, Blow-up, The Passenger can be cited as Antonioni’s standout films. The author received two Oscars in 1967 for Blow-up and for his overall work in 1995, two David of Donatello awards, as well as awards from the festivals in Venice, Cannes, Berlin, Locarno and others.

For Blow-up, he shared that he tried to recreate reality in an abstract form that resembled a Zen experience by discussing this ‘present reality’. The film has no epilogue, because the idea is to resemble the stories of the 1920s in the style of Scott Fitzgerald, which show the disgust with life. The director did not want the film to be described as Italian, as London was the centre of the great photography of that era. To do this, it is necessary for the main character to be in the epicentre of events. It’s a life and a characteristic way of thinking, manners, and morals of young Britons – artists, publicists, stylists, pop musicians… A life subject to the laws of anarchy. Antonioni understood that London is the perfect setting for the story. He finds it difficult to convey the cruelty of reality – the beautified and sweetish colours must actually radiate aggression. New ‘aesthetic’ tools are needed because the old ones have worn out. The old ‘grammar of cinema’ – the way of shooting, building episodes through opposing points of view, certain techniques and established camera movements, in this case do not give vitality to the film. That is why Antonioni prefers to photograph real places with new suggestions, open to unexpected circumstances. Eroticism has nothing to do with the film, rather cold sensuality is felt – with a preponderance of exhibitionism and voyeurism. According to the director, in Italy, censorship would not allow some scenes, taking into account the Holy See. He said of himself that he was a filmmaker, a man with certain ideas, which he expressed clearly and frankly. He worked both with his mind and intuition. He didn’t sleep for long nights and took notes on the films. He often isolated himself and played out the scenes himself to see if they work in his own imagination. Blow-up acquired a final image in parallel with the shooting – the cinematic real picture of the situation that determines the behaviour of the characters. Afterwards, the author shared that he could do whatever he wanted – by going out into the street and mixing with the crowd to fully feel the essence of life.

The story takes place in London in the 1960s – a kind of decadence, an attractive place for cinema elite. A successful photographer whose world is a carousel of fashion, music, marijuana and easy sex, feels that his life is boring. Drawn into the abyss of despair of this dark world, one day he decides to make a photographic walk in the park, where he encounters a couple in love. Later, as he develops the film tape, he discovers that he has unwittingly witnessed a murder through his camera. The fact that he filmed the murder comes to light when he begins to blow-up the negatives, revealing details of the clues to a complex and chilling puzzle.

The film is a reflection on the inability of cinema to ‘speak the truth’, on the complex relationship between art and reality; between what is seen and what we actually understand. The action unfolds smoothly, allowing the viewer to follow the plot line closely. The implicit suggestion benefits from the colour solution. There are no flashbacks or interchanged sequences of actions in the main storyline. The screening presents a ready visualization of the characters’ images. It differs from the content of the story, but still retains the main idea. The director chooses to provoke a discussion about ‘apparent reality’. There is room for different interpretation, although the director makes a choice on behalf of the viewer and deprives the viewer of the opportunity to build his own image. There is no way to express the inner feelings and emotions of the characters in the way they are described in the story. The plot has been modified by the director and does not correspond to the plot of the story. There is also a change in the ending – also open, but hinting at something else compared to the narrative. This is the director’s version and point of view. The film enchants and convinces with the ease, clarity, and exceptional organization of the space. It is not difficult to remember the sequence of actions, as in the process of viewing, it is easy to sift out the important from the secondary moments. Scenes with background music give an additional dramatic effect. The gloomy sky, the pastel blue horizon and the colours together with the sound solutions amplify the emotion of the viewers and make them sympathetic to the experience. The perspectives are extended and there is air and free space between the characters and the objects. The only time a telephoto lens is used is the scene in the centre of the crowd during the traffic jam. The attention of the viewer, who is tensely watching the development and outcome of the story, is kept. There are no unnecessary distractions. The viewer is provoked to address all the details because they have to do with the unravelling of the case. It can be read through the eyes of the character. The strongest emotional sensation is created by the final scene – it leaves the feeling that there is some false hope.

What we understand from reading and watching is directly related to our life experience, as well as whether we have the sensitivity and attitude to look beyond the apparent value of things. The interpretation of the message depends on the perceiver. Recording on a physical medium is an action that implies more than observation – a kind of voyeurism. The camera is a fantasy device – people become objects symbolically owned by the operator. Their message of similarity to real existing objects is momentarily perceived, and at the same time they give metainformation beyond the foreseeable – similar to signs-indices, they leave traces of something more.

The reader and the viewer translate for themselves the overall suggestion of the images built by the authors. In some places there may be ‘dark spots’, a play of light that give space to the imagination to search. We see the characteristic signs, but a new semantic layer can be added to them – the author’s poetics, conditioned by a certain sensitivity of the perceiver and his cultural conditioning. Literary and screen images are similar in that they have physical characteristics – graphic and iconic, and at the same time they are symbiotic with something ephemeral – cultural, philosophical, psychoanalytic, sociological, anthropological, semiotic and semantic metadata. In order not to violate the reference, precision is required to determine the different nuances. It is necessary to recognize hidden dependencies and equivalents in order to convey their meaning most accurately in the mind of the observer. The idea of beauty and its expression is embedded in one’s original perceptions of the world encoded by signs. It is difficult to reach an agreement between all people on the way of decoding – it is not unambiguous. No absolute object analysis criterion exists

– what is visible and what is not. The observer works with perception and suggestion; one can sense something new through the prism of one’s Gestalt – one’s own self-awareness, seasoned with peculiar scents and colours. Thanks to one’s innate intuitive sensitivity, one can judge for oneself. Screen images as a denotative message are a mechanical photographic analogue of reality – a carefully crafted object selected and shaped according to the professional, aesthetic, and ideological norms of the subject – a message without a code. But on the other hand, they also suggest another – a secondary reading, an additional meaning with a socially engaging role – a message with a code. In order for a message to be clearly read, the recipient needs to become familiar with and aware of the circumstances surrounding it. Through the connotation of perception and knowledge, all information is taken into account to make the reading complete. There is an invisible thread with the hidden meaning of images – how they are used in a specific context – with their most appropriate meaning, given their use in connection with human destiny. A hidden network of concepts and images in which the whole universe is involved.

The Devil’s Blow-up

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