In this weekly series, Intern Alyssa, your fearless reader, will review popular short stories and their film adaptations. We’ll explore what works in each medium and what doesn’t, and how exactly the allure of literature can translate to film. Alyssa has no formal training in film, unless subscribing to Netflix and following Roger Ebert on Twitter count as formal training. She would also like to issue one big standing Spoiler Alert now.
Hey, Summer Film Clubbers! September is upon us and autumn is nigh, which means, unfortunately, that my series is drawing to a close. Next week’s entry will be my last. We’ll end, appropriately enough, with Everything Must Go, Dan Rush’s 2010 adaptation of Raymond Carver’s classic “Why Don’t You Dance?” This week, we’re discussing Michaelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 classic Blow-Up, based on Julio Cortázar’s “The Devil’s Drool.” So let’s get into it!
I think I may have purchased a bowdlerized translation of “The Devil’s Drool.” I read it and reread it so carefully, yet found nary a consensually questionable orgy or bevy of interchangeable topless women. Does anyone know where I can find the dirty version?
Little joke. Let me explain: there’s a lot of nudity, models, naked models, and implied sex with uncomfortable power dynamics in Blow-Up. But we’ll get to that later. (Please resist the urge to scroll through this post just to get to the dirty parts.)
For now, suffice it to say that Blow-Up joins Secretary in the club of adaptations that take great liberty with their source material (and their female characters’ integrity, but again—later). If we render the events of each piece in the sparest possible terms—man takes photo of couple in park, subject unsuccessfully demands he hand over photo, man later realizes something sinister’s afoot in said photo—then Blow-Up is a faithful adaptation. Let’s approach this a little differently than we usually do and quickly list the straightforward plot differences in each piece.
Setting: “The Devil’s Drool” takes place in Paris; Blow-Up, in swinging Sixties London.
Characters: In “The Devil’s Drool,” the protagonist (Michel) is a professional translator and amateur photographer. In Blow-Up, the protagonist (Thomas) is a professional fashion photographer (hence the models). While Thomas interacts with a variety of models and artists in Blow-Up, Michel doesn’t interact with any other characters in the present (a problematic term, Cortázar would caution) of the story, which takes place in his head/on the page.
Plot: Michel photographs an older woman and a teenage boy struggling in a park. Initially he assumes the older woman was trying to seduce the boy, but later he becomes convinced that the woman was procuring the boy for an older gentleman waiting in a parked car. He finds himself within the photograph watching the scene unfold. Thomas photographs a younger woman and an older man canoodling in a park and later realizes a gunman was hiding in the bushes—a fact of which the woman seemed aware.
Okay. So, I’ve come to believe, over the course of the summer, that what makes an adaptation faithful to its source material is not a strict adherence to its plot points, but a general observance of its themes. And, well, Blow-Up certainly adheres to Cortázar’s many ambiguous themes that allow for about a million different interpretations. The title “The Devil’s Drool” (“Las Babas Del Diablo,” in Spanish) refers idiomatically to a thin spider thread, and the story itself is as intricately woven as a spider’s web (sorry). It concerns the interplay between imagination and paranoia, the life of a photograph, the existence of truth—I even saw one interpretation that invoked the Heisenberg Principle. If a roomful of monkeys on typewriters could produce a Shakespeare play, they could probably also produce a valid interpretation of “The Devil’s Drool.” But the theme that struck me most was the inaccuracy of language. The protagonist, a translator (like Cortázar himself), grapples daily with the question of truthful, accurate language, and, well—it’s kind of a losing battle, as evidenced by the first paragraph:
It’ll never be known how this has to be told, in the first person or in the second, using the third person plural or continually inventing modes that will serve for nothing. If one might say: I will see the moon rose, or: we hurt me at the back of my eyes, and especially: you the blond woman was the clouds that race before my you’re his our yours their faces. What the hell.
What the hell, indeed, Señor Cortázar. When I tried reading this story after a fitful night of sleep, I was momentarily concerned that a lifetime of insomnia had taken a permanent, brain damage-y toll on me. Not so. Cortázar’s convoluted, nonsensical prose underlines the absurdity of language, and his alternations between persons imply the unreliability of a narrator. Later in the story, he states the narrator’s unreliability in terms that make Nick Carraway look honest and subtle.
And Blow-Up? Well, ambiguity is certainly a theme. The titular blow-ups refer to enlarged prints of the couple’s dalliance in the woods, the graininess of which prints imply a murder (a barely discernible gun, the shadow of a body). Thomas, sans camera, encounters the body in the park at night, but without photographic evidence, does it exist? Or: if a body falls in the park and no one’s around to photograph it, is it really dead? Apparently not. When he returns the next morning, the body’s gone. His hesitant participation in a mimed tennis game at the film’s conclusion beautifully enhances the film’s themes of ambiguity and perception. If you toss an imaginary tennis ball to a couple of mimes, does it make a sound? Apparently, yes.
I don’t think that ambiguity and perception are the most prominent themes in Blow-Up. I think the most prominent themes in Blow-Up are ennui and jadedness, as evidenced by Thomas’s abhorrent treatment of women as well as his desire to photograph the corpse. I have to editorialize here: I didn’t like this movie. I understand that it’s a “good” movie, or a “great” movie, or a “masterpiece,” from a technical standpoint. But what’s to enjoy? It glorifies misogyny and forces the viewer to watch what may be a rape scene (the aforementioned consensually questionable orgy). And, okay, yes, I get that the aforementioned scene contributes to the themes of ambiguity and perception. But I think that’s a pretty weak argument to make in order to excuse the film’s rampant misogyny. Look: Thomas spends so much more time physically and emotionally manipulating women, and asserting his sexual dominance over them, than he does questioning the truth in perception. I think Blow-Up is an accurate (if chilling) depiction of hipsters in mod London, but a successful adaptation of “The Devil’s Drool”? Not so much.
- The film’s famous montage of still photographs depicting the murder is, I admit, fantastic, and a neat homage to Cortázar’s “photo comes to life” ending.
- Antonioni pans to the sky in the park a couple of times, recalling Cortázar’s references to clouds passing in the sky.
- Both “The Devil’s Drool” and Blow-Up eschew typical structure—they’re meandering and plotless and compelling nonetheless.
- Cortázar liked the remake.
- This letter from cast member Ronan O’Casey to Roger Ebert really throws a kink into the whole “themes of ambiguity” theory.
- A brief blog post does not have nearly enough room to do justice to these pieces. I left out so much that I’d love to talk about. Commenters, want to correct my most egregious omissions?