Kafka in his antinovels attempts to show the absurdity of life as a whole; nothing is alive in this world or, at least, nothing makes sense. The processes are meaningless, authorities are incomprehensible. Chancelleries and institutions have no boundaries—it is as though the intestines have ruptured and the feces have moved into the peritoneum. The meaninglessness of life has become total. The world is in lockdown. It is like a clock with a bent dial. This notion of the death of time persists in the work of a contemporary artist.
In the beginning of Fellini’s 8½, the camera shows a city tunnel for motor vehicles. Trapped inside their cars, behind windows, people are suffocating from the smell of burning gasoline and lead salts emitting from their idling engines.
The world has come to a contradiction with itself: both the tunnel and the cars are made for speed, so that people can leave the city fast, but some are suffocating as a result of an adverse effect.
The hero wants to fly away, but his friends and the producer capture him with a lasso and drag him back down into the city.
The hero searches for an escape in rural Italy, Catholic Italy, Garibaldi’s Italy.
Everything has been destroyed.
One of the love scenes in the film is enacted by the hero—the film director—for himself. He creates a scenario of a sudden, estranged love affair.
Everything that’s straightforward, ordinary has been exhausted by newspapers and the art of the past.
The heroes of the film are very different, but they are all frightened, they predict the destruction of the Earth, as it were.
The main hero—the film director—is waiting for the end of the world. He builds a huge rocket that is supposed to fly over the Earth, saving a group of chosen individuals.
The rocket cannot go up. There are no cosmic Mountains of Ararat. These are unattainable things, and the film returns to self-replication, popular circus, farce, and old conventional heroes with whom the man who can’t finish his work leaves and passes through the frames of his own film.
I am talking about simple things—about how the construction of books, the construction of old oral stories, not yet bound in books, depends on the paths of humanity, the direction in which humanity moves and what it wants to achieve.
I have seen many films with different endings. I have worked with many film directors. Once in a trattoria in Rome, I met with a well-known film director. He told me that he had been writing that same day (not knowing I was in Rome) on Mayakovsky talking about my path. I have seen many films and I know how difficult their denouements can be, how they are becoming even more complicated, and I know the doubts that Tolstoy expressed at the beginning of the writing of War and Peace, that neither death nor marriage of heroes can serve as an ending. Even the death of one of the heroes can’t be an ending, because the story shifts to the life of other heroes.
In one of the remarkable films by Antonioni, L’Eclisse (The Eclipse, 1962), a man and a woman cannot figure out their relationship. The scenes evolve around the stock exchange, where we see the outcomes of bank operations, decisions that have been made and not been carried out. The world of material things has devoured the living beings. The film ends with a shot of water slowly running out of a leak in a barrel.
But this isn’t his most melancholy work. Antonioni has another film that’s more known—Blow-Up (1966), or it can be translated in Russian as “A Shot in Large Scale.” If we were to give a simple synopsis of the film, then this is how it would unfold (have in mind that the evental path, along which I’ll take you, will bring us to a dead end).
A young talented photographer is in search of something sensational. He walks into a park and takes a photograph of a strange woman. Later he makes many blow-ups of the photograph. Suddenly he notices a body lying in the grass under the trees. Then the woman appears again and wants to buy the photograph. A plan is devised to steal the photograph. Everything is disconnected and complicated. Then the photograph disappears. The photographer returns to the park but the body is gone. He goes to see his friends, but they are busy with their own affairs—something that today the film industry calls “sex” for short.
They don’t pay any attention to him and they don’t care about the blow-up—the attempt to sensationalize ends in failure.
On the way, the photographer sees a group of university students dressed in masquerade costumes.
They are playing a game of tennis: we clearly hear the fast, staccato sounds of the ball hitting the racket.
Then we realize that we are watching a mimed match—it’s a game without a ball.
There is no sense, no ball in the game—only the ghost of sound.
Its purpose—the ending has disappeared. Nobody cares about the murder mystery and its solution. It can be used in a newspaper article or in photography, but nothing more. The denouement has vanished. There is no ending . . .
Pasolini’s films end differently. In Uccellacci e uccellini (The Hawks and the Sparrows, 1966), for example, the story evolves around Francis of Assisi who sends his friars to preach Christianity to the birds. The Franciscan friars turn up in the contemporary world.
They successfully preach the commandment of love to the hawks and to the sparrows separately and convert them to Christianity.
But the Christian hawks hunt the Christian sparrows—that’s their nature.
The friars pray. A monastery, involved in the hectic activity of buying and selling of faith, appears around them. The friars leave.
They see terrible things—the meaninglessness and futility of birth and death. They meet different people in a deeply visionary setting, among which: a Chinese man for whom a woman gets a swallow’s nest from the roof of an old house. Their guide through the world of miserable lawlessness of strange tangled pathways is a crow, who has been sent to them by fate. The crow walks sideways, he is searching for something. In the end, the travelers get hungry and they eat the crow.
We have survived millenia, it was not for nothing. We don’t think that crows taste good in soup, we don’t believe in the height of irony of the denouement.
But individual denouements, the denouements of specific incidents change against other juxtaposition-denouements, as it were.
We think more and more expansively.
Conflicts occur not only between separate individuals but also between generations, social systems. Irony doesn’t help any more. It doesn’t save Antonioni, Pasolini, or even Fellini—a talented artist, whose entire film is about how man builds a rocket that is supposed to carry him out of this world into another one.
The journeys of Gilgamesh, who crossed the ocean with a pole, seem difficult to his descendents.
People write poems about writing poems.
Writers write novels about writing novels, film scripts about film scripts.
They are playing a tennis game without a ball, but the journeys of Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Pantagruel and even Chichikov must have a purpose.
Return the ball into the game.
Return the heroic deed into life.
Return meaning to the movement—and not to the record of achievement.
Viktor Shklovsky (1893–1984) was a leading figure in the Russian Formalist movement of the 1920s and had a profound effect on twentieth century Russian literature. Several of his books have been translated into English, including Zoo, or Letters Not about Love, Third Factory, Theory of Prose, Energy of Delusion, Literature and Cinematography, and now Bowstring, all published by Dalkey Archive Press. Bowstring was originally published in Moscow in 1970; it is a mix of autobiography, biography, memoir, history, and literary criticism. This is its first appearance in English.
Shushan Avagyan, translator of Energy of Delusion, has also translated the works of Armenian poet S. Kurghinian. She is working on her doctoral degree in Comparative Literature at Illinois State University.