I’m not sure I should be telling this. Certainly Julio wouldn’t, but then he’s dead. What I mean is, even if he weren’t dead, he couldn’t be trusted to tell it. Artists are dishonest creatures really. They foist their version of reality upon us while making it all up. Writers, painters, musicians, auteurs—they’re all the same.
This happened in Barcelona in 1974. I was taking a year off from college and staying in a small two-star hotel on the Ramblas whose name I have long since forgotten. Worn and nondescript, it was located in a long block of shops and doorways with nothing more than the word “Hotel” stenciled in white letters on a blue awning above the door. Amid the colorful distractions of the Ramblas, it was easily overlooked. I often walked right past it until I devised a foolproof method for keeping track of its location. If I was walking up the Ramblas, I’d pass the bird sellers, turn right just before the flower stalls, and the hotel would be directly across the boulevard. (Of course, coming down the Ramblas, I’d pass the flower stalls and turn left before the bird sellers.)
Barcelona back then was more a city of possibilities than the trendy, affluent cosmopolis it has become. General Franco’s face still appeared on television each night as the networks signed off, but sensing that the old man’s days were numbered the Catalans were beginning to reclaim their cultural independence. A bustling energy was building. Proud cab drivers spoke of their city’s “destiny.” And yet a provincial quality lingered, a feeling of life lived at a more leisurely pace. Laundry hung from balconies in the narrow streets of La Ribera. Prostitutes and transvestites leaned in the doorways of seedy Gothic Quarter bars. And on the wide avenues of L’Eixample small shops displayed odd assortments of olive oil, cheese, candied fruit, stationery, and handmade wooden toys.
That’s why it was big news when Michelangelo Antonioni, the Italian director, arrived to shoot scenes for his next movie, The Passenger. La Vanguardia reported that Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider had the leading roles. Antonioni, the article continued, was one of Europe’s great avant-garde directors, known for his technical mastery, strict aesthetics, spare landscapes, and characters whose alienation matched the physical worlds they inhabit. I’d seen Blow-Up when it came out (which I’d just discovered was based on a story by Julio Cortázar, whose books I was devouring after coming across a copy of The Pursuer in a used bookstore), and another in black and white called L’Avventura, and pretty much agreed with the newspaper’s assessment.
To my surprise, the morning after I read this article, I was about to leave my hotel to go to the corner café with my newly acquired copy of Cortázar’s A Manual for Manuel, when a black-capped policeman in the lobby blocked my way. A film crew, he informed me, was about to shoot a scene in front of the hotel.
Through the red-curtained window I saw that the street was cordoned off and a small crowd had gathered on the sidewalk. The clerk at the front desk apologized and assured me that the delay would only be a few minutes. He ignored the ringing phone to join the policeman and me as we watched a small army of technicians run cables for lights and rearrange café tables and chairs on the Rambla, all directed by an intense, middle-aged man with dark, wavy hair in a blue-and-white-striped rugby shirt.
“Look! That’s Señor Antonioni,” the clerk said.
The policeman nodded. “Yes, the maestro himself.”
Antonioni was talking to Jack Nicholson, who was dressed like an American tourist in a light blue shirt and dark blue slacks. The director had one hand on his leading man’s shoulder and was explaining something—perhaps the movement of the camera or an emotion he wanted conveyed. Nicholson nodded. There was a sudden commotion as extras, cameramen, soundmen and gaffers scurried to their places. Then Nicholson approached the entrance of our hotel and smiled at the three of us on the other side of the revolving door. He pushed the door around full circle and, on cue, stepped out as if leaving the hotel to cross the street to the Rambla. Next to a bird seller’s stall he halted as if he’d seen a ghost. He slipped around the corner of the stall, dashed back across the street, sidestepping through oncoming traffic, and ducked into a shoeshine shop.
That was the take. Antonioni, who had been peering into a viewer beside the cameraman, looked up and nodded, which triggered a new commotion as the crew started to dismantle equipment. The police opened the barricades, and the crowd began to disperse. The long-faced policeman in our lobby turned to me and said, “OK.” I went outside and navigated through the crowd to the café on the corner.
After the commotion died down, I was sitting at a table by the window, reading my book, drinking a café con leche and nibbling on an ensaimada, when a handsome man in his late fifties or early sixties wearing a gray tweed sport coat over a black turtleneck sweater entered the cafe and walked up to the counter. I did a double take, looking at the photo on the back of my book and then at the man again. He looked just like Julio Cortázar.
Just then a large woman in a bright pink raincoat leading a child by the hand stepped into my line of sight. I leaned back to get a better look. There was definitely a Gallic air about the man. He stood proudly erect, and when he turned sideways to glare at the child I noted his dark sideburns and strong jaw. He took a long drag on his cigarette and turned away.
But Julio Cortázar lived in Paris, not Barcelona.
I tried to get a better look but the man suddenly tossed his cigarette to the floor, crushed it under his shoe and left the café without ordering. I jumped up and hastened to follow. If it was Cortázar, I’d ask him to autograph my book.
By the time I got outside he was already turning the corner, walking rapidly up Calle de la Boqueria. I quickened my pace and saw him cut left toward the Plaza del Pi. I still wasn’t sure it was Cortázar. The man turned into the entrance of a hotel framed by two ornamental trees in stone planters. I followed him inside.
It was a much nicer hotel than mine, with plush green carpeting and crystal chandeliers lighting a muted, wood-paneled lobby. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light I peered around but he was nowhere to be found. I asked the doorman if he had seen the man in the gray sport coat. He just smirked and hunched his shoulders. At the rear of the lobby three marble steps led to a wide landing and the frosted-glass door of the bar. The light above the elevator to the left of the bar indicated it was going up. I went to the front desk and asked the pretty receptionist if Julio Cortázar was staying there.
“I’m sorry, sir,” she said, shaking a head of lustrous auburn hair. “We don’t give out the names of our guests. You may call the operator and ask to be connected to your party.” She indicated a phone on the wall across the lobby.
At this point I realized how impetuous I had been. What was I to say if I called and he actually answered? I felt like a star-crazed teenager. It was only a book after all. I thanked the woman and went outside. As I walked back to the café I thought how silly I’d been. It probably wasn’t Cortázar. What were the chances? I sat down and read a few more pages of my book. But the notion kept nagging me: if it was Julio Cortázar and I waited in the lobby, I might get to meet him.
I didn’t have anything else to do, so I went back to his hotel and seated myself in a deep brocade armchair that commanded a strategic view of the lobby. Sooner or later, whoever he was, he would come out. It didn’t take long. The same man stepped from the elevator and turned into the bar. I followed him.
He was sitting on a stool, the only customer at a long, varnished bar. He had already given his order to the bartender, who was pouring a scotch and soda. A pack of Gauloises rested on the counter beside an ashtray. I sat down next to him.
From the boldness of my move he must have thought I was making a pass. He glanced at me out of the corner of his eye and, unprompted, said he was waiting for his girlfriend to join him. I said, “Excuse me, aren’t you Julio Cortázar?”
“No. My name’s Robertson. Englishman.”
He wasn’t fooling me. He spoke with a distinctive accent, partly French, partly Spanish. I attributed his deception to a desire for privacy. I placed my book on the bar with his dust-jacket photo facing up. He sniffed loudly but didn’t say anything.
“I admire your work,” I said.
“You do?” He seemed surprised and pleased at the same time, as if he didn’t expect an American to know his work. “Whose? Mine or Cortázar’s?”
He drew deeply on his cigarette, nodding at his amused reflection in the mirrored wall of bottles facing us. Finally, he said: “Then may I ask, have you read ‘Las babas del diablo’?…They called it ‘Blow-Up’ in English.”
“Did you like it?”
“And did you ever see the film?” Pronouncing it “feelm.”
“You mean Antonioni’s?”
His dark eyes focused on mine as if to inquire if there were any other. “What did you think of it?” he asked.
Until that moment I’d never given it much thought. It was just a movie after all, one I’d seen on a high-school date with a girl named Jane Johansson when all I cared about was if she was enjoying it enough that I might get lucky later. She didn’t. I didn’t. Now I had to think fast:
“Well, it wasn’t the same really, was it?”
The quickness of his affirmation gave me more confidence. “I mean, the movie was set in London instead of Paris, and in the story the crime wasn’t clearly a crime, although it might have become one.”
“Exactly! The ambiguous landscape of immorality! That is why there were the clouds. In the film he invents this stupid murder that no one else sees. In the middle of a park no less! Ridiculous! And those mimes! Were there any mimes in the story?”
“But don’t you think the mimes were effective? Especially at the end when they were playing tennis. It’s one thing I remember vividly.”
“There were no mimes in the story! Besides, the whole point was that the narrator was a translator, not a fashion photographer.”
He shook his head in disgust as if to say “Stupid people!” He drew on his cigarette, lifted his chin, pursed his mouth and exhaled a stream of smoke over the bar. He snuffed out the cigarette, smearing black tar over the golden crest of the hotel on the ashtray. A minute went by. He seemed lost in thought, tapping his fingers on the bar. It was clearly jazz going through his head, possibly a Charlie Parker riff. He turned to me:
“You seem a reasonable person. May I confide in you?”
“I’m here on a mission of sabotage. ‘Payback’ I think you say in America.” He turned to see my reaction. When I started to explain that we use the word sabotage too, he raised his hand to stop me. He shifted his whole body toward mine and leaned closer, breathing cigarettes and scotch in my face. “I’m going to replace Michelangelo’s script with my own. Let’s see how he likes it when someone tampers with his artistic vision.”
He leaned back, as if to capture my reaction from a wider angle.
“But how? I mean…there’s got to be more than one copy.”
“I’ve taken care of that. One by one I’ve been substituting them. Jack Nicholson left his copy in the hotel yesterday while he went out for a walk. When the maid was cleaning his room I slipped in and exchanged it. Pffft—easy! The last one is Michelangelo’s personal copy.”
This seemed so preposterous I suspected he was playing games with me, fabricating one of his stories on the fly. Enthralled, I played along.
“What’s his movie about?”
“More stupidity! It’s about a journalist who switches identities with a dead gun-runner to escape his past.”
“Huh! And yours?”
“My story is much cleverer—does one say ‘cleverer’ or ‘more clever’?” Before I could respond, he gave a Gallic shrug as if to say it didn’t matter. “Mine is about a journalist who switches identities with a dead gun-runner to create his future.”
“That’s a pretty subtle difference.”
“Perhaps, but critical. What is the point of switching identities if you remain the same person you were before?”
I pondered this for a moment, trying to decide if it was profound or ridiculous.
“But don’t you think Michelangelo…uh…Mr. Antonioni will notice?”
“No, because—and this is so typical—it isn’t even his story. An Englishman wrote it. Besides, in my story I have kept everything the same. Everything is identical except the ending.”
“You changed the ending?”
“Yes and no.”
Now I was confused. “Then how will anyone know it’s your story and not his?”
He smiled and blew a long jet of smoke into the air. “Because mine has a student driver in it.”
“Have you ever noticed how everywhere you drive in Spain you end up behind one of these damn student drivers going ten kilometers an hour? It drives me crazy.” He smiled at the pun. “If he can take a perfectly good story and put mimes in it, why can’t I put a student driver in his lousy script?”
“You don’t think he’ll notice?”
“I told you, I rewrote the script so it is identical except for that. Besides, the last scene is so complicated, he’ll be too busy to notice. I just need to replace his personal copy of the script. Will you help me?”
By now I was wondering whether I was talking to Julio Cortázar or a lunatic. If it was a game, it had gone far enough. “Sorry. I only came here to ask for your autograph.”
“You know, in my script, as in the original, the gun-runner journalist meets a complete stranger who is the only person he can trust to help him pull off the switch. I guess that kind of thing only happens in films.”
“I’m very sorry.”
He shrugged and finished off the watery remains of his drink. “Very well. I understand. Please forget what we have discussed.”
He stood up to go and with a frown of intense concentration snuffed out his fourth cigarette.
“Good luck,” I said.
After all that, I’d forgotten to get his autograph, although given my refusal to help I wondered if he would have obliged. I finished my drink and left the bar.
The next day I read in the newspaper that Antonioni’s crew was filming on Montjuïc then leaving Barcelona to shoot scenes in Andalucía. My encounter the day before with Cortázar (though it crossed my mind he never actually said he was Julio Cortázar), seemed like a strange dream.
Several weeks went by. I gave the incident little more thought. Then, one afternoon as I was reading in my café (I had moved on to the Swedish crime writer Per Wahlöö whose censored books could only be found on the black market), I saw the same man pass by again. Only he looked different. His hair was longer and he’d grown a beard.
Convinced it wasn’t Julio Cortázar but someone playing a great hoax on me, one that my own enthusiasm had helped perpetrate, I decided to see what the man was up to. He moved briskly through the crowds on the street, headed toward the same hotel. I followed him inside and into the bar. He had already lit a cigarette. A fresh pack of Gauloises lay on the counter.
I sat down beside him.
“So what are you doing here?” I asked, sounding more accusatory than I intended. “Antonioni is in Andalucía or Africa by now.”
I expected him to finally admit his deception.
“Oh, it’s you.” He lifted a finger to draw the bartender’s attention and ordered a scotch and soda. “I forgot to autograph your book.” He rummaged in his jacket pocket, uncapped a fat fountain pen, reached for my copy of The Lorry and signed it without even noticing that it wasn’t one of his. I opened the book and read what he’d inscribed: “From one saboteur to another. —Julio Cortázar.”
“I’ve just come back,” he said.
“The coast. I completed my mission.”
“You don’t believe me?”
“I don’t even believe you’re Julio Cortázar,” I replied.
We sat there sipping our drinks in awkward silence, staring at our images in the mirrored wall opposite.
“You’re telling me you stole Antonioni’s script?”
“Not stole, substituted. It was easier than I thought.” He took a long drag on his cigarette. “Michelangelo guards his jewels closely, but I had inside help. They were filming on the coast, staying in Marbella. Do you know Marbella?”
I shook my head.
“It’s nice. Nice beaches. Nice casinos. I got to know one of his drivers—a young Mallorquín who frankly drinks too much. He told me things that helped me execute my plan. How Michelangelo carries his script in an aluminum briefcase. How each day at the shoot he always keeps it in sight. The driver also told me he had written copious notes on his master copy. That was an important detail. Copying his notes in longhand on the facsimile took some time and was essential to my success…
“Anyway, this driver had his own ideas about how a film should be made, so he quit. The next day I went out to the location and applied for his job. Fortunately by this time my beard had grown out. I didn’t want to run the risk of being recognized again. By the way, I’m thinking of keeping it. What do you think?”
I smiled and nodded. It looked good on him. He seemed pleased.
“I soon discovered that everything the alcoholic Mallorquín said was true. Michelangelo was becoming more and more dictatorial as shooting dragged on, demanding that scenes be redone if they weren’t exactly the way he wanted. Naturally, they had fallen behind schedule. Each day, while the crew ate lunch, Michelangelo sat at the head of the table and reviewed what still needed to be accomplished. No one dared talk if he was talking. I bided my time, always keeping an eye on the aluminum briefcase.
“Then one day we stopped for lunch at a seafood restaurant on the highway outside Almería. The crew was restless and irritated. It was hot and we had crowded into four vans to get there. Anxious about the work that needed to be done that afternoon, Michelangelo only allowed one beer per person. It was an unhappy meal. Everyone simply wanted to get back and finish the day’s work.
“As we were leaving, Michelangelo and Nicholson went to take a piss while we waited in the vans. When Jack returned, he hopped into the passenger seat where Michelangelo had sat before. Thinking Michelangelo was in the other van, we headed back to the shoot. When the last van showed up without him, everyone said, ‘Oh shit!’ We had forgotten the director! The funny thing is, no one wanted to go back to get him because that meant facing his wrath. So, finally, we all decided to go.”
He lit a cigarette and laughed softly as he extinguished the match.
“When we got there, Michelangelo was sitting alone at the head of our long row of tables. The waiters were stepping carefully around him, afraid to clear the plates and glasses. He was furious. ‘To teach you all a lesson,’ he said, ‘I am going on strike for the rest of the day.’ He handed me his briefcase and ordered me to take him back to the hotel.
“It was the opportunity I had been waiting for. While Michelangelo sulked in his room I took the script from the briefcase and copied his notes onto my version. It was perfect. You couldn’t tell the difference. After I made the switch I told the others I was quitting and left that evening.”
He stroked his beard with satisfaction. “‘Piece of cake,’ I think you say.”
It was too preposterous. I laughed and said, “Good story.”
“You don’t believe me.”
He smiled defiantly. “Then wait here.” He slid off the stool, ordered another round of drinks and walked out of the bar. Several minutes went by. I began to wonder if he’d ditched me and stuck me with the tab. No sooner had this thought crossed my mind than he came back clutching a brown vinyl portfolio. He unzipped the top and dropped a bound sheaf of paper onto the bar.
“The script,” he said haughtily.
I picked it up, feeling its heft. The pages were dog-eared and coffee stains ringed the green cardboard cover. “Which one?”
“The original, of course. Keep it. As a souvenir.”
I opened the script to the title page:
Professione: Reporter (The Passenger)
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Screenplay: Mark Peploe, Peter Wollen and Michelangelo Antonioni
Production draft: 15 May 1974
RESTRICTED: Copy 1 of 24
Julio swallowed his drink, snuffed out his cigarette and picked up his Gauloises from the bar.
“Now, if you will excuse me. Tomorrow I return to Paris early and I am very tired. So, this is goodbye, my skeptical friend!”
I started to apologize but he cut me off and extended his hand. We shook hands and he left. When I got up to go I discovered he had already paid the tab.
That night in my hotel room I read the annotated script. I’d never seen a screenplay before. Throughout, Antonioni’s scrawled notes referred to camera angles, lighting and sound effects, actors’ instructions, even minutiae about prop placement. I couldn’t put it down and compulsively read to the end. There was no mention of a student driver in the last scene or anywhere in Antonioni’s scribbles.
When I finished I felt excited and dirty, as if I were an accomplice to a crime. I hid the script in the back of the desk drawer, worried that if someone discovered it I might be arrested for theft. Unfortunately, a week later when I checked out of the hotel to return to the States, I forgot it was there. Or maybe subconsciously I meant to leave it. I do still have the Per Wahlöö book that Julio autographed for me.
Recently I watched again that now famous ending of The Passenger. It would have been an amazing scene anyway but Julio’s intervention made it even better. Jack Nicholson is waiting for his next appointment, lying on the bed of a ground-floor hotel room in one of Andalucía’s white towns, and the tall French windows are open. The camera is positioned so you can see most of the room and through the wrought iron bars over the window. Outside is a dusty, sun-baked plaza with the arched facade of an ancient bullring in the background and a patch of blue sky in the upper corner of the frame. The soundtrack is silent except for the natural sounds of daily life in a sleepy village—a hammer tapping on stone, a boy yelling to his friend, birds chirping, the whistle of a distant train, dogs barking.
Imperceptibly at first but steadily, the camera begins to zoom past Nicholson’s legs toward the actions outside where an old man sits in the sun against the bullring wall and calls to a stray dog, and another man comes out of a faded red door to talk to the old man, when—Julio’s stroke of genius—the absurd little SEAT, with a learning permit on its front grille and a driving school sign on its bulbous roof, inches across the plaza toward the camera before veering out of sight as Maria Schneider, Nicholson’s girlfriend, wanders into view and looks back at the hotel while a solo trumpet plays a paso doble as if someone were practicing for a bullfight, and then the SEAT lurches across the plaza in first gear going the other way, and still the camera zooms slowly toward the bars of the window as a boy in a red shirt runs into view and throws a rock at the old man, who scolds him, and a sleek cream-colored Citroën pulls up and the two bad guys get out, one of whom goes into the hotel while the other distracts Maria Schneider, leading her toward the bullring as a woman in a red top and red shoes jogs by and you hear church bells ringing, doors closing, voices murmuring in the hotel lobby, and then, just as an abrasive two-stroke motorcycle engine revs, you hear a sound that could be a muffled gunshot or an engine backfire and the trumpet blows again, more doors close and the Citroën drives away seconds before a toy-like siren wails and a green police car pulls up on the far side of the plaza only to be surrounded by a crowd of excited children, at which point you realize that the camera is no longer looking through the iron bars but has magically zoomed past them, as if it were Nicholson’s soul freed to watch as one policeman tells the children to scram while the other walks over to the parked SEAT and tells the driver to move just as more police along with Nicholson’s wife race up in another car—too late of course—and rush into the hotel and into Nicholson’s room, which the camera is now facing, looking from the plaza through the iron bars again, for the climactic moment when Nicholson’s wife says she doesn’t recognize the dead man but Maria Schneider says she does.
The camera cuts to a final wide-angle shot from the plaza. It’s twilight and Julio’s funny little SEAT with the Auto Escuela Andalucía sign starts its engine, turns on its headlights and drives off, leaving the camera’s eye fixed on the stark white hotel, the desolate road, the distant hills, and a smoldering red sunset already half obscured by the cloud-filled darkness crushing the horizon.
Brilliant! And to think, for all these years no one but I knew we were watching Julio Cortázar’s version of the movie. If you don’t believe me, just listen to Jack Nicholson’s commentary on the DVD. He unwittingly confirms what Julio told me.
© Tom Gething 2012
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