Notes Toward a Film Adaptation of Roberto Bolaño’s "2666"

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“When he woke up he thought he’d dreamed about a movie he’d seen the other day. But everything was different. The characters were black, so the movie in the dream was like a negative of the real movie. And different things happened, too. The plot was the same, what happened was the same, but the ending was different or at some moment things took an unexpected turn and became something completely different. Most terrible of all, though, was that as he was dreaming he knew it didn’t necessarily have to be that way, he noticed the resemblance to the movie, he thought he understood that both were based on the same premise, and that if the movie he’d seen was the real movie, then the other one, the one he had dreamed, might be a reasoned response, a reasoned critique, and not necessarily a nightmare. All criticism is ultimately a nightmare, he thought….”
                                                                                                  –Roberto Bolaño, 2666

 

I.

Following the release of Woes of the True Policeman, reportedly the last novel of unfinished material it is possible to salvage from the late Roberto Bolaño’s hitherto cornucopian hard drive, it is as natural as “a cyclist without nieces” (as the expression does not go) that devotees of the Chilean writer should find their thoughts rambling film-ward. That death’s red pen did not even forestall the production of admittedly juvenile experiments like Antwerp should come as encouragement to the budding screenwriter who would replicate in Hollywood the success of Bolaño’s posthumously-translated works in the English-speaking world. Of course, translating a translation into the frenetic language of film mandates certain compromises. Bolaño’s deep engagement with belles-lettres constitutes, on the surface, a barrier to celluloid on par with his penchant for tangential storytelling; subplots that abide with, but only graze, the central action. Fortunately, it is not the surface with which a successful adaptation of The Savage Detectives’s epistolary procession-by-digression or, say, Nazi Literature in the Americas, with its role-call of mental mutants, must concern itself.  Rather, I would like to propose a treatment that takes as its models the works-within-the-works: The novels, unseen because they do not exist, written by Bolaño’s reliable cast of critics and outlaws; the crimes, perpetrated by no one, answerable to an authority of supreme indifference; what Oscar Fate, awakening from a dream in 2666, calls the “negative of the real movie.” 

 

II.

Although there are discrete crevasses of the Bolaño canon—“The Prefiguration of Lalo Cura” is one—more obviously disposed to cinema, there is no reason in the age of Spielberg and the Wachowskis to privilege “a kid’s silly celluloid fantasies” over raw baroque grandeur. In fact, the blockbuster potential of 2666 should be obvious to any reader who has braved its something-like-900-page-length. It is manifestly what György Lukács, creator of the Star Wars franchise, called “the epic of an age in which the extensive totality of life is no longer directly given…yet which still thinks in terms of totality.” Completed in draft-form mere months before Bolaño expired of liver failure in 2003, released in Spanish the following year and adapted into a stage play prior to its U.S. release in 2008, film would seem the fitting apogee of the novel’s long journey. These notes are therefore designed to aid any future filmmaker compelled to shepherd this project out of the relative obscurity of print and into the hands of filmgoers longing to rise from the pools of Bologna with the polyamorous critic Liz Norton, witness the sexual education of Hans Reiter in a Carpathian stronghold and comb the Sonoran desert for the murderer of 108 women at 24 frames. They are also intended to act as a corrective to the auteur, swollen with his mastery over convention, whose reliance on the well-worn method of production that employs a small duchy of cameramen, storyboard artists and film assistants threatens to turn Bolaño’s masterpiece into a fiasco of Terry Gilliam-like proportions. And this is to say nothing of the hundreds of speaking roles necessary to fill out 2666’s cast. Such a film, latent like the unborn Lalo Cura prodded by the members that penetrate his adult-film-star mother, cannot be forced from its womb by a powerful studio bankroll or a vast array of digital effects. It could even be said that the list of what this film does not require outstrips what it does. What I have in mind is a gentler technique, one that will not dirty the lens of a single camera.

 

III.

Speaking of wombs, “drawn out like a birth” is how Bolaño describes the ending of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Andrei Rublev in his story “Days of 1978.” When summarized by Bolaño’s character B, the fashionably existential Rublev becomes another film entirely, one where Rimbaud and François Villon cast bells in the Russian steppe. That Bolaño’s work is similarly transformed in the mouth of teachers and critics—for whom he is variously an anti-stylist realist or metamodernist coyote-trickster—is precisely why a more linear method of adaptation could only degrade its source. No, an undertaking of this magnitude is not the ideal vehicle for just anyone. It must be willed-into-existence by everyone. 2666, the movie, must be a crowd-sourced detournement requiring a strict program of synchronicities, an apparatus of shrewd correlations, the goal and culmination of which is recognition that the film in question already exists. I will outline the tenets of this methodology below. I presume the last six movies that I have seen as of this writing—Caesar Must Die, Hitchcock, The Girl, Night Across the Street, Zero Dark Thirty and No—will prove as suitable specimens as any.

 

IV.

Following his death, the estate was unable to accommodate Bolaño’s express wish that his last completed book be issued in five volumes, one for each of its constituent episodes. Out of respect for the deceased, we will carry out his instruction by finding in five films the germ of the writer’s grand narrative. The director of the proposed quintet will, first of all, identify himself with Benno von Archimboldi, greatest of Bolaño’s doubles because he is, above all things and like the author himself, absent party to the deposition over his books. The reader will recall that the reclusive Archimboldi is the common strand that unites 2666’s nested histories. Accordingly, the director’s principal condition will be one of operative anonymity. He will seek to hide his existence, together with the liberties he has taken with the text, from the detection of his unwitting audience. There, in secret, he must await the special moviegoer capable of deciphering the coded crux of Bolaño’s final novel. Conditional to this Archimboldi-as-auteur figure’s disguise is that the films be helmed, at least in name, by separate directors, preferably be made in separate countries, composed in diverse languages and that they make no explicit reference to their imbedded or subliminal contents. These secondary contents must appear, as Bolaño writes, as “images linger on the retina for a fraction of a second.” Nevertheless, they are there.

 

          i.     The Part About the Critics

Arguably the most approachable section of Bolaño’s novel is the first, where four writers of variable European lineage and literary ambition crisscross the globe in pursuit of their idol, the possibly pseudonymous Archimboldi. In the course of the ensuing odyssey, with its endless lectures, symposiums, and conventions, the critics will quarrel, betray and fall in and out of love with one another. The film chosen to inculcate 2666’s straightforward opening fragment is also the most obvious. It is billed as Caesar Must Die, credited to the Italian brothers Paolo and Vottorio Taviani, and it is already an adaptation. This docudrama and winner of The Golden Bear depicts the key scenes of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as acted by the residents of the maximum-security prison Rebibbia in Rome. But this is no Marat/Sade-styled shadow play. Murderers are played by murderers. Senators are played by jailed, jowly members of Cosa Nostra. And so the second narrative protrudes from rifts in the first, such as when the convicts playing Caesar and Decius Brutus abruptly, almost seamlessly, depart from the script to resume a rivalry that is either old or ancient. The Tavianis’s black-and-white photography sets the weathered cracks of the prisoners’s faces into stark relief, as the reality lurking behind each word and stage direction finds its groove in painful memories of what we can guess were actual intrigues that mirror the artifice. Jealousy, violence, guilt and repentance; these actors are hardly acting. “Since I got to know art, the cell has become a prison,” says one in-between scenes, but he’s only spelling out what we already sense: the Bard’s play is the first permission these men have received in years to play themselves. Not only that, but it is an anagogic opportunity to both glory in and atone for their crimes. And before an appreciative audience, no less! The effect is that of watching a production that is tangibly real. And yet there are signs that it is not. While the incarcerated renditions of Cassius, Brutus and Mark Antony are effortlessly plausible, there is a practiced staginess to the “real” dialogue. Much of the footage is stylized to the point of tenebrism. Not to mention that these criminals are oddly forthcoming before the camera, with some crucial intermezzos taking place in the privacy of their cells. Seen through the filter of 2666, it becomes clear that there is a third movie interposed between Julius Caesar and the Roman cellblock. It can only be that of Jean-Claude Pelletier, Manuel Espinoza, Piero Morini, and Liz Norton, the critics who hail Archimboldi, the very Caesar they murder to dissect.

The deep correlation between writers and criminals will not be lost on any longtime reader of Bolaño. He writes “All criticism is ultimately a nightmare,” but might all criticism also be a conspiracy? In love and literature, Morini, Espinoza and Pelletier are treacherous as the Second Triumvirate. As Espinoza tells us, “This could all end in a hail of bullets.” Once the director, whosoever he may be, designates to consign his film’s first part within the framework of Caesar Must Die, the chain of associations will come flooding to the surface. I would like to bring to light just one. In “The Part About the Critics,” the obsessed dreamer Pelletier is warned to “Beware of the Medusa.” This line appears to be a non-sequitur or else another of Bolaño’s deliberate misdirections. That is, until one considers that the famous sculpture of Perseus holding the Gorgon’s head aloft was made by Benvenuto Cellini, born in Italy in 1500. If 2666 is the apocalyptic novel some have called it, 1500 must be the Ides of Anno Domini. What’s more, Cellini’s closest contemporary was none other than the painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo. Arcimboldo, Archimboldi; a telling transposition. Virtually the same, yet not. This could still seem idle speculation rather than ordained proof of two mediums touching fingertips, except that it is impossible to think of Benvenuto Cellini without thinking of Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno, in which prisoners pretend to be masters and the true slaves their jailers. (You will recall that the captain of the slaves, Benito Cereno himself, is a Chilean.) But Melville is done one better by Archimboldi—not the writer, nor still the painter, but the ingenious and invisible director—who has prisoners pretending to be actors who are, in the secret “inner” film between frames, also critics.

 

          ii.     The Part About Amalfitano

A venerable, repressed man with murder on his mind labors in secret to adapt the book that will free him from his devils. We are speaking of Oscar Amalfitano, protagonist of 2666’s second book, but, seen from another peephole, we might make out the subject of Sacha Gervasi’s biopic Hitchcock. The ingrown film is camouflaged, first, by the outward-facing film’s total badness and, second, by the spectacle of Anthony Hopkins in a fat suit (corpulent enough to encompass all manner of interpretations). As adapted from Stephen Rebello’s Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, the movie presents the director, enmeshed in the motifs of his most famous film, as the martyr of his own genius. The sixty-year old Hitch is hobbled by the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC), increasingly isolated from his wife (Helen Mirren), and living vicariously through Norman Bates, “the killer whose mind no one understands.” To the uninitiated viewer, Amalfitano, translator of Archimboldi’s The Endless Rose, couldn’t have less to do with the extended cameo that Hopkins makes as the Master of Suspense. But they are same kind of madman. Both are haunted by a spectral visitor that urges violence (disembodied in 2666, in Hitchcock it’s the ghost of Ed Gein, homicidal inspiration behind Bates). Both hang a book out to dry (Amalfitano to see if it can learn something from the elements, Hitch because he suspects its author of having an affair with his wife Alma). And of course both men are sexlessly married, while their true desires are impossible to consummate (Amalfitano’s ruling passion is for his daughter Rosa, Hitch’s is for Janet Leigh). But the key to both locks is only this: the fundamental crime of both heroes is an act of adaptation. Amalfitano is no more the author of The Endless Rose than Hitchcock is of Psycho. Once the second book of Bolaño’s novel is seen to be embedded in Hitchcock, we will understand exactly what the corruption of one text for the sake of another consists of. (Hint: It starts with an M, and I wouldn’t recommend dialing it.)

 

               a.     Woes of the True Policeman

But there is unfinished business here. Woes of the True Policeman continues and complicates Amalfitano’s misfortunes, not quite as a sequel but as a strange, supplementary jigsaw. But is it the same Amalfitano? Every dormant horror in the prior installment is here tapped for maximum sinister potential. Hapless in 2666, here Amalfitano is the agent of his own exile. Most prominently, his sexuality is restored and given flesh (primarily that of the doomed boy-poet called Padilla), where before there was only a distant, estranged wife. While Amalfitano’s section in 2666 gets by on mood, in Woes very little goes unspoken and all Bolaño’s favorite tropes—forgery, genius and fellowship among gauchos—are here almost garishly full-blown. And yet, in a way, it picks up where The Part About Amalfitano leaves off. The same is true of Hitchcock and the HBO/BBC 2 television movie The Girl, which opens with Psycho having just wrapped up and production of The Birds underway. The maligned beanbag of Hitchcock is gone, replaced by Toby Jones as a thumb-like limerick-reciting sexual-harassment troll. Even more remarkable than the scene where Hitch demands that Tippi Hedren (Sienna Miller) become his concubine is that this is the second time Toby Jones has been relegated to biopictorial second-banana: he played Truman Capote in Infamous the same time Philip Seymour Hoffman played him in Capote. The Girl is directed by Julian Jarrold and based on Donald Spoto’s Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies, but it can only be the work of the great director of indirect film, Archimboldi. The key to this puckish hoax may in fact be discovered just nine pages into Woes of the True Policeman, when Padilla tells Amalfitano of his plan to make a madcap biographical film of the life of the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi. The Girl is just such a farce, a joke (or a dream) about revisionism, camp, and the impossibility of knowing the intentions of the dead.

 

          iii.     The Part About Fate

Speaking of dreams, Night Across the Street by Raúl Ruiz is one. It was Ruiz, Bolaño’s Chilean countryman, who originated the idea of film as a “game of combinations.” The director of over a hundred films, Ruiz’s pictures characteristically contain several stories superimposed so as to suggest, as he has written, “another film that we won’t see. And if we could see the other, then the first version would be by its side as it neighbor, though a terribly noisy neighbor.” Night Across the Street, partially based on stories by yet another Chilean, Hernán del Solar, is just such a ruckus, where Fellini-esque memories of childhood are recalled by a dying man who sleepwalks through an increasingly surreal denouement. It opens with a poem whose mistranslations give rise to new narrative resonances and features interludes where the writer Jean Giono has traveled to a town with the remarkable name of Antofagasta to do nothing while simultaneously remaining at home to write his books. Released after Ruiz’s death, it is nice to imagine he and Bolaño meeting as shades, like the ghosts in the movie that congregate in the barrel of an enormous gun.

Oscar Fate, of 2666, is also split between stories. A sportswriter, he is conscripted to write about a boxing match only to find his imagination lured by reports of a series of horrific murders in the neighboring Santa Teresa. Intrigue and violence soon begin to follow Fate, as if absorbed osmotically into the first story from the second. In both the book and the film, two men in a restaurant discuss a killer who may or may not be hunting them. Ruiz’s stand-in in the film measures his ebbing mortality with an alarm clock that he carries in his pocket; Bolaño’s Chucho Flores complains that time is “the one thing we haven’t got.” Rich in symbol and allusion, Night Across the Street features phantasmal bicyclists, ships in bottles, plays on the word ‘rhododendron,’ games of marbles, and a fatale who orders her eggs both easy and scrambled. Meanwhile, Bolaño writes, “Every single thing in this country is an homage to everything in the world, even the things that haven’t happened yet.” Both are—like the canny filmmaker who heeds these instructions—open to the potential of any story to be any other and the power of art “to filter death through the fabric of words.”

       

          iv.     The Part About the Crimes

The longest and most infamous stretch of 2666 is also the most difficult to speak of. For Bolaño’s enigmatic, oft-called clinical, debriefing in the events that surround a fruitless mass-murder investigation, a more drastic skin is required. And so it is Zero Dark Thirty, whose reason for existing is to make unspeakable acts intelligible, that will prove the future director of 2666’s masterstroke. Made by Kathryn Bigelow for $40 million, nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, decried for wild inaccuracy by John McCain, and investigated by the Senate Intelligence Committee, it is also already an adaptation—not of any other existing book or biography, but of the public imagination converging so that every American can feel they took part in the death of Osama bin Laden. It begins, like 2666, in the desert. Actually, no, it begins with a black screen and the sound of panicked final phone calls made by the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In this, it would seem that Archimboldi goes too far. Does he dare to equate the murders in 2666 (and by extension the actual murders that occurred near Ciudad Juarez between 1993 and 1997, and which still continue today) with the 9/11 attack that killed close to 3,000 Americans? Are facts like these interchangeable for the sake of drama? Wouldn’t tailoring a fact-based work of fiction to appeal to an audience trained to think in movie terms cross the border to propaganda? It would surely be an outrage—not to mention some kind of 21st century sacrificial rite—for any director, fictional or otherwise, to use their movie to sensationalize even one death (say in a thrilling thirty-minute action sequence) and call the resulting snuff catharsis.

Fortunately, the future director of 2666 will be tempted by none of these vile evils. His movie will be about research. We know, thanks to a 2008 piece in The Nation by Marcela Valdes, how Bolaño acquired the details of the murders he recounts with the help of the investigative journalist Gonzalez Rodriguez. We do not know what level of access Kathryn Bigelow and her writers had to CIA files, but if we can’t trust stock characters and true-life composites—the obsessed woman (Jessica Chastain) is supported only by a hardass-with-a-heart-of-gold (Jason Clarke) and a cheery tech-savvy African-American (Harold Perrineau)—to fill in the gaps about “the disappeared ones,” who can we trust? No one. And yet, Bolaño’s fictionalized reportage leads nowhere, while Bigelow’s equally convoluted, either made-up or distorted-off-the-record paper trail nails the killer. So if the viewer of Zero Dark Thirty feels a sense of defeat, it may be that the uplifting torture-procedural made by Kathryn Bigelow has failed—but it certainly means that the recondite filmmaker behind 2666 has succeeded. His movie is about the impossibility of representing facts accurately as fiction. Only inertia, misdirection, and deadlock may be depicted. This is another matter of translation and while historical dramas can only pervert history for run-of-the-mill drama, it is this very impossibility that the new wave of implied or sub-textual adaptations will celebrate.

 

          v.     The Part About Archimboldi

For the last film in the saga that, viewed consecutively, forms an adjacent and approximate rendition of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, we return to Chile. The Part About Archimboldi is the novel’s most geographically and temporally wide-ranging segment, but the film version, No by Pablo Larraín and based on the play El Plebiscito by Antonio Skármeta is perfectly stationary. We are in the Chile of 1988, when a national plebiscite election ousted General Augusto Pinochet—the dictator who forced the exile of both Bolaño and Raul Ruiz. Its inclusion in these notes is intended as tribute and requiem to the originators of simultaneous art and to return us to them, just as 2666 returns us at last to the real Archimboldi. Like his work, which we read in snippets and synopses both in 2666 and in Woes of the True Policeman, No is much larger on the inside than the outside. It is waggishly filmed on ¾-inch Sony U-matic magnetic tape to recreate the washed out color of the 1980’s soft drink commercials that are the specialty of Rene, played by Gael García Bernal. Tapped by a federation of opposition parties to shoot the 15-minute television spots that present the case against Pinochet, Rene realizes that it is his approach—raucous, superficial and disposable pop—that is best suited to communicate the crimes of the dictatorship and move the people to vote against it.

The film contains many secret valences for the viewer prepared to see Bolaño’s themes bobbing to the burnt-out surface (who, for example, is the mime who appears unexplained in all Rene’s adverts?), but it is No’s approach to filmmaking in general that offers us the key to the entire 2666 quintet.

Truth is here something glimpsed between cuts. It may not always be the thing itself, but the conversation around it. The center of the film is in the competition between the spots designed by Pinochet’s court propagandists and those of Rene’s revolution-minded cohorts. We see how they respond to one another, aping and answering motifs as they trade representational punches. In the streets, little really changes. No’s depiction of life inside a riot is nearly muted and victory as withering, as different sides conspire and plot sabotage only to go back to work together when it’s all over. Nothing is heroic, death is certain and life absorbs its flavor the same way states rewrite history and movies mutilate works of art: by the conflation of ideas with experience. The bulk of what happens happens in the mind, the rest is just how the story is told. Ambiguous art that problematizes the telling (like Caesar Must Die, Night Across the Street, and No) cannot help but triumph over fallacious histories like Hitchcock and Zero Dark Thirty. It is time for the cinema to stop saying yes to everything and pose a question that begins ‘No, but.’ I hope I have begun the work of the future filmmaker/translator of 2666 by laying out a few of the questions they will have to address to a writer about whom almost anything can be said but whom, despite his prolific work and the imminence of his voice, can no longer appear and claim the credit he is due.