Barney Rudolph was a solitary man. This is what he silently said in his private story of self. Alienated, a loner, lone wolf, an outsider. Always an outsider.
First, there was the fact that he was adopted. Mr. and Mrs. Rudolph were a simple, loving couple who had never fathomed the dark and tangled labyrinth of their adopted son’s mind. Misunderstood was his permanent condition.
Then, when he moved to New York City as a young man, he was immediately aware that his speech, his clothes, his way of inhabiting his own body were all… “different.” His view of the world was not shared by the people he met. He made friends and seemed to be well-liked, but he often sat among them at dinner tables mutely nodding, bewildered by all the loud, passionate crosstalk.
Barney was a filmmaker. In the corporate arena where he made his living, he was called a “video producer.” But outside the realm of dollars, he was an artist. He worked alone. At one time, he had hoped to direct feature films, but his day job soon taught him that he did not have the skill for collaboration required in the motion picture industry. He had survived to middle age as a director of small production crews making low-budget training videos. Still, his pleasure was always in the after-hours projects, the quirky, personal, dream-like little narratives he conjured up entirely on his own.
Barney wanted to make a movie called This is Not a Movie. The author David Markson, whose late works were labeled “postmodern” by critics who like that word, had written a novel entitled This is Not a Novel. Its narrator, called Writer, says, “A novel with no intimation of the story whatsoever, Writer would like to contrive.” By piling tidbits and factoids upon allusions and fragments, it gradually accumulated a mysterious power. Barney wondered, could this be done on film? He decided to try.
But now, he was stumped. He read the novel’s epigraph, a quote from Jonathan Swift again:
I am now trying an Experiment very
frequent among Modern Authors;
which is to write upon Nothing.
So: a film about nothing. How to start? How to start?
Never mind. He went for a walk, and his feet took him to his habitual destination: Broadway at East 12th Street.
Barney had read everything Markson had written since Wittgenstein’s Mistress in the late 80s. Acclaimed but un-famous, Markson had died in 2010 and left his entire personal library, 63 boxes of books on all subjects, to the Strand, king of independent bookstores. Most of the volumes were heavily annotated with Markson’s curmudgeonly margin scribbles, his cryptic underlines, and checkmarks, a breadcrumb trail through a convoluted mind — a sharp, wry, unorthodox mind. Now they were scattered everywhere amongst the eighteen miles of shelves on three floors, hidden treasures. The Strand was founded in 1927, the year of Markson’s birth, and was just blocks from his Greenwich Village home, where he had died alone at an unknown time and day, in the fecund air of late spring, New York City. Now, some years had passed, and it was June again. For some months, Barney had been going almost daily to the Strand, spending hours in the narrow, dusty stacks, hoping for a chance encounter with a book once owned, held, studied, marked up by Markson.
In one of the fiction aisles, he found himself suddenly hyper-aware of an attractive young woman in black standing and reading a paperback. He watched her in his peripheral vision, debating about asking her what she was reading. Then she stretched out a tattooed arm, placed the book back on the shelf, and walked away. For a moment, Barney expected to feel an obligatory disappointment. But his eyes had followed the book, and he realized that it was what he wanted, not her.
The book was Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writings by Jorge Luis Borges. His heart quickened as he leafed through the pages. Here and there were faint gray underlines and marginalia in a graceful but nearly illegible script. Inside the front cover, a slender pencil line trailed like a hair from under the Strand’s price sticker. Barney peeled back the sticker, and there it was: Markson’s signature.
Back in his apartment, Barney poured himself a glass of wine and settled in to read. He’d heard of Borges but was not familiar with his work. Often the scribbled margin notes made no sense to him. He read until the warm spring light faded from his windows. He came across a very short story, “The House of Asterion,” whose fictional first-person narrator was evidently the Minotaur of Greek myth, a solitary creature about to die. Two checkmarks were in the margin next to these two underlined sentences: “The fact is that I am unique. I am not interested in what one man may transmit to other men; like the philosopher, I think that nothing is communicable by the art of writing.” Then he noticed a footnote, surely part of Borges’ literary gamesmanship. The word “infinity” was marked, and its footnote said, “The original says fourteen, but there is ample reason to infer that, used by Asterion, this numeral stands for infinite.”
Below the footnote was Markson’s pencil scrawl: “14 is to Infinity as this [a drawn arrow pointed to the period at the end of the previous sentence] is to Black.”
Black. That was it—the place to start.
Barney set up his video camera on a tripod. Ten feet in front of the lens, as far away as his cramped apartment would allow, he set up two light stands with a rod between them, from which he suspended a roll of heavy black paper, stretching it down to the floor.
He pulled up a chair, sat, and put his eye to the viewfinder. All he saw was darkness, an electronically mediated black. Thousands of pixels emitting almost zero light, vibrating subtly with absolute nothingness. Perfect.
At first, he had ideas… he would sit in front of the lens against the black limbo and say whatever came to mind. Short and pithy. Or just short. The pith should be cumulative.
Or he would make close-up hand signs, meaningless gestures that would accrue meaning in the viewer’s mind. Perhaps turn his back to the camera, or show a disembodied foot. He could hold up random objects from his apartment. Always against the field of blackness, the vast night.
He sat with his left eye closed and his right eye to the viewfinder, staring at the humming dark. He kept on gazing, and before long, all the clever ideas faded from his mind. Nothing… here it was. His entire field of view was a rectangular emptiness, a growing, assertive emptiness, slowly advancing upon him through the eyepiece. This was it: Not a Movie. No need to push the record button, no need to do anything. The pure darkness swarmed without malice into his eye, filling him up with nothing.
Time passed. Barney did not move… unless perhaps a gradual wavering thinness might be considered motion. Does a mirage move, or is it all illusion?
If you were one of Barney’s friends, you surely would like to know more. But this is the end of the story. The art of writing cannot communicate the experience that had once been a man, a man called Barney Rudolph, but was now just something happening in a tiny cube stacked on other cubes in the vast sprawling grid of New York City… something nameless and invisible that went on happening, and went on, and went on.