Definitive Perplexity

By David C. Hall


A woman enters the room from the left. There is a window at the center of the room. The window is fairly large, with eight windowpanes. A pale light shines through the window. The walls of the room are black, or perhaps a dark gray. In front and to the right of the window is a can of paint and a paintbrush. The woman squats next to the paint can, gracefully — she is wearing trousers — and tries to open it with her fingers. After a moment she gets to her feet and walks over to a wooden table on the right side of the room. She opens the drawer in the table and takes out a ball of string, a rubber ball of the kind dogs are given to chew on and chase, an old gray sock, and a hammer and screwdriver.

Squatting over the paint can again, she places the tip of the screwdriver under the edge of the lid of the can and taps on the end of the screwdriver with the hammer until the tip is inserted beneath the lid. She presses down on the screwdriver handle until the lid is loosened, then repeats the procedure at another point a little further along, lifts the lid and sets it carefully down on the floor.

She then dips the brush into the can and begins to paint the windowpanes. From time to time she pauses, as if to admire the smear of greasy black on the dull gleam of the glass. As she paints, the amount of light coming through the window diminishes. When she has painted all eight windowpanes, the room goes dark, and the film is over.


The woman is dressed in black. Her trousers are loose rather than tight, though not especially loose either. Her blouse, which is not tucked into her trousers, has a silky sheen to it. The long sleeves are rolled up to mid forearm. Her eyes are brown. Her hair is dark and rather short. Her features are regular, almost too regular you might say. She wears no make-up, or perhaps only a bit of colorless lip-gloss, or a pencil-thin line of eyeliner to bring out the quality of her rather inexpressive eyes. She is intent on what she is doing, in the way a not very experienced actress may be intent on the task at hand, however trivial it might be, as if she had no life whatsoever, except this.


During the film there is the sound of the woman’s footsteps, the tapping of the hammer on the end of the screwdriver, the moist swish of paint being applied to the glass. In the background there is the noise of heavy machinery somewhere outside. When the screen goes black the noise of the machinery will continue until it becomes eerie, possibly symbolic.


The buttons on the actress’s blouse are black like the blouse itself, small, round, and smooth. The director is slipping them out of their respective buttonholes, one by one. His fingers are slim and careful, the nails evenly trimmed and very clean. Unmistakably a man’s fingers. The sort of man, one might say, who is both precise and confident. The sort of man who might have studied science before turning to art.

He is moving downward, button by button. No hurry. They are both perfectly still, except for his fingers. How beautiful they are. His fingers, that is. You look at his hand and for a moment you are lost in the contemplation of this hand, which is, in its way, much like any other hand. You think of a disembodied hand, then of a spider, of a crab scuttling sideways across a wet tiled floor.

Her skin, as the blouse, unbuttoned, falls away, is startlingly white.


This seems at first to be another, different film, which it is, but we soon begin to suspect that it, like the film before it, is at the same time part of another, larger film which is slowly and mysteriously unfolding around and through it. In this second film we are inevitably reminded that in the first film the actress was in fact acting. But is she acting in the second? Obviously. But if we wish to enjoy the film to the fullest we will pretend, at least for the moment, that she is not. Later we will begin to ask ourselves how she must feel about this second director. Not the director who is unbuttoning her blouse — though that too — but the director who is filming the director unbuttoning her blouse. Or, more precisely, filming her as the director unbuttons her blouse. Or should we say filming her as her blouse is being unbuttoned?


In the intervals between films — or segments of the larger, ongoing film, if you like — questions or considerations such as this will appear on the screen (white letters on a grayish background). In some cases they will remain on the screen for quite some time, to the extent that some viewers will very likely become exasperated and walk out. We accept that. Those that remain will stare at the words until they have lost all meaning. This, for some people, may be the beginning of enlightenment. I am not one of those people.


Director 1 (seated, facing the camera): The idea for this film was inspired by a book by an author whose name it seems hardly appropriate to mention, since his thesis is that there is no such thing as the Self. (Wry smile.) The idea of the Self is posited, you see, upon consciousness of Self. Which is Descartes, of course. But the Self is not in fact conscious of itself most of the time. It is not conscious of itself, for instance, when it is acting, and, on the other hand, when it is conscious of itself it is not acting. When the Self is conscious of itself, what it is really conscious of is of itself creating a fiction of the Self. (Smiles again.) Which is why bourgeois literature, the novel, with its characters, their motivation, their psychology, the narrative arc, the moral of the story, all that, is so utterly false.


The actress and the two directors are sitting on high stools around a white plastic table. The directors are both wearing black shirts, dark trousers. One wears a white T-shirt, the other a blue one. Both are young, fit-looking, with little neatly trimmed beards. The three of them are drinking coffee — or perhaps tea — from different colored mugs. They are all talking at once, smiling. The scene is relaxed, pleasant, charming. Or, to put it another way, artificial, implausible, unreal.


This is the sort of film that, ideally, should be shown in museums. The different parts of the film could thus be shown in a different, randomly selected order each time, shuffled as it were, by computer of course. Just as is often the case in a performance of modern music these days, there would be a person with a laptop on a chair to one side of the stage, tapping the keyboard or shifting the cursor from time to time. Sitting in the audience, one would like to see what is on the laptop’s screen, but that is not permitted.

In the scene described above, in which the conversation between the actress and the two directors cannot be heard, there might be a musical background or, alternatively, an ominous silence. Various sorts of musical backgrounds could be used for the same scene, and studies could be done analyzing how the different sorts of music affect viewers’ perceptions of the action. Results of these studies could then be presented in yet another segment of the film by a researcher, to be played by a young woman wearing glasses.


Director 1: What we call the Self is really just a body things happen to. One seemingly plausible argument for the existence of the Self is memory. Memories, however, are notoriously imprecise and only become more so as time goes on and we call them up again and again to build the story, which is, after all, what we call our Self. Strangely enough, that does not necessarily make them any less painful.

(The director tends to gaze off into space from time to time as he speaks, almost as if he were listening to something and repeating what he hears.)

No one really believes they are the same person as that child in the past who once had the same name. The two have little or nothing in common. It’s quite possible they would not even like each other.


Researcher: The directors are played by actors. The actress, on the other hand, can never be anything but an actress, even when she is playing an actress. Even when she is playing herself, supposing that might be possible. That’s interesting, I think. Worth exploring. Though I’ve no idea where it might go.


At one time or another intimacy or at least desire between the four characters will be suggested — in fleeting close-ups of furtive glances, gestures, the way the body tilts in one direction or another. When they touch — not often — it will be tentative, ambiguous, fingers that collide as if by accident, a shoulder brushing against another and hastily pulled away. What is interesting, dramatically speaking, is not the satisfaction of desire but its frustration.


Actress: How do I feel about this role? Emptiness.


There are no people in this film. Not really. The directors represent rationality, speculation, doubt, metaphysics, while I, we, represent … life, I suppose. Which is nice, perhaps.


Or is it just condescending?


The researcher has chin-length, pale brown hair, wears glasses with thick, squarish plastic frames and a black, not inelegant oriental-looking blouse buttoned up to the neck. (The film is in fact in color but might as well be in black and white.) She is notably more uneasy than the other characters, her voice unnaturally high one moment and fading out the next, her gestures and posture jerky and unnatural. An actress, in short, doing everything she can to convince us she is playing a person who is not an actress.


Researcher: I’m the latest addition to this project, so I feel … I’m kind of an outsider. That’s all right. I’ve always been an outsider, I suppose.

There’s not much to my character. I present information — I’ve no idea whether it’s true or false, which is why I can present it with such sincerity — and I’m in love with the actress. Well, all three of us are in love with the actress, actually. And she doesn’t love any of us. We’ve all had her, but that doesn’t mean anything. We are just experiments for her. She doesn’t seem to particularly enjoy our humiliation, but she doesn’t mind it either.

From what I can gather, for the moment at least, not much if anything of this will actually appear in the film.


Director 2: You may have noticed there is no nature in my film. It’s all interiors. Nature in art, as far as I’m concerned, is nothing but sentimentality. Nature has nothing to say to me.

(Pause. The director smokes, his manly forehead creased by years of intellectual anxiety.)

When I was young I studied physics, higher mathematics. I thought that was the way to understand things, mistakenly as it turns out.


I’ve known people who believe only in mathematics. Desperate people, terrified by the emptiness of the universe. Mathematics is like watching a glassed-in ant colony.

(Close-up of the director’s hands. They are beautiful hands. They are the hands we saw earlier — or will see later, depending on the ostensibly random disposition of the order of the scenes — unbuttoning the actress’s blouse.)

So I wrote poetry. My poems are like perfume. Does perfume have a meaning?


Actress: There are chalk marks on the floor indicating where I am to put my feet. When I have memorized my steps, the chalk marks are erased.

(From time to time she brushes her hair back off her forehead with a gesture that seems both coquettish and irritated, or perhaps irritated by its very coquetry.)

It’s like that game you used to play when you were kids and it was raining outside and there was nothing to do and parts of the living room were ocean and other parts were dry land and if you stepped in the ocean you drowned. And outside you could hear the rain dripping and dripping. Big drops. Like an old clock ticking.


Director 2 (still smoking): I made a film once about birds. Old people, especially old women, like to watch birds. They set out bird feeders, then the squirrels come and eat all the birdseed.


Pretty soon I focused on blackbirds. I began to see a significance in what the blackbirds would do or not do, as if they meant something to me, as if they were bringing me something. Like messengers, like the birds in the old myths. I knew I had to stop then. I knew the film was finished. It’s a beautiful film, I believe. But I could never bear to see it again.


Director 2 (still smoking): I had had enough of Nature after that. I can’t even stand looking up at the sky. I look up at the sky and feel a kind of vertigo. What’s to prevent me from flying off into it? What is the sky anyway? Air, gases, reflecting — or is it refracting? — light, which is what gives it that lovely, sentimental shade of blue. What is it that prevents me from flying off into the sky? Gravity. Excellent. Thank you. A word. We formulate our questions in words, and the answer is another word. Gravity, God, relativity. And so, satisfied, we can all go home and masturbate.


Actress: People, my lovers, people who say they love me, ask me what I want. Such a simple, yet incredibly stupid question. I know I want. What is the difficult part.

(Pause. The director, off camera, lights her cigarette. We see only his hand, a bit of his arm.)

“You’ll know what it is when you find it,” she says in an artificial voice, letting the smoke tumble out over her lips, and then in another voice, as if playing another character: “How can you be sure you will? How can you be sure it won’t just pass you by, and you won’t know that was it until it’s gone?”

Well I can’t, can I?


Director 1: There is no randomness, not really. The casinos know that very well. Here, in this film, it’s like you throw all the pieces up in the air and let them fall where they may. A unity will emerge, or, more precisely perhaps, the mind of the spectator will find a unity, even if it isn’t there. The nature of this unity will be different for different people; it will even be different for the same person at different times.


Researcher: One of the directors, that is to say, one of the actors who play the directors, is in fact the director. But I don’t know which one.

(Brief pause. The researcher shakes her head.)

Well, that’s absurd, isn’t it? Obviously I know which one it is, since he’s directing me now. (Smiles.) I just can’t tell you.

(Long pause. The researcher thinks, or appears to be thinking.)

Theoretically this film could go on indefinitely. Expanding. An ongoing project, branching out in all sorts of directions.

But it won’t. The money will run out, the people involved will get tired of it. Tensions, sexual and professional, will sooner or later explode. Rivalry, jealousy, love, what was once love, will turn to disgust, contempt, indifference. And soon the four of them — of us, I mean — will go our separate ways and never see each other again.


Thank you.

Born in Wisconsin, David C. Hall has lived in Barcelona since the 1970s. His work, which has appeared in Spanish, English, Catalan, and German, includes novels, short stories, a novel for young readers, and a play written for broadcast on German radio in the 90s. He has won short story prizes, the “Semana Negra de Gijón” prize in 1991 and the “Pou de la Neu” prize in 2008. His novel Return Trip Ticket, which initially appeared in Spanish, was published in the U.S. by St. Martin’s Press in 1992. His most recent book, Barcelona Skyline, won the 2011 “Ciudad de Getafe” Crime Novel Prize and is available in English from Open Road. Lately his interest has shifted from crime fiction and the novel to experiments in short fiction. David C. Hall Photo by Ana Portnoy