polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

The Road to the City: Cortazar and Godard

by Hector Fernando Burga

In 1966 Julio Cortazar writes ”Autopista del Sur” a fascinating short story about the spontaneous birth of social life in the most uncanny of places; a traffic jam in the outskirts of Paris.

Cortazar is recognized as one of the leading figures of the Latin American “Boom”; a literary movement that included Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes. His literary production was influenced by Surrealism and Existentialism, engendering a powerful narrative that allows the reader to absorb the frame of the short story as a parallel universe like our own.

In 1967 Jean Luc Godard, founding member of the French Nouvelle Vague translates “Autopista del Sur” to a different narrative format, the big screen. In his classic movie “Weekend”, Godard’s aim is to mark the underlying decadence of bourgeoisie values which defined post-war France. The dimensions of this encroaching social crisis would eventually find their full expression in the May 68 student movement, a historical moment re-defining French society and inspiring urban scholars to re-imagine the city as the location for social change in modern times.

In this famous scene, Godard uses the camera to guide us through a rural landscape transformed by the presence of the car. In an almost ethnographic fashion, this clip sets the stage for the power of the narrative format. Tempo, composition, progression, sequence and rhythm combine to unravel what appears commonplace, as utterly strange and foreign. The scene culminates with a striking climax of alienation before the value of human life.

From a place of historical distance in contemporary times, some among us may claim through this clip the evidence of a foreboding proof: the exhaustion of the car as mode of transportation. For me, however, the marvel of Cortazar’s original work and Godard’s subtle interpretation is not about what constitutes good or bad urbanism, rather it offers a different lesson: The exercise of rendering the complex contradictions of modern life visible.

Such is the power of the narrative form: a format that could provide architects, designers, activists and, planners a path to inform others how follow the road to the City.

Credits: Photo from El Gusano de Mezcal.