Friday, January 18, 2013

Zeroville, a Steve Erickson production

1. First of all, let's hope you know that this is a picture of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor and not a picture of James Dean and Natalie Wood.  You knew that, right?

2. The movie is "A Place in the Sun," directed by George Stevens and released in 1951.  It is a very good movie.

3.  This photograph is not a still taken on the set of "Rebel Without a Cause," directed by Nicholas Ray and released in 1955--a very mediocre movie, despite Sal Mineo.

4.  Is this clear? 

5.  On a simple level, Zeroville is a novel about the difference between these two movies.  It is also a novel about what it means to love movies more than life itself.  It is also about Hollywood corruption, but this isn't news and not therefore a particularly interesting part of the book.

6Zeroville is written in numbered "cuts," that is, in short bits of prose, spliced together.  Each splice forms a small part of the narrative; the effect is jumpy, unfinished, cinematic.  Almost exactly like the kiss to your right that is about to happen. (Yes, of course: they were the two most beautiful human beings ever to act in movies.  Monty the only man who could compete with Liz for looks and that something else).  If I were to say, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," you wouldn't be thinking Scarlett Johansson, would you? 

7.  Every reader of a certain age (who is honest) will admit to having been mesmerized by Susan Sontag's book Against Interpretation (1966).  I admit it.  In this book of essays Sontag made a plea for movies--for film or cinema (with a French intonation)--as a serious art form.  She wrote seemingly brilliant essays on directors like  Francois Trauffaut and Jean-Luc Godard--the auteurs of la nouvelle vague cinema--post-war French films, of which the touchstones were films like The Four Hundred Blows and especially Godard's Breathless. In the late, great Village Voice, Andrew Sarris wrote essays in the style of Cahiers du cinema analyzing--taking seriously as art--American films by directors like Orson Welles, John Ford, and Nicholas Ray.  Reading Sontag and Sarris, I gave up Latin and began to study French so I wouldn't be distracted by subtitles.  To be young was very heaven. 

8. One became a cineaste under the spell of Sontag and Sarris, Trauffaut and Godard, Fellini and Visconti, Ford and Ray and Stevens.  My favorite film became Jules et Jim (still is), and "screenings" in art houses thick with cigarette smoke (Gitanes, if you could get them, Players Navy Cut if not) and cheap wine were the preferred weekend pastime of a certain sort of person. 

9. Erickson evokes this world through his slightly mad, cineautistic anti-hero Vikar--not Vicar--a naive, monastic, violent, obsessed fan of movies.  "Fan" might be too mild.  Vikar lives movies; they define his thoughts, his view of the world, his language, his cultural yearnings, his relationships (such as they are: that's the problem with movies, they aren't real).  He also happens to be an idiot savant film editor, the creator of enigmatic masterpieces, a man who is flown to Madrid to cut a film, to New York to save one--no one understands his work, which makes it valuable. Vikar is "pure of heart."  The quotation marks are, I think, required; Erickson's writing is so marinated in irony that it's difficult to believe anything--not for its being unbelievable, but for its being so displaced from ordinary experience.  If Erickson were a director, he'd be Fellini with a tablespoon of Tarantino.

10.  Have I mentioned that Vikar has a tattoo of MC and ET on his head--that's on his head--pictured in the climactic embrace of "A Place in the Sun"?  And he gets very upset if someone says to him, "Nice tattoo of Natalie Wood."  But you can see his point. 

11.  Vikar grows on you.  He looks out for people, especially the abused young (nine? eleven? thirteen?) daughter of Soledad, who is herself probably not the illegitimate offspring of Louis Buñuel, the great Aragonese filmmaker, whose mother (in real life) paid for the unforgettable short film "Un chien Andalou," a film designed to prove, if nothing else, that someone could be weirder than John Waters (I walked out of Pink Flamingos but adored Viridiana).  All of this, like Erickson's novel, becomes very complicated, especially if you don't  have an encyclopedic knowledge of the movies. I don't, so I looked up a lot of stuff. 

12. Erickson is a fine writer.  His prose is simple and unadorned. "Vikar restrains the urge to pick up the small bell from the desk and lodge it in the philistine's forehead."  The philistine did not recognize Montgomery Clift.  Often Vikar's restraint fails him.

13.  For Vikar--I can't speak for Erickson--the enemy of movies is music.  I'm not sure why.

14.  Charles Manson makes a sort of cameo: you have to have cameo appearances in books about film.  There are other cameos and half-disguised real-life film figures: for example, Robert De Niro shows up at a beach house in Malibu, sometime before that Taxi Cab movie.

15.  I don't go to the movies any more.  But if I did, I would probably not have enjoyed Zeroville as much as I did (it's a big book, but a quick read, divided as it is into short spurts of prose).  That's because Erickson appears to despise modern Hollywood culture, and the culture of Hollywood.  Hard to blame him.

Steve Erickson, Zeroville, published in 2007 by Europa Editions (who publish some fine books).

George Ovitt (1/18)

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