This nagging gnawing feeling is magnified a thousandfold and distorted into cinematic metafiction in Steve Erickson's Zeroville, a 2007 book that came to my attention from a number of year-end "Best of 2007" lists. The cover art (sucker that I am?) intrigued me even more- why did this bald man have Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor from A PLACE IN THE SUN tattooed on his head, and what was he gazing at in that empty deep blue space?
Author Erickson is also the film critic for Los Angeles magazine (a good mag that, tellingly, I kept my subscription to during my four years in NYC), and he brings his cynical sense of humor and archivist's passion for films and the film industry to bear on this fictionalized narrative set among "real" Hollywood of the late 1960s, 70s, and early 80s. "Cinéautistic" protag Vikar (the fellow on the cover) either loses or finds his mind with the help of industry friends like John Milius, punk music, and a terrifying recurring dream that doesn't sound all that farfetched to a movie obsessive like me.
The book is frustrating, at times feeling like a self-satisfied collection of obscure film references and trivia held together by the haphazard wanderings of a more-violent Forrest Gump type. But there are stretches where Vikar's quest transcends the limitations of the structure and becomes something unique in its ability to communicate why people who perhaps should know better still look for something (unattainable?) in darkened movie theaters.
p42 "I mean, that's the whole thing about the movies," says the burglar*. "Bigger than the sum of the parts and all that? If the parts are too good, the whole is somehow less. I mean, you can't have, you know, Trane doing the score for Now, Voyager."
* yes, this is the kind of book where burglars wax poetic about the philosophy of cinema.
p119 "When Michael has Fredo killed, it isn't just Cain slaying Abel. It's Abraham sacrificing Isaac, because Michael has assumed the role of the father to his older brother, who has assumed the role of the son. Michael sacrifices the child to the god called Family; he destroys the family in its corruptible human form to preserve the idea of Family that's more divine, and to preserve Michael's love for Family that the older brother has betrayed."
p265 "The thing is, that movie last night* is a completely different movie when you watch it by yourself. Why is that? Movies are supposed to be watched with other people, aren't they? Isn't that the point of movies–you know, one of those social ritual things, with everyone watching? It never occurred to me a movie might be different when you don't watch it with anyone else."
* A PLACE IN THE SUN
p266 "Vikar says, 'Once Cassavetes told me about seeing A Place in the Sun when it came out. He hated it so much that he went back and saw it the next day and then every day for a week, until he realized he loved it. ... So why does that happen?... The movie hasn't changed. It's still the same exact movie, but it's like it sets something in motion, some understanding you didn't know you could understand, it's like a virus that had to get inside you and take hold and maybe you shrug it off–but when you don't, it kills you in a way, not necessarily in a bad way because maybe it kills something that's been holding you down or back, because when you hear a really really great record or see a really great movie, you feel alive in a way you didn't before...'"
Taylor saved a choking Clift's life by pulling two of his teeth out of his throat after he crashed his car in 1956
Zeroville revolves around Vikar's obsession with two films in particular, George Stevens' A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951) and Carl Theodore Dreyer's THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (1928). Since I hadn't seen either before reading the book, I thought I'd at least check out one and rented A PLACE IN THE SUN. It's not a movie that you can necessarily "enjoy" on a story level, but the technique of the direction, cinematography and editing was certainly far ahead of its time. After seeing PLACE and from what I've gleaned about JOAN OF ARC, I think I understand the connection Vikar felt to these two films in particular. They both feature intimate close-ups that so fill up the screen that the viewer is drawn in deeper than they may be prepared for, and both feature stars (Clift and Maria Falconetti) whose success playing tragic roles on screen somehow translated to lives that became tragedies in reality.
That may be what makes film such a unique medium, not only can it be transcendent and transformative for the audience, but it exerts an even more powerful, and sometimes dangerous, pull on those who create them.