Musical Accompaniment: “The Right Profile”, by The Clash:
I feel like I’ve been reading a lot of novels about the movies and Hollywood lately, and with the exception of Marisha Pessl’s Night Film they’ve all been pretty stellar. I even re-read Theodore Roszak’s Flicker after being so disappointed by Pessl’s book, and was pretty pleased to see that it still held up after all these years. Based on a recommendation I picked up Steve Erickson’s Zeroville, which is equally as great as Roszak’s book, with a lot of thematic similarities that are buoyed by an intriguing, unorthodox story layout and a great number of film references.
Vikar is an exceedingly strange young man who washes up on the shores of Hollywood just after Sharon Tate’s murder at the hands of the Manson Family, which is about as good of an indication of the end of an era for the movies as the death of Gwen Stacy was for the comics. A man with seemingly no past, Vikar’s defining traits are a propensity towards violence, a tattoo on his shaved head of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in a scene from A Place in the Sun (1951), and a preternatural sense of movie logic and facts. He soon falls in with a group of young men and women who will make up the “Film School Generation” of Hollywood history, and is dubbed “cineautistic” by one of them, Viking Man. This section is very entertaining for film buffs, as for the most part the young guns just making their bones in the movies at this time are not explicitly named, so a canny reader can pick up on details through inference. (Viking Man is John Milius, btw) With an amazing sense for how movie scenes can interact with one another, regardless of continuity, Vikar becomes an editor, eventually winning an Academy Award.
In addition to the fun Easter eggs for people who are caught up on their Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Vikar also allows readers “vicarious” close readings of many films of the time, including a special favourite of mine, Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill (1967), as well as the amazing feat of imagery that is Carl Theodore Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Again, like the numerous cameos, these references are not clearly drawn, so interested readers might have to do some digging to figure out exactly which movie is being called up each time. I was not surprised in the least to find out that Erickson is a film critic in addition to being a novelist, as the knowledge and insight he brings to each of the films he highlights is excellent. I was also taken by the hilarious relationship that Vikar develops with a man who tries to rob his house, as they share jabs about film history, John Wayne and the way certain lines of dialogue stick with you. The way Vikar’s cineautism plays out kind of reminds me of the way language is used in The Big Lebowski (1998), where main character The Dude keeps repeating things he’s heard over and over again. In Vikar’s case, his blunt takes on film make him sound almost like a Jean-Luc Godard-style provocateur artist, although instead of Godard’s intense feelings about art and history we’re just getting hilariously to-the-point movie reviews that could easily be taken for that aloof sensibility.
As our viewpoint character for this seminal moment in Hollywood history, Vikar also plays a dual role of burgeoning punk music fanatic, falling in with the “Sound” developing in ’70s New York and later on back in L.A. This aspect of the story is especially interesting to me coming off Flicker, as the older book took a very dim view of the punk aesthetic, even speculating that it might represent an actual end of the world scenario. Zeroville depicts punk as, yes, grimy and gross at times, but also as a medium for pure, unfiltered expression. This is very attractive for a man like Vikar, whose inner life is composed entirely of living through media factoids and references, at least initially. Vikar even becomes a trend-setter among the punk set, with his tattoo proving especially popular.
As I noted above, the way the story in Zeroville is presented to the reader is a little unorthodox. Instead of chapter headings, each section of the story is numbered, going up to 227 and back down again to 1 by the end. The effect is like a list of shots you’d see in a film, with the sections ranging in length from a few words to a few pages. This conceit forces Erickson to pare down his language to the very bones, and makes for a quick and cinematic read. My only complaint here is that occasionally the passage of time is a little diluted by these scene changes, which might in one instance be only a few seconds and in the next represent a couple of years. I’m sure this is done entirely intentionally as a commentary on how we process events in our own lives and the way we do it while watching films, but I was confused on the timeframe at a few junctures. Overall, I highly recommend Zeroville, especially to film fans and Class of ’77 punk types.