Steve Erickson’s Cineautistic *Zeroville*

I found this on the “recommended reading” shelf at the public library — thanks, hipster librarian!  I’d read reviews of Zeroville (2007) when it came out but had forgotten about it and had never read any Erickson.  It’s a great Hollywood novel.  In fact, if I had any minor criticism it might be that it could be accused of straining just a little to be The Great Hollywood Novel, with its mythopoetic tendencies and highly self-aware self-positioning in relation to 20th-century Hollywood and film history & literary representations of H’wood from Fitzgerald and Nathaniel West onward.  (As Liesl Shillinger pointed out in her NYT review of the novel, it follows a parallel trajectory to Peter Biskind’s great non-fiction Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ’n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, and could almost be seen as an attempt to retell this history as visionary fiction).  The protagonist is a semi-autistic mystery — a character aptly describes him as “cineautistic” at one point — named Vikar with an image of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor from George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun tattooed on his skull who shows up in Hollywood on the week of the Manson murders– for which he’s promptly taken into questioning.  He ends up falling in with some bohemian film types and eventually gets taught film editing by an older woman who seems maybe modeled on Thelma Shoonmaker, Martin Scorsese’s legendary editor since the 1960s.

It’s a running joke that people tend to mistake the image of Clift and Taylor on Vikar’s skull for James Dean and Natalie Wood, an error which enrages Vikar notwithstanding his admiration for Wood.  In fact early on he slams someone over the head with a cafeteria tray for the mistake, although he subsequently gets better at controlling his violent rages.

Vikar turns out to be a visionary, intuitive film editor — can’t think offhand of any other novelists with film-editor protagonists, btw; it doesn’t exactly rank with police detective or cowboy as an iconic fictional occupation — who is nominated for an Oscar for his ground-breaking work on a film, Pale Blue Eyes (which Erickson says is the only made-up film in the whole novel) that had been viewed as an unredeemable disaster by the studio after shooting.  While working on this film in Madrid he is, in effect, kidnapped in order to moonlight as editor for a propaganda film for an insurgency revolutionary organization.  His success allows him to begin collecting original prints of classic films which he does not screen but simply hoards.  Among other things the book is a nice collection of lists for one’s Netflix queue:

He sees Performance, Preminger’s Laura (for the third time), Murmur of the Heart, Gilda, Disney’s Pinocchio, The Battle of Algiers,… Dirty Harry…, an old forties movie called Criss Cross where Burt Lancaster and Yvonne De Carlo drive each other mad across what seems to Vikar a fantastical downtown Los Angeles with trolley cars that glide through the air…

The book winds up exploring Vikar’s obsessive quest for the key to what amounts to a kind of cabalistic, secret history of cinema as encoded in a magical single cinematic frame which has, in some inscrutable manner, migrated from Cary Dreyer’s 1928 La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc to a contemporary porn movie and, it turns out, elsewhere (not to give too much away).

The novel is halfway between the genres of fiction and film criticism (Erickson is himself also a film critic) in its brooding, incantatory obsession with the mysteries & magic of the cinematic image at their most “deeply irrational and even rapturous” (a phrase I take from an interview with Erickson).  I wonder if it’s ever taught in film history or theory classes; it could work well as a final text.  It also offers a broader history of modern Hollywood including, among other things, accounts of the birth and development of punk rock (Vikar becomes the guardian for a kid in a band in the early 80s L.A. scene along with X, the Dils, the Germs, and so forth).  Reminds me a bit of Bruce Wagner’s earlier novels, and shares with Wagner a tendency to drop in references to real-life stars and events, although the mode is less satirical, more reverent and appreciative of Hollywood’s history (although similarly fascinated by its frightening and disturbing undersides).

Its film rights apparently been optioned by James Dean lookalike James Franco, which makes a lot of sense, it actually seems like a great match for Franco.

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