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Steve Erickson: The Movie Author

They say that you can’t dance architecture, but have they really tried?

No, start again. It’s no good listening and attributing to them.

Jonathan Lethem says, in his preface to Greenan’s It Happened in Boston?:

“a symphony can’t extensively describe a brilliant—and nonexistent—work of architecture. Nor can a building, or a painting, or a play, or even a song ever do very much in the way of persuading you of the existence of a fictional work of art in another form. It’s only the novel—the baggiest, most elastic and inclusive of forms—that really has a chance.

Film, fiction’s nearest cousin in its variety and relationship to time, may also appear able to enclose other forms. But photography’s fatal literalism means film needs to prove what it asserts—and so a piece of, say choreography depicted in a film must either be real and persuasive or else kept teasingly offscreen.

The Novel, with its mesmeric capacity to engage the reader’s the reader’s complicit imagination, can actually dwell on another art form, or artifact, or performance, until the item seems to hum into existence and become a part of the larger-on-the-inside-than-on-the-outside magic spell. “

Though Jonathan Lethem is an author who has written some of the greatest words in re film (see his excellent novel Chronic City, his stellar essays within The Disappointment Artist, and his essential written commentary track They Live), this is not about Mr. Lethem. We’ll thank him for his excellent summation of a point I’d have stumbled through and move on.

To a closer but not yet refined establishing point, the relationship between novels and film is complex. Transitioning the former to the latter is commonplace, with a history that’s Good (The Martian), Bad (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk), and Ugly (Dark Tower). For all the willingness to take a studio paycheck when one’s offered, the prevailing concept that Film is an evolution of writing which is poison in the heart of many authors (or at least some. Do not ask Danielewski if he wants to see his books on screen, he’ll point out that if he’d wanted to make film, he’d have damn well made films).

For all of the celebrated traffic in one direction, it would be errant to dismiss the other lane. There exist powerful and essential words fiction about movies . There are works about theater as cultural institutions (The Last Picture Show), about the philosophic transportational nature of cinema (The Moviegoer), and the addictive narcotic nature of visual entertainment (Infinite Jest, perhaps, or White Noise). Yet the majority of novels about films use films as a medium to talk about something else.

Which brings me to my final, honed point: Steve Erickson is a novelist who loves film, and writes books which have this at the heart (an in which the something else in those works is often enough also used to discuss film). He is a writer who all other lovers of movies ought to read.

Rivaled only possibly by Nathanael West’s filming of Waterloo from The Night of the Locusts, there are no printed words that more effervescently create film on the page that Erickson’s work within Days Between Stations and Zeroville. Erickson’s fictive architecture positions the watching of, making of, and producing of movies in the way that most authors use love affairs.

On the first page of Zeroville, Erickson’s protagonist uses a lunch tray to attack a man who has errantly opined on cinema. In this, he makes a guilty ally of many of us who’ve shown epic restraint in the face of the philistines. It is without a doubt a novel devoted to movies more than any other work of prose.

In brief it is the story of an architect student who strikes West to find the answers (or grails) in film that he caught glimpses of in an Ohio theater. The novel tracks him through the autumn of the golden age of Hollywood in roles as an observer, a technician, an auteur, a scholar, and finally a cinema heretic. Though the work has love and conflict and quests, these mechanics all pull into or stretch out of cinemascopic attachments. It’s a book in which the parts about movies are about movies, and the parts about people are also about movies. It’s a menagerie of film gems and sneakily staged tutorials, wrapped in devotion.

Describing film in text is a challenging and elusive task. Summating the plot is a blurb of no literary merit, and risks holding up a more appealing narrative than the ensuing novel plot. Erickson instead waxes only on the most appealing aspects…the cinematography of A Place in the Sun, the poignant tragedy at the end of The Bicycle Thief. Some films are viewed only through distorted interpretations of the plot (“a family of sirens living in snowy mountains, pursued by the police and leaving trail of malevolent music”), others are obsessed upon through technical merits. Films are often unnamed, leaving the reader to wonder if the described film exists, and often enough instilling a hope that it does.

And yet we come to be shown that unconventional interpretations (“When Michael has Fredo killed, it isn’t just Cain slaying Abel, it’s Abraham sacrificing Isaac, because Michael has assumed the role of father to his older brother, who has assumed the role of son) are indicative of how movies are Rorschach tests we want to take.

Zeroville eavesdrops on conversations: inter-cultural exchanges in re John Wayne, the essential-yet-unacclaimed art of editing (Chapters 93-95 present perhaps the greatest published discussion on the potent abilities of editing, and is writing which ought to be essential reading for audiences and filmmakers), film as politics of both the authority and the revolutionary.

Zeroville is also an elegy for actors and actresses, both the lost stars and the ones who never make it. It is a work that reflects on the solipsism of the audience and the immutability of the film (to wit: our narrator initially fantasizes of starlets in a series of one-sided congresses, only to later conclude that “we love the movies, but they don’t love us.).

Zeroville is, among roles, a book which establishes the very many things which a film can be, from object of a grail-quest to prophecy to subversive tool. Ironically, Zeroville has been adapted into a movie that has since been lost (though based on Franco’s prior directorial work, I am skeptical that scholars will traverse Europe to unearth it). 

—where he goes to the movies.

A silent European film from the late twenties, it’s the worst print he has seen—less a movie than a patchwork of celluloid—but he’s spellbound. In the late middle ages a young woman, identified in the credits only as “Mlle Falconetti,” is interrogated and hounded by a room of monks. The woman doesn’t give a performance, as such; he has never seen acting that seemed less to be acting. It’s more an inhabitation. The movie is shot completely in close-ups, including the unbearable endings, when the young woman is burned at the stake.”

Days Between Stations, which I will not suffer you with prolix, is less expansive. It is film as labyrinth, as architecture. It is, among things, a portrait of a great film that you will long to see. Read it second, you can trust me.

Erickson himself, former film student and former journalist, is a book-person’s author. He has won the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award previously bestowed to the likes of Wiliam Gaddis, William Gass, and John Barth. He is an author whom Pynchon refers to as “daring, haunting, sensual.” He is regarded as a member of the ‘avantpopliterary movement, a granfalloon tying together the modern authors who incorporate pop media with the weight of social institutions. Though not incorrect, it would be more correct to say that Erickson’s novels love movies like Murakimi’s novels love music.

There are many words written about movies, and books, like these before you. Erickson’s exceed them all in one respect: text does not reduce, it expands. Through fictive reactions which critical analysis could never rival, Erickson’s words about film pull hidden and invented meanings out of images, and then presents the detailed map of how we got there.    In that sense, his books on movies are bigger on the inside than their binding would hint.

Many Authors like films. Lethem, Wallace, Tevis, Percy, Auster, DeLillo, etc. But Steve Erickson loves movies, and he writes like the best of them. And importantly, reading Erickson will make you love movies too, in a perhaps carnal and respectful and passionate way. And more importantly, he’ll elucidate the relationship and open new avenues of cinematic appreciation, equipping you (sneakily) with the tools to parse the value from early Hollywood and European arthouse antiquities.    

So, basically, Erickson is just thing to read while you’re enduring the long hard gap between Summer Explosives and Autumnal Prestige.


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