Saturday, September 27, 2008

Zeroville by Steve Erickson

Do we dream movies or do movies dream us? That’s the foundation on which Erickson, the author of several surreal-noir narratives set in a bleak future-present Southern California, constructs his latest and most fluid novel. As the title suggests, everything begins at zero-level, with the arrival in L.A. of Vikor, a cine-autistic who sports a shaved head, one side of which is tattooed with an image of Montgomery Clift and Liz Taylor from Stevens’ A Place In the Sun. A refugee from a religious father who equates innocence with depravity, and a seminary unable to countenance his doorless architectural project, Vikor is marginal enough to have descended from another planet. It’s the day after the Manson murders, and Vikor is odd enough to be a potential suspect for those grisly murders. However, the police interrogation troubles him less than the fact that, in celluloid city, the couple tattooed on his head is too often mistaken for James Dean and Natalie Wood. Seeking refuge in a downtown cinema, Vikor, who loves movies because he’s certain God hates them, watches Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc and Kubrick’s 2001, films that confirm his belief that movies are mostly about repression and sacrifice.

Zeroville recalls an era when a new generation of film-schooled directors was making its presence felt. Like Kaspar Hauser in a land of vipers, Vikor wanders through a world in which few can afford to take him at face value. Eventually he becomes a film editor, yet one who eschews continuity. Due to exigencies of the industry and his growing reputation, Vikor is finally given free reign in the editing room. Producers hope his agenda will see him through, though they’re never sure where that agenda comes from or what it’s going to produce. Is he, they wonder, a genius, an idiot or merely insane? Not realizing Vikor’s world derives entirely from lines and attitudes others give him, which means he functions as a fogged-up mirror to all that’s redundant. No wonder he hasn’t heard of Vietnam or Europe, and when Patty Hearst is kidnapped, doesn’t know if it’s because her kidnappers hate Citizen Kane or because they love it. Though he does find a few others equally obsessed and marginal, including a petty thief, a female escort, and, most importantly, the daughter of a mysterious woman rumoured to be Bunuel’s illegitimate offspring. Inevitably a cult hero, Vikor prefers scouring his film collection in search of single frames that, when spliced together, comprise a film that will show the true reality of movies. After all, Vikor knows we are defined by the films we see. Filled with surprises, Zeroville is about what movies are and why they matter. Moreover, it reads like a dream. Or should one say a movie.

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