Twice now, I have been sorta-kinda tagged for a new meme started by MovieMan, over at The Dancing Image. MovieMan wants those who take part to list their favorite books about film, and I feel that I've been tagged for this twice because Ed Howard and Glenn Kenny, in the section of their posts for this meme where they're supposed to tag five other bloggers, chose instead to tag everyone on the planet at once. Which means I'm in.
So, in essence, I took this particular bull by the horns all on my own, and I therefore have no one to blame for the subsequent difficulties I've suffered in trying to put together a post but myself. It's not that I don't read movie books, or that I don't consider any of the ones I've read to be "favorites" or "important. I do -- sure I do! But I actually haven't read that many film books, and those I have read tend towards the obvious, or at least they seem so when compared to the books listed by Glenn and Ed. This is Orson Welles. Danny Peary's Cult Movies. Harlan Ellison's Watching. That sort of thing. I mean, what, who's going to click over to this blog and shout "Stop the presses! This fucker's going to talk about Adventures in the Screen Trade!" Who needs that? Not me, I can tell you, and it's my blog!
But dry your eyes, my children, because there was one book that I always planned on placing at number one, a book that is, in almost every conceivable way, more interesting than any of those others. And I've decided to dispense with the whole list idea and just write about this one book, because it really is my favorite film book, and because rules and promises are made to be broken, and you have to follow your heart, and also individuality. All that stuff. The book is also a work of fiction, which I haven't yet seen represented on any of these lists, because remember what I said before about individuality.
I have no idea where or when I first heard about Theodore Roszak's Flicker. All I know is that whatever description I read immediately pissed me off, because I needed that book, I needed to read it now, but it was out of print, and I couldn't find the sucker anywhere. It was years before I finally got my hands on it -- thanks to a reprint by Chicago Review Press -- and when I did, I read it at once. It was everything I hoped it would be, while being quite different from what I expected.
The plot, essentially, is this: in the 1960s, a young cinephile named Jonathan Gates spends much of his time at dingy movie theater called The Classic. He meets a budding, strong-willed film critic named Clare, who teaches him all she knows about films and life, and with whom he searches high and low for prints of classic movies. Over time, they come to hear about a forgotten director named Max Castle, who as an uncredited writer, co-director, or etc., worked on such films as The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, Nosferatu, Mad Love and Citizen Kane. He also made his own films, with such titles as Ghoul of Limehouse, Queen of Swords, Simon the Magician and Judas Everyman. Clare and Jonathan are able to track down some of these films, and the effect these films have on them is quite unusual. After they've watched Judas Everyman, Jonathan -- the novel's narrator -- reflects:
We had no name for what we'd seen. We couldn't be certain that we'd viewed the whole film or that we'd seen it in anything like its correct sequence. What we'd watched was obviously a rough cut with all the ragged edges still showing. Yet, we knew that none of this mattered, for, after several minutes of talk, it was clear that the film, just as we had seen it, had worked. It had left us all with exactly the same experience of absolute, numbing horror. Not the horror of fear, but of revulsion.
And such is the case with every other Castle film they're able to track down. The fact that the films burrow so deep into the viewer is actually a bit frustrating for Clare, because she can't figure out why the films get to her the way they do. Nothing she knows about the art, craft or mechanics of film seems to apply to Castle's work.
Add to this the fact that Castle is, of course, missing, and has some bizarre connection to a frightening religious cult called the Orphans of the Storm, and the reader might find him- or herself not minding so much that Roszak's novel is pushing 600 pages. Because while Clare grows up to be Pauline Kael, Jonathan keeps digging for answers, and what he finds is singularly unpredictable and exactly -- narratively and thematically -- right. Also, Orson Welles is in it.
It's hard to write about a 600 page book I read three or four years ago, especially as I didn't foresee that I would one day be writing this post, and therefore didn't mark passages I thought might be illuminating to others. But I've described this book to others as a metaphysical horror novel about the secret history of movies, and I'll be damned if that doesn't just about sum it up. Castle was in films almost from the beginning, and he understood a deep truth about the subliminal power -- the potential of the flicker -- of the artform. And he used that knowledge, and that knowledge has been passed on to a cult that doesn't worship Jesus or Mohammed, but what it worships I won't tell you, and what it hopes to do I won't tell you either, or where Jonathan's discoveries take him, or what the last line of the novel is. That line would be such a wonderful title for this post, but I wouldn't dream of doing that to any of you.
Also, not incidentally, this book is positively drunk on movies. Ultimately, one might wonder how in love with cinema Theodore Roszak really is, or if, possibly, he's renounced that love (out of fear, perhaps), but he sure as hell knows his stuff, and he needs to for the whole thing to work. This book was written for cinephiles, so that, in print, we can wallow in what we normally just stare at in the dark. And it might make you flinch a bit, by the end. You might wonder about some of the movies you've spent time with over the years, and how they effected you. Maybe a movie made you feel bad, beyond what the narrative, however effective it might have been, could reasonably be held accountable for. Maybe a film made you angry, and you've never been able to pinpoint exactly why. Maybe a movie ruined your day, and maybe you don't even know that it was the movie that did it. Well, you weren't supposed to know, so just move along, and forget I said anything.
I'm going to actually tag some people for this meme, because I'd love to read their answers. So Greg, Fox, Arbogast, Dennis, Rick, Ryan...get to work. Then tag all the people I wanted to tag but couldn't.