interviewed by Anthony Miller
Steve Erickson’s gorgeously discombobulating novels can only truly be mapped against and according to the enigmatic chronological and cartographic coordinates they provide. His writing delves deeply into questions about the permeability of the boundaries between reality and dreams, how history might begin in dreams and how dreams can constitute their own forms of history. His narratives have incorporated disappearing streets, dying buildings, demolished metropolises, clandestine radio broadcasts, mysterious melody snakes, metaphysical maps and blueprints, and secret rooms that ferry characters across space and time or contain the essence of a character’s conscience or fate. Erickson follows not, as he has himself described it, the “clocks of strict chronology” but the “internal clock of memory,” venturing through time’s slipstreams and sluicing between the viaducts of dreams. In his latest novel, Zeroville, Erickson immerses himself in a more communal dream-realm: the movies.
Now in its third printing, Zeroville (Europa Editions) is a novel which is not merely inspired by film but one which unravels in a way as if dictated from a cinematic subconscious. Zeroville opens with a statement by director Josef Von Sternberg: “I believe that cinema was here from the beginning of the world.” His epigraph could have been exchanged with—or else coupled with—André Breton’s pronouncement (from L’Âge du cinéma): “From the instant he takes his seat to the moment he slips into the fiction evolving before his eyes, he passes through a critical point as captivating and imperceptible as that uniting waking and sleeping . . . It is a way of going to the movies the way others go to church, and I think that, from a certain angle, quite independently of what is playing, it is there that the only absolutely modern mystery is celebrated.” When Vikar Jerome arrives in Hollywood in 1969 with movies on his mind—literally (with a film-related tattoo on his head) as well as figuratively—he becomes caught up in mysteries that are at once absolutely modern and resonant of ancient stories of belief and sacrifice. In this Big Picture bildungsroman, Vikar is, at various moments, an embryonic Starchild in a contemporary Void and a “cineautistic” anchorite in a “Heretic City.”Whatever role the reader ultimately elects to assign to Vikar—cinematic medium, madman, martyr, auteur, cipher, collector, crusader—his destiny is inextricably tied to the world of celluloid.
Vikar finds his way into the Hollywood studios and falls in with the most devout of the city’s cineastes in Nichols Beach, directors and actors whose films will soon irrevocably alter the landscape. His wanderings through Hollywood also take him on detours to New York City, Madrid, Paris, Cannes, and Oslo, the site of a famous discovery both for Vikar and for cinema. Vikar’s journey also provides one version of the history of film culture from the rise of the American independent filmmaker in the ‘70s through blockbusters and financial boondoggles into the aesthetic indulgences and some “avant-” explorations of the ‘80s. Those familiar with Erickson’s other books will recognize a few recurring characters and locales. The novel also features a few Los Angeles settings outside the requisite Hollywood path. It’s worth noting that Vikar’s first stop in Los Angeles is Philippe’s, possibly the first time the venerable one-hundred-year-old home of the French Dip sandwich has made an appearance in contemporary fiction—even if Vikar ends up being unable to enjoy his sandwich.
Zeroville is inhabited as much by the many figures projected upon the movie screen as by those characters who view, study, debate, and draw their inspiration and even their very identity from what those on the screen speak or reveal to them. The novel is replete with elements of studio lore and irreverent film criticism. Erickson’s fascination with and zeal for film erupts on practically every page; reading the novel will likely inspire readers not only to screen or rescreen the movies Vikar watches within the novel but also to rethink the importance of Montgomery Clift and of movies in general. Zeroville is an immensely engrossing novel about being enraptured by cinema.
Erickson is the author of seven previous novels including Days Between Stations, Tours of the Black Clock, Arc d’X, and The Sea Came in at Midnight. His two unjustly out-of-print but highly recommended books (especially in this election year) about American politics and pop culture, Leap Year and American Nomad, sometimes mistakenly shelved as novels, appear to be the author’s personal chronicles of the 1988 and 1996 presidential elections, but are in fact nothing less than delirious odysseys across a spectral United States which articulate the voice of the American psyche. (I would campaign for the reissue of these two books—perhaps collected in a single volume). The recipient of a 2007 Guggenheim fellowship, Erickson is the editor of Black Clock, a national literary journal published by the California Institute of the Arts, which has just published its eighth issue. He teaches writing in the MFA program at CalArts and is the film critic for Los Angelesmagazine. Erickson’s website can be found at www.steveerickson.org.
Zeroville was named one of Newsweek’s best books of 2007 and one of the year’s 25 best books of fiction and poetry in the Los Angeles Times. It appeared on best-of-2007 lists in the Washington Post Book World and the Toronto Globe and Mail. The novel has received praise from the New York Times Book Review, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the London Times (even before the book was published in England), the Seattle Times, Bookforum, The Nation, and The Believer. It has also very recently been selected as one of the five novels in 2008’s “Good Reads” by the National Book Critics Circle.
A Place in the Sun
The tattoo on Vikar’s head—the first “shot,” as it were, in Zeroville—captivates and confounds non-cineastes and cineastes, hippies and punks alike throughout the novel. How did you come up with the image of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor from A Place in the Sun on the fleshy screen of Vikar’s cranium? I don’t know what you’ll think of this, but Clift and Taylor, with their “faces barely apart, lips barely apart,” made me think of Vikar’s head as something like a Silver Screen version of the Grecian urn in Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” with its figures frozen forever on the threshold of action. Characters crossing thresholds or remaining fixed—and fixated—at the edges of thresholds of various kinds, it seems to me, have always been an integral part of your stories. Could you elaborate on this mark that Vikar bears?
Well, you’ve been reading my novels long enough to know that they operate on a pretty intuitive level, even—at the risk of sounding completely mystical or pretentious about it—on a level that’s unconscious. And with the movies, after all, you’re talking about a collective dream language, and with Clift and Taylor you have what the novel describes as “the two most beautiful people in the history of the movies, she the female version of him, and he the male version of her”—and in that particular moment from A Place in the Sun, Clift and Taylor are on a terrace away from the eyes of others, a party is going on inside the house, and they’re on the verge of something. The seed of their fate already is planted in the womb of the factory girl that Clift has impregnated back in town. The two lovers are on the verge—and it’s already too late. In a way, it may have been the end of cinematic romanticism, then and there—it’s hard to think of any couple or image after that as purely, deathlessly romantic. So that scene from A Place in the Sunrepresents something Vikar himself doesn’t understand, and that romanticism stands juxtaposed against the moment we first see Vikar, who arrives in L.A. in the summer of 1969 on the day of the Manson murders. The image tattooed on his head is portentous, ominous—Vikar is a punk angel bearing the sign of the apocalypse, so obsessed with movies it just seems natural he would engrave the sign of that obsession on his skull.
The Passion of Joan of Arc
Vikar comes out of the same kind of sheltered upbringing and seminarian education as Paul Schrader, where being forbidden to watch films as a child created a lust for them as obscure objects of philosophical-theological desire. The very first film Vikar sees upon his arrival in Hollywood is The Passion of Joan of Arc. You also describe Michel Sarre in your first novel Days Between Stations (who sits down with Vikar briefly in Zeroville) watching The Passion of Joan of Arc. You even make Vikar responsible for the 1981 discovery of the lost Oslo print of the film. What is it about that film and Mademoiselle Falconetti’s Joan that haunts Vikar and Sarre—and you?
Not unlike Vikar, I first saw The Passion of Joan of Arc in 1969, not in a small revival house like Vikar but at UCLA—and what I saw of course was the out-take version, the version that Carl Dreyer put together when he believed the original to have been destroyed in a fire. It was one of the greatest movies I ever saw, I never had seen anything like it, and this was the version comprised of Dreyer’s leftovers! Everything about Passion of Joan of Arc is mythic, including that half century when the film was believed to be lost . . . Falconetti’s performance—the only one she ever gave on film, which by all accounts deeply unhinged her . . . and just the intensity of the Joan of Arc story itself.
You’re one of the first interviewers to have caught on to the Schrader allusion—I’ve always been struck by how the new directors of the Seventies, the most film-conscious generation of filmmakers, started out aspiring to be priests or theologians or moralists, or came out of seriously repressed families. Schrader, Scorsese, Malick. A young architecture student in divinity school, Vikar designs a model of a church with a small movie-screen inside, in place of an altar, and along with A Place in the Sun, for him The Passion of Joan of Arc is the ultimate example of the movie as epiphany, a kind of hinge between the cinematic and the religious.
2001: A Space Odyssey
After The Passion of Joan of Arc, the next film that Vikar goes to see in Hollywood in 1969 is 2001. Vikar, like all those who confronted Kubrick’s film in the darkness of the theatre, has an encounter with that film’s “Starchild” and sees himself as “a kind of starchild as well.” (Vikar’s last name, Jerome, also makes me think of another extraterrestrial visitor from the movies, Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth.)Can you talk about how Vikar is a sort of “embryonic, perhaps divine Starchild” in a land of very different “stars”?
Well, I liked the juxtaposition of 2001 and The Passion of Joan of Arc—as I said, it parallels to a certain extent my own understanding of movies, although in 1969 I was about five years younger than Vikar is at that point in the story. 2001 and Joan share a kind of anarchic spiritualism, even as they tell their stories from opposite ends of both modern history and the modern imagination. On an endless bus trip from the East Coast, Vikar comes to L.A. feeling like he’s hurtled through the cosmos until he’s gone as far as anyone can go—L.A. was at the end of everything in those days, it was at the end of time, it was the future geographically and metaphorically. Tokyo and Hong Kong hadn’t become Blade Runner cities at that point. Vikar has cut himself loose of not only his past but, most importantly, his parents, particularly his father. He’s an orphan the way the Starchild in 2001 is the ultimate orphan, the way Joan became an orphan.
Vikar’s obliviousness to everything except movies prompts one character to dub him a “cineautistic.” It’s as if he’s some kind of forerunner of new species of man: homo cinematicus. His naïve deployment of various utterances he hears spoken by those around him could be read in such a way as to make Vikar a cipher, but it could also suggest a weird talent Vikar possesses to “splice” together what he hears at certain moments into new and different contexts.
Homo cinematicus—that’s fabulous. I’m going to pretend I really am that smart and that’s exactly what I was thinking. It probably doesn’t matter whether Vikar’s editing is a form of his cineautism, or whether his cineautism is a kind of psychic editing.
You have Vikar utter a line from the weird sculptor in the strange, psychosexual Japanese cult film Môjuu (Blind Beast): “I have eyes in my fingers.” Some of your central characters are voyeur-artists who create works that, like those of the sculptor in Blind Beast, are essentially reflections of fevered psyches, like the pulp-turned-pornographic writer Banning Jainlight in Tours of the Black Clock, or the Occupant, that doomstruck menologist from your novel The Sea Came in at Midnight, who obsesses over all the collected endtime increments (the bangs and the whimpers) that comprise his room-sized apocalyptic calendar of the Twentieth Century. How would you say Vikar is like or unlike your other obsessive characters from previous works?
What’s the cliché about dreams, that everyone in your dreams, including those who seem to be someone else, represents a facet of you? I admit that many of my favorite characters in literature are the obsessives—Ahab, Heathcliff, Joe Christmas in Light in August. Vikar certainly is an obsessive, inscrutable in the manner of the Occupant, and he has in him a violence like Jainlight’s, and the childlike, questing nature of Michel in Days Between Stations and Etcher in Arc d’X. He was as key to the novel as you would expect—I thought about the book for a couple of years and only when Vikar came into focus did the rest of the novel fall into place quickly. He defined the tone and perspective of the novel. Once I understood him—and though I love movies and always have, I’m just not obsessed the way Vikar is, there are too many other things I care about—it was easy to see the novel through his eyes, it was easy to know what he would think or do, and that dictated a lot of choices, even as the novel deliberately declines to dissect his thinking or explain it.
The Death of Marat
Among the films Vikar watches in the novel, there is the great lost silent film by Adolphe Sarre, a film which appears only in your novels Days Between Stations and Amnesiascope, where it is reviewed in a weekly newspaper despite the fact that it exists (at least initially) only in the mind of a beleaguered film critic. You have included a forgotten silent-film director, a screenwriter, and a film critic in your previous novels. Why did you choose to make Vikar a film editor? How is Zeroville an extension of or a departure from your ideas about film in your other novels?
Well, as you point out, the movies have been in the background of many of the novels. I’m not sure why it took this long to write a book where film was front and center, a novel where people actually would sit around and talk about movies—real movies—the way people who love movies do in real life. It made sense for Vikar to be an editor because, as such, he’s a conduit, a medium. When Vikar first gets to Hollywood he finds a town where no one seems to know or care about movies—later when he’s actually working on a movie, after sitting in on a preproduction meeting he wonders how he can love movies so much and not understand anything anyone else is saying.
In many ways the scene that led me into the rest of the novel was one where a black militant burglar—this is in 1970—breaks into Vikar’s apartment and Vikar captures him and ties him to a chair, and then they spend the rest of the night watching movies on TV. On the one hand the incongruity of this burglar knowing all about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford movies was absurd, and on the other hand something about it captured perfectly for me how we all live secret lives through the movies. The scene seemed to distill the appeal and power of movies.
Belle de Jour
At least as she appears to Vikar, Soledad Palladin is a figure who belongs more to cinema than to reality. She is rumored to be the daughter of Luis Buñuel, the lover of Jim Morrison and Frank Zappa, and, as befits the elusive nature of her character, the first actress meant to portray the vanishing woman in L’Avventura. Where did this figure come from?
In her own way Soledad is probably the only character in the novel who’s as mysterious as Vikar. Her personality seems to change with the light—one moment she’s virtually stripping on a New York sidewalk in order to clothe a homeless woman, the next she’s displaying a feral, ruthless sexuality. It’s hard to tell from one moment to the next whether she’s sacrificing everything for her daughter, Zazi, or doesn’t care about her at all. She’s very loosely based on a true European actress of that period named Soledad Miranda, who has a cult following that considers her to have been one of the world’s most beautiful women—she made a lot of soft-core Eurotrash vampire pictures like Vampyros Lesbos and She Killed in Ecstasy, and died very young in a car crash. She was from Seville and I took that part of Miranda’s life and created the rest, turning her into an über-Siren of the era, the kind of fantasy figure who exists for anyone who loves movies.
As grounded in reality as her mother Soledad is evanescent, Zazi is the character in the novel who establishes the most authentic human connection with Vikar. Under Vikar’s peculiar tutelage, Zazi becomes the one most willing to debate her take on movies with the cineastes in the novel with all the tenacity of an adolescent Pauline Kael. Yet, by the end, she seems to inherit something of Vikar’s vertiginous cinematic delirium. How would you characterize Zazi’s influence on Vikar and on the novel?
At first Zazi is like a lot of the people Vikar has met in L.A., she doesn’t really respond to the movies at all. But as you noted, in some ways she turns out to be the best critic in the novel, with iconoclastic insights into sacrosanct pictures like Casablanca and Rio Bravo. By the end she’s dreaming movies she’s never seen, and in some ways Zeroville turns out to be more Zazi’s story than Vikar’s. When readers who don’t know much about movies tell me they like the book, I think it’s because they’ve been caught up in the relationship between Vikar and Zazi.
Kiss Me Deadly
Vikar, whose given name is Isaac, also wrestles throughout the novel with various reverberations of the old Biblical tale of the father sacrificing the son in Abraham’s divine sacrifice of Isaac. I think it’s telling that Vikar’s exclamation of choice, which might not be an expletive at all, is “Oh, mother.”
Well, there’s a story about “Oh, mother!” that I haven’t told. Ten years ago when I was the film critic for Spin—the nadir of my professional life—the editors set up a date between me and Jenna Jameson to go see Boogie Nights, which was just out. Difficult as I know some will find this to believe, at the time I had no idea who Jameson was, but she was at the peak of her porn superstardom. Jenna showed up in a tight baby-blue jumpsuit zipped down to her belly, with stupefying breasts bigger than she was, and we saw Boogie Nights together—I know you think I’m making this up—and the startling thing was how shocked she was by it. During the screening she kept exclaiming, “Oh, mother!” and then, a decade later, it popped out of Vikar’s mouth when I was writing the novel, and I couldn’t remember where I had heard it except that it came to him—or me—very naturally and, as you point out, it completely expressed the relationship Vikar has with his father. About half way through writing the novel, the penny dropped and I remembered about Jenna. So the creative process can work in odd ways, you know?
Vikar compares the death of Fredo in The Godfather to the Abraham-Isaac story, but there might be a number of cinematic variations on the Abraham and Isaac story throughout the novel, in such films like Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid or even Blade Runner.
It’s difficult to say too much here without giving away the novel’s core. But Vikar believes God kills children and he has a father-daughter relationship with Zazi that’s unlike any other relationship that either of them has. He makes a promise to Soledad and becomes Zazi’s protector. Only in retrospect have I realized how much this is a theme in a lot of my novels, from Days Between Stations to Rubicon Beach to Tours of the Black Clock to Arc d’X. It reached sort of a culmination in the two previous books, The Sea Came in at Midnight and particularly Our Ecstatic Days, where a lake appears in the middle of L.A. and the young single mother is convinced it’s the chaos of the world come to take her son from her. Writing Zeroville, I realized early on that the movies in the novel had to be selected rigorously—they couldn’t just be personal favorites or the canon, whatever the canon is these days. There’s not that much in Zeroville about Lawrence of Arabia or The Third Man, after all, two of my favorite movies ever. The movies Vikar responds to, he responds to for a reason. They mean something to him along the lines you’ve mentioned, or illuminate something about him or somehow inform his reaction to the world around him.
The Long Goodbye
Zeroville is inhabited as much by screen characters as by the actors and directors in Hollywood who create them. Your novel made me think of “secret histories” of cinema in books like David Thomson’s Suspects or Geoffrey O’Brien’s The Phantom Empire more than so-called “Hollywood novels.” At one point in the novel, describing private eye Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, you surmise, “Three years later Marlowe will move to New York, change his name to Bickle and drive cabs for a living.”
I admit that this may be a difference that matters only to me, but I’ve never thought of Zeroville as a “Hollywood novel.” Hollywood novels tend to be about making movies and this novel is about loving movies. It’s about how movies have become so much a part of contemporary consciousness, or the common unconsciousness, that when we say something that’s happened in our lives was “just like in a movie,” we’re alluding to a kind of hyper-reality rather than the way movies are illusory.
Vikar drifts in and out of theaters like other people drift in and out of hotel lobbies or train stations—what’s projected on the walls blends in with life outside. In my novel The Sea Came in at Midnight, movies are projected on the city walls. For Vikar the world already is like that, until finally he discovers a secret hidden among the frames of every movie ever made.
The Parallax View
Your novels have included historical characters, some with names like Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, others who are unnamed but recognizable just the same. Did you watch or read anything in particular to help you shape any of the real-life figures from cinema that ricochet through Zeroville? The character Viking Man is an absolutely inspired version of John Milius and you give him so many of the great lines in the novel. Have you heard anything about the novel from your characters’ real-life counterparts?
No, the lawsuits haven’t started rolling in yet. Here’s a very strange thing: Just as I was finishing the novel, my wife [Lori Precious] and sister-in-law were working on a Korean War documentary, in which there’s been some possible feature interest, and who should become involved but . . . Milius. Maybe he’ll have second thoughts after reading the novel, though I have a lot of affection for him as a character. He may be a blowhard but his heart’s in the right place. I’ve never met Milius so it’s more precise to say that Viking Man is my version of Milius, drawing on some select facts of Milius’ life that anyone who knows anything about movies would know. I admit that at first Viking Man seemed almost too broad a characterization, so much an archetype, but he was a perfect counterpart to the impenetrable Vikar, and both are out of their time, as though Vikar is from the future and Viking Man is from the past.
Most of the movie references for the novel, whether they’re characters or movies themselves, were pulled from memory. I can only think of a couple of instances where I went back and studied something in particular. I watched A Place in the Sun again for the passage in the novel where Dorothy Langer, the veteran editor, shows Vikar how and why she cuts films. For the scene later in the book between Vikar and the ghost of Montgomery Clift, I went back and watched Red River, From Here to Eternity, The Misfits, in order to catch his Midwestern speech pattern with its high-pitched sort of crackle, which was as difficult to translate into print as it is distinct to hear.
Other than the movies, the crucial text was a book called The Conversations, an ongoing discussion between Walter Murch and Michael Ondaatje, who of course wrote The English Patient which Murch edited in its film version. Murch also cut Apocalypse Now, Julia, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Talented Mister Ripley, the third Godfather. Murch is like a renaissance man, with a vast, worldly intelligence about everything—he’s not Vikar, in other words. It was a revelatory book.
The Sound of Music
Vikar arrives in the capital of film only to find its denizens much more smitten by pop music than by cinema. Only a character in one of your novels could describe the Von Trapp family from The Sound of Music as “a family of sirens living in snowy mountains, pursued by police and leaving a trail of malevolent music” and liken them to another family, the Manson Family. You leave Vikar at the side of the road as he hears a song exhorting him to board the “Marrakesh Express”: “It’s horrible; they’ve forgotten A Place in the Sun for this?” Yet, songs and allusions to songs by Iggy Pop, Roxy Music, David Bowie, and others appear in the novel. When punk—what Vikar calls “the Sound”—arrives on the scene, Vikar becomes something of a punk icon at CBGB and Madame Wong’s and he reflects upon the fact that he has “come to care more about the Sound than the Movies.” As a fan and a critic who has surveyed both Los Angeles songs (“L.A.’s Top 100,” Los Angeles, November 2001) and films (“The 25 Greatest Films about Los Angeles,” Los Angeles, March 2003), how do you grapple with your own personal feelings about these respective mediums of sound and vision?
Music was just the tenor of everything in 1969 and 1970, particularly in L.A. American movies were still catching up with the cultural explosion of Bob Dylan and the Beatles, just as Dylan and the Beatles were running out of steam. Crosby, Stills and Nash was the hot act of the moment, being touted as the “American Beatles,” but you know, “Marrakesh Express” wasn’t exactly “Strawberry Fields Forever.” It wasn’t even “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” When he gets to L.A., Vikar finds music has displaced movies as the cultural currency and feels betrayed—and six or seven years later, when he’s distracted by punk, it’s like a married man having an affair before coming to his senses and returning to the home of the movies, even as he never entirely loses his attraction to the lover.
Even as a film student at UCLA who wanted to be a novelist, I went through periods where music meant more to me than anything, and I guess if there’s anything remotely autobiographical about Zeroville it has to do with when I lived in Echo Park in the early Seventies and the air was full of James Taylor and Carole King and the Eagles, none of whom meant much to me. I was the only person I knew in L.A. who had a Roxy Music record, the only person I knew in L.A. who had a Stooges record, the only person I knew in L.A. who had a New York Dolls record or a Mott the Hoople record or a Velvet Underground record. I wasn’t the only person I knew who had a Bowie record but I was the first person I knew who had a Bowie record. It was at once strange and alienating to be living in this heavily latino section of L.A. on the top floor of an old Victorian house right out of Chinatown and trekking down to the corner newsstand to find Creem among all the Spanish-language magazines so I could read Robert Christgau while washing my clothes at the laundromat, and at the same time it was a distinctly L.A. kind of experience, living a Frankenstein life sewn together from discarded fragments of more coherent lives. And that music that seemed antithetical to L.A. in some ways, at complete odds with the Eagles, in fact was cinematic, vivid, dangerous in a glamorous way that was true to L.A., even as it was coming out of London or New York. It was music that grew more out of the anarchic Seeds/Love/Doors/Beefheart tradition of L.A. music rather than the utopian tradition of the Beach Boys or the Byrds or the Mamas and Papas.
The extensive conversation about the movies you mentioned earlier between Vikar and the black militant burglar who breaks into his house is undoubtedly one of the funniest scenes in any of your novels. Among other topics, they discuss Max Steiner’s Oscar-winning soundtrack to Now, Voyager, a soundtrack which marked, as the burglar (who is bound to a chair) says, “the only time one of the biggest stars of all time lost a creative power struggle to the composer.”
The story is that Bette Davis tried to get Max Steiner fired from Now, Voyager because she thought his score upstaged her—a myopic view on her part to say the least because Now, Voyager isn’t the same movie without Steiner’s music and, consequently, whether she understood it or not, Davis’ wouldn’t have been the same performance. His score didn’t upstage her, it flattered her. I’ve since heard she tried to get Steiner kicked off other movies too, like Dark Victory—don’t know if it’s true but, if so, she obviously had it in for Max Steiner.
“The Unheard Music”
What are your favorite movie soundtracks?
Notwithstanding the imagistic nature of movies, it’s striking how many great movies just wouldn’t be great if not for the music. Chinatown originally had a honky-tonk kind of soundtrack, which would have been a terrible mistake—fortunately it was replaced in the last couple weeks of post-production by Jerry Goldsmith’s score, which he knocked off very quickly, given how it’s his most inspired work. Casablanca isn’t the same movie without the music, and probably Gone With the Wind—not a movie I’m especially fond of, so I’m hard-pressed to say for sure—isn’t either, and those are Steiner’s most famous and obvious scores. Now, Voyager is more otherworldly and so is The Fountainhead, an insane film that verges on the hallucinatory by way of Steiner’s music. Those are Steiner’s best. They shimmer, they sound like they’re floating above the clouds.
From Steiner to Franz Waxman, who did the score for A Place in the Sun, most of these guys came out of Europe, were classically trained, aspired to be classical composers but fled Hitler and wound up in Hollywood the way a lot of European novelists from Mann to Huxley wound up in Hollywood, wondering what the hell they were doing there. Even Bernard Herrmann, who was a New York kid, came out of a European tradition—Vertigo‘s soundtrack is a noir version of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, which makes sense, of course.
David Raksin is one of the rare American-influenced composers of that period who can stand with the Europeans. He wrote only two really great scores, Laura and The Bad and the Beautiful, but the films are unimaginable without them, particularly the former. Then there were all of Randy Newman’s various uncles. John Barry and Ennio Morricone are the two great film composers of the last fifty years who can easily stand with Steiner, Waxman, Herrmann.
Late in the novel, a delirious Vikar hears Joy Division’s “Shadowplay,” a song about searching and longing and getting lost and longing to get lost, but which also has a title that could certainly serve as a definition of motion pictures. Have you heard this new cover version currently playing on the radio by The Killers?
Haven’t heard the Killers’ version, but I think it’s in the same collection as an interesting cut they do with Lou Reed. Along with “Atmosphere,” “Shadowplay” probably is my favorite Joy Division song—it certainly evokes a displacement that’s as liberating as it is terrifying, and images of a secret city, with wandering streets that spiral down to some forbidden center.
“When the Music’s Over”
Have you seen Anton Corbijn’s film Control? How did it compare in your view with 24 Hour Party People? How do you think Joy Division should best be remembered?
I’ve seen part of Control and found it pretty interesting—but you know where it’s going, right? And you know it’s not going to end well, and that the story is just going to get sadder and sadder, whereas 24 Hour Party People had about it a feeling of palpable celebration, even in Joy Division’s music which, albeit in a tangential fashion, had its own L.A. connection—there’s a Jim Morrison poster hanging on Ian Curtis’ wall. I know some folks hate the Doors, a band that certainly had its silly moments, but without them, Iggy and Patti Smith and X and Joy Division wouldn’t have been who they were.
“The Right Profile”
You quote the song by the Clash in which Joe Strummer sings: “Monty’s face broken on a wheel/Is he alive? Can he still feel?” One thing that plagues Vikar is that the Montgomery Clift on his head is continually mistaken for James Dean (and Elizabeth Taylor for Natalie Wood) in Rebel Without A Cause. What do you think would have happened if Clift had perished in his car accident in ’56?What role did Montgomery Clift play in the Hollywood of the Fifties and early Sixties?
Clift was John the Baptist to Brando’s Jesus. I don’t know what exactly that makes Dean—Saint Peter? At several points in Zeroville one character or another makes mention that Clift surviving his car crash wasn’t the best career move, particularly given the price he paid. The next ten years until his death were extraordinarily difficult ones of pain, disfigurement, psychic torment. Because Clift was a better actor than Dean and his range was greater, his persona isn’t as defined—in Dean’s three movies, he more or less played three incarnations of the same anguished adolescence, with which anguished adolescents across the country identified. On the other hand Clift didn’t have the ferocity of a Brando, he wasn’t the force of nature that Brando was. So I think he’s been a bit lost to the winds of time except for those who know about him, and for those who know about him, something about him is special, subtler, more shaded and certainly more haunted than either Brando or Dean. I think he gave himself emotionally to roles in a way Brando’s or Dean’s egos wouldn’t have allowed.
In a Lonely Place
Could you talk about why you decided to check yourself into the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood to work on this novel? Did you subscribe to any personal rules regarding how you would handle the allusions to films or have specific concepts you kept in mind in order to lend this novel a pace and energy more appropriate to, say, a screenplay?
Well, you’ve put your finger on the matter. I wrote a short story called “Zeroville” for a McSweeney’s anthology in ’04 edited by Michael Chabon. It had some of the elements of the later novel but the central character was far more conventional than Vikar and there wasn’t the pop momentum that it seemed a novel about the movies should have. It didn’t seem like a novel about the movies should follow the Faulknerian chronology of memory that’s characterized other books of mine. So I did subscribe to some narrative laws, as you put it, that I never thought about in other novels I’ve written—keep it linear, always in the present tense, telling the story in action and dialogue along with movie references, in short scenes that cut from one to the next. Not to be like a screenplay, but certainly to approximate the rush of a movie.
Everyone mentions how fast the book reads, and a serious writer distrusts that a bit, a serious writer wants the reader to settle into the book. I hope it’s not speaking out of school to report that Don DeLillo phoned me and said, “It reads fast, but it’s a very fine work.” Note the “but.” I checked into the Roosevelt for four nights in a room down the hall from the one where Montgomery Clift lived in between filming A Place in the Sun and From Here to Eternity, and knocked out the first fifty pages, up through the burglar scene.
Written on the Wind
Around 1980, Vikar attempts to adapt J.K. Huysmans’s Là-Bas for the screen, a punk-influenced version of the 19th-century novel called God’s Worst Nightmare, to star Harvey Keitel and to be shot by Robby Müller. You have written about the problems of literary adaptation in various articles and you contributed a list of what you regard as some of the most successful cinematic adaptations for last year’s “Fiction into Film” issue of Bookforum. What are your current thoughts on how your own novels might be adapted to the screen?
When Anthony Minghella made The English Patient, he famously told Ondaatje, “You realize we’re going to fuck up your book.” Over the years, to the point of tedium I’ve cited Philip Kaufman’s version of Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being as the best modern adaptation of a contemporary literary novel—it’s as good a movie as the book is a novel, maybe better, because while Kaufman was faithful to the spirit and the themes of Kundera’s story, he knew he had to break it down and build his own version. I’ve always said if anyone can make a great movie of Kundera and an interesting movie of Ondaatje, not to mention The Remains of the Day or The Hours, about which I have varying degrees of enthusiasm as movies but all of which, I think, warrant respect, my own novels are probably pretty easy in comparison.
Some Came Running
Any particular advice for the future screenwriters and directors who would adapt your books?
In a way I think Our Ecstatic Days is the most filmable. Paradoxically this is considered my most “experimental” novel, a term I detest but which I’ll use here to make a point. For all the unconventional departures of the novel, at its core are some very traditional conflicts—it’s the story of a mother trying to protect her kid, which is about as basic a narrative as there is. I imagine a female director making it—Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola if she wanted to take on something of that scale. I think Days Between Stations could make a good movie. I think Tours of the Black Clock could make a good movie, though a very dark one. At the center of those novels are very archetypal narratives or strong characters, and more than novels, movies deal in archetype. Zeroville would lend itself relatively easily to a film, though I doubt it’s anything a studio would initiate, because I’m not sure many executives or producers understand that Zeroville is less The Player than a punk Cinema Paradiso. If it ever happens at all, I imagine a particularly film-conscious director doing it—a Soderbergh, a Cronenberg, P.T. Anderson, the Coens, even a Tarantino—or an actor like Ryan Gosling, Joaquin Phoenix or Tobey Maguire who sees a good role in Vikar, or someone like Frances McDormand as Dotty Langer.
La Planète sauvage
“Comic-book characters!” Viking Man bemoans to Vikar sometime in the early ‘80s. “That’s the movies now in a scrotum sac—glorified afternoon-serials and cute little robots. Who’s to say it’s right or wrong? Maybe this is the age we need new myths.” As you have written about comics (the introduction to Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman: Dream Countrytrade paperback, a 2001 Bookforum interview with Alan Moore, an appreciation of American Flagg in the 2004 writers on comics collection Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers!) and worked in a comic-book store twenty years ago, I wondered if I could ask you to reflect on comic books and their current place in the cinema. What are your thoughts about the many recent comic-book adaptations, from films with iconic superheroes (Spider Man, Batman, the X-Men, the Hulk, Hellboy, Iron Man) to those adapted from more aesthetically and politically complex and ambiguous graphic novels (Ghost World, V for Vendetta, Sin City, A History of Violence, Persepolis, the forthcoming Watchmen). How do you explain the rise in bringing these stories to the screen and their respective successes and failures? Has anyone approached you about adapting your novels into graphic novels? Which of your books do you think might make the best graphic novels? What about Zeroville as a graphic novel?
The most telling thing is that the best comics or graphic novels are so much more sophisticated, both visually and narratively, than even the best movie versions of those novels and comics. None of these movies is written on the level of Alan Moore’s work, though V for Vendetta—Moore’s perennial disgruntlement aside—gave it a fair shot. I’m just not sure which directors respect comics enough to do right by them. Sam Raimi does. Maybe Bryan Singer does—his Superman had some lyrical, even moving moments. I think Tim Burton does, though I’m not sure he ever really cared about the Batman story per se. Christopher Nolan’s Batman has some good things, Christian Bale in particular, but I thought the 2005 film was so worried about getting off to a fast start, which is to say conforming to an action-picture formula, that it never took the time to give itself over to the myth in a way that would fully have involved us. Some years ago I met a comic book artist in Japan who supposedly turned Rubicon Beach into a graphic novel. He did it pretty much renegade-style, which is to say he didn’t bother to acquire the rights for it, but that was OK, it was so cool I didn’t care. I can see Tours as a graphic novel. So much of Zeroville is about the dialogue I’m not sure a graphic novel could accommodate it.
Vikar discovers the same mysterious image he glimpses in a frame of the 1928 Passion of Joan of Arc in a far less well-known 1982 “avant-porn” film called Nightdreams. You have written about Nightdreams here and there, in many places as one instance of a group of films you dubbed, in Amnesiascope and in some of your film columns, the “Cinema of Hysteria.” What is the Cinema of Hysteria? Could Vikar Jerome be considered a kind of Cinema of Hysteria “made flesh”?
That’s a great question. Yeah, like Robert Johnson’s “blues walking like a man,” or whatever the line is, Vikar is film-rapture walking like a man, and like we were saying before when we talked about the religious backgrounds of so many filmmakers of the Seventies, Vikar feels a special connection to movies that transcend any kind of earthbound logic. The Cinema of Hysteria is a clandestine cinema that’s been forming throughout the Twentieth and Twenty-First centuries, movies that make no “sense” but that we instinctively understand anyway—not only A Place in the Sun, Vertigo, The Passion of Joan of Arc and Now, Voyager but Môjuu, Humoresque, Written on the Wind, Branded to Kill, Pretty Poison, Black Narcissus, In a Lonely Place, One-Eyed Jacks, Point Blank, Cutter’s Way, The Last Temptation of Christ, Lost Highway.
Because sex is the most rapturous and irrational of acts, porn would seem to naturally lend itself to Cinema of Hysteria, except of course that for the great majority of its audience porn is so fundamentally functional. That audience isn’t interested in hysteria, it’s not interested in Jenna Jameson as a guide into the recesses of the psyche. Nightdreams was the first of the modern avant-porn though some of Russ Meyer’s pictures—Up!, Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!—qualify as Cinema of Hysteria. Every now and then a porn film comes along that has Cinema of Hysteria aspects to it. Some of Michael Ninn’s stuff like Shock and Catherine. The trick is just watching them as silent films, with the sound off, because as soon as these actors have to deliver lines, the spell is broken.
The title of your novel derives from the line of futuristic private-eye Lemmy Caution in Godard’s Alphaville: “This isn’t Alphaville, it’s Zeroville.” Hollywood is characterized as a land of “zero-reset.” Zeroville could be regarded as a kind of historical novel not only in that it takes places in a now-heralded age where the influence of the studios were waning but also in that its characters are part of a vanishing—if not completely vanished—celluloid age of frequenting movie theatres and engaging in disappearing rituals like double features and midnight screenings. Vikar Jerome is an inveterate moviegoer and you catalog, either with titles or with short synoptic descriptions, the many films he sees. He comes to be a collector, or at least a coveter, of film prints (St. Jerome being the patron saint of translators, librarians, and encyclopedists). Are we fast approaching a kind of “year zero” of a type of movie viewing?How do you think the age of home viewing has altered the experience of watching films and talking about the nature of films?
You know, I remember when I began collecting movies—I would tape them off the now legendary Z Channel in L.A. Then I began buying videos and then DVDs, and at first a lot of people thought it was strange: Collecting movies? Movies you’ve already seen? Now almost everyone I know buys and collects DVDs to at least some extent. They may not have the six or seven hundred movies I have or may not fetishize them the way I do or pore over the archive diligently agonizing whether to keep Poison Ivy: The New Seduction just because Jaime Pressly is naked in it, but for better or worse movies, like books, have become artifacts as well as experiences, and that replaces the social ritual of seeing movies with other people, except in the case of spectacles because spectacles call for crowds and always have and probably always will.
There’s one scene in the novel where Zazi sees A Place in the Sun on television after having seen it in a theater with an audience that laughed at it, and she tries to explain to Vikar how seeing the movie by herself was very different from being part of a collective response, in which suspending not just disbelief but rationality and giving oneself over to the dreaminess of the movie was impossible. Though Zazi never uses the term “Cinema of Hysteria,” that’s what she’s talking about—these are movies that work best when seen alone. I’m convinced that one of the reasons Vertigo rose in the pantheon of great films since its original failure when it was released in the late Fifties is that a whole generation of budding young film lovers saw it on TV around 1962 as I did, at the age of twelve, alone in my living room when my parents were down the street at a party, and everything about it blew me away and unsettled me—the surrealism of it, the eroticism, which I understood only as well as twelve-year-olds in my day understood eroticism. And as with Zazi and A Place in the Sun, I’ve never seen Vertigo “work” with an audience in a theater, and I’ve seen it with an audience at least four times. Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut is the most recent example I can think of—a movie that seems absurd in the collective dark, shared with other people, but watched alone on DVD has the force of a private dream.
So as we near that Year Zero that you’re speaking of, and as movie-watching becomes more a solitary experience, I can’t help believing it will have some impact on the movies themselves. That social ritual will be lost and it will be a shame, but some more private ritual—maybe like reading—will replace it, in the same way fewer of us listen to albums anymore but rather build the individualized soundtracks of our lives, song by song.
Steve Erickson is the author of eight novels: Days Between Stations (1985), Rubicon Beach (1986), Tours of the Black Clock(1989), Arc d’X(1993), Amnesiascope (1996), The Sea Came in at Midnight (1999), Our Ecstatic Days(2005) and Zeroville (2007). He also has written two books about American politics and popular culture, Leap Year (1989) and American Nomad (1997). He has written for Esquire, Rolling Stone, Spin, Details, Elle, San Francisco, Bookforum, Frieze, Conjunctions, Tin House, Salon, the L.A. Weekly, the Los Angeles Reader, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, the New York Times Magazine and other publications and journals, and his work has been widely anthologized. Currently he’s the film critic for Los Angeles and editor of the literary journal Black Clock, which is published by CalArts where he teaches in the MFA Writing Program. He’s received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and in 2007 was awarded a fellowship by the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. He lives with his wife, artist and director Lori Precious, and their children.
Anthony Miller is a writer and critic. He writes on books and popular culture for the Los Angeles CityBeat and is an editor-at-large of Black Clock. His writing has also appeared in Bookforum, L.A. Weekly, and other publications. In 2007, he received a Los Angeles Press Club award for feature writing. He discovered Steve Erickson’s Days Between Stations in a bookshop in Cambridge, England in the summer of 1988 and has been reading Erickson’s work ever since. He is at work on a book of essays about encyclopedic fictions and secret histories and a novel about an art movement that takes over the world. He currently resides in Los Angeles.