Bookforum: "Steve Erickson adapts nearly the oldest story in the book (Abraham and Isaac), threads it through the projector through which all film history spins, and...throws light and shadow onto the backs of our eyelids in this love letter to celluloid"
Date: Nov 16 2007
Fading in with an epigraph from Josef von Sternberg—“I believe that cinema was here from the beginning of the world”—Steve Erickson adapts nearly the oldest story in the book (Abraham and Isaac), threads it through the projector through which all film history spins, and, having cast a hero who’s part Being There’s Chance the gardener and part 2001’s Starchild (endowed, no less, with an infinite perspective worthy of Borges’s Aleph), throws light and shadow onto the backs of our eyelids in this love letter to celluloid. The mash-up of cultural references in the preceding sentence gives you an advance sense of Zeroville, a novel that mingles Erickson’s own characters with historical figures both real and reel. This conceit will make film geeks like myself weep with joy but may be daunting for those who can’t tell Elizabeth Taylor from Natalie Wood—not only by appearance but by what they mean.
As for the source of its title, let me caution you not to stray far from a science-fiction detour by a famously arty French director, but, as I see it, Erickson’s novel is more Alephville than Alphaville. And yes, I realize that aleph and alpha signify the same thing. This is the guiding theme of Zeroville—time and film history as a strange loop, a Möbius strip that turns from alpha to omega and back again, as we dream the movies that in turn dream us. “The present is the form of all life . . . time is a circle which turns endlessly,” as Godard’s Alpha 60 has it; “Each scene is in all times . . . and all times are in each scene,” as Erickson’s hero muses while learning to become a film editor.
Ike (not Isaac) Jerome is a former divinity student who sports a shaved head on which are tattooed Taylor and Montgomery Clift from George Stevens’s A Place in the Sun. As the novel begins, Ike has fled Pennsylvania and his terrifying Calvinist father, who believes that children are “the manifestation of the sin that soiled the world with pleasure’s seed” and that God’s one moment of weakness was stopping Abraham from sacrificing His son Isaac to Him. As a divinity student, Ike was flunked by his review board for his architectural model of a churchlike building with no doors or windows. “There’s no way in!” the chairman protested. Ike, having seen the building in a dream, replied, “I believe it’s more that there’s no way out.”
The first movies Ike sees (Blow-Up, The Sound of Music, Goldfinger) convince him to forsake divinity for a different god—Hollywood. Arriving in Los Angeles in August 1969, he meets two people who become his mentors—the fictional film editor Dorothy Langer (who worked on A Place in the Sun) and Viking Man (Apocalypse Now screenwriter and Conan the Barbarian director John Milius), who dubs Ike “the vicar.” Seeking greater distance from the full name suggested by “Ike,” our hero decides to call himself Vikar. After introducing him to the Nichols Beach crowd (Brian De Palma, Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Margot Kidder, and others), Milius describes Vikar’s unique sensibility:
This guy isn’t a cinéaste, he’s a cinéautistic. . . . He barely knows there’s a country called Vietnam let alone a war there. . . . But he’s nuts about movies, as obsessive as anyone I know . . . but absolutely unschooled, his knowledge and opinions absolutely unmediated . . . he doesn’t know from Pauline Kael let alone Andrew Sarris let alone James Fucking Agee. . . . Film 101 is whatever theater he’s randomly walked into that’s playing whatever movie is randomly playing. An obsession that’s still pure, untouched by cultural cant or preconceptions.
As Vikar pursues the alchemical art of editing film, following Langer’s advice to “fuck continuity” and his own theory of “the right profile,” he goes to Spain to edit a Milius movie and gets kidnapped by anti-Franco guerrillas, who order him to “direct” a film of the dictator’s death using the head guerrilla’s father, news footage of Franco, outtakes from the Milius project, and snippets of the soft-porn classic Emmanuelle. He travels to New York to save, through editing, a William Friedkin picture the director has abandoned (the fictional Your Pale Blue Eyes), becomes involved with the enigmatic Soledad Palladin (based on Vampyros Lesbos siren Soledad Miranda) and her daughter, Zazi, and stumbles on the early tremors of New York punk at CBGBs. Then, in the scene most indebted to Being There, Vikar holds an uproarious press conference at Cannes, where his surreal cut-up of Your Pale Blue Eyes has won a special jury prize for montage. Parroting opinions he’s heard from various film pros and buffs, Vikar scandalizes the room with comments like “I believe The Searchers is a wicked bad-ass movie whenever my man the Duke is on screen, evil white racist honky pigfucker though he may be” and “Americans are in love with shame. . . . Can you imagine Bogart fucking Bergman with a cube of butter on the Champs-Élysées?”
Returning to Hollywood, Vikar announces his intention to direct a punk update of J. K. Huysmans’s Là-Bas, titled God’s Worst Nightmare and starring Harvey Keitel. But the intrusion of a recurring dream into Vikar’s waking life sends him instead on a quest to splice together “a secret movie that’s been hidden, one frame at a time, in all the movies ever made.” Despite Vikar’s belief that “scenes that have not yet happened . . . have,” to lead you further along the plotline would be to reveal too much. Coursing through Zeroville’s endless circularity—of time, of reference, even of chapter enumeration—is a linear mystery, potboiled with a dash of The Da Vinci Code but more generous helpings of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, Kubrick’s 2001, and Lynch’s Lost Highway. That Zeroville succeeds as resoundingly as Lost Highway failed is a testament to Erickson’s imaginative daring and structural skill. If you’re a film fan, run, don’t walk: Zeroville will be your novel of the year.
Andrew Hultkrans is the author of Forever Changes (Continuum 33 1/3, 2003). He is at work on a book about surveillance in America.