Steve Erickson, Zeroville (Europa Editions, 2007)
As part of a 1957 interview in New York City on the late-night radio program 'Night People' hosted by Jean Sheperd, a young actor and denizen of the city's underground theater expresses his disappointment with the most recent Hollywood film he has just been brought onto the show to promote; claiming—as an honest challenge to the audience—that all it would take was a dollar sent to the studio from everyone who happened to be listening at that instant, and with that money he could direct a different kind of film outside of Hollywood about real people and the issues that actually mattered. By 1959, with the two-thousand dollars raised from that appearance, along with other loans from family and friends, introducing a jazz soundtrack and a script improvised on-camera by the actors, John Cassavetes made his first of many independent feature films: Shadows.
It is 1980 in Steve Erickson's when the same “famously renegade” actor/director appears for a third time and is finally identified by name in dialogue between protagonist Ike “Vikar” Jerome and his goddaughter ‘Zazi.’ “Who's Cassavetes?” Zazi asks Vikar for us, after a long conversation about how suddenly Punk-Rock (which they call “the Sound”) has caught on around Los Angeles. Vikar answers, “He is to movies what the Sound is to music,” recalling his first encounter with the Sound at a live show: “It was never the Music at all, it was always the Sound...a little more than twenty years after its birth...when the Sound has circled to swallow its tail, it becomes a world of its own...”
By the time Vikar arrives in Hollywood, a drifter in the summer of 1969, the
innovations of filmmakers like Cassavetes have been thoroughly assimilated by the new vanguard of actors and directors set to revolutionize American cinema. The classic Hollywood films on which Vikar has based his devotion (he bears a tattoo of the matched profiles of actors Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in the midst of their balcony embrace from George Stevens 1951 romance on the back of his shaved head) are suddenly considered to be irredeemably antique.
When Vikar befriends an older woman with a steady position in the industry, who worked as an editor on , even she speaks to Hollywood’s peculiar symptoms of “cultural dementia.” And while Vikar’s solemn, taciturn devotion to cinema does not encompass hallucinogenic drugs, Rock & Roll, let alone Civil Rights or the Vietnam War, he finds himself immediately swept up in current events.
Erickson, who grew up in LA and has worked as a film critic, has written in over three hundred chapters that vary in length from around eight pages to as few as one or two words, which sets the otherwise straightforward narrative into a rapid momentum. The rhythm and effect is almost subliminal. In a marked contrast to the fractured surrealism of his earlier novels including , and with a similarly telescopic analysis of the convergences of politics and popular culture as Erickson’s non-fiction efforts and , stands to reason as a period-piece, though the novel is poised at the temporal brink where the historical events we recognize from the era are synthesized with the purely fictional narrative which we hasten to anticipate.
The perspective roams in the narration from Vikar's intensely observed first person to the widening scope of an omniscient master-shot encompassing the whole scene. In one seventy-word chapter beginning with the unassuming “It's an old house for Los Angeles,” the narrator describes the view of the valley from Vikar's palatial new home in the Hollywood Hills, “As on a fjord of galvanized stardust, the house sits on the edge of the city, overlooking a vast shadowless sundial.” These sentences display certain precision and skill, and appear exotic amid the casual dialogue of characters (“Film 101 is whatever theater he’s randomly walking into that’s playing whatever movie is randomly playing…” says Viking Man) and the digressive description of Vikar's favorite films.
Through the perspectives of the characters, we reevaluate the era's art and politics. History is filtered through Vikar’s solipsism and detachment: “On the television he watches old movies and the news. Asian jungles aflame, a spaceship on the way to the moon malfunctioning…when four students are shot by soldiers on a Midwestern campus, it reminds Vikar of his father, and he turns the news off.” In 1982, Vikar watches Ronald Reagan play a mob leader in the 1964 re-make of the benchmark noir film , and walks out into the street where “a television shows the same dark crime lord in another movie—until Vikar realizes it's not a movie but the news, and that the crime lord has been elected President of the United States.”
Vikar strikes his peers as something of an original, possessing “an obsession that’s still pure, untouched by cultural cant or preconceptions.” And while film is largely a collaborative art, Vikar is portrayed as working in relative isolation. explicates the impossible singularity of cinematic vision as we see Vikar at odds with the essence of filmmaking as a collaborative art form and the ways the studio industry inhibits creativity. When he is finally in a position to direct a feature film of his own (his ambition is to adapt the 18th Century Satanist novel La-Bas to a late-70s Punk milieu, the film will be called ‘God’s Worst Nightmare’ and star Harvey Keitel in the lead) he finds himself at a meeting with a secretary beside him asking whether or not a certain cinematographer is ‘pay-for-play,’ Vikar hears a kind of double-speak and slang that he condemns, “Vikar wonders how it is he can love the movies so much and not understand anything anyone in Hollywood says.”
For Vikar, cinema is a matter of intense faith, and exists constantly as continuum. “There are a few perfect pictures—” Vikar’s old editor friend confides early on, “—a few sublime pictures—that exist before they’re made.” When he watches the l967 French detective Noir Le Samouai, Vikar notices a particular scene of suspense. The protagonist steals a car by testing a series of keys in the ignition, taking one off at a time from a ring of over one hundred. Here Vikar discovers an allegory for filmmaking: “As each key fails, the hit-man lays it with precision on the passenger seat next to the previous key. In movie, the fourth attempt starts the car—but what if he had begun on the other end? The car wouldn’t have started with the 4th key but the 96th. Under what growing spell and for how long would the audience be held as each key failed?” It is in the descriptions of films and endless references to real people that becomes a novel of encyclopedic proportions.
Ben Tripp is a poet and editor of the literary magazine Gerry Mulligan.