Flicker (05 Edition)
by Theodore Roszak
Reviewed by Gerry Donaghy
Recently I was having a discussion with a publisher's sales rep about Steve Erickson's Zeroville, one of my favorite novels of 2007. The novel is set in the era of 1970s Hollywood, which produced films ranging from Bonnie and Clyde to The Godfather to Apocalypse Now. The rep is someone I often discuss films with, and he was mentioning that he had finally gotten around to reading Zeroville. Through the course of our conversation, I asked if he'd read another great novel centered on the movies, this one from 1991 and recently republished, called Flicker. He had never heard of it.
A quick sampling of my fellow readers/cineastes turned up a similar result. Almost nobody had heard of Flicker, and even those who had never actually read it. I might have missed this book myself if somebody else hadn't pointed it out a few years ago.
Flicker is a novel that presents the reader with the world of movies just as film studies was emerging as a serious academic discipline. The protagonist is Jonathan Gates, a young man whose life revolves around movies, so much so that before he was born his water broke while his mother was watching Gone with the Wind for the third time. Growing up in the pre-home video era, Gates spends nearly every evening at a hole in the wall cinema called The Classic. Here he discovers not only a cinema that stretches beyond Marx Brothers comedies but also his mentor in film and life, Carissa Swann.
As Gates deepens his understanding of film aesthetics and techniques, he becomes inexorably drawn to the films of Max Castle, a German director who fell from his artistic heights at UFA and later directed schlock in the USA until his death as the victim of a Nazi torpedo. What initially begins as an appreciation for an unsung artist changes subtly into an investigation of secret religious sects and eventually to the discovery of film as the bringer of the apocalypse.
The novel is a loving re-creation of a time when being serious about movies took a lot of work. These days, any couch potato can effortlessly watch their favorite films a dozen times before going into the streets and riffing about who Quentin Tarantino stole from on his latest film. In Flicker, the characters go to extraordinary lengths to find prints of films to show at their theater. When they discover a previously unknown Max Castle film called Judas Everyman, it is as if they found the Holy Grail itself.
Roszak's knowledge of film and film studies is impeccable. Effortlessly leapfrogging from theorists such as Siegfried Kracauer to Andre Bazin, to directors such as Godard, Hitchcock, and Wells, the author renders these figures and theories in an eminently palatable way, neither pandering to a reader in the know, nor alienating the reader who lacks an MFA in film studies.
Where the novel lags, however, is in its depiction of the struggle between these religious sects and their beliefs in the use of film and the moral questions brought up through the manipulation of the persistence of vision, the phenomenon of the eye that makes still pictures appear to move. If it sounds a bit like a Dan Brown plot, your suspicions will be quickly confirmed. However, to be sure, Roszak is a much better writer (faint praise as that may sound), and it really isn't enough to derail an otherwise pleasurable reading experience. If you are at all like me, you'd wish that the author would spend more time referencing the film world we know and love, rather than describing the nihilistic avant-garde films concocted by an albino (I kid you not) who belongs to a mysterious sect hoping to hasten the apocalypse through film.
What emerges through reading Flicker, ultimately, is an occasionally taut thriller wrapped in a big wet kiss to the golden age of cinema, one that is thoroughly steeped in Hollywood lore. Don't let the proto Da Vinci Code messiness deter you.