by Jeffrey Deshell
Reviewed by Derek M. Jackson
In Vivra sa vie (1962), master auteur of arthouse cinema Jean-Luc Godard divides the story of Nana Kleinfrankenheim into twelve tableaux. Each begins with a title card which not only summarizes the action that will take place and but also hints at the tone of the tableau to come. Godard employs different stylistic techniques in each tableau to tell a particular part of the story; as a result, the film becomes, as Godard himself points out, "a series of sketches."
If Vivra sa vie is a series of sketches in cinematic form, Jeffrey DeShell's Arthouse is the equivalent in book form. Drawing upon his knowledge of arthouse cinema, he cleverly borrows movie titles to name his chapters, thus challenging the reader to find a correlation between each chapter's title and its content. At times, the correlation is easily found. Take for example the third chapter, titled "Thunder Road" after Arthur Ripley's 1958 film. In it, DeShell's protagonist, the Professor, drives from a rural meth-lab compound to Pueblo, Colorado, to deliver a fresh batch of the drug to eagerly awaiting clients. Since the Professor is "on the road" in this chapter, the significance of DeShell's chosen title is clear.
At other times, though, the correlation between chapter title and content is much more obscure, and the depth of Arthouse -- and DeShell's cleverness -- may be lost on the reader. This danger permeates the book as a whole; allusions to actors, films, characters, directors, and cinematography can be difficult to grasp without holding a Master's degree in Film Studies or scouring IMDB. The allusions, then, become stumbling blocks for the uninitiated, and DeShell's cleverness can read like pretentiousness. In "A Man and A Woman," the author gives a self-conscious nod to this phenomenon:
Without movies, without cinema, he'd be dead. Or, same thing, teaching high school at Pueblo County. And not that recent crap either, but nouvelle vague, noir, neue deutsche and Italian neorealismo. Was that as pretentious as it sounded?
Ultimately, the strength of the book is its ambition. In fourteen chapters, DeShell approaches style in fourteen different ways and the resulting contrast is astonishing. The prose of "Satantango" is meticulously detailed, almost overbearing; as though DeShell were making specific notes for the movement of actors, writing wardrobe guidelines for costume designers, and designing blueprints for set-builders all at once. Formatted as a shooting script, "Fellini Satyricon" is complete with location descriptions, camera angles and movements, action directions, and dialogue. A pivotal gun-battle takes place during "Tokyo Story," an eleven-page chapter written entirely in verse. The finest stylistic achievement comes in "Contempt." As the Professor, a former film scholar, reflects on the role cinema has played in his life, DeShell offsets his prose with famous cinematic quotations, mimicking Godard's infamous use of quotations within his films.
has its share of memorable moments, but like many films, it has its weaker moments as well. Take this dialogue from "A Man and A Woman":
"Why do you like movies so much?"
"Probably for the same reason most people like them, to escape. I guess my life hasn't been all that great, and so I usually need something to get me out of my current reality. Some people do drugs, some do sex, some find Jesus. I found Fassbinder."
Passages like this are plentiful in the book and they often feel too contrived to be believable in the context of casual conversation. It seems DeShell goes out of his way, sometimes, to comment on cinema, and consequently, certain passages feel forced.
Despite its potential stumbling blocks, Arthouse
is a successful series of sketches, cleverly presented in fourteen unique ways -- an interesting, ambitious book and highly recommended for the adventurous, cinematically inclined reader.