What Makes a Novel “Cinematic”?
“When I get together with writers I know, we don’t talk about books, we talk about movies. This is not because we see the mechanism of the novel operating in certain films, work ranging from Kieslowski to Malick. It’s because film is our second self, a major narrative force in the culture, an aspect of consciousness connected at some level to sleep and dreams, as the novel is the long hard slog of waking life.”—Don DeLillo
What is it we mean when we say that a novel is “cinematic”? Do we mean that it engages, on a thematic level, with film history and cinema culture? That it continually alludes to the movies, via quotations or other intertextual means? Or do we mean that it embodies techniques (zooms, jump cuts) or translates ideas (montage, etc.) from cinema into prose fiction? Do we mean that the author’s language and style mimic the dreamlike nature and stream-of-consciousness movement of screen images, or that the prose is punctuated and exacting, like a screenplay? Or do we mean simply that the narrative is ready-made for adaptation, that we can almost “see everything”?
The answer, of course, is all of the above, although I’d be willing to say it’s the last definition of “cinematic” book reviewers resort to most often when they’re laboring to underscore the vivid visual qualities of descriptive narrative fiction, like that of Ian McEwan or Barry Gifford or DeLillo, whose work has only recently drifted to the big screen. Film is a visual medium, after all. Yet text itself is also imagistic, something Godard realized a long time ago, and began to use disjunctively in Vivre sa vie and Les Carabiniers. Print culture as we know it might be on the wane (“visuacy,” or “visual literacy,” is the obnoxious interactive buzzword of the moment), but the impact of technology and social media in particular have spurred some Internet Age filmmakers to adopt neo-Godardian tactics: chat-room dialogues and IM text appear directly on-screen in some films, not just as a cue to what a character is reading or typing, but as an autonomous visual element, a kind of mise-en-scène of network consciousness. Consider the opening sequence of Shunji Iwai’s All About Lily Chou-Chou, for instance, a brooding, elliptically structured teen-alienation saga that the director first hatched (surprise) as an Internet novel:
But back to the book. I am intrigued by the way contemporary writers have been shaped by filmgoing experience and attempt to represent that influence in their (mostly fictional) work. Certainly, a number of writers, past and present, have used the movies as a trope or structuring principle in their work: Walker Percy’s perennial college favorite The Moviegoer, winner of the National Book Award in 1962, trailed a daydreaming Southern loner and Korean War veteran named Binx Bolling who escapes to the movies to find sustenance and meaning that he has difficulty prising from everyday life. More recently, writers as varied as Paul Auster (The Book of Illusions) and Theodore Roszak (Flicker) have hinged the existential crises of their narrators (a plane-crash victim in Auster’s novel and a film historian in Roszak’s) on esoteric forms of movie appreciation.
John Haskell, a monologuist–turned–fiction writer, specializes in spare, first-person stories of interior distress told from a self-consciously reflexive, drolly naive perspective. His strangely moving debut collection, I Am Not Jackson Pollock, is immersed in movie lore and legend, and the curious allure of lesser-known screen idols, with stories bearing titles like “The Judgment of Psycho” and “Crimes at Midnight.” The frontispiece is adorned with uncaptioned photos of Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Renée Falconetti, Anna Karina and others, each of whom is a character (of sorts) in the tales that follow. The premise of Haskell’s enigmatic novel American Purgatorio, about a man whose wife vanishes at a nondescript parkway service station in New Jersey while he’s inside foraging for snacks, seemed to me an homage, of sorts, to George Sluizer’s psychological thriller The Vanishing. (In a recent Stop Smiling interview, however, Haskell claims to have been inspired by Chabrol’s This Man Must Die.) Whatever the provenance of this particular story, much of Haskell’s short and long-form writing bears the unmistakable mark of cinephilia.
One of my favorite contemporary authors, the great, underappreciated fabulist Steve Erickson (Days Between Stations, Arc d’X, The Sea Comes in at Midnight) has a day job as the film critic for Los Angeles magazine. He also edits the CalArts–based literary journal Black Clock, the source of the DeLillo quote that opens this post. (No. 4, in case you’re keen on tracking it down.) In his wildly imaginative tale-weaving, Erickson is attuned to nightmares, apocalyptica, trangressive histories, parallel universes, subconscious phenomena, erotic mania, millennial anxiety, and brink-of-disaster scenarios, most of which he locates in his ever-benighted Southern California hometown. Time and space are utterly fluid in his cataclysmic fictional worlds, though he is the furthest thing from a science-fiction writer. (“Pynchonesque” is too easy a term to pin on him, but it isn’t precisely wrong, either. I think “revelator” works for me.) Many of his novels delve into film culture; the protagonist of Amnesiascope, for instance, is a jaded movie critic contemplating the end of everything (love, hope, career, dreams, cinema) as the City of Angels is consumed in a vortex of fire and ash-scattering twilight:
“Beyond this simple algebra I admit there was a brief period when, secretly, naively, I held out hope for something more. I hoped that in the city of no politics, no identity, no moment and no rationale, a new cinema would present itself, which I called the Cinema of Hysteria. I was convinced that throughout the Twentieth Century this clandestine cinema was already forming though no one noticed, since by its very nature it was scattered and entropic and found only in outposts represented by such movies as In a Lonely Place, The Shanghai Gesture, Bride of Frankenstein, A Place in the Sun, Gilda, Gun Crazy, Vertigo, One-Eyed Jacks, Splendor in the Grass, The Fountainhead, The Manchurian Candidate and Pinocchio. These are movies that make no sense at all—and we understand them completely. These are the movies that would be left when the bottom fell out of America altogether, the cinema that would rip itself loose of its moorings and stutter across an American screen that remembers nothing. In an age riddled with uncertainty by technological acceleration, financial upheaval and the plague of exchanged bodily fluids, when we’re panicked enough to root ourselves in anything we can still pretend to recognize—a job, a girlfriend, a heavily annotated calendar or Rolodex updated with correct area codes—the undercurrent of the age pulls us to an irrational truth, for which only an irrational cinema is sufficient.”
Erickson’s most recent novel is Zeroville, a mystic detective novel in which a freakish, quasi-autistic former divinity student named Vikar, a film obsessive whose shaved cranium is tattooed with an image of Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift from George Stevens’s A Place in the Sun, ventures to Hollywood in 1969 and rolls with a bevy of starlets, studio execs, burnouts, punks, and La-La Land fringe lunatics. One could argue that Erickson has reconfigured Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust under a different aspect. (Vikar is a film editor, not a costume and set designer like West’s hero.) But he infuses the novel with his own rich blend of oneiric fantasy and risqué mystery, entwining the disquieting dreamlife and visionary genius of his central misfit with a secret history of the movies, curling the narrative back on itself in a fold of impossibly ancient cinematic time. Do we dream the movies or do they dream us? That, in a nutshell, is Zeroville’s conceit, and as the iris contracts on Erickson’s spooky and spellbinding final revelation, he leaves us with an archaic theology of sorts to contemplate. (I’m not sure I didn’t dream the book itself.) Brilliant—and yes, cinematic.
I’d love to hear about your own favorite “cinematic” novels, however you choose to define the term, as well as fiction writers you know whose work seems to bear the influence of movies.