The Hands of Bresson

Sundry observations on the art of cinema and world film culture

What Makes a Novel “Cinematic”?

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“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.

4 Responses

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  1. There’s a really good article by Paul Tiessen entitled ‘Malcolm Lowry and the Cinema’ in a book called ‘Malcolm Lowry The Man and his Work’, which goes into the various ways in which Lowry employed a cinematic technique in his masterpiece novel ‘Under the Volcano’. Its only 10 pages or so, but it covers Lowry’s influences in classic German cinema, his use of the neutral ‘camera-eye’ in his novel, as well as cinematic techniques like the long shot and close-up, framing (for example through the windows of a moving bus) and montage (with quotes from Eisenstein), as well as his appropriation of the image of a movie reel itself to extend his circular, mechanical, fated theme, also of the fact that film is actually a succession of stills, something he uses to emphasize the fragmented state of his tragic character. Its a great essay. But nothing can top the book. Under the Volcano is one of the most astonishing works of art I have ever encountered, in any medium.


    May 26, 2009 at 4:02 pm

    • Sally, thanks so much for pointing me to this article–it sounds fascinating, and right in line with the questions I was getting at here. But first I have to read the novel! Sadly, it has held a place on my bookshelf for years, and I’ve always meant to pick my way through it, as you’re not alone in your estimation of Lowry’s talent. I saw the film adaptation of the novel once (John Huston, 1984) and admired Albert Finney’s performance, as well as aspects of Huston’s direction, but I suspect the book will be a richer experience, as is often the case with adaptations. On the other hand, Huston’s big-screen rejiggering of Joyce’s “The Dead” and Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood (just released on Criterion), both favorites of mine, were excellent.


      May 28, 2009 at 11:17 pm

      • yes, that Albert Finney film was problematic for me. His performance was great, but the book was interpreted all wrong. Finney gave us what the English so often give, a great theatrical performance, but the book was less about character per se, than it was about the visual landscape of a disintegrating mind. It is a kaleidoscopically colorful, beautiful, sinister mindscape, a sort of acid trip – it needed to be interpreted more visually, more poetically; its all about the cinematography. I can’t think of a director who would do this well. Claire Denis’ landscapes in Beau Travail come to mind. Except more surreal. The point is, this film should have looked amazing, and it didn’t.


        May 30, 2009 at 8:47 pm

  2. […] long ago, I wrote a piece entitled “What Makes a Novel Cinematic?”, in which I surveyed some of the other cinema-besotted authors (Don DeLillo, John Haskell, Steve […]

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