Wednesday, June 11, 2008
Steve Erickson's Transcendent Zeroville
One of the longstanding problems with this potluck mix of pop and culture is I never seem to get around to writing about books, despite the fact, that yes indeed, the Culture Vulture does indeed find time here and there between the constant DVD parade, the furtive daytime work hour trips to the cinemaplex, the finger popping glides through the outer regions of cableville, or the daily sweetened sustenance of USA Today, The Boston Globe, The Providence Journal, and countless received-in-the-mail hard copy magazines, to actually open the covers of a full length book, and yes, simply settle down and read.
This time though, smack dab in the middle of a run on bios (Otto Preminger, Iggy Pop, Doc Pomus, Charles Schulz) and I dove into a work of contempo fiction that some small reference somewhere in infoland led me to, and the result was a knockout punch—simply the most arresting fiction experience I had in quite some time, a total, unexpected discovery of both author and authorial power, a book that hit me on both a guttural level (I knew exactly the tongue in which it spoke), an intellectual level (a read both sharp and dazzling, but brilliantly self-contained), and an almost otherworldly level (how could such a swirl of pop ephemera-about the movies, the 70’s, and rock and roll—be so intuitively intertwined?)
The book is Zeroville (Europa Editions, 329 pages, $14.95) by Steve Erickson, the film critic for Los Angeles Magazine, and the author of a few so-called provocative works of contemporary fiction of which I was heretofore unaware of, as I was the author. Zeroville is a phantasmagoric look at Hollywood (and the very magic of cinema itself) set in the “Raging Bulls, Easy Riders” era of 70’s Hollywood, a period noted for the sad comedown of the by then bloated but beloved studio system and the charged influx of a new generation of whiz kids weaned less on literature and art, but suckling directly from the milky discharge of both world and Hollywood cinema. The novel follows Vikar, who appears in Los Angeles in 1969, a distressingly naïve virgin escaping a small town, movie-forbidden existence and a stern, maybe even maniacal father filled with misspent religious fervor. Vikar, growing up without the cultural touchstones of television, radio, newspapers, has begun his transgressive path by diving soul deep into movie houses, and self-educating on a thoroughly disparate diet of blockbusters, classics, and art film folderol. Oh yeah, amidst the braless teen wonders and almost-cut-my-hair dandies waltzing through the mansions on the high hills, the beachfront hangouts, and the ever gritty streets of LA, Vikar is sporting a shaved head with a huge tattoo depicting the hypnotizing visages of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor from A Place in the Sun.
Vikar, a protagonist as inactive and pawnlike as Chauncey Gardiner, interacts with the likes of Scorsese and Cassavetes, with Margot Kidder and the John Milius-like Viking Man, all the while watching movies frame by frame, collecting canisters of film for his own misshapen canon, and falling backwards into the holy realm of actual filmmaking. Iggy Pops drone on as his personal soundtrack, and whips himself into bloodied frenzies in the mosh pits of the burgeoning punk rock scene, Robert DeNiro studies him at a party and from such Travis Bickle blooms, and at one point finds himself on stage at Cannes as the audience equally celebrates and vituperates him.
The novel toys with a fevered religiosity, yet its aim seems to point more directly at the churning powers of obsession, of loss, and of art and artifice. Erickson sticks a toe into the surreal, yet the novel remains defiantly neo-real, and the prose and narrative devoid of flash or gimmickry. As the Vikar the woeful seeker finds transformation and mind bending poetry in the imagery, camerawork, acting and set design in the movies of Hitchcock, Bunuel, Dreyer and Godard (whose Alphaville both gives the novel its name and permeates its atmosphere), he, like all of us undone and spellbound while staying awake in the dark, finds his own sort of resounding meanings. Zeroville is simply transfixing and acutely heart rendering , like watching a transcendent, slow, unending collage of a loop of set pieces from Welles, Antonioni, Fuller, or Kurosawa, with no place to go and no end in sight.