Friday, February 28, 2014

Night Film

The term "literary thriller" is one of those phrases that is almost always taken as a pejorative even if it is rarely meant as such. The implication from the genre side being that the author is too self conscience to really deliver the genre goods and from the literary side that however good it might be it is still only a thriller old chap. The unspoken agreement is that everyone would have been happier if they had just stayed where they belonged.

But then you have a book like Night Film for which no other term will do. Marisha Pessl's novel is a dark mystery that has more on its mind than its solution, a horror novel that might not be a horror novel but then again might very well be, a thriller where the hero spends most of the time running, terrified he's about to get his ass kicked. In other words, it's a literary thriller and is intermittently brilliant as it is frustrating. 

Night Film follows McGrath a journalist, disgraced in the aftermath of a disastrous investigation of a reclusive cult filmmaker Cordova. Cordova, a filmmaker of Kubrick's genius and Argento's perversity, who bears a pronounced resemblance to David Lynch on a Rolling Stone cover we get a look at, has been a recluse for years, isolating himself at his private studio "The Peak" and releasing a series of increasingly disturbing films to increasingly rabid fans who put the cult in cult audience. Cordova fed McGrath false information through an anonymous source that McGrath was all too eager to release, destroying his career in the process. Now years later Cordova's daughter commits suicide and McGrath realizes that the mysterious young woman had been trying to contact him. He launches an investigation into her death, searching for the information she may have been trying to deliver, plunging himself back into the disturbing world around Cordova. Recruiting two young witnesses to the daughter's final days, they begin investigating the people closest to Cordova and his daughter, drawing out a portrait of them second hand like an occult Citizen Kane.

The book builds the presence of Cordova well, through a series of news stories, blog posts and message boards that get the tone just right. But it's also in this key information that the cracks start to show. At one point a character describes a later film of Cordova's as "his first out and out horror film," before going on to describe a series of earlier films that sound a hell of a lot like horror films. I might sound like I'm nitpicking here, but for a book that is about and has been marketed to a group of people as minutia obsessed as cinephiles, these details matter. Much more problematic is the treatment of McGrath's character, who  despite the fact we are told over and over again that has been disgraced and out of work for years has no problem affording his Manhattan apartment and solves nearly every problem he comes across by throwing money at it. I'm not asking for a fifty page account of McGrath's financial woes,  but the incongruity between McGrath's life and means is indicative of Pessl's worst tendencies as a novelist. It smacks of laziness, shorthand, of assuming no one will notice because it is "just a thriller" and who the hell cares about character consistency? The shorthand comes in other ways too, I don't know if it was an editor or agent who told Pessl that genre fiction has to have at least forty percent of its words italicized but whoever did should have one of their teeth knocked out so every time they run their tongue over the divot that has been left there they remember not to give that kind of shitty advice.

And yet when Night Film works, it kills. The dual Cordova's make compelling figures all the more entrancing for being so elusive and Pessl's central trio is likable. The mystery she builds around Ashley's final days is well constructed. She (for the most part) takes the time to make the details of Cordova's fictional Oeuvre feel right, as well as the obsessives who surround them. Individual set pieces like the wonderfully disorienting raid on The Peak, which features a remarkably matter of fact glimpse at the supernatural, are best in class stuff.

And then we come to the ending...

Often times the thing that truly marks a literary thriller is lack of confidence. The author feels too self conscience about the supernatural or other gauche elements of the genre and has to build themselves an out. While I have no intention of revealing the final elements of Pessl's story, suffice it to say it starts to look like Pessl intends to do that, but then she doesn't, not quite not really.

Normally "ambiguous" endings are all too often an excuse by authors to play to tie. And while you could easily accuse Pessl of doing that, I don't think that's quite it. The ending of Night Film does not so much play to a draw as it puts a cunning opponent in a stalemate. Which is not the same thing. The ending of Night Film, which could have easily felt no more profound than a stoned dorm mate taking a bong hit and saying, "Like the truth is pretty hard to know if you think about it," is instead genuinely disquieting. A sense that though we are skipping out before all is revealed that is A OK with us because we may not want to have all be revealed.

All of Night Film is like that, just when you think it can be safely dismissed, just as you're sure you can write it off as a disappointment it outmaneuvers your expectations in a way that is well... literary.


A few other matters of importance:

If you're reading this site you probably already know who Jeremy Richey is, which is why you would also know that it's a very, very good thing for film fans at large that he is starting his own print magazine. A print magazine that I just so happen to be slated to contribute to. I'm extremely excited at the prospect of writing for Art Decades and its humbling to be included with such a great slate of writers.

Jeremy is currently running an Indiegogo campaign to help with set up expenses and if you'd contribute you would have our thanks. 


I'm equally enthused to be working once again with Muriel Awards. AKA what would happen if film awards were picked by folks who actually cared about film. It's always a blast to read the carefully considered pieces that go up each year, and this years slate has been particularly good.

Check it out.