Flickhead
Book Review
By Ray Young

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F L I C K E R

A novel by Theodore Roszak

Expanded Edition

Chicago Review Press, Distributed by Independent Publishers Group

$14.95, Paper, 608 pages, 6 x 9.

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    On the surface it’s an insane account, one that reaches back to the twelfth century ‘invention’ of the movies and predicts Armageddon in the wake of PlayStations and iMacs. It tests the suspension of disbelief when introducing a few real Hollywood luminaries to the brew, but Flicker is a powerfully seductive tale, an eccentric tour de force by Theodore Roszak. Jam-packed with film references, it seduces through a bizarre conspiracy plot committed with diabolical patience.
    I’d first read it in the early 90’s, stumbling upon a stack of hardcover first-editions selling for $4.99 in a K-Mart discount bin. At the time it was something of a departure for the author, the alleged coiner of the phrase ‘counterculture’ who was known more for writing sociology texts. Now back in circulation after being out of print for more than a decade, it’s required reading for anyone with a passion for cinema. The new edition from Chicago Review Press is a handsome, oversized 6”x9” paperback, typeset in an eye-pleasing, readable font.
    Taking a cue from DVDs, it’s been expanded in the literary equivalent of a deluxe director’s version. “Novels, like movies, have their outtakes,” the author explains, “passages and chapters that never make it into the final cut.” Is Flicker the first novel to come with bonus features? It’s a tie-in for the upcoming screen adaptation written by Jim Uhls (Fight Club) and directed by Darren Aronofsky. Considering the stifling interior worlds of his Pi and Requiem for a Dream, however, Aronofsky seems less a carrier of Roszak’s warnings than one in cahoots with the novel’s shadowy heretics.
    Beginning in the heady late-1950’s art house and revival theater movement and all-night coffee house discussions over mise-en-scène and montage, the book encapsulates the romantic fervor of a bygone era. It was when a didactic understanding of cinema as ‘Art’ had arrived, enrapturing both pokerfaced bohemians and wide-eyed neophytes, such as the novel’s Jonathan Gates. A university student whose interest had initially been sparked by the suggested erotica of jungle girl serials and saucy European imports, he finds himself under the tutelage of Clare Swan—older, analytical, with a voracious sexual appetite, the character is modeled after the young Pauline Kael. Roszak balances their relationship with Clare’s former bedmate, a projectionist named Sharkey whose sensory passions lie in the earthy concerns of hardware and special effects, promiscuous teenage girls and getting stoned.
    The novel’s fourth character isn’t so much flesh and blood as a spirit wafting through a forgotten movie director’s neglected body of work. An enigmatic figure at Germany’s UFA studio in the 1920’s, Max Castle fled to Hollywood during the rise of the Nazis. After an abortive attempt at an MGM epic, he found himself at Universal and Monogram knocking out low grade horror and exploitation with titles like Shadows Over Sing Sing and Kiss of the Vampire. Lost at sea near the end of the war, Castle and his pictures quickly slid into oblivion.
    Roszak’s slow and deliberate construction of Castle forms an alarming, eerie amalgam of Fritz Lang, Edgar G. Ulmer, Karl Freund, and other old world European émigrés who darkened the screen with film noir. The inherent draw of his pictures, purposely avoided by Clare but embraced by Jonathan, transcends the value of art and entertainment toward something deeply, disturbingly visceral:

It would have been enough to say that, by anybody’s standards, these films were well crafted, so far beyond the ordinary studio standard that only their limited budget placed them in the category of B-movies. But there was more here, something that went beyond craftsmanship. There was in Castle’s films a genuine horror, one that froze through to the bone. At no point could I have said precisely where the film’s power lay—except that I was sure it was nothing I’d consciously seen that produced the effect. Rather, it was as if somewhere behind my eyes, another part of me was observing a different world, one in which the vampire and his victim were real, the supernatural events were real, the blasphemy was real.

    Gates sums it up in one word: unclean. There’s something akin to a Slavko Vorkapich montage, or the crazy opening minutes of Josef von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress going on not between the frames, but buried somewhere inside the movie itself, inside its hypnotic flicker. Unseen by the eye, Castle’s device functions like a narcotic, transferring mysterious directives straight to the subconscious.
    Roszak is expanding on the tenuous ‘science’ of subliminal imagery that directors and editors have dabbled in for years, such as the skull Alfred Hitchcock flashes over Anthony Perkins’s face toward the end of Psycho, or the ephemeral devil’s head William Friedkin uses to punch up the shocks in The Exorcist. But Friedkin went one better when he juxtaposed knifings with split-seconds of anal sex in Crusing. So deeply imbedded, those few murky frames of sodomy—just visible if you’re using a hair-trigger VCR pause button—could’ve earned the picture an ‘X’ rating had anyone actually seen anything. But it finagled an ‘R’ through sleight of hand.
    The practice extends to food corporations working prospective customers via subliminal advertising (one explanation for escalating obesity), and the Republican Party inserting frames of staged carnage within their 2004 campaign commercials (part of the agitating tactic used to reelect George W. Bush). It would be comforting to imagine that our repeated exposure to television’s thumping, rapid-fire editing has made us immune to these calculated deceptions, but the results say otherwise.

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Above and below: Different approaches to subliminal imagery. At the end of Psycho (above), a skull is superimposed over Anthony Perkins’s face. During The Exorcist (below), a death’s head flashes on the screen for an instant.

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    First published when MTV wielded a fresh new influence, and the American cinema had effectively abandoned mature concepts to placate audience hyperactivity, attention deficits and myopia (the psychological aftereffects of all those toxic food campaigns?), there’s a dispiriting sense of nostalgia in one of Roszak’s prophecies. The idiot savant character of Simon Dunkle, an adolescent video director who threatens to obliterate narrative form, would have no trouble finding a job in Hollywood today. Anticipating the consequence of science and religion manipulating art, the novel also acknowledges the lunatic fringe. There’s a caricature of an intellectual drunk on Marshall McLuhan, blocked by ego from realizing the potent subtext of his own theories. And the amplified spirituality of the asylum patient Rosenzweig, his brilliance dashed by insanity.
    Flicker mourns the things that are taken for granted: the mainstream’s sweeping contempt for humility; rigged compassion staged for the camera; the simultaneously fleeting and addictive nature of our inventions. Generally childless save for its metaphoric use of orphans, the novel was written in the midst of the swaggering Reagan-era pitch for mom, apple pie, the flag, and those vague ‘family values’ that ostracize individuality. Of course family values exist, but prior to the 80’s was the term itself used as often as TV would have us believe? Prior to the 80’s did we ever see sitcom families nestled in the strained camaraderie of the repugnant “group hug”?
    The novel indirectly forecasts the proliferation of dubious rightwing ‘Christian values’ presently being channeled by government through the media—and until just recently the word ‘media’ was generally unfamiliar outside of academia—America and Great Britain under an autocratic marketing strategy, a streamlined collectivism wherein non-Christians are presumably valueless, or harbor values not recognized within a ‘democracy.’ By situating this brand of conspiracy within the template of a breezy, top-drawer Hitchcock film, the innocent man in over his head scenario, Roszak allays the painful realization that we can and have been so easily, mercilessly conned by the very people we put into power.
    Casting my imaginary film version back in the 90’s, I’d envisioned Jonathan Gates played by David Hyde-Pierce, the twitchy and fastidious brother Niles on TV’s Frasier. Rereading the book today, my instincts were dead on the money even though the actor is now too old for the role. Clare wasn’t as easy to fill, but considering the Lower East Side aesthete she played in High Art, Ally Sheedy would be ideal. A sickly, chain-smoking cinematographer who worships Castle’s films seemed tailored for William Hickey (since deceased), and John Hillerman was a shoo-in for Roszak’s Swiss orphanage director.
    A decent film adaptation, however, would run anywhere from four to five hours, and alienate nearly anyone unable to connect Kino with Pravda. I’ve no doubt Darren Aronofsky will bypass the personality, intelligent humor, palpable sensuality and nostalgic ambiance Roszak painstakingly labored over, and opt for the bare bones of paranoia, sweaty brows and darting eyes. Judging by the dour magnificence of Requiem for a Dream (a Max Castle film if there ever was one) we could be in for a very depressing, unclean time of it.