F L I C K E R
A novel by Theodore Roszak
Chicago Review Press, Distributed by Independent Publishers Group
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: