For more than a century, filmmakers have been plundering world literature for source material. Countless works by ancient, medieval, renaissance, enlightenment, Elizabethan, Victorian, modern, post-modern, and futuristic writers, working in every imaginable form and genre, have been transported from page to screen. Every once in a long while an ingenious writer upends this time-tested formula and uses a movie as a springboard for a book. Recently I came upon instances of three very different writers drawing on three very different movies to produce three odd and wondrous little books. The writers are Geoff Dyer, Don DeLillo, and Jonathan Lethem, who, for all their differences, have one thing in common. Each became bewitched by a movie that spoke so forcefully to him that he watched it again and again until it revealed all of its secrets and meanings, until he grasped what might be called the movie’s deep tissues. Here are three case studies of the fruits of their obsessions:
Case Study #1: Geoff Dyer on Andrei Tarkovsky
Last summer I got to interview one of my favorite writers, the English novelist and essayist Geoff Dyer. The occasion was the American publication of The Missing of the Somme, Dyer’s intricate meditation on the ways the dead of the First World War are memorialized and remembered. As our conversation was winding down, I asked Dyer the obligatory parting question: “Do you have a new book in the works?”
“I have a book coming out in January or February,” he replied. “It’s a very detailed study of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, which is the film that I’ve seen more than any other. It has really stayed with me for the thirty years since I first saw it. This book is an unbelievably detailed study of that film…(and) hopefully people will buy it because it’s by me, irrespective of the fact that they’ve not seen the film, or perhaps not even heard of it.”
Well, my ignorance of Russian cinema is so immaculate that I had not heard of Stalker and, yes, I’m one of those people who will read a book simply because it was written by Geoff Dyer. So I took Dyer at his word and read his new book before I watched the movie that inspired it. The book is called Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room, and from its very first line we’re inside Tarkovksy’s 1979 film, seeing what the camera sees and listening to what Dyer was thinking as he watched the movie, again and again, over the course of three decades. Dyer describes the book as “an account of watchings, rememberings, misrememberings, and forgettings; it is not the record of a dissection.”
Fair enough, and yet the book does take the movie apart, all 142 shots of it, with some sharp instruments. As always, Dyer brings ferocious curiosity and intelligence to the job, guiding us through Tarkovsky’s strange world by bouncing his own thoughts off writers of literature and criticism, cinema and psychology, including Flaubert, Wordsworth, Camus, Barthes, Bresson, DeLillo, Tony Judt, Stanislaw Lem, Rilke, Heidegger, Jung, Slavoj Zizek, and, of course, Tarkovsky himself.
If you like your movies with a plot synopsis, here goes: A guide (Stalker) takes two men (Writer and Professor) into a forbidden and mysterious area called the Zone, at the heart of which is the Room, where your deepest wish will come true. Period. How, you might ask, can anyone spin a 228-page book out of remembering and misremembering that? The simple answer is that Dyer, much like Tarkovsky, recalibrates our sense of time. He doesn’t merely slow things down, he sometimes freezes them, the better to examine them under his microscope. Instructively, Dyer quotes Tarkovsky here: “If the regular length of a shot is increased, one becomes bored, but if you keep on making it longer, it piques your interest, and if you make it even longer, a new quality emerges, a special intensity of attention.”
“This,” Dyer writes, “is Tarkovsky’s aesthetiic in a nutshell. At first there can be a friction between our expectations of time and Tarkovsky-time and this friction is increasing in the twenty-first century as we move further and further away from Tarkovsky-time towards moron-time in which nothing can last – and no one can concentrate on anything – for more than about two seconds…. Tarkovsky is saying to the audience: Forget about previous ideas of time. Stop looking at your watches.”
Dyer makes the case that every work of art – like life itself? – is best appreciated by those who have the patience to look, look again, and keep looking: “The Zone is a place – a state – of heightened alertness to everything.”
The film’s script was written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, adapted from their short science-fiction novel, Roadside Picnic. (So, yet another movie that sprang from a work of literature.) It was shot in Estonia, in and around an abandoned hydroelectric power station that possesses an ethereal beauty similar to what you witness while passing through the petrochemical badlands on the New Jersey Turnpike, those same toxic fogs, sludgy waters, and dripping pipes, minus the methane spurts. An early caption informs us that the Zone might (or might not) be the result of some kind of meteorite or alien invasion, and Dyer duly notes that the setting foreshadows the Chernobyl nuclear plant meltdown in the Ukraine in 1986 (he calls Tarkovsky “a prophet”), and that the Zone also echoes Stalin’s gulags. Citing Wordsworth, he addresses the importance of such man-made landscapes: “It is when there is some kind of human interaction with landscape, when the landscape, having been manufactured or altered, is in the process of being reclaimed by nature – a source of abiding fascination for Tarkovsky – that its ‘inward meaning’ is most powerfully felt.”
By the end of their journey, Stalker, Writer, and Professor have learned that the Zone “is not a place of hope so much as a place where hope turns in on itself, resigns itself to the way things are.” Not exactly a heart-warming takeaway, but as soon as I finished Dyer’s book, I watched the movie for the first time. I suppose only two questions remain: 1.) Is Stalker, as Dyer contends, “the reason cinema was invented”? And, 2.) How did Dyer’s book affect my experience of watching Tarkovsky’s movie?
My answers are, 1.) No, I would go with the much more conventional view that the reason cinema was invented is Citizen Kane. Beyond that, I’ll man up and admit that Tarkovsky-time got a little boring in spots. Even Dyer confesses that “it was not a case of love at first sight: the first time I saw Stalker I was slightly bored and unmoved.” Which might just mean that I need to see the movie a few dozen more times. And, 2.) Dyer’s book enriched the experience of watching the movie in ways I can’t count, but most basically because it reminded me that we will always be repaid for a heightened alertness to everything – the sounds of birdsong, the changing of light, the smoky nature of our hopes, the riches that are spread out before our eyes if only we have the patience to see.
Cormac McCarthy once said, “The ugly fact is, books are made out of books.” Well, no and yes, you’ll conclude after reading this astonishing book about a film about a book about a journey to a room.
Case Study #2: Don DeLillo on Douglas Gordon on Alfred Hitchcock
In 2010 Don DeLillo published Point Omega, a novel that begins with a short overture and ends with a short coda, titled, respectively, “Anonymity” and “Anonymity 2.” Both tell the story of an unnamed man who has come to New York’s Museum of Modern Art in the summer of 2006 to watch a video by the Scottish artist Douglas Gordon. It’s called 24 Hour Psycho and that’s precisely what it is – Alfred Hitchcock’s classic slowed down from its original 109 minutes and turned into a crawling, day-long taffy pull.
Like many people who visited MoMA to see Gordon’s movie, I came away thinking that a little bit of this sort of thing goes a long way. (Ditto Andy Warhol’s 1964 movie, Empire, which consists of a fixed camera gazing out a window at the Empire State Building for eight unblinking hours.) Indeed, most of the museum-goers in Point Omega watch Gordon’s slowed-down movie for a few minutes and then flee, looking at the museum guard on their way out the door hoping for eye contact that will validate their “bafflement.”
DeLillo’s nameless moviegoer is no such impatient dilettante. He spends countless hours on six successive days absorbed by the movie, going deeper and deeper in search of its meanings. What he discovers would resonate with Dyer and Tarkovsky:
The nature of the film permitted total concentration and also depended on it. The film’s merciless pacing had no meaning without a corresponding watchfulness, the individual whose absolute alertness did not betray what was demanded. He stood and looked. In the time it took for Anthony Perkins to turn his head, there seemed to flow an array of ideas involving science and philosophy and nameless other things, or maybe he was seeing too much. But it was impossible to see too much. The less there was to see, the harder he looked, the more he saw. This was the point. To see what’s here, finally to look and to know you’re looking, to feel time passing, to be alive to what is happening in the smallest registers of motion… It takes close attention to see what’s happening in front of you. It takes work, pious effort, to see what you are looking at.
This, it seems to me, is the mission of all true art – to enrich our lives by making us alive to what is happening as it is happening to us. We’re back to Tarkovsky’s “special intensity of attention” and Dyer’s “heightened alertness to everything.”
Between DeLillo’s cinematic overture and coda lies a thin novel about an encounter between two men at a remote house “somewhere south of nowhere” in the Sonoran desert. These two men, we’ll learn, were among the people who came to see 24 Hour Psycho in New York but fled after a few minutes. One is Richard Elster, an academic, a “defense intellectual” (perfect DeLillo job title!), who was involved in the preparations for the invasion of Iraq. He has come to the desert to detox from the experience. With him is the novel’s narrator, Jim Finley, a filmmaker who is trying to persuade Elster to be the subject of a documentary. (So, a novel that springs from a movie about a movie and wants to produce yet another movie.) Finley’s documentary will consist of one unblinking shot (think of Empire, or the single-take Russian Ark): Elster standing in front of a blank wall talking about what he did inside the Pentagon. Finley wants Elster to reveal “what you know that no one knows.” Elster has already confided, vaguely, that his job was “to conceptualize…to apply overarching ideas and principles to such matters as deployment and counter-insurgency.” This, he admits without shame, involved a certain amount of lying. “Lying is necessary. The state has to lie. There is no lie in war or in preparation for war that can’t be defended. We went beyond this. We tried to create new realities overnight, careful sets of words that resemble advertising slogans in memorability and repeatability…I wanted a haiku war. I wanted a war in three lines.”
Presumably he came up with this lethal lie:
We are deep in DeLillo country here, the land of smoky operators who work the barely visible levers that control the two great engines driving contemporary American life: anxiety and dread. Geoff Dyer summed up DeLillo’s achievement in his superb collection of essays and reviews from 2011, Otherwise Known As the Human Condition. DeLillo, Dyer wrote, “has reconfigured things, or our perception of them, to such an extent that DeLillo is now implied in the things themselves… Like Hemingway, DeLillo has imprinted his syntax on reality…”
True, but the thing that stuck with me about this slight novel – slight, at least, compared to such meatier DeLillo masterworks as White Noise, Libra, and Underworld – was not Richard Elster’s contribution to the lies that brought on our nation’s longest war. What stuck with me was that nameless man in the museum watching the slowed-down movie and reminding me of the pious effort that’s required to see, to truly see, what’s happening in front of us every minute of our lives.
Case Study #3: Jonathan Lethem on John Carpenter
In 2010 Jonathan Lethem published a monograph, They Live, about a most unlikely subject. Or maybe it wasn’t so unlikely, given the yin-yang mashup of Lethem’s influences, high and low, including DeLillo and Philip K. Dick, Mailer and J.G. Ballard, comics, the movies of John Cassavetes. So in a way it makes perfect sense that Lethem devoted a whole book to a close analysis of John Carpenter’s They Live, a low-budget genre movie by a director the Hollywood establishment barely gives a B rating.
Like Dyer and DeLillo, Lethem brings a sharp intellect and vast tool kit to his chosen movie. And, like them, he argues persuasively that what we see is far less important than how we see it. Taking this a step further, everything can be interesting, including the marginal, especially the marginal, if we’re willing to make a pious effort and bring to bear a frame of reference, informed tastes, education (preferably self-education, in the view of this autodidact), and imagination. And so, like Dyer, Lethem calls on an encyclopedic knowledge of film history and the works of diverse thinkers, including the artists Jenny Holzer and Robert Smithson, the writers and philosophers H.F. Saint, David Thomson, G.K. Chesterton, Poe, Lovecraft, Bret Easton Ellis, George W.S. Trow, Greil Marcus, Darko Suvin, Barthes, Slavoj Zizek, and Stanislaw Lem. Note the overlaps with Dyer’s reading list.
Might as well get the plot summary out of the way: A down-on-his-luck construction worker named Nada (the pro wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper) wanders into a Los Angeles homeless encampment called Justiceville. After the cops raze the camp, Nada discovers a cache of magic sunglasses that enable him to see that many “normal” people are actually hideous alien ghouls who have mounted a sophisticated mind-control campaign to keep humans complicit and subdued. This includes subliminal billboards and televised commands to OBEY, MARRY AND REPRODUCE, WATCH TV, BUY, STAY ASLEEP. Nada realizes he needs to set this shit straight. And so, strolling into a bank wearing shades and armed with an automatic rifle, he states his mission: “I’ve come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum.”
Lethem leads us on a delirious tour of this “self-conscious B movie,” with time codes serving as mile markers. It’s a close, highly informed reading that never feels precious or claustrophobic because Lethem admits that the movie is “howlingly blatant on many levels,” and yet “it grows marvelously slippery and paradoxical at its depths. Watch something enough times and all you see are the holes, much like a word whose meaning dissolves because you’ve said it aloud too many times in a row… Out of holes, a whole.”
Carpenter comes in for high praise from Lethem for shunning Hollywood’s compromising cash and going the noble low-budget route. “They Live,” Lethem writes approvingly, “ignores the presence of the film industry” and instead mounts a critique of television and consumerism as brain-killing propaganda tools. Carpenter has even less use for the local dream factory than it has for him. He’s proud of the fact that his budget requires him to cut every corner he comes to. This ranges from the movie’s blue-collar leading man, with his acne scars, mullet hairdo, and oak-tree neck, to the cheapo props, droning musical score, and skeezy (Lethem’s word) ghoul make-up and wigs. A friend watching the movie with Lethem was delighted to see that a garbage truck was filled with confetti: “They couldn’t afford real garbage!” Even the magic sunglasses, Lethem notes with approval, look like $2 Ray Ban knockoffs. When the movie flirts with porn scenarios (something Carpenter did more than flirt with earlier in his screenwriting career), there are no winks and nods. Carpenter has moved way beyond post-modern irony, all the way to unapologetic self-awareness. He knows that his film is, on one level, a protracted joke, but he doesn’t bother to acknowledge that he’s in on it. “Carpenter really doesn’t care whether or not you get that he gets it,” Lethem writes. “He’d far sooner be mistaken for an audience-laughing-at-you-not-with-you artist than slow the pace of his film, or wreck its tone, by underlining the jokes.”
They Live was based on a short story called “Eight o’clock in the Morning” by Ray Nelson, a minor science fiction writer who had the distinction of being one of just two authors ever to collaborate with Lethem’s hero, Philip K. Dick. (So, this time we have a book about a movie about a short story.) The movie was released in November 1988, just as Ronald Reagan was passing the decade’s greed-is-good baton to George H.W. Bush. The previous summer, Tompkins Square Park in New York’s East Village had erupted in riots when police forcibly removed homeless squatters, a la Justiceville, a dustup that gave birth to the invective Die, Yuppie Scum! It’s not hard to see the link between “Yuppie Scum” and the wealthiest “1 percent” reviled by Occupy Wall Street protesters who were recently cleared from their campsite in lower Manhattan, a la Tompkins Square Park. But Lethem, to his credit, points out a crucial difference between Tompkins Square (and, by extension, Zuccotti Park) on the one hand, and Justiceville on the other: the squatters in Tompkins Square included defiant drug users, anti-gentrification protesters, and “interested witnesses from the ranks of the middle-bohemian class” (including Allen Ginsberg), while the homeless in Justiceville are for the most part “sheepish, demoralized, obedient” losers content to “zone out and ponder television.” In other words, feel free to read They Live as an indictment of Reaganomics, as many have done, but be careful about turning it into an endorsement of Tompkins Square or a prophecy of Occupy Wall Street.
I had seen They Live years ago, and I watched it a second time after finishing Lethem’s book. The second viewing was definitely better, richer, thanks to the way Lethem opened my eyes to the liberation that comes with doing things on the cheap – and not apologizing for it. They Live, both the movie and the book, are examples of what Manny Farber called “termite” art, as opposed to overblown, ostentatious “white elephant” art. “A peculiar fact about termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art,” Farber wrote, “is that it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.”
And that kind of activity, as Carpenter and his great advocate Lethem have proven, is everything a tuned-in moviegoer or book lover can ask for.
It wasn’t until I’d finished digesting these three books that I was able to see what ties them together. It is, for lack of a better word, their anti-Kaelishness. In his new biography of the celebrated New Yorker movie critic, Brian Kellow notes that Pauline Kael watched a movie just once before reviewing it because “she felt the need to write in the flush of her initial, immediate response…. If she waited too long, and pondered the film over repeated viewings, she felt she might be in danger of coming up with something that wouldn’t be her truest response.”
Lethem, who seems to be aware of everything, is aware of his own anti-Kaelishness: “I’m Pauline Kael’s ultimate opposite here: I’ve watched the entirety of my subject film a dozen times at least, and many individual scenes countless times more (Kael used to brag of seeing each film only once).” It could be argued that a weekly magazine deadline robbed Kael of the luxury of watching a movie a dozen times before writing about it, but she made a conscious choice to see each movie just once. She trusted her instincts over her intellect. Her gut over her brain. And she bragged about it.
Kael, to borrow a Malcolm Gladwell-ism, went with blink. Dyer, DeLillo, and Lethem, to their credit and their readers’ unending benefit, go the opposite route: they look closely, they keep looking, and then they think, think, think.