An Interview with Steve Erickson
Author and film critic Steve Erickson granted an interview to Guy Savage of MostlyFiction.com. Zeroville is Erickson’s eighth novel, and he’s also written two nonfiction books. Currently the film critic for Los Angeles Magazine, he is also the editor of Black Clock, a literary journal published by CalArts where he also teaches writing. For more information on this author and his novels, go to www.SteveErickson.org
MF: What inspired you to write ZEROVILLE?
SE: Well, the movies play a part in a number of my earlier novels — Days Between Stations, Rubicon Beach, Amnesiascope, The Sea Came in at Midnight — so they’ve always been an interest of mine. I actually got my degree at UCLA not in literature but film. A few years ago I was trying to recruit Michael Chabon into writing for the literary magazine I edit [Black Clock], and being the slippery guy he is, instead he recruited me into writing for a McSweeney’s anthology he was putting together, and over five days in Vegas I knocked out a short story called “Zeroville.” I realized that at the core of the story was a pretty good idea I could have done more with, and a central character I wasn’t really satisfied with. I wrote the story not long after finishing my previous novel, Our Ecstatic Days, which was a very intense, emotionally roiling work, and I felt that a novel about the movies should have the energy of the movies, it should move like the movies. It was when the character of Vikar — this childlike, excommunicated theology student who’s “cineautistic” — fell into place that the novel fell into place with him.
MF: What is the significance of the fact that ZEROVILLE’s protagonist arrives on the very day of the Sharon Tate murders?
SE: You know, there are any number of days that the Sixties are said to have “died,” but if you lived in L.A. at the time, that was definitely the day. It also seems to have coincided with the beginning of an era in Hollywood and movie-making when, for better or worse, a kind of anarchy set in. For a while things became more creative and people took more chances, and then things became more undisciplined and people became arrogant and indulgent. During the same time you had the punk movement in music, so it was a great period of upheaval to write about and I was around for a lot of it.
MF: Vikar’s shaved head sports a tattoo with images of Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in a scene from A Place in the Sun. This film is mentioned throughout the book, and at one point it is the focus of some intense analysis. What is the significance of this film to you, the book, and to Vikar?
SE: A Place in the Sun is a great example of what I call Cinema of Hysteria. It may be the dreamiest major movie to come out of the studio system of the late Forties and Fifties, when the studios were coming unhinged for all kinds of reasons. There’s a rapture about the film that’s entirely irrational — it’s very different from Swing Time or Gunga Din or Woman of the Year or almost anything else that George Stevens directed up until that time or afterward— and that exists outside the socially accepted notions of right and wrong. The movie is morally absurd on a rational level, yet on some unconscious level we completely understand it. Zazi, the teenage girl in the novel, puts her finger on it when she realizes it’s not a movie that really can be watched with anyone else, it’s too private. But having said all that, I would be a liar if I claimed to have thought of all this when I chose it for the novel. Rather it was one of those instinctive decisions that become clear later (like when I’m being interviewed).
MF: There are some parallels between Vikar’s life and the life of Montgomery Clift. Obviously this is deliberate. Why did you pick Clift?
SE: Well, Clift was John the Baptist to Brando’s Jesus. (James Dean was Saint Peter, the martyred disciple on whom a church is built.) And as such, he’s at the crossroads of where the dying Classic Hollywood meets the new Nuclear Hollywood. Clift still has the old glamour while anticipating all the neuroses of what being a movie star would come to be about. He was a subtler actor than Brando or Dean and, as the novel says in the opening paragraph, in that terrace scene in Place in the Sun he and Taylor may be the two most beautiful people in the history of movies, “she the female version of him and he the male version of her.” So there’s something very dreamlike about Clift.
MF: Some of the best film criticism in the novel comes from a burglar. Vikar parrots most of this back at critical moments, and manages to either wow or stun the film community—especially when he mentions Emmanuelle 2 in the same breath as Battle of Algiers. Vikar seems unable to differentiate soft porn from Pontecorvo’s masterpiece. How do you explain that?
SE: I don’t want to explain Vikar too much. Actually I don’t want to explain him at all. We never understand whether Vikar is some sort of savant or just dim. His passion for movies, his faith in them, is unmediated, unschooled, raw — he may love a movie because it speaks to him spiritually or just because he thinks the lead actress is hot, and in his mind not only is one reason as good as the other but there’s no difference between them. The spiritual is sexual and vice versa, and his “aesthetic,” such as it is, is entirely personal, entirely intuitive. That’s part of the nature of Vikar’s belief in film, and it’s confirmed by the fact that very few of the people he meets in Hollywood who work in the movies really know anything about movies — or so it seems to him — while at the same time he runs into burglars, call girls in Cannes and teenage punkettes who are all more insightful.
MF: At the Palme d’Or Vikar’s film is hailed as the “creation of a revelatory new cinematic rhetoric.” Most of the film community (Cannes, for example) is uncertain whether to classify Vikar as a lunatic or a genius. Do you feel this uncertainty on the part of the film community is an accurate reflection of reality or is this a satirical representation?
SE: Is it really an either/or proposition? Yeah, it’s satirical, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real. Hollywood is a business where hair dressers become major producers and gigolos wind up running studios because they happened to stumble into Norma Shearer by the hotel pool. Uncertainty is the status quo of the business — nobody has a clue, and it’s as dangerous to dismiss the possibility that the fool is a genius as it is to ignore the possibility he’s a fool.
MF: Part of the fun of ZEROVILLE is trying to guess the identities of the characters who are usually described rather peculiarly by Vikar by certain salient characteristics. For example, there’s Margie, “the crazy one with the tits.” The book will have a special appeal for film fans. How do you feel about that?
SE: Because I was seeing all these people through Vikar’s eyes, I wanted to define them in Vikar’s terms, not in the terms of their fame and celebrity that came later and probably wouldn’t mean anything to Vikar anyway. The characters have a greater resonance if their identities are not always explicit — except when it’s more resonant to be explicit. To be honest, the most reassuring reactions I’ve gotten so far are from readers who don’t know much about movies and still got caught up in the book.
MF: I’ve got to ask this one: Vikar’s film Your Pale Blue Eyes. Did you have a certain film in mind here, or is this film a composite?
SE: It’s virtually the only movie in the novel that’s made up. The title, of course, is from the Velvet Underground song. There’s also a brief, passing reference to another made-up movie that was in my novel Days Between Stations.
MF: Humour me here. If you could pick someone—anyone—to direct ZEROVILLE, who would you pick? Who would play Vikar?
SE: Well, just remember that you did ask, so if this sounds completely grandiose, it’s not my fault. For a director you would want someone very film-conscious — not all directors are. The most famous and obvious example is Scorsese. He would understand this novel. Whether he would want to make a movie, of course, is another question. Anyone who’s not seen his Personal Journey Through American Movies doc on DVD should check it out. Soderbergh, Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson are all possibilities. So far at this early stage there’s been more interest in Hollywood from actors who see a good part in Vikar. You want someone with a manchild quality that also harbors a potential violent streak. Ryan Gosling, Tobey Maguire, Joaquin Phoenix — none of them is exactly how I pictured Vikar, but then the image on the jacket of the book wasn’t how I pictured him either. I saw him as more angelic. Johnny Depp may be too old at this point (which makes me feel ancient), but that’s the general idea.
MF: As a film critic for Los Angeles magazine, films are obviously a large part of your life. What are your top ten films?
SE: Round up the usual suspects. Anyone who’s read the novel won’t be surprised by most of them. The Third Man, Vertigo, Casablanca, The Godfather Part II, Double Indemnity, Lawrence of Arabia, The Lady Eve, The Passion of Joan of Arc, 2001: A Space Odyssey, My Darling Clementine, Jules and Jim, A Place in the Sun, The Shop Around the Corner. That’s thirteen, I know, but you have several overlapping five- or eight-way ties in there. Sorry, too, it’s so English-language-centric. Give me a few more slots and I can easily work in That Obscure Object of Desire. Twenty-four hours from now, half the list will be different anyway.
MF: Fassbinder felt that film had lost a great deal of its original content in the process of commercialization. He often deliberately overused clichés in an attempt to show the emptiness of the Hollywood film. Do you think that Fassbinder was correct?
SE: That may be Fassbinder’s version of why he used the clichés, but I think the real reason is he loved them. I think he loved all that classic iconography of “empty” glamour and artificiality, and some part of him yearned to make Now, Voyager. A gay German Now, Voyager, maybe, but still. I think the tension in his best movies comes from that contradiction of loving the clichés even as he tries to deny and discredit them.
MF: In ZEROVILLE, the director known as Viking Man who wants to be the “next John Ford” makes oblique references to changes in the Hollywood film industry. What are your feelings about the decline of the movie studios and the rise of the independent director?
SE: Well, the “decline” in the studios mostly has to do with the obvious fact that they make hundreds of millions of dollars that the independents don’t. That is to say, the studios haven’t commercially declined at all. They’ve declined creatively for the most part because the people who run the studios don’t care about movies or even particularly like them, what they care about is the enterprise of movies. There’s probably no point getting overly indignant about this — the studios always have cared about making money — but I do think that in the Thirties and Forties even the vulgarians like Mayer and Zanuck and Warner loved and understood their product. Harvey Weinstein is probably the closest contemporary example, and he’s the godfather of independent film, at least from the production standpoint, so that probably tells her everything. I don’t know of anyone like him at the studios today, unless you’re counting something like DreamWorks. I know it’s a cliché, for instance, to include a movie like Casablanca in that list of films you asked me for a couple of questions ago, but it’s difficult to find a more perfect movie or a more satisfying one on a scene-by-scene, role-by-role, line-by-line basis, and Casablanca is the ultimate example of a studio picture, and something I doubt today’s studios could replicate in another hundred years largely because the studios just aren’t like that anymore. They aren’t run like that and they don’t think of movies like that. I don’t want to over-romanticize the studio films of the Forties any more than I want to over-romanticize the independent films of the Nineties, only to make the point that there was something about the Forties — the sensibility, the zeitgeist, whatever — in which the studios flourished, and there’s something about the Eighties and Nineties and Zeroes in which most studio pictures are soulless and all the creative energy is with the indies. You see pretty much the same thing happening in publishing today, in which the behemoths like Simon & Schuster, Random House, Doubleday are the big studios that only know anymore how to make blockbusters, with the occasional Oscar-season prestige item thrown in, while the indies are the publishers who actually care about fiction.
SE: Well, I know of both Frayn and Greenaway, of course, and can understand the comparisons, but probably the best way to answer is to say that the writers who had the biggest impact on my work are William Faulkner, Henry Miller, Emily Bronte, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Philip K. Dick, Thomas Pynchon. At least one or two of them are fairly intricate, layered and obsessive too. On the other hand Hawks and Hitchcock are probably my two favorite directors, just because they made so many great movies between them, yet I don’t know that either actually has influenced me much.
MF: Are there any new projects on the horizon?
Read the review of Zeroville at MostlyFiction.com