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The Hollywood Novel at Zero

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Most Hollywood novels are written by "legitimate" writers whose experience Out West has driven them to hate the movies. The novels read like the whiny, embittered diatribes that they are, craftless rants that seethe with resentment and make claims to providing the anti-myth to Hollywood's myth; however, they really only serve to reinforce a cliché in the reader's mind: that Hollywood is completely uncreative, petty, and full of abused, self-destructive narcissists. What a joy to read.

Steve Erickson's Zeroville destroys this cliché. After decades of novels about "Hollywood" and "the industry," Erickson has written a work that mixes the apocalyptic dread of Day of the Locust with the passion and heart of The Last Tycoon, thus capturing everything there is to hate (and love) about Tinseltown. It's a novel that not only reclaims the Hollywood novel from its dissenters, but it also reclaims the movies for its rightful owners: cinephiles.

This doesn't mean Zeroville celebrates Hollywood. On the contrary, Erickson gives West a run for his money when it comes to filleting the rich and famous. Zeroville is a Being There-esque tale whose central character, Vikar, appears (almost magically) in front of the Vista Theater in Los Feliz in 1969. He is a total cipher, his most identifiable characteristic being the tattoo of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor from A Place in the Sun on his shaved forehead. Over the course of the novel, he encounters (and influences) all the movers-and-shakers in New Hollywood.

Erickson's novel wouldn't be the revelation it is if everyone in New Hollywood didn't come off looking absolutely reprehensible, John Milius being the delightfully strange exception. To most film freaks, the Hollywood films of the 1970s represent the pinnacle of American filmmaking, the anti-myths that exposed the classic Hollywood myths as fabrications. Erickson, however, paints the prophets of the New Hollywood as misanthropes more in love with themselves than with cinema, and their work is portrayed as poor, decadent imitations of great films. He turns the anti-myth itself into a myth, and it's a trick that may anger some cinephiles but it's one that makes total sense within Erickson's thesis: we're too caught up in the myth of the artist/celebrity and not engaged enough in the essence of cinema. For Erickson, the true peak of Hollywood storytelling came somewhere in the middle of A Place in the Sun, and it's been downhill ever since.

Erickson's tricks will work best on those whose knowledge of cinema borders on the unhealthy (Vikar himself is referred to as "cine-autistic"). The first half of the novel feels almost more like a film version of "Name That Tune," as Erickson describes films such as 2001 and The Passion of Joan of Arc without disclosing their titles. This guessing game only sucks the reader into the story further, as Vikar starts to uncover a secret that stands to alter the landscape of cinema.

Giving away that secret would be worse than criminal, but what is necessary to state is that Erickson does not call for a break from the past; rather, he calls for a return to it. He wants cinema to go back to zero. Not zero in the sense of abolishing technique or history, but zero in the sense of purity. Erickson wants moviegoers (and moviemakers) to reconnect with the pure joy of the cinematic image, to forget rules, stars, and money, and to remember what this magical medium is all about: communicating complex emotions and ideas.