This month sees the publication of two novels about both movies and movie love—or movie lust, or movie madness, it all depends on how you look at it, I guess. I am very fond of both of these books and believe you ought to buy them. So there.
The first is Missing Reels, by Farran Smith Nehme, published by The Overlook Press. I shall have to disclose my bias here: Farran, who blogs as The Self Styled Siren (you knew that already, did you not?) is one of my dearest friends in the whole wide world. I believe that she too holds me in some esteem (I blush as I write this), and take as evidence the fact that in her novel she gives my surname to a fictional silent-movie leading man. So, those cards are on the table. And it's because I love Farran that I was actually vaguely terrified to read this novel, her first. Although of course I should not have been. She can write, I always knew that.
The book is both a steady and rollicking New York story of the late 1980s. The heroine is Ceinwen, a feisty, resourceful young woman working at a vintage clothing shop in the East Village, who discovers that her quietly elegant neighbor Miriam, an old woman who guards an air of mystery, may have been a silent movie actress. Ceinwen's not-entirely-inchoate vintage-movie love is hence melded with the curiosity of an amateur detective, and both of these aspects of the character are nurtured and/or thwarted by a motley crew of academics, film preservationists, and some romantic foils, both genuine and potential, associated with those fields. The significant amorous connection in Missing Reels is the dashing, not-that-movie-crazy mathematician Matthew, who’s also got a hot romance going with an Italian colleague, which he insists he’s not about to drop on Ceinwen’s account. And then there’s Fred, the put-upon minion of a mysterious film-preservation organization who introduces Ceinwen to a sort of old-movie utopia when he brings her to a special screening of some Fatty Arbuckle rarities:
“I think these people are awesome,” whispered Ceinwen.
“They know their stuff, that’s for sure,” muttered Fred.
It became clear, about two minutes into He Did and He Didn’t, that this was the best silent-movie audience she’d ever encountered. No restlessness, unless you counted Fred’s shifts of his legs and arms, and he always did that. No talking. Every laugh was related to something on screen. They picked up every gesture, no matter how small. The first glimpse of Fatty—Roscoe got a round of applause, Mabel Normand’s pretty face got an audible sigh, Buster Keaton got a shout of recognition. Fred wasn’t a lout laugher, bu he was completely caught up in what was happening on screen, leaning forward and occasionally giving her a side glance to see if she got the joke. And Arbuckle was a marvel, holding his own even with Keaton, supple and flexible in the way he moved.
When the applause at the last film died down and the lights came back up, she told him, “I don’t know what you’re complaining about.”
“I’m not complaining about the movies. Arbuckle’s great.”
“I like the audience, too. They’re so into it.”
“I like most of them.” She’d stood up to stretch, but he was still sprawled in his seat, legs straight out and hands in his jacket pockets.
Pretty wide variety of ages here, and some big-time vintage clothing. That was a real 1920s sailor dress on that little brunette. That older had an alligator bag. And some people had gone all the way into actual costume. There was a Louise Brooks, and a Mary Pickford with a tiered lace dress, flat Mary Janes and cascading blonde curls. No Tramps, but that man had on a zoot suit.
What makes Farran’s book particularly bracing is that, as romantic comedies go, it’s as tart as it is sweet, maybe even more so. For all her energy and intelligence, Ceinwen is fully capable of being a bit of a petulant brat. Matthew’s oh-so-European faux-progressive rationales for his have-it-both-ways management of the affair with Ceinwen seemed transparently opportunistic to this straight white male who came of age in the early ‘80s. And while nobody as passionate as movies as Farran is would construct a narrative that argued some films are better off not being found, Missing Reels is pretty blunt in its acknowledgement that many Old Hollywood stories are pretty unpleasant ones, and that the people who lived them maybe have the right not to have those stories exhumed. I'm making the book sound like a Moral Tale or something right about now, so I should hasten to add that what it actually is, its considerable human wisdom aside, is a paragon of wit, a beautifully plotted story, and a romping good read.
Nicholas Rombes's novel The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing, published later by Two Dollar Radio, is an incredibly gripping but entirely less comic proposition. Rombes was kind enough to send me a galley, along with a note in which he professed to be a longtime admirer of my work (actually, it's about ethics in film blogging, amirite?), and I gave him permission to use as a blurb a note I wrote back to him with my reaction, which is/was: "The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing is an uncanny pleasure, a secret history in a series of alchemical celluloid prose poems. I enjoyed the hell out of it even as it began to conspire with my dreams." The story is of a scholar who tracks down and interviews a notorious figure who, somehow, has managed to come into possession of, and then destroy, single-print films of extraordinary provenance. The scholar finds Laing in a seedy motel (one can almost feel the moistness of the carpet under ones feet while reading) and compels him to relate the details of the destroyed films as best he can. In recounting his encounter with Laing, the narrator gives upsetting hints concerning his own tragedy. Here is a particularly striking passage:
I’m not exactly certain that the person who returned to the motel room with the grocery bag was, in fact, R. Laing. Listen, of course it was him. I don’t mean I doubt it was him literally, in the sense that Christ is “Christ” or Satan is “Satan.” Something had changed, that’s all I’m trying to say. At the time I had no such suspicions that it wasn’t him, or at least not outright suspicions, rather something more like very thin spider-webbed doubts spread so delicately out upon my thoughts that I couldn’t collect it all into a single thought. It was only later, in preparing this manuscript in fact, that these doubts began to take shape into something more fixed and permanent. And even now, like I’ve said, of course I know it was the same Laing as before, just as the resurrected Christ is the same as the pre-crucified Christ, of Satan is the same as the rebellious angel that became Satan. It’s just that when I think about it now, looking back, I have the feeling that it wasn’t him or at least not the same him. But it’s just a feeling and nothing more.
And yet, his descriptions of the films changed somehow, linguistically, in ways that I’m only now beginning to sort out. For I’ve come to see, in retrospect, that there was a void at the heart of the films that Laing destroyed, and that through his descriptions of these films he was attempting to fill, somehow, that void, as if talking about the films might fill in the meaning that they themselves lacked. I also came to understand that Laing didn’t think of the destroyed films as “lost treasures” as all, but instead as something more dangerous, as expressions of pure nothingness.
Rombes abjures conventional narrative in favor of stories within stories...or rather stories located at particular nodes and modes of narrative form: oral synopses, transcripts of notes, a “screenplay” “treatment,” and so on. And yet, from the periphery of the map this slim book conjures, a stabbingly vivid account of loss worms its way into the work, suggesting that the sought absolution of the novel’s title is less for Laing than it is for the book’s narrator. A rather remarkable effect.