Pop Culture Princess

Pop Culture Princess
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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A double feature of mad about the movies books

Books and films are often linked in a pop culture fan's mind and when the two creative formats attempt to merge,the results can be as perfect as a Reese's peanut butter cup or as misguided as a plate of spaghetti with maple syrup sprinkled with marshmallows.

This summer, I've read two books that deal with movie love,mainly by those who participate in bringing them to life(or death)on screen. One takes on the Golden Age of Hollywood while the other invokes the darker,gritty edge of the modern era. Both were also written by women and place strong emphasis on their heroines,something that cinema doesn't do as well as it should sometimes.

First up was Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures by Emma Straub,which was released in paperback this season. The real name of the title character is Elsa Emerson, a Midwestern girl whose family runs the local repertory theater during the late 1920s. Elsa becomes enchanted with the stage,taking roles for herself and then travels to Hollywood with her new husband Gordon in order to break into show business together.

At first,Gordon does well by having a major studio sign him up and while he says her turn will come,Elsa soon realizes that he would be more than happy to have her be a stay-at-home wife,raising their two daughters. She fears that her shot at stardom will never come but a chance invite to a studio party has powerful movie mogul Irving Green cross her path.

He sees her potential right away and renames her Laura Lamont,along with granting her an audition that starts off her wonderful film career:

Laura winds up leaving Gordon(whose career fades out fast) to marry Irving and for a time, she is a reigning queen of the cinema with an Academy Award as her crown jewel.

However, her heyday is soon over,as age and the death of Irving force Laura to have to face the real world on her own. With the decline of her film work and other life challenges,Laura feels her own divided nature is slowly but surely shifting out from under her,leaving her trapped by her doubts and fears for the future as well being haunted by the past.

While the core of the story is loosely inspired by the life and times of Jennifer Jones, Straub makes her leading lady an original creation. The emotional portrait of Elsa/Laura slowly draws you into her heart and unlike what the character does with other people,allows you to really get close to her and learn to appreciate her vulnerable nature. This isn't a flashy depiction of Hollywood entertainers by any means,more of a quiet revealing look at one woman of that time who eventually finds her back to what she was always searching for in life and art:

Night Film is Marisha Pessl's ambitious second novel,after the high acclaim given to her debut Special Topics in Calamity Physics and much like any shining new success in Hollywood, a lot of expectations are being placed on this one.

The plot of the book centers around the mysterious death of Ashley Cordova,daughter of equally mysterious film director Stanislas Cordova whose artistically gruesome movies have granted him both controversy and reverence amongst fans and critics alike.

Reporter Scott McGrath has doubts that her death was a suicide,as claimed by the authorities, and partly due to the body blow given to his career when he attempted to take a deeper look into Cordova's secretive ways, sets out to discover the truth about her demise.

Along the way, Scott is joined in his quest by a pair of unlikely young people;Nora,a hatcheck girl/aspiring actress who was the last to see Ashley alive and Hopper, a wandering soul whose encounter with Ashley in her younger days haunts him still. The three of them turn some very dark corners to learn more about Ashley's final days and some of what they find suggests that the Cordovas had dealings in black magic that may have cursed their only daughter and lead to her doom.

 Ashley also appeared to have a touch of otherworldly power herself,mesmerizing people with her ethereal looks and gift for music,a career that she had to abandon for unknown reasons:

Scott's determination to know more drives him to the brink of madness and takes Nora and Hopper along for the ride. While all three of them are willing to pay the price for this dark journey,they soon discover just how high that cost may be on their souls.

Much has been made about the mixed media approach taken with this book,as Pessl created web page reproductions and articles relevant to the story line which are added in as need be(she even had film posters made up for Cordova's films like the one for Thumbscrew shown above). For the most part, I think it works,altho a little does go a long way.

While I tend not to comment on other reviews, it's hard to ignore that many of the ones for Night Film find the ending to be very confusing and/or anticlimactic. Personally, I feel that the whole point was to be as open ended as one of Cordova's bizarre films and in that respect, I found the resolution to be satisfying. It's kind of weird to read a book and wait for a big "what the hell?" moment and weirder still not to find one at all.

So,back to the merits of Night Film;is it worth reading,especially in hardcover(I happen to win an ARC of it from the publisher)? My vote is yes,since it is a fascinating read that may make you scratch your head at times but never bores you. It's mix of noir with contemporary meditations on the effect of art on life offers real food for thought,even if it gets a tad over the top at times.

 If you're familiar with the Italian giallo styling of directors like Dario Argento(who sounds a lot like a major inspiration for Stanislas Cordova to me),you may appreciate the off beat atmosphere of this story better than some. I don't know if Night Film will ever become a film adaptation but it won't be without any effort on Pessl's part to make this novel a haunting media mind game:

So, as a double feature,Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures and Night Film may not sound like an ideal pairing yet they do offer an interesting compare and contrast in style as well as substance. Books and movies are a great duet when they work well together,even if it still leads to endless debates after the matinee lets out:

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