Books

All the Colors of the Dark: 'Night Film'

Marisha Pessl’s overlong second novel boasts one hell of an intriguing high concept, but struggles to balance its weighty ambitions and essentially pulp story.


Night Film

Publisher: Random House
Length: 624 pages
Author: Marisha Pessl
Price: $28.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2013-08
Amazon

Dead girl. Red coat. Cynical reporter. The basic ingredients for a cracking thriller are here in Marisha Pessl’s Night Film, a novel that opens with its hero chasing a ghost and segues into a series of mocked-up web articles telling of a famous girl’s death. The girl is Ashley Cordova, who came to mean many different things to the myriad characters that populated Pessl’s world. She’s the daughter of Stanislas Cordova, the enigmatic filmmaker whose troubled family legacy drives the novel’s central mystery: Why did Ashley throw herself to her death?

Cordova is a crazy-quilt of eccentric filmmakers, descriptions of his work evoking David Lynch, Alfred Hitchcock, Philippe Grandrieux, Roman Polanski, Stanley Kubrickand even Robert Aldrich: in an example of Pessl’s meticulous background work which integrates Cordova into a fictional popular culture, he gets credit for the ominous suitcase referenced in Pulp Fiction, which actually originated with Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly. The mystery surrounding his private life suggest a cult leader, a Lovecraftian boogeyman who’s never been seen, who may not even exist.

In this sense Cordova exists as a fantastical figure, since the real-life creators of such work usually turn out to be normal, troubled romances aside. Synopses of his filmography are offered throughout, tidbits to look forward to, which is an achievement in itself. Though Night Film is, of course, only a book, it’s a difficult task to create a fictional genius and give a credible impression of non-existent work that merits his reputation. Pessl does so.

If only Pessl’s enthusiasm for fleshing out Cordova’s art were equalled elsewhere in her writing. Despite the tech-savvy presentation with multiple webpages and articles mocked up to give Cordova’s world credence, the prose isn’t up to snuff: every journalist and interview subject speaks in Pessl’s awkward portentousness and bad poetry. Last-act revelations about the truth behind Cordova’s mystique can’t save these passages. If another voice couldn’t be successfully created to deliver the information contained within, the interludes should have been dropped altogether. Included, they only invite comparisons like “a poor man’s House of Leaves” - which is far from the relatively classical, gothic procedural which the plot comprises.

As a thriller, the novel struggles with pacing. The first half of the book could be condensed considerably, and the novel could lose about a third of its pages overall without losing any of the necessary exposition. The interviews conducted by first-person narrator and disgraced journalist Scott McGrath -- who Pessl helpfully informs us has some Scottish in him -- are utterly repetitive, as numerous characters who saw or knew Ashley before she died relate anecdotes about her inimitable spirit and ghostliness, all delivered as if with a flashlight under the chin. For all that these stories figure into the penultimate twist, the information could be condensed into only a couple of scenes and the mammoth first act would clip along much more quickly.

McGrath is a fairly uninteresting narrator -- character details include an ex-wife (whom he never tires of joking about -- readers may feel otherwise), an adoring young daughter, a tarnished reputation, and those damn middle-age good looks which will inevitably send his pretty young sidekick into at least one futile romantic attempt. The sidekick in question is Nora, a street urchin and aspiring actress who latches onto McGrath’s quest to expose the Cordova family’s dark secrets with irritating enthusiasm. By the time she settles in as his professional assistant, they’ve taken to affectionately nicknaming each other Woodward in Bernstein, a charming touch that makes McGrath somewhat more likeable through her friendship and loyalty.

Hardly an original creation, Nora nevertheless feels real and familiar in a way no one else in the novel’s cast of characters quite does, slipping free of literary cliché. Pessl’s clanging similes sound appropriate in her mouth, a girl who’s lived far too much for her age and hasn’t quite learned how to talk about her experiences. Secondary sidekick Hopper, an aloof drug dealer with a mysterious connection to Ashley, has a similarly rewarding arc, though he’s kept at arm’s distance until he inevitably tells all.

Though it drags for the first half, making Pessl’s penchant for pop culture references or bizarre metaphors in lieu of description all the more maddening, Night Film reveals some refreshing depths in the later pages. Revelations about Ashley’s life and her relationship with her father cast her reputation as a beautiful spectre into tragic relief: a girl whose suffering inspired not help when she needed it but awe and objectification. The novel has far too many twists -- the most predictable one of all spills out in one scene of dialogue with McGrath’s film professor confidante and then becomes altogether forgotten by the next major scene of revelation -- for the discoveries to be truly effective, and once again some condensing is badly needed. Never mind that the plot leaves so many loose ends that a satisfying resolution might be impossible.

What Pessl leaves the reader with is another ambiguity, a moment on the verge of absolute truth, in which Ashley’s mystery might be totally solved, and McGrath might be about to capture smoke in a jar. For once, Pessl knows when to end a scene; as with all good mysteries, the killer might be found out, but the girl herself remains unsolved.

5

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

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9

If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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