Review: Night Film, by Marisha Pessl

10112885>>Published: August 2013

Cordova obviously took great care in assembling his players, every one from different backgrounds, some with no acting experience at all. He brought them here to live in his remote world, locking them inside it, allowing them no contact with the outside. Who would willingly agree to such a thing, signing away their life to one man?

Hopper had asked Marlowe this. Yet did he need to? Millions of people walked through their lives numb, dying to feel something, to feel alive. To be chosen by Cordova for a film was an opportunity for just that, not simply for fame and fortune, but to leave their old selves behind like discarded clothes.

What exactly did Cordova make them endure? Everything his characters did? Then his night films were documentaries, live horrors, not fiction.

He was even more depraved than I’d realized. A madman. The devil himself. Maybe he hadn’t always been, but it was what he’d become living here. But if his films were real, how easy it would be for the man to slip into harming real children, in order to save Ashley.

***

Ashley Cordova, twenty-four-year-old musical prodigy and troubled daughter of the enigmatic and mysterious Stanislas Cordova, the Academy-Award-winning director of fifteen films—some of which are considered among the most terrifying ever made—has jumped to her death. While the death is quickly ruled a suicide, Scott McGrath, a disgraced investigative journalist with a bit of a hard-on for Cordova, is unwilling to ignore the growing trail of bodies that have followed the director’s career. McGrath’s got his reasons: several years earlier he voiced an unsubstantiated claim that Cordova was a Manson-style predator, said he had evidence Cordova had in some way hurt or endangered children. The accusation not only cost McGrath his career, but also his reputation, his marriage, and a quarter of a million dollars.

So yeah, he wants to know the truth behind Cordova and what it was that drove the director’s daughter to break out of the Briarwood Hall mental institution, with the help of a gullible and possibly horny security guard, a week and change before she committed suicide. Because the best revenge is a story that carves right to the bone, and McGrath wants to be the one to serve it to the world. Toss in a couple of plucky research assistants each with their own tales of woe and mysterious pasts (and guarded interests in uncovering Ashley’s unfortunate fate), and an extended family of actors, actresses, devoted assistants, occultists, and a rabid underground fanbase of “Cordovites”—men and women who hold underground screenings of Cordova films, latching on with dear life to every shred of information or sighting reported—and you’ve got yourself a modern day noir. Or a close approximation thereof.

Marisha Pessl’s second novel, Night Film, is at once an unexpected treat and a curious disappointment. I’ll say right off the bat that I did enjoy this book, though it does have its share of problems, both technical and thematic. However, I really don’t think I can carve to the root of my issues with this book without spoiling the ever-loving hell out of it. So there it is, there’s your warning: if you’d like to remain in the dark, know that the book is fairly enjoyable, but it is at its heart a page-turner steeped in the horror film aesthetic—light on deeper literary themes and ideas. Lots of fun to bring to the party, but it likely won’t stick around to help you clean up. If you’ve got a passing interest in film history, especially horror and thrillers, or if you’re looking for a decent end-of-summer mystery, you’ll likely find enough meat on this bone to justify the meal.

Still with me after all those metaphors? Brilliant. Let’s sink our teeth into this.

First, the novel’s strengths: This book is Cordova’s, through and through. Though McGrath is our protagonist, it is the myth and legend of Cordova that gives Night Film its character. From the atypical use of external media sources—newspaper and magazine clippings, web pages and articles reproduced to varying degrees of quality within the text—to the very layered, very detailed manner in which reality slowly warps to Cordova’s aesthetic (complete with talisman’s discretely and effectively pulled from the man’s filmography), Pessl has gone to great lengths to craft a believable life and career arc of a filmmaker seemingly born out of a Petri dish containing the DNA of Hitchcock and Kubrick, with just the smallest possible smattering of Polanski—you know, the whole “potential child endangerment” thing.

Right from the novel’s outset, Cordova is pitched as McGrath’s Great White Whale—a being glimpsed only in passing, by those fortunate enough to be granted an audience; a man talked about in hushed tones by those who knew him best. The mystery surrounding Cordova—his life and his work—is a large onion pulled apart layer by increasingly thin layer, each successive discovery revealing yet another degree of the darkness that populated the director’s existence. Along with his films, some of which had inspired real-life killings—which in turn led to copies of the films being hunted down and destroyed, public screenings banned, and Cordova labelled equally as a genius and a pariah—Cordova’s 300-acre upstate New York estate, The Peak, figures prominently into the filmmaker’s legend as both home for himself and his cast and crew, and a working soundstage.

All this to say Cordova outclasses the remaining members of Night Film’s expansive and colourful cast—he is the fulcrum around which everything revolves. To put it another way, Cordova is the novel’s setting—a statement with a certain degree of truth to it, given the novel’s longest and most climactic chapter—and the setting, in this case, is the only thing I felt truly invested in.

Now for the not so great: Let’s take a few moments and talk characters, tone, and style. First up: McGrath. We quickly learn the details of his situation—from his brash actions and subsequent legal troubles, to his failed marriage to Cynthia and limited visitation rights with their five-year-old daughter Samantha. McGrath’s your typical to-the-truth-of-the-matter journalist-cum-wannabe detective who rushes off into the fray and, frankly, gets in over his head in no time at all. He’s a bit of a live grenade who doesn’t play well with others… until the plot demands that he play well with others. More on that later.

Next up to the plate, Hopper Cole and Nora Halliday—McGrath’s mismatched pair of not-so-intrepid assistants. Both Nora and Hopper were in some way connected to Ashley Cordova: Hopper was very much in love with Ashley and the two shared a prison-like camp sentence, while Nora is a wannabe actress moonlighting as a coat check girl who also happened to be the last person to see Ashley alive. Both have their moments of levity and/or inspiration, but more often than not they seem to be around to keep McGrath in check—and to conveniently have had enough of the investigation when it becomes suitable for McGrath to go the rest of the distance alone. In the case of Hopper, his disinterest with continuing the investigation is more or less believable—he learns what he needs from Ashley’s room upon their break-in at The Peak and finds his closure. Nora’s removal from the case, however, makes much less sense. In essence, after a couple hundred pages of them barely getting along, she decides to reveal to McGrath, in the wake of their time at The Peak, her true feelings for him, a man more than twenty years her senior who seems to only tolerate her existence in his life. When he shoots her down (in one of his few genuinely noble acts in the book), she gathers up the loose threads of her life and moves on. Both associates are removed when, frankly, it seemed like there was nothing more to do with them, narratively speaking.

Detective Sharon Falcone is McGrath’s inside source with the police, a razor’s edge of a person with little patience for anyone but herself. It’s an attitude that sees no real change throughout the novel. To the other side of things—the Cordova side—is Wolfgang Beckman, a film scholar and intense Cordovite, who also happens to help deliver the novel’s most interesting turn of events. Like Falcone, he’s a source for information whose moods appear to shift on a dime with little rhyme or reason, save for his labelling as an eccentric.

Character problems are equally prevalent in the Cordova camp. His son, Ashley’s older brother Theo, is in the story briefly, but exists more as a three-fingered example of his father’s dedication to his craft over his family’s wellbeing. Additionally, Cordova’s second wife Marlowe, her estranged sister Olivia, and his dedicated lifetime assistant Inez Gallo all exist as oft-whispered about associates, who when finally approached seem to have no trouble expounding at great length about Cordova and the goings-on at The Peak. As a matter of fact, it’s almost hard to believe the depth of information about Cordova so wilfully given by the three women when barely pressed at all. In these moments it feels as if Pessl had detailed Cordova’s life to such great depth that she couldn’t decide what needed to be said and what to leave on the cutting room floor—hence the rather large information dumps with each readily successful interrogation. In particular, the detail and clarity of the information provided by Marlowe is especially surprising, given her consistently drugged-out state of mind. For a junkie-recluse living out her last days in isolation, she certainly had a lot to offer.

Possibly the most aggravating character issue, however, is regarding McGrath’s relationship with his ex-wife Cynthia. Following an altercation with Hugo Villarde, a former friend and associate of Cordova’s, McGrath’s daughter Samantha is hurt—not seriously, but enough to cause Cynthia to seek sole custody. Now, it’s been made clear that, for a variety of reasons not limited to just McGrath’s earlier legal troubles, their marriage simply didn’t work. What’s not made clear, however, is if McGrath was or is in any way a danger to his daughter. Following this one incident, Cynthia seems as if she switches characters completely, eschewing the moderately exasperated ex-wife persona she’d embodied up until this point in the narrative and instead embracing an angry, needlessly antagonistic mindset that seeks to unjustly punish a man who again, until this point, seems like not a terrible father, even if he is prone to falling face-first into his work-based obsessions. I could see Cynthia being angry and upset with McGrath for taking Samantha with him while he went to look into details surrounding the case he’s investigating, but he’s a journalist, not a cop willingly and knowingly taking his infant child into violent scenarios. It was a stupid mistake, but not one deserving of the vitriol and punishment levied on him by Cynthia. Her reaction was extreme to an unbelievable degree—a betrayal of the character that had been previously established for the purposes of inserting extra drama into an already tense situation.

Enough about the characters—let’s take a look at Night Film’s tone. Immediately the novel is set up like a modern-day noir. The question I have, however, is if the novel is in fact intended to be a noir, or if it is McGrath, narrating events from the first person, who wishes to see the mystery surrounding Ashley’s suicide in such a light? If it is the former, then only McGrath is apparently in on the look and feel of things, as none of the other characters subscribe to expected genre portrayals. McGrath though, he’s the hard-boiled wishes-he-were-a-hard ass whose ready to risk life and limb to get to the bottom of Ashley Cordova’s death—and more than that, to get to the truth of her father’s possibly satanic, possibly murderous proclivities. And if it the latter, then McGrath’s self-important delusion isn’t taken far enough. There was a real missed opportunity to blur his realities within the aesthetics of the films being described, to take a seemingly normal man and twist his sensibilities beneath the false idea that he’s the right man for this job and not just a man with a bruised ego who doesn’t know when he’s been served his just desserts.

As a character, McGrath’s tone also shifts, sometimes unexpectedly into areas he has little apparent interest in before or after, but are brought out in the moment for a laugh, or to try unsuccessfully to add depth where it doesn’t quite fit. The most obvious example of this for me was the Apple products rant on page 194:

It appeared in the Internet age, pianos, like physical books, were fast becoming culturally extinct. They’d probably stay that way unless Apple invented the iPiano, which fit inside your pocket and could be mastered via text message. With the iPiano, anyone can be an iMozart. Then, you could compose your own iRequiem for you own iFuneral attended by millions of your iFriends who iLoved you.

Instead of being sharp or quick-witted, this reads a little more like the old man standing on his front porch, shouting at the clouds or those damn kids who won’t get off his lawn. McGrath’s in his forties and seemingly computer literate—enough that he owns and knows how to operate a laptop. He’s not quite crotchety enough to make this sort of rant believable or effective, and as a result it sticks out like a sore thumb. In this sense, the rant felt more as if it were coming from the author than the character—a little too “clever for clever’s sake.”

One last point about tone before we move on to style: What begins as a promising exploration of one man’s notoriously dark and explicit films is quickly overshadowed by elements of the occult that, while they do play a part in the novel’s resolution, removed tension from Cordova’s established raison d’être. This is a personal preference, and likely not one shared by many readers as I happen to have a background in and love of film history and theory, but I felt as if the middle of the novel gave too great a focus on the occult aspects of the story, which ultimately proved to be, to varying degrees, misdirection. It’s not until the excursion to The Peak that the narrative felt like it had found its footing again, the surreality of Cordova’s manufactured world once more at the forefront while the occult aspects were thankfully relegated to the background for the novel’s final chapters. In this sense, the reveal of Ashley’s true conflict—biological and not supernatural—is both gratifying and a relief.

Linguistically, Night Film is frustrating. Pessl’s first novel Special Topics in Calamity Physics was a delight in every sense. The author exhibited a light, graceful touch for language, affording the novel a feel and personality all its own. Night Film, however, struggles to find its voice. I’ve already touched on the character and tonal aspects of this, but now I’d like to get technical.

Italics. In short, this novel abuses italics in such a manner as to remove all sense of believable emphasis and replace it instead with cartoon-like enthusiasm. It’s as tough to read with any kind of seriousness as if every fifth period had been replaced with an exclamation point. Nora is especially guilty of this, but there is no one within the narrative that doesn’t fall into this trap. This, coupled with the relative two-dimensionality of many of the novel’s characters, creates the problem of sound-alikes—meaning that there didn’t appear to be much in the way of distinct voices throughout the novel. Bare in mind, the writing is not in any way bad, but it is also not exceptional or especially creative; much of the novel feels written to plot, and not written to character.

Following up this note on style is the use of multimedia in the pages of the book—screenshots and images used to impart critical information on Ashley, her medical background, her family’s sometimes brutal history, and of course, Cordova’s checkered and mysterious career. While at first the images included are interesting to look at, they do more often than not hurt the novel, as we lose, in reading them, the sense that McGrath and his dynamic duo are reacting to what we are seeing, and more importantly how they are reacting to the details learned on these pages. On a similar note, the multimedia parts remove some of what is usually left to our imagination, such as Ashley’s physical appearance, which as described within the text feels almost wraith-like, yet upon seeing her… she’s just a young woman and we’re left without the same sense of the possibly impossible and surreal that books afford us when imagining characters without things like boundaries and reality getting in the way. To the point, the images limit the author’s own creative descriptive output. Mind you, I have shown this book to a few people and received more enthusiastic responses to the inclusion of imagery, so it’s possible I’m in the minority on this. That said I stand by my admittedly narrow preference. I think, if I break it down, it’s the images of Ashley, Inez, and Cordova that hurt the experience for me—the transcriptions and articles weren’t a distraction in the same degree as having the characters I’d envisioned appear suddenly as something else. One could argue that this would be no different were the novel to be turned into a film, but in this specific case, with the novel as the be all and end all version of this story, I felt as if I’d been pulled away from the experience.

In terms of the narrative, I have more praise than I do criticism for Night Film. While yes, I do feel that much of the information McGrath accumulates comes in unnaturally heavy doses from characters whom you’d expect to keep a tighter reign on their secrets, the story itself is consistently engaging and exciting, with frequent and effective chapter ending cliffhangers and a tight narrative arc expertly wound around a wealth of detail and minutia. I’d go so far as to say that the manner in which the narrative resolves itself across multiple climaxes—beginning with their trek to The Peak and the blurring of realities between the film world and the real world, continuing through the “pull back the curtain” moment with Beckman discussing the various talismans and idiosyncrasies of Cordova’s filmography, many of which had somehow found their way into McGrath’s life—is indicative of Pessl’s impressive ability to not only wield a rather large checklist of ideas, but to pay them off one by one in an organic and believable manner. This house of cards-like construction pays off as tensions rise dramatically and Cordova’s presence (or lack thereof) in McGrath’s life takes on a truly threatening tone when it matters most. Whatever the novel’s weaknesses throughout its first two acts, it is in the third act that the Cordova gamble—crafting an entire life and career for a character never directly seen or heard from—lifts Night Film out of the pile and turns it into something more than “just another mystery.” In particular, the rush near the end where it seems as if the threads of the investigation are all disappearing beneath McGrath’s feet as contacts disappear one after another is exhilarating and perfectly paced.

In taking the time to really think about what worked in this novel and what didn’t, I’m left feeling that, in attempting to cover a wide breadth of subject matter and ideas, the final product is disappointingly shallow. I found myself wishing on more than one occasion that Pessl had taken the opposite route: restricting the narrative’s focus to the world of Cordova seen almost exclusively through his films and constructing the narrative more by deep diving into film theory and history. I hesitate to condemn the novel for using Cordova’s films more as setting than subtext, but I can’t help but wonder how much richer it might have been were it to have dug a little deeper into why Cordova had the fascinations and predilections he did, and what in turn he was saying about both society and the characters in this novel as a result. Some of that is there, but more as surface texture than anything else.

Night Film’s narrative is resolved with a satisfying and thankfully restrained gesture, leaving more to our imagination in the novel’s final moments than at any time previously. However, while McGrath’s quest reaches its conclusion in an emotionally pleasing manner, the same cannot be said for his final interactions with Cynthia, Hopper, or Nora. It’s difficult to accept that such a bull-headed individual would not want to fight his ex-wife tooth and nail for continued joint custody of Samantha, especially given what was stated previously in this review. As before, it rings false. The same could be said for the unexpectedly sentimental farewells shared between him and his former research associates, whose lives he previously appeared not terribly invested in. McGrath’s well-established coarseness is so quickly thrown out in the novel’s final pages that it feels less like he is saying farewell to Hopper and Nora, and more as if Pessl is the one saying her goodbyes.

Despite my many reservations, it’s worth repeating: I enjoyed Night Film. It’s not quite what I expected it to be, and the novel’s missed opportunities and tonal problems almost overwhelm the whole. However, in the end, the mystery behind Ashley Cordova’s death and the investigation into her father’s shadowy past are enough to make this a title to recommend for those dwindling summer days.

*It’s also worth mentioning that there’s a note at the end of the book regarding some of the included multimedia pages and an associated iPhone app that when used on a symbol imbedded in those pages will help decode additional information and details regarding Cordova’s life and work. I did not use this app, as I have little interest in anything not included in the book. My crotchety old-man-self feels that anything worth mentioning in the book damn well better be included in the final product. While I understand and respect the need to market to a wide user-base that has embraced the idea of an expanded universe via additional online downloadable content, I want my experience reading the book to be singular and complete.

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