It’s taken me four weeks, but I’ve reached the halfway point of Don DeLillo’s massive Underworld, and I feel I’ve been dragged across significant parts of the post-WW2 American psyche.
I’ve just read the chapter where Klara Sax and friends go to see the first ever screening of Eisentein’s newly discovered secret silent masterpiece, Unterwelt. (He shoots it secretly as he supposedly works on propaganda films for the Soviets. The idea of a secret film is compelling and I wonder if it inspired DeLillo’s friend, Paul Auster, to write Book Of Illusions, which centres on a fictional filmmaker’s secret films.)
I think he describes the experience of watching a film very well. Here’s some of it:
… images poured from the projection booth, patchy and dappled with age.
Of course the film was strange at first, elusive in its references and filled with baroque apparations and hard to adapt to – you wouldn’t want it any other way.
Overcomposed close-ups, momentous gesturing, actors trailing their immense bended shadows, and there was something to study in every frame, the camera placement, the shapes and planes and then the juxtaposed shots, the sense of rhythmic contradiction, it was all spaces and volumes, it was tempo, mass and stress.
In Eisenstein you note that the camera angle is a kind of dialectic. Arguments are raised and made, theories drift across the screen and instantly shatter – there’s a lot of opposition and conflict. (429)
DeLillo has immersed himself in the visual experience of film, and got to some of the beauty and experience and precisenss of it. This is something that I as a writer have not yet achieved. My flaw is to get bogged in plot.
Film is central to my new novel, The House of Zealots. At first I had a lengthy scene describing Fight Club as the housemates sit drunkenly watching it. The themes of Fight Club resonate with the housemates’ ambitions, particularly Leo. But at the suggestion of my editor, I broke it up, with scenes playing at different times in different chapters. I’m not sure if it works yet or not.
Later, Leo and Phoebe begin going to the cinema together, and it is where their awkward romance blossoms.
They get off in the city centre and walk over to the shabby Piccadilly Cinema. Memento starts and layer upon layer of memory unpeels on the screen as the amnesiac man keeps coming to. He can’t remember anything; can he trust the people around him?
The man reminds Phoebe of Leo. His loneliness, his intensity, his inability to relax. He has to get to the bottom of it all. Tears come into Phoebe’s eyes. She feels an urge to protect Leo. He’s next to her, breathing and thinking in his own head. They are seeing the same things and yet thinking and feeling different things. It’s so strange, she thinks, to watch a movie with someone.
Afterwards, they sit in the Art Deco foyer drinking complimentary tea. Staring into her cup, snatches of the film come back to her. They say nothing, letting the film sink in, allowing each other to return to the real world. She is glad he understands that, glad he cares enough that he goes into that film world too and needs time to come out of it. When she saw a film with Zac and Samantha, before the credits were even up Zac was saying to Samantha in his dominating voice, ‘What did you think of that?’
In the first draft of the sequel to The Fur, Michael finally gets to see a movie. (They don’t have much technology in his Western Australia.) It’s been cut from the subsequent draft, so here it is in its satirical and fictional failure, an attempt to create my own fictional film:
The novelty of moving pictures. The sound. The two connecting, if you allowed them to, if you didn’t think about it too much. Little people on a screen. It was something your grandparents were meant to describe in these awed terms, I understand, not someone born in the 1980s!
A black screen. A label comes up: SECRET AMERICAN MILITARY BASE IN THE PACIFIC OCEAN: TEST FLIGHT OF EXPERIMENTAL NEW MODEL. It is followed by initial credits fading in and out at the bottom of the screen. The music is a soft rock ballad. A young woman, Jules, with real attitude played by an actor – the cover told us – named Angelina Jolie is washing her face. She pops pain killers. She swears. She’s feeling off colour. The camera follows her as she races out the door. She’s in air force barracks. People run up behind her, remonstrating with her. She brushes them off. She goes through restricted areas to a room with technicians who strap gadgets on her back, a helmet on her head, communications equipment, her large breasts still showing through it all.
The credits stop. There is the huge rumble of her plane taking off. The screen goes black and then lights up in slimy green letters THE FUR, a pause, and then a second blast, WARRIORS appears.
The music goes heavier as she speeds over oceans, camera goes from her face to a shot of the plane from the side to front on, to the pilot’s view. The ocean gives way to land. An Australian wheat farmer looks up and points at the aircraft. It passes over Uluru.
She’s sweating. She’s sick again. She tries to regain her composure.
Cut to an evil looking woman, Anna, in a colonel’s uniform rubbing her hands in glee. She has a photo of Jules in a handsome man’s arms. She tears the photo.
Switch to aircraft. Something is very loose. Jules radios for help. The plane is out of control.
Try not to crash in Western Australia! the base told her. Try not to crash in Western Australia.
She crashes in Western Australia. She passes out. Time lapse photography, night going over the desert crash scene, huge fur plumes looking more like slimy cactuses. She comes to. Two furry men are shaking her awake. She screams and pushes them away. They knock her out with a club. Drag her back to the camp.
And then she sits enthroned amongst the savages. Some of them think she is a god. The huts are made out of road-signs, dewheeled cars and trucks, corrugated iron, all tied together with great ropes of fur.
Next we have a montage as the goddess from the sky shows the savages all sorts of wonders – she works on the car they have, trying to get it to work; she uses a can opener to open cans of food; the shooting of the guns they have stacked up in a hut; the fact that the trucks passing on the highway are not demons or anything of the kind but trucks; she has another go on the car and this time gets it to lurch forward a bit; she shows them how to plant vegetables so that they don’t just live on mushrooms and roo meat; and at last triumphantly as the music fades out she gets the car to work.
Cut back to the secret United States air base in the Pacific Ocean. The man we saw in the photo with Jules is Hank and he’s very upset. Anna tries to comfort him but without any success. Her evil plan is backfiring.
‘I’m going in!’ he shouts, ‘I’m going in to find her if it’s the last thing I do!’
He steals a plane from the runway and flies it over the Pacific Ocean across Australia – the same wheat farmer looking up astonished – to roughly where Jules was last heard from.
Cut to shots of the Wealth Compound, a veritable palace of wonders, and behind its panelled doors, torture dungeons to make every civil libertarian shudder. Scavengers strung up and beaten; howling in filthy conditions at the smartly dressed evil looking guards.
Pan back out to the Compound Palace. Once again UN Human Rights Inspectors are denied access to the prisons by an overweight, heavily accented Australian named Barry.
I stopped following it so closely about here, my attention wandered and you’ve probably already seen it anyway. But basically, he eventually finds Jules and her tribe and together they launch an attack on the Compound and free the prisoners. The closing scene has Jules and Hank hugging as they fly the plane back toward the USA, Hank joking that he’d kill for a cheeseburger and some civilisation.
I decided I didn’t like America much at that moment.
We sort of missed out on the popular cultural imperialism of America, living here in Western Australia – or we have in the past. But things are changing. Soon we will be as American as the rest of Australia and the world.
And the thing is, I caught more of a glimpse in that movie that the enemy wasn’t just the Wealth and Warriors, that there were bigger players involved. Now, three years later, I can finally recognise that to most of the world the Commonwealth of Australia was only a minor novelty of injustice; that the bully to be feared was the US of A, even though growing up they had been nominally on the side of us Western Australians. It makes me look back on myself as provincial, so naive.