John Haskell’s fiction is like little else. Or is it non-fiction? Or is it just magic and not something to be too greatly dissected? In one collection and three novels, he explores the mind’s torsions in an uncommon, questioning manner within a first-person sense of orality, like being around a campfire with Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. At times, the wending way of Haskell’s narrators—who include a Steve Martin impersonator, a ghost, and those disembodied voices who talk about films and artists in I Am Not Jackson Pollack—are incredible chess-like gambits and logic-chopping suppositions both pre- and post- to frustrate (in a good way), embolden, and prod the reader. In his new book, The Complete Ballet, Haskell again presents a first-person speaker who is trapped by a real-life threat, based on a John Cassavetes film, but muses on the great figures of ballet in an effort to right his present trouble and past grief. We talked about the book, his process, and the Internet, through the Internet, this summer.
The Millions: As in American Purgatorio, death lurks in this new novel, the death of a child. Since you have a young daughter, I imagine there was more than a little mining of your day-to-day life. Something along the lines of Julia Kristeva’s “The speaking subject gives herself away.” I felt an inkling of that in this book, like the earlier one. Your narrators approach death and grieving obliquely, almost erasing themselves in the process of grieving. The subtitle of this book is A Fictional Essay in Five Acts. Which leads me to ask a naive question, Who is who? Or better, How close are you to your main characters? Do you feel you give yourself away when writing? And if you do, which self do you give away?
John Haskell: The whole idea of identity is slippery. It’s not a slope because there is no actual place where a person might slip, or if there is, it’s the place of having no identity, which to me seems similar to inhabiting multitudinous identities, and so, getting around to your question, yes, everything is real because once I’ve pictured it and once I’ve lived inside whatever event might be happening, it feels as real as so-called reality, so that who is who, meaning who am I, becomes a different question. Who I am is everyone. I’m both Haskell the ballet critic and Nureyev the dancer. I’m Cosmo, the character in the Cassavetes movie who kills the Chinese bookie, but I’m also me, the writer and character, and having said all that, the character of me in the story isn’t me.
TM: I noticed in this book a breaking up of narration within the sentence, a unique and fast way of pushing across action and scene, as in this sentence, “Whatever chemical causes elation, I was feeling a surge of it, looking around at the men at the table, all of them older than I was, most of them smoking cigars, drinking amber-colored drinks which turned out to be whiskey, and I’ll have one too.” That last clause, a brush of dialogue, of which there is barely any in the book, adds a sort of grace note to the details before it. How did you go about writing this way? Was it a conscious choice?
JH: Ah, the idea of conscious choice, or unconscious choice. Again, not to seem opaque, I’d have to say that conscious and unconscious, although they’re obviously not the same, seem the same when I’m writing. And maybe that happens because of rewriting. Going over and over, smoothing and simplifying and clarifying, and if I’m not listening to Bach then I’m listening to the continuity of thought that gets sucked into the language, creating a language that, I hope, makes sense of what I’m thinking.
TM: Do you mean you listen to Bach when you write?
JH: I don’t remember what I was listening to when I wrote The Complete Ballet but lately I’ve been listening to Bach. At the moment I have a flute concerto playing. When I say Bach I’m talking about what is almost a metaphorical music, with phrases that expand and collapse, which join and separate, not beginning because there was no ending to begin with, just flowing, an overused word but like a river flows the words of a sentence or thought can get carried along, sucked into the larger river that comprises the language itself.
TM: This book is made up of some plot points of John Cassavetes’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie from 1976. I know you have a love of film (and certainly Cassavetes) and have plumbed other great works from Psycho to Pickpocket to the film noir Detour. What made you take this film as template? Is there a special affinity for Cassavetes’s take on an old film noir standby, the gambler who loses and has to make up the mark for the mob? The film itself isn’t even a neo-noir really, with its examining the life of the striptease club Cosmo runs. Its cult reputation has grown, with many saying it was Ben Gazzara’s best performance.
JH: I’d been thinking of working with that movie, partly because of the mood of the movie and partly because of the narrative. And partly because of the way the movie disrupts that narrative. But I had trouble making it work for me. I kept writing and rewriting it, altering my version and getting farther away from the Cassavetes version, my character becoming less and less like Ben Gazarra and more like Cassavetes himself, and when I still couldn’t get it to work for me I thought it was because of the color, the sharp, saturated, contrasty reds and blues, that the color was messing with my plan. So I set it aside. But it didn’t go away, and eventually, after many transformations, I found myself inside the story in a way that started to make sense. And the milieu of ’70s Los Angeles started to make sense. Of course it made no sense to juxtapose that story with essays on Romantic ballet, but as I kept revising all the various incompatible elements the more it did make sense, or seemed to, and that’s why I called it Complete, which is slightly tongue-in-cheek because it would never be complete.
TM: I cling to what you say about the contrasty reds and blues in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Maybe because there is no color Cassavetes film that seems so memorable in terms of color, which may have to do with the nightclub scenes, but also those eerie daylight scenes. Did the ballet crossover come out of the nightclub act? What is your history with ballet?
JH: Not much history with ballet, but it started, I think, with some research I did, many years ago, on Joseph Cornell, an artist and balletomane who worshipped ballerinas with a perverse kind of nostalgia. Then, a few years ago, an ex-ballet dancer started telling me some of the stories of the ballets. That got me thinking, as did conversations I had with a choreographer friend about George Balanchine’s relationship with his dancers. Then, when I was rewriting the book, my daughter, who was about three years old, became a ballet fanatic. Together we watched the videos on YouTube and I began to see the stories of the ballets, including the stories of the people who made them and danced in them, as mythic. And I’m interested in how a story, especially a personal story, becomes mythic.
TM: Tooling around the Internet the other day, I found a Goodreads review of your novel, Out of My Skin. “I am not sure about this book. The language isn’t offensive-the writing isn’t bad-but it just made me feel really awkward. The weirdest part for me was when the main character goes into the impersonator’s house to meet his parents and gives them a tour of the neighborhood. It just seemed like too many boundaries were crossed.” The “it just made me feel really awkward” piqued. Are you adverse to writing in a way that would not make people feel awkward? Often we hear about people who avoid a book or movie because they think it will “depress” them. Do you think art can make one feel a certain way?
JH: Well, it often makes me feel a certain way. But I don’t have a design for what a person should feel. Only that something happens, a thought or emotion or…and speaking of Cassavetes, I remember the first time I saw Faces, or possibly it was Shadows, another early movie, and afterwards I walked out of Lincoln Center into Central Park, feeling a sense of excitement in my body, and it wasn’t directly about the movie but more about the art that had been revealed in the movie. I could call it beauty or honesty, and as my daughter said when she took her first swimming lesson, I feel excited and nervous, and I certainly don’t mean to make anyone feel awkward, but maybe being awkward is a kind of excitement and nervousness and maybe it was what the person needed. Or maybe that person preferred a different kind of book.
“Isolation, solitude, secret planning,” Don DeLillo once prescribed. “A novel is a secret that a writer may keep for years before he lets it out of his room.” DeLillo’s description of his plot for Great Jones Street strikes a similar note: “a man in a small room, a man who has shut himself away, and this is something that happens in my work — the man hiding from acts of violence or planning acts of violence, or the individual reduced to silence by the forces around him.” Mao II, Libra, even DeLillo’s misunderstood football novel, End Zone, include characters who have receded from the world to be reborn.
Some might call that paranoia. When the public world fails to reveal its meanings to us, we retreat into our private rooms, our private minds, where there are infinite schemas and explanations. We are the only skeptics of our own souls. A secret is only as good as its ability to be exclusive, and yet a conspiracy theory is only as good as its ability to be inclusive. Whereas his contemporary Thomas Pynchon might share these sentiments, Pynchon has chosen to be a jester, while DeLillo has a deadly serious endgame.
Years ago, a Jesuit told me that he had the same journalism professor as DeLillo when he studied at Fordham. The professor showed the Jesuit one of DeLillo’s term papers. I never asked about the paper’s content or style; it felt like I had been given a slice of a secret, and that was enough. It turned out to have been an open secret: the professor, Edward A. Walsh, had kept the paper to show budding writers. Yet the tension of a secret that somehow can also be easily found captures the DeLillo mystique. He writes but he does not teach. He gives interviews, but they are clipped and often vague. He lives in the city but seems to somehow live outside of it. He is not hiding, but he is certainly not trying to be found.
Zero K, DeLillo’s newest novel, is like one of those open secrets. To say that it is not groundbreaking would be to misread the purpose and progression of his canon. The major constellations of DeLillo’s work are White Noise and Underworld; the former for its ability to capture his culture’s paranoid moment, and the latter for a son of the Bronx to finally, and fully, examine the place of his birth and youth. Zero K is an extension of DeLillo’s developing themes, but it places a darker color upon them.
Billionaire Ross Lockhart, his second wife, Artis, and his son Jeff are the three central characters of the novel. Ross says “everybody wants to own the end of the world.” It soon becomes clear that he means the end of our own world, but for a man like Ross, the end of the self is the end of the universe. Artis, much younger than Ross, is terminally ill. Ross has been financing a mysterious project that includes “cryonic suspension,” something he admits is not a new idea, but one “that is now approaching full realization.” The project is called The Convergence.
Reading DeLillo without understanding the themes and concerns of a Jesuit education is like walking onto a basketball court thinking you can run the ball without dribbling. DeLillo joked that he slept through Cardinal Hayes High School, and that the Fordham Jesuits taught him how to be a “failed ascetic.” This is exactly the type of thing an Italian-American from the Bronx would say (I would know). One of DeLillo’s running influences has been Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, whose concept of the Omega Point posits that the universe is evolving toward an ultimate convergence of systems, a perfect consciousness. DeLillo examined the concept in End Zone through the obsessions of narrator Gary Harkness. As Stephen J. Burn notes, DeLillo returned to Teilhard’s writings for Ratner’s Star, and even considered titling four other novels Point Omega (the inversion means the same) — Mao II, Underworld, The Body Artist and Cosmopolis — before using the title for his short 2010 novel.
This is not to say that Zero K is a Jesuit or Catholic book. Zero K might be DeLillo’s most agnostic novel, a work that takes Teilhard’s superstructure and strips it of God and Christ and other signifiers. If anyone portends to be God in Zero K, it is Ross, or the mysterious Stenmark Twins, whose philosophies about war, death, and the afterlife put flesh on the skeleton of the Convergence.
If Ross needs men like the Stenmark Twins to offer a narrative to his cryonic project, he needs his son to bear witness. Jeff soon realizes that Ross wants him to be there with him when Artis dies. It is a strange tinge of vulnerability for a man who left Jeff and his mother when Jeff was 13: “I was doing my trigonometry homework when he told me.” Jeff has never quite forgiven him, but is able to keep both his mother, Madeline, and Artis in high esteem.
The facility is full of screens that lower from the ceiling and play silent images of destruction and suffering. This is another of DeLillo’s trends: the screen as projection for the man in his small room. Players opens with a screen: the showing of an on-flight film, which includes golfers attacked by terrorists. A 24-hour gallery repeat of Psycho opens Point Omega. Then there is the metaphorical screen of End Zone, the canvas blinds that are wrapped around the Logos College practice field so that Coach Creed can hide his players.
The desert facility is otherwise described in spare terms, which does make for a rather slow first half to the novel. Patient readers are rewarded when DeLillo develops the dynamic between father and son, which is surprisingly refined by Jeff’s relationship with Artis. She seems unafraid of her unknown future, and that unsettles Jeff. An archeologist, she thinks of finding her own self at her reawakening. Artis, in a true way, needs the Convergence to give her a second chance. Others opt for Zero K, a “special unit” of the facility” that is “predicated on the subject’s willingness to make a certain kind of transition to the next level.”
The same method that slowed the first half of the book gives a surreal quality to its second half. As Jeff describes it, the Convergence facility exists outside of time, “time compressed, time drawn tight, overlapping time, dayless, nightless, many doors, no windows.” I have always thought DeLillo is at his most masterful when he starts changing our atmosphere, when he puts us in the “dense environmental texture” of the supermarket in White Noise. It usually happens halfway through is novels, and Zero K is no exception. At the midway point we realize that Ross has a deeper plan for the Convergence and his son, and its drama pushes the book toward its conclusion. Sadness might seem too sincere an emotion to ascribe to a novel written by a postmodernist, but Zero K pushes its readers to feel. It is almost impossible to not. With its confluence of screens, strange artwork, empty rooms, long hallways, and shaved hands of those soon to be frozen, Zero K creates an experiment, and we, its subjects, feel pulled to interact.
A man in a small room, obsessed with the present and yet somehow existing outside the scope of time: this is DeLillo’s concern. “Isolation is not a drawback to those who understand that isolation is the point,” one character says in Zero K. DeLillo’s new novel, particularly its end, is a slight pivot for the novelist. Yet when a writer is able to capture so many of our anxieties on his pages, a pivot can be profound.
A young boy enters a large and exotic palace, pulsating with people, their faces alive with excitement, their eyes fixed on a bronze statue of a man and a writhing, devious woman. They are all elated and as one. The young boy is now a grown man, and he writes, not without regret and memories of lost glandular joy, “That is a hard ecstasy to abandon.”
The grown man is David Thomson, a respected and prolific film critic and historian, and this description, of his first viewing of Cecil B. deMille’s Samson and Delilah (with Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr) is a defense of the experience of seeing a movie — along with more than half the population of the world — once a week, in the dark, young and open, suspended from time and care, in full submission of whatever appeared once the heavy curtain rose and a shaft of light from behind threw the great images on a huge screen. Thomson’s latest book has been given a perfunctory, even pedantic, title: How to Watch a Movie, but don’t be fooled: Thomson, like that witchy, raven-haired Hedy Lamarr, is teasing us, peeling off insights as if they were gossamer underthings, and revealing not only what films have meant to him, but what the watching of them, and the ultimate harvesting of them in our memories, means to all of us.
It is true that Thomson misses the glory days of movie-going, the rushing off to places with names like Palace, Plaza, Regal, Odeon, Astoria, Lux, Electric, designed in Spanish or Moorish or Egyptian style, comically inaccurate but baroque, but he is not ready to give up the pleasures of films (which he quixotically terms movies), which are often seen now in the glow of an iPhone or in a lap on a plane on a tablet or while seated in front of a personal computer. We now see films in cinder boxes redolent of pine cleaner, and no theatre owner delays the raising of the lights after an emotional film, as they once did, to give us our privacy as we collect ourselves: We are now hustled out of the theatre without a chance to watch the closing credits, because people need their next aesthetic desire slaked. We are able and eager to turn to YouTube to call up specific scenes from films to get a quick, free hit of what seduced us years ago, or — and this Thomson might find tragic — to see for the first time someone like Marlon Brando or a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. We have all become divorced from our experiences by various distractions. In our homes we watch movies — or anything else — while cooking or talking or crocheting or masturbating or flipping through a magazine. The viewing of movies is simply one of the options available to us at any given time. We need always to be hooked up. This has been going on since the 1950s, when television came into our homes and the size of the movie audience plummeted. Special effects and sounds and gimmicks were invented to lure us back, and by the 1960s, film — or cinema, as many came to call it — became an elite, extracurricular activity. Some people believed that the free stuff coming into our homes was just as good as the movies we had once depended on like a fix, to which we had once been so devoted, but others disagreed. Movie audiences may have grown smaller, but they grew fervent. The studio system diminished, and bolder, brasher films were being made. A congress of critics grew out of this time, and they had rapt and large audiences, ready for their predictions and pronouncements. Collections of film reviews became best-sellers, and magazines bulged with long-form reviews. What happened? I was fortunate to become friends with the critics Andrew Sarris and his wife, Molly Haskell, and one evening, goaded by me, the conversation centered on that gilded age, when movie criticism became a highly competitive, vigorous sport, with critics fighting over how and why films were made; who made them best; why they mattered. Sarris thought that two things inflated the importance of film criticism at precisely the time when the quality and quantity of American films was declining: the number of Americans attending and graduating from college, where films were watched, discussed, studied; and a sense of nostalgia among those writing about film who, like Thomson, could see what had been lost in the film experience. We were now freer, on our own, lost, literally, to our own devices.
The means of watching movies may have changed, but film is there to be loved and studied; it is there to change us, improve us, allow us to look at the other aspects of our lives with a clearer vision. “Watching cannot rest with mere sight,” Thomson writes.
It waits to be converted into aesthetic judgment, moral discrimination, and a more intricate participation in society. That sounds ominous, I suppose, and part of a creeping unease at how the Internet can be a spectator sport that condones our lack of concentration and begins to deepen feelings of futility over dealing with the world. In that mood, there are film commentators who lament the loss of the large screen, the locomotive of the movie, and our amazed attention of it all. Things have been lost, but now I have to make the most challenging point — that cinema, movie (whatever) always had the seed of dislocation about it…The novice at the movies is often overwhelmed by the reality of it all…[and] “primitive peoples shown close-ups of the face are sometimes fearful that decapitation has occurred. When I saw [Laurence] Olivier’s Henry V at the age of four, I “saw” the faces of page boys in the English camp at Agincourt on fire. It was one of the occasions on which I had to be carried away in tears. Later on, I realized I was reacting to a dissolve — the faces and the fire had been laid together. Anyone poised on the edge of a miracle is “primitive.” (Italics mine.)
In that last sentence is, I think, Thomson’s primary argument, one shared with both Tennessee Williams and Marlon Brando, two men with whom I engaged in lengthy conversation, and men saved, created, and sustained by movies, and they thought of them as miracles: Miracles of art and technology and talent, yes, but also miracles of healing. Both Williams and Brando — and dare I add Thomson — had lives shattered or lacking in many things, but they went, mind and eyes open, to the experience of a movie, and they were altered, even if for only two hours. Whatever we face in our lives — movies, love, sensuality, enlightenment — should be approached from the perspective of a primitive. Leave your prejudices behind. Not for Thomson the oddly ascetic (and laughable) claim from Pauline Kael that she saw a film once and that was that; it was over. Would you only kiss or make love or enjoy champagne once? Then spend your life recalling, as best you could, how it felt? Thomson is that rare critic who wants you to have and to share your passions, and in How to Watch a Movie, he writes more of the experience of watching than in rating a film or excoriating the ambitions of anyone. The key is in watching, noting.
“Watching and seeing are both physical (optical) and emotional (irrational),” he writes. “In its first sixty or so years, movie had made us all more conscious of looking; it had invested appearance with a new excitement, glamour, and erotic force. That energy is still there, but is it wearing off? This is the dilemma of the Internet — of so much to see that attention wavers or loses faith in itself…Instead of rapt spectators of the lifelike, we have become like screenwriters or editors.”
We are, in short, not watching movies — or living our lives — with the full capacity that once seemed so natural to us. We are more and more unable to submit, and our films and our lives suffer for it. Every year there is boasting of the billions of dollars made by the movies, but where is the passion for current film? The Internet is full of sites devoted to movie stars of the past, to directors who changed the medium, but outside of gossip, what is being said about our current film stars? We no longer ask our films — or any art form — to do its thing to us: We ask films to disprove our preconceptions, but we do not ask films to amaze us.
What is our film culture now? The social media fury is reserved for occasions when an actress is called fat, or when we delight in the latest special-effects kapok drowning in debt. Movie reviews — a vanishing act — are more like disgruntled Yelp comments on cold food and diffident waiters, and most could have been written before the screening, as they bristle with deals and back stories and budgets and what was expected. Critics on websites and with Twitter accounts are now courted by film studios and publicists to shore up an increasingly bored and capricious audience, and they speculate on what’s working and what isn’t in the industry. But what did they think of the movie? That is often shoe-horned in as a desultory requirement. Even as I write this — in the throes of Oscar season — no one has any firm idea of who or what will win or why: It’s all a hunch, a guess, and more and more people are waiting to see the films or the performances only if they are awarded, at which time they will be something of a safe investment of time and interest. In my own erratic, interesting life, I have worked on various Oscar campaigns, escorting actors to interviews and industry screenings, mailing DVDs to various guild and academy members, and I am here to tell you that a great number of those voting for these awards are not watching these films — free of charge and with booze and snacks afterward — and they are underwhelmed a great deal of the time. Their complaint — to me, a freelance non-entity who stocks hand sanitizer for stars and directors — is that movies are not “big” enough; they don’t engage. Engagement, I want to tell them, is a two-way street, and highly unlikely to blossom as you watch portions of Carol or Spotlight or The Revenant on the dedicated iTunes account set up for guild voters. Our films, they seem to be saying, need to satisfy a desire they can’t even articulate, or to which they feel superior. They might be the people of whom Tennessee Williams once said “They know so much they have been rendered stupid and immobile.”
Brando, when I asked him why he became so disdainful of the Oscars, stated that “We give awards for effort and endurance, and this is soul-crushing and it demeans the art we claim to be honoring.” The bottom line for Brando? “We are more and more terrified of any value judgments — on anything — because we do not trust ourselves to have an authentic and original experience. We need someone to tell us what or whom to love, and how to move and sigh when we do it. Let’s just watch the fucking movies and get high on them.”
I think everyone is down with that. Let’s see some movies — past and present — and get high on them. But how? Where? Thomson reminds us that the power to be amazed by all things — with movies as our starting point — rests with us. Our vision is our own, as is our experience. Toward the end of this bewitching book, Thomson offers a confession (yet another of his submissions): “You came into this book under deceptive promises (mine) and false hopes (yours). You believed we might make decisive progress in the matter of how to watch a movie. So be it, but this was a ruse to make you look at life.”
“If you really want to watch a film,” Thomson concludes, “you must be ready to recognize your own life slipping away. That takes a good deal of education. But you have to be stupid, too.”
Wise men — Marlon Brando, Tennessee Williams, Richard Schickel, Andrew Sarris, and now, David Thomson — are asking or have asked us to forget what we think we know and to become reacquainted with what we feel, with what moves us. Share the stories and the sensations. Recall where you were emotionally when a film hit you. The movie you saw on a first date or with the mate you now love will become a part of your DNA, as will the film you saw right before the horrible phone call about the sick friend or parent. Leonardo DiCaprio and Cate Blanchett will be fine and will feed their families and their assistants. Studios will keep making movies that will delight and disappoint us. These are not our concerns. We need to submit to things, to life, and we need to feel. This book will help you with this. This book will help you hold on to parts of your life as it slips away.