Monday November 23rd, 2009

Trouble on the Set

Rose Alley by Jeremy M. Davies
Counterpath Press, 192 pp., $15.95

“The authentic experiences of the nineteen sixties will be composed of memories that will be a little bit mistaken.” Thus runs the epigraph, by F.T. Castle, to Jeremy M. Davies’ Rose Alley, and it’s as good a description of the novel as any. Ostensibly about the filming of an avant-garde film set in Paris during the student riots of May 1968, it is more of an album de famille, a series of portraits of the eccentric personalities collaborating on the film.

Also called Rose Alley, the film is a Restoration drama about the ambush of Poet Laureate John Dryden in an alleyway near Covent Garden in 1679 by thugs working for John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, a rather bawdy fellow poet who was angered by Dryden’s essay on satire (and jealous of his favor with the king). But this historical kerfuffle is not the point. The point is, the film just can’t get made. Or rather, what gets made is in no way a fulfillment of the original idea.

The novel is structured as a trip into the archives of the film, decades later, compiled and catalogued by an unidentified narrator. You read it as if you’ve found a scrapbook of people you don’t know. (This involves a lot of rereading and cross-checking to make sure you’ve got everyone straight in your head; Davies has anticipated this, and has helpfully provided an index.) One by one, Davies trains his lens on the producer, director, leading lady, screenwriter, and assorted members of the cast and crew, zooming in tightly to look for the wrinkles and pockmarks, and just as the frame clicks into focus — just as we think we have a handle on this terribly strange and specific character — we cut to someone else.

Until the image clarifies, the characters feel as if they’re always getting away from us; peculiar details stand out, but the rest of the image blurs. “Here was the faux Jew with his six gold Stars of David swinging between open fifth and fourth shirt buttons, and then the real one with his Flemish accent, ersatz Spanish name, and Moorish features embalmed in a pale Northern face.” The screenwriter was raised by parents who stuttered so badly that they communicated exclusively by whistling the choruses of popular tunes: “He proposed with ‘Who Takes Care of the Caretaker’s Daughter’ — risky — and she accepted with ‘Deed I Do.’ ” The oddities of these deeply flawed characters are like nothing you’ve ever read in fiction; Dickensian with a dollop of Pynchon, or Barnesian (Djuna, that is) with a veneer of Nabokov. Cheeky, but brilliant, the novel is so sexual it can’t keep its hands to itself.

The student riots rarely intersect with the action. They hang in the background, setting the tone: the upheaval, the turning over of old ideas like the digging of cobblestones out of the street to be hurled at CRS agents. If anything, the novel entombs 1968, makes it old-fashioned, out of reach. It is not nostalgic — unlike Gilbert Adair’s The Holy Innocents (later adapted to film by Bertolucci as The Dreamers) — perhaps in part because Davies wasn’t there, but mainly, it seems to me, because to directly represent the riots would seem to go against the novel’s primary goal: to challenge the very idea of representation. In film, as in fiction, what you’re doing is never reality, it’s always at a remove. Davies pauses in his narrative to mull this over, not coincidentally in the chapter that deals with the set designer:

When in a novel or anecdote your narrator tells you he’s stopped, on his way out of the house, in the kitchen, to make sandwiches, the kitchen you agree is a plausible setting probably has no hollowware in its cabinets or unscoured pots on the range: it’s entire and ideal, a perfection in your head that would only be soiled by details. Green tiles, faux-marble cutting boards, insect-encrusted light fixtures and so forth would demand all the rest: four walls, a ceiling, doors and windows, dishes in the sink, and the smell of take-out slinking from the garbage bin. Still, we don’t complain: it isn’t necessary that we see this kitchen clearly. As a model, it functions. It is evocative. Put too much pressure on it, though — this mode of perceiving imaginary space — and it starts to get uncomfortable. We squirm. It feels a little like fitting broken lead back into the beak of a mechanical pencil. [. . .] But what if someone insists?

Pity Ephraim Bueno, then, who found himself in charge of designing the entire film, sets through costumes, and was appointed property manager to boot. [. . .] Where Myrna the writer saw space filled — wasn’t it enough to get the characters into a kitchen? to know what they did there? — Ephraim saw only emptiness, protoplasm, the dawn of the world, swimming with slippery, unrealized chimera.

More largely, the novel is an interrogation of the createdness of the art object, turning our conception of aesthetics away from world-representing and toward world-making. Davies writes, in the chapter about the film’s editor:

What a strange, you’d have to say avant-garde sort of thing even the dullest film was, being in form — as we all know — a series of incoherent fragments, sorted through and soldered together with dreamy nonlogic, so that no gaze remains aimless, no gesture redundant: exactly the opposite of life. . . . How had this ever come to seem natural?

Film is, to Davies, what the Library of Babel was to Borges: a container for infinity. But with the potential to capture everything comes problems. How do you create a world? Or how do you conjure up another world that is not immediately visible, either because it has been erased by time, or because it never existed? The set designer, faced with the task of replicating the 17th century, has a nervous breakdown.

The narrator suggests that, as readers and viewers, our minds work in much the same way as the editor, as the writer; through “the process of consciousness [we] give the illusion of movement and completion by leaving ninety-nine percent of the world on the cutting-room floor.” We make sense of the nonsense by constructing narratives from disparate frames and blocks of prose. It’s important to be aware of this process, to pay attention to it and not just perform it naturally, unthinkingly. This is the critique at the heart of Guy Debord’s Situationist manifesto Society of the Spectacle (1967):

The images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream in which the unity of life can no longer be recovered. Fragmented views of reality regroup themselves into a new unity as a separate pseudo-world that can only be looked at. The specialization of images of the world evolves into a world of autonomized images where even the deceivers are deceived. The spectacle is a concrete inversion of life, an autonomous movement of the nonliving.

To the Situationists, “the spectacle is everywhere.” This was never more true than in Paris in May 1968 (the riots were seen by some as a “mass demonstration” of Situationist theory). But reality — whether historical or contemporary — can never be captured, and the events of 1968 are the perfect example to illustrate this. Even forty years later, it is hard to get a sense of the facts, because they have been embroidered into mythology.  Turning the cameras on the events doesn’t give you any more accurate a picture than recreating a 17th-century London alleyway.

Rose Alley (the film) never finishes being made, and the remnants of it — the reputation that attaches to various reels that circulate — are called kitsch, or camp. It is not one film, but many different films. The novel concludes, and I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying this, as a comment on itself. The director speaks “in crackly VO about yet another Rose Alley,

an uber-Alley that he’s been considering in the interim. An aggregate Alley, containing all the others: its disparate parts struggling to tear away from one another while struggling, simultaneously, to integrate. An exhaustive film, depleting every possible approach to the material: at once document and fabrication, direct and oblique, projectile and shelter, kangaroo and pouch, incidental and anecdotal, tastefully vague and grotesquely precise, an escapist bromide and an incitement to riot.

If there’s ever been a better description of a book within the book it describes, I’ve yet to read it.

Lauren Elkin is a Paris-based writer and critic. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, Bookforum, Five Dials, and the Quarterly Conversation, and she blogs about books and French culture at Maîtresse.

Mentioned in this review:

Rose Alley
The Holy Innocents
Society of the Spectacle
The Dreamers