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Critic's Notebook

An author who knows his cinema

In ‘Point Omega,’ DeLillo turns once again to the mysteries of the movies

By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / February 11, 2010

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The smartest, most challenging movie watching that’s out there right now isn’t in any theater. It’s in the pages of Don DeLillo’s latest novel.

“Point Omega’’ begins and ends with a tour de force account of Douglas Gordon’s “24 Hour Psycho.’’ That 2006 installation at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, slowed down Alfred Hitchcock’s film to two frames per second, instead of the standard 24 fps, making for a nearly day-long running time. Good thing Anthony Perkins dispatches Janet Leigh so quickly, otherwise she’d use up all the motel’s hot water.

Between those “Psycho’’ bookends, there’s more movie matter in the book: DeLillo’s narrator is a documentary filmmaker - more below on the rather unusual sole credit in his filmography - and the only real event, a disappearance, is straight out of Michelangelo Antonioni’s “L’avventura.’’ “Point Omega,’’ you might say, is the literary equivalent of a triple feature.

This should come as no surprise. The movies have haunted DeLillo’s work. There’s Faye, the mother of the hero in “Ratner’s Star’’ (1976): “The obsessive moviegoing of Faye’s childhood and adolescence had been interrupted only by childhood itself, adolescence itself. Her extravagant attraction to movies was almost an act of violence.’’

The McGuffin in “Running Dog’’ (1978) is a Hitler home movie. What it turns out to reveal is one of the great imaginative flourishes in post-war American fiction. Let’s just say that Der Fuehrer enjoyed doing impressions for the camera and Buster Keaton wasn’t his favorite silent film comedian and leave it at that. The faculty at the College-on-the-Hill, in “White Noise’’ (1985), is “movie-mad and trivia-crazed.’’ Aren’t we all?

Or there’s “Underworld’’ (1997), with its bravura description of an imaginary lost silent film by the Soviet master Sergei Eisenstein. Almost as good is DeLillo’s articulating the resentment of au courant cinephiles at feeling obliged to see its screening, at Radio City Music Hall: “Just a movie for godsake and a silent movie at that and a movie you never heard of until the Times did a Sunday piece. But this is how the behavioral aberration, once begun, grows to lavish panic.’’ “Underworld’’ also has memorable passages about Robert Frank’s Rolling Stones documentary, “CS Blues,’’ and the Zapruder footage of the JFK assassination. This is a man who knows his movies.

DeLillo’s even had a screenplay produced. Released in 2005, “Game Six’’ stars Michael Keaton as a New York playwright who’s a Red Sox fan. As John Cheever once said, “All literary men are Red Sox fans - to be a Yankee fan in a literate society is to endanger your life.’’ Keaton passes up his play’s opening night (but plays don’t open on Saturdays!) to watch the sixth game of the 1986 World Series. That’s right, the one we prefer not to talk about. Although the movie doesn’t work all that much better than Bill Buckner’s glove did, Robert Downey Jr. has fun as an exceedingly waspish drama critic, sort of Addison DeWitt meets Tony Stark.

DeLillo’s version of the “Psycho’’ installation in “Point Omega’’ is a lot more interesting. “What he was watching seemed pure film, pure time,’’ DeLillo writes. “The broad horror of the old gothic movie was subsumed in time.’’ What happens when a motion picture hardly seems to move? For one thing, you find yourself counting the number of rings on the Bates Motel shower curtain.

The prospect of seeing “Psycho’’ screened that slowly sounds more terrifying than even the actual movie (Norman’s mother wouldn’t be the only thing stuffed and mounted). But mediated through DeLillo’s writing the experience becomes transfixing: “In the time it took for Anthony Perkins to turn his head, there seemed to flow an array of ideas involving science and philosophy and nameless other things, or maybe he was seeing too much. But it was impossible to see too much. The less there was to see, the harder he looked, the more he saw. This was the point. To see what’s here, finally to look and to know you’re looking, to feel time passing, to be alive to what is happening in the smallest registers of motion.’’

The contrast couldn’t be greater with the other film described in “Point Omega,’’ the documentary made by the narrator, Jim Finley. It’s an assemblage of footage from Jerry Lewis muscular dystrophy telethons. Specifically, of telethons from the ’50s. More specifically, footage of just Jerry. “I edited out all the guest appearances,’’ Finley explains, “the lounge acts, movie stars, dancers, disabled children, the studio audience, the band.’’

We’re talking something very, very Jerry: “pure performance, Jerry talking, singing, weeping, Jerry with his ruffled shirt open at the collar, bow tie undone, a raccoon flung over his shoulders, Jerry inviting the nation’s love and wonder at four in the morning, in closeup, a crew-cut sweating man in semidelirium, a disease artist, begging us to send money to cure his afflicted children.’’ Try reading that passage out loud. If you haven’t started laughing by the time you get to the raccoon, you surely will by “semidelirium.’’ Talk about lavish panic.

I’ve met DeLillo twice. The first time was for an interview, at his publisher’s offices, when “Underworld’’ came out. The elevator door opened, and there he stood. He looked much as he does in his author photos: graying hair, chiseled features, Italianate good looks. There was one difference. He wore oversized glasses with dark frames, the kind Martin Scorsese wears or a certain singer did while hosting celebrity roasts in the ’70s. “You look like Dean Martin!’’ I blurted out. DeLillo nodded.

“Have you read the book?’’ he asked. There was only one book he could have meant: Nick Tosches’s magnificent, nihilistic “Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams.’’ That was it, all right. DeLillo was a big fan. Martin’s partner, as you might imagine, figures almost as much in the book as Dino does. Let there be no doubt: Don DeLillo is a man who knows his Jerry Lewis, raccoon and all.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.