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Extravagant attraction, lavish panic

Posted by Wesley Morris  February 4, 2010 03:00 PM

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From our pal Mark Feeney, who's promised to loan me the book when he's done.

The smartest, most challenging movie watching that's out there right now isn't on any screen but 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 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 sole credit in his filmography _ and the only real event is straight out of Antonioni's "L'Avventura," thus making "Point Omega" 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." ("Act of Violence" is a pretty good 1948 thriller, directed by Fred Zinneman, about a revenge-crazed former POW, starring Van Heflin, Robert Ryan, and, yes, Janet Leigh.)

libra.jpegThe McGuffin in "Running Dog" (1978) is a Hitler home movie. What it turns out to be is one of the great imaginative flourishes in post-war American fiction. 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 the bravura description of an imaginary Eisenstein silent film in "Underworld" (1997). Almost as good in that novel is DeLillo's articulating the resentment of au courant cinephiles at feeling obliged to see the 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 Stone documentary, "CS Blues," and the Zapruder footage of the JFK assassination. DeLillo did write "Libra" (1988), after all. This is a man who knows his movies.

DeLillo's also had a screenplay produced. "Game 6" (2005) 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. The movie doesn't work much better than Bill Buckner's glove did. Robert Downey Jr. does have fun as a famously harsh drama critic, sort of John Simon meets Tony Stark.

DeLillo's version of the "Psycho" installation 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.

The prospect of actually 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."

Thumbnail image for Dean and Lewis.jpgThe contrast couldn't be greater with the other film described in "Point Omega," the one documentary that's been 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 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." Talk about lavish panic! 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."

I've met DeLillo twice. The first time was for an interview, at his publisher's offices. 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, like the kind Martin Scorsese wears or . . . . "You look like Dean Martin!" I blurted out. DeLillo nodded. "Have you read the book?" he asked.

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

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

Mark Feeney is an arts writer for The Boston Globe.

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Katie McLeod is Boston.com's features editor.

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Emily Wright is an Arts & Entertainment producer for Boston.com.

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