Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Theodore Roszak was a significant literary figure in his heyday, publishing quite a few materials relating to the counterculture revolution. He also dabbled quite selectively in the realm of fiction, with Flicker being one of his more unique and outstanding works.It takes us into the now-forgotten realm of underground cinema before the advent of modern technology, following a movie buff’s search for a forgotten genius of the silver screen.
Table of contents
Theodore Roszak Initiates us into the Secret Realm
For something which was born only one hundred and thirty years ago (approximately), cinema has all too rapidly become a staple of human culture no matter where you travel to. The realm of movies has evolved unspeakably since its inception, and today we’ve long forgotten the mystifying beauty and allure of the cinematic underground, depicted rather vividly in Flicker by Theodore Roszak.
In modern times, movies are more easily accessible than ever before, most of them being available in the comfort of our very own homes. If we’re looking for something a little rarer, there are plenty of channels (both legal and less-than-legal) through which we can find it; the idea of hunting for unusual, frail and singular movies is very much a thing of the past.
Well, this past is precisely where Flicker takes us, introducing us to Jonathan Gates, a student and avid movie buff in the 1960s. His life was going along in perfectly normal fashion until he made the discovery of a lifetime: Max Castle, a forgotten genius of silent cinema who vanished in the 1940s after becoming the greatest horror director of all time, at least in Jonathan’s eyes
As he learns more and more about the director, Jonathan begins to develop an unhealthy obsession with the man’s history and fate, diving into an investigation which leads him from the darkest and most decrepit corners of Hollywood to ancient heretical religions. No price seems too small to pay to resolve the mystery behind Castle’s disappearance.
On his journey he encounters a wide cast of exotic characters, and inches closer and closer to a vast conspiracy, based on the simple principle of the flicker: the imperceptible gap between each of the twenty-four frames played every second in a movie. It seems someone has managed to use them to tell a story, achieving the purest form of cinema imaginable… but how deep does it all really stretch?
A Detective Story Colored by Cinema in Flicker
When looking at the description of this novel, I’ll agree it’s a little hard to determine what genre it belongs to, or what you ought to expect from it exactly. In one sense, it’s great when a book seems so unique and unusual it promises to surprise the reader on more than one occasion. On the other, most readers want to have at least a vague idea of what they’re getting into.
In the case of Flicker, I think anyone would be forgiven for thinking it’s an adventure through the old world of underground cinema, almost in the vein of a historical fiction novel (which I’m sure it will be one day in the future). However, in reality this book is, first and foremost, a detective novel, and Theodore Roszak never loses sight of this direction.
The art of cinema begins with scraping the chewing gum off the seats.― Theodore Roszak, Flicker
There is a very clear premise and mystery which we’re trying to unravel from start to finish: the unknown fate of Max Castle, and the possibility of telling a story through the afore-mentioned flickers. We slowly go from one clue to the next, stripping away the covers from the big picture one layer at a time.
In terms of the engagement I felt when following the mystery, I would easily venture to make comparisons with the best works in the genre, namely Agatha Christie‘s classics or Arthur Conan Doyle‘s timeless contributions. For every answer we find, new questions seem to follow, all of them anchored around Max Castle who ends up feeling larger-than-life.
A few passages in the book do feel like they slow the action down a bit, and they’re pretty much all related to setting up the grand conspiracy which, in case you’re wondering, does get fully resolved at the end. No cliffhangers or unfinished storylines here, which already feels like half the battle for a contemporary detective story.
The Dissection of a Movie’s Power
There is one particular theme to which Theodore Roszak keeps on returning time and time again throughout the story: the power movies can hold over the audience. I think we’ve all experienced films which speak to us in ways none of their peers can match, and it’s a concept the author seeks to dissect and break down to the atomic level.
Plenty of passages describe not only the movies Jonathan is watching, but more importantly, how they make him feel and the thoughts they push him to mull over in his head. From a technical standpoint, these segments are written with such care and fine detail it almost feels like the author is describing real movies which exist, rather than the other way around; picturing them in the mind’s eye becomes easy to the point where doing the contrary becomes a challenge.
In Flicker a tangible amount of focus is placed on the description of cinematic techniques, and to be frank, I don’t really know if all of them are real. However, in the context of the story, they are fleshed out to such a great extent I never felt like I had to suspend my disbelief to accept their existence. In particular, I devoured the sections which dealt with revealing what lies hidden on the silver screen.
Speaking of which, I thought the author did a fantastic job when it came to weaving a grandiose enigma out of small and seemingly insignificant details which nevertheless add up to form a complete and disturbing picture. While today we do know about the total ineffectiveness of subliminal messaging and manipulation, it remains an interesting concept in and of itself; in my opinion, the author used it quite adeptly to drum up a constant sense of unease and intrigue permeating from start to finish.
Ultimately, these elements all add up to mystify Max Castle, who slowly grows into a larger-than-life character, a master of forbidden arts the secrets of which are revealed to us, and an actor (perhaps unwilling) in the kind of conspiracy we can only dream up in the realm of fiction. As a result, Theodore Roszak successfully allows the reader to become one with the main character, to share his captivation with the enigma before him, and to see the world through his particular set of eyes.
Through the Eyes of a Movie Buff
Being a movie buff today is so incredibly different from how it was back in the 1960s, we might as well be talking about different planets. The advent of the digital age has led to an immeasurable amount of good in the realm of cinema, leading to many previously-lost and lesser-known cult films to being rediscovered and only a few clicks away from ownership.
On the other hand, the exclusive realm of underground cinema has lost much of its charm and excitement, if it even still exists in the first place. Jonathan Gates takes us back to the unique microcosm most of us will never know ourselves, and Roszak does an absolutely fantastic job at communicating how magical of a time and place it was.
We get a profound and exclusive tour of the cinematic American underground and avant-guarde movement, starting naturally with the most sought-after movies and popular stars, down to the psychology and ambitious endeavours of its cinephiles.
Needless to say, Roszak was quite obviously himself an avid member of this world, and it translates into the precision with which he depicts it. He constantly adds the kinds of small and memorable details which feel like they could only be known by people with first-hand experience being a movie buff in the colourful 1960s.
Perhaps most impressively, I did not find a single line of dialogue or description relating to the world of movies to have been boring or superfluous. As a matter of fact, about a quarter of the way through I found the exploration of the underground became as fascinating as the mysterious conspiracy surrounding Max Castle himself, especially since they often bounce off each other.
|May 1 1991
The Final Verdict
Flicker by Theodore Roszak is a one-of-a-kind novel, blending a highly-detailed thriller mystery with the criminally-underexplored world of underground cinema in the 1960s. As we follow a gripping investigation with plenty of twists and turns, we also visit the unforgettable realm of motion pictures, getting to witness just how profoundly it defined and still defines the modern world.
If you consider yourself a movie buff (especially of murder mysteries, horror or science-fiction) and are looking for a unique and gripping detective thriller set in this world, then I believe you absolutely must see for yourself what this novel has to offer.
(November 15, 1933 – July 5, 2011)
Theodore Roszak was an American academic, professor and writer whose best-known work is the 1969 text, The Making of a Counter Culture. He has dabbled in fiction, non-fiction and essays, with some of his most famous contributions including The Cult of Information, When the Counterculture Aged and Flicker. He was the recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship and was nominated twice for the National Book Award.