TOWARD THE END of Robert Aldrich’s 1955 noir classic Kiss Me Deadly, a seemingly conventional detective story, a woman gets her hands on a mysterious and coveted box. She opens it slowly, and it emits a blinding glow, which breathes and hisses and lights her face demonically from below. The light begins to blow out the screen, first engulfing her in flames, then engulfing the building, then (perhaps) more. The scene is apocalyptic not just for its content, but for its violent incongruity with the rest of the film. There’s nothing to prepare you for it — how could there be? Even an understanding of Cold War anxieties about nuclear holocaust cannot normalize this nightmarish ending. In this way, the scene effectively destroys both the world within the film, as well as the borders of that world.
Likewise, Nicholas Rombes’s haunting debut novel, The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing is about a secret history of film; films of destruction, films that destroy their own borders, films that are then destroyed. An unnamed narrator, a journalist on assignment, travels to a run-down Wisconsin motel to interview Roberto Acestes Laing, a film librarian who gained notoriety in the 1990s when he ritualistically burned single-print films “from the likes of David Lynch, Michelangelo Antonioni,” Maya Deren, and Alejandro Jodorowsky. Laing agrees to talk with Rombes’s narrator, but only through descriptions of the films he destroyed. The films he describes (inventions of Rombes, though credited to real filmmakers) — even a half-finished film and a treatment for a film — all lead to endings that seem to share Kiss Me Deadly’s intimations of apocalypse.
The first film Laing describes is Destroyer. It’s a roadhouse movie that ends when, as Laing explains, a “red line appears in the center of the screen,” vibrating “ever so slightly as if etched on the film itself.” And yet the characters onscreen see the line as if it is not on the film but in the film; it divides them and when “the woman reaches across the table she jerks her hand back when it approaches the red line.” The line begins to widen, bubbling “slowly like lava. Shimmering waves of heat push out toward the edges of the screen.” The characters have to “splay their hands in front of their faces . . . to shield themselves from the heat,” eventually retreating off screen. “As the line expands,” Laing continues, “it destroys everything.” And by everything, he means everything, as the molten line expands beyond its frame in a moment of oddly contemplative horror.
These films, with an evolving sense of the apocalyptic, articulate a doom that resonates with each man’s sense of loss. But they don’t just articulate: they seem to — in their abilities to transgress boundaries and frames — absorb and engulf. And yet, these are films that now exist only as legend, much like Laing himself. When the narrator wonders about who this man really is, he notes a “disorienting feeling of depth around him” that is “akin to the extreme depth-of-field in films like Citizen Kane, that make you feel you might fall into the deep background of the film itself, the background that exists in the space behind the characters.” Similarly, the narrator’s sentences — though curiously not Laing’s — share the same deep focus that Gregg Toland’s Kane cinematography opened up. There’s a tumble-forward momentum to his sentences that becomes part of the larger aesthetic concerns of the novel, of the sense of vertigo both these linguistic and filmic spaces inspire. Any word or any image could easily dilate, open up a whole dependent-upon-dependent clause or secret history, as here when the narrator sets out to establish some basic journalistic who, what, why, and hows:
On the surface I was simply here to interview Laing for a short-lived cinema journal dedicated to the preservation of lost films that had been awarded a grant to investigate and report on neglected films. And whose chief editor Edison (that’s what we called him, after Herman Casler, an early film pioneer whose ideas Edison stole, and we called him that because he was a thief himself, but a generous one) I had persuaded, in a rare, belligerent show of confidence, to sign over a large chunk of to fund my excursion by borrowed van from central Pennsylvania into Wisconsin (near the western edge of the Chequamegaon-Nicolet National Forest) to interview Laing, whose obscurity had made him fashionable of late, as if nostalgia for the analog had somehow become nostalgia for Laing and his dirty, mistakist, unrepentant ways.
Even that one sentence break is more like enjambment and can’t stop the discursion. These are wormhole sentences in a novel deeply enraptured by the wormhole quality of cinema. Indeed, the reader perpetually feels like he or she “might fall into the deep background . . . that exists in the space behind the characters.”
While Kane’s sense of space, however, is perfectly fitting its expansive sets, expansive narrative, expansive themes, this novel opens up a similar sense of the cavernous in otherwise claustrophobic settings. We’re mostly limited to a single motel room, but it’s a motel room that develops its own sense of gravity and flexing space-time. It’s surely no coincidence, then, that the fourth (fictional) film Laing describes, Hutton, is one by Maya Deren. Deren’s (real) film Meshes of the Afternoon (cited a few times in the novel) is a seminal experimental short from 1943, and it similarly discovers disequilibrium in enclosed domestic spaces. As Rombes’s narrator feels that he could fall into the depth-of-field of this motel room, in Meshes Deren seems to fall through the interior of a suburban house with a disorienting blend of claustrophobia and agoraphobia. Just as Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman argues that “the house where Deren’s erotic, violent fantasy was filmed might be around the corner from Barbara Stanwyck’s place in Double Indemnity,” the motel room in The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing could similarly be adjacent to any of the countless rooms of film noir whose sense of space is distorted by expressionist shadows and uncanny paranoia.
Indeed, the strange gravity of enclosed spaces, of mysterious rooms, plays an important role in the novel. Laing tells the narrator about another room, one that similarly warps space-time. It’s the setting for a moment in his past — a moment involving a woman he refers to only as “A.” — that seems to be at the root of his fascination with, and fear of, these films. While Laing connects the room’s sense of reality to the “split edits” of David Lynch, edits that reverse causality so “the sound arrives before the image that creates the sound,” it’s also a space that echoes the Room in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, which grants wishes the wisher didn’t realize he had. (Likewise, this novel at times brings to mind the book Zona, Geoff Dyer’s extended and restless meditation on Stalker. While Dyer’s book offers antidotal irreverence where this novel remains darkly reverent, both books sit with cinematic mystery rather than rush desperately to answers, reminding us that the best literature embodies Keats’s concept of negative capability.) The “strange territory of that room” that Laing recalls also contains an element of the apocalyptic light found in these films’ final moments, a “dull orange light,” that he still sees when he closes his eyes, “glowing like both a warning and an invitation.”
A single image haunting Laing’s memory of A. is the cover of Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, which features a photograph of Kristeva herself looking off-camera, her mouth slightly open as if wanting to say something, her expression both open and opaque. Laing is clearly familiar with Powers — he first refers to it as one of her “most dangerous books” — so he notices that the cover has been reversed. Kristeva’s face is looking the wrong way. This single image is like a glitch, a symptom of a disruption somehow fundamental to this universe’s make-up. Powers of Horror was new to me when I began writing this review, but after wading into the boggy waters of its Franco-Bulgarian post-structuralism, I can say that, aside from being a powerfully visceral read, it spawned many of the questions this novel is wrestling with. “On close inspection,” Kristeva writes, “all literature is probably a version of the apocalypse” — a response to the abject. For Kristeva, the abject is the sense of horror when the division between subject (the self) and object (the observed) dissolves, a transgression or breakdown of borders echoed when the apocalyptic endings of these films bleed out of their frames and screens.
Perhaps Laing’s destruction of these films is a response to these encounters with the abject, where, as Kristeva writes, “meaning collapses.” The narrator’s own encounter with the abject seems to be the death of his daughter; like empathy in extremis, to encounter death, Kristeva wrote, is to suddenly understand our own base corporeality, an experience that erases so many of the illusions that sustain us. For both Laing and the narrator, these encounters, and the “voids” they open up, have given their lives if not meaning then form, just as Kristeva writes about art being a kind of scar tissue over the abject that at once hides and highlights. The narrator’s experience, however, is never center stage as Laing’s is; it always occupies a moment that we fall into amidst one or another wormhole sentence:
Laing is not so good at transitions. As soon as he finishes describing Destroyer he starts in on another film, Black Star. At the time I chalked this up to his age, but even then I knew there was something else at work, and that Laing’s rough transitions between films — his inability or unwillingness to provide connective tissue — was really the equivalent of the rough jump cuts in the films he loves, the films he loved so much he had to destroy, and that my own desire to fill the voice of her loss (a void that had nonetheless given my life its shape) was the very reason I had come out here to find Laing as if somehow he could replace the blank and final fact of Emily’s death with something else, some mystery, the mystery that her life was or would have been had she lived.
The jump-cut analogy the narrator uses to understand Laing’s transition-less descriptions of these films also echoes the theory of montage first articulated by Sergei Eisenstein, the pioneering Soviet filmmaker of the silent era who provides this novel with its first epigraph: “So, montage is conflict.” An early and prolific film theorist as well, Eisenstein explained, in “The Dramaturgy of Film Form,” that “montage is not an idea composed of successive shots stuck together but an idea that derives from the collision between two shots that are independent of one another (the ‘dramatic’ principle).” Laing is enacting this collision, creating meaning not with discrete films but with their encounter, the space between.
The novel pulls us forward with a growing unease, a sense that the closer we get to answers — answers theoretically in (or between) the films themselves, answers about Laing, about the narrator, about what they both hope to solve — the further away from truly understanding them we’ll be, like looking closer and closer at a pointillist painting. And yet, the book is, at its most literal level, two men sitting in a room, one summarizing movies to the other. For a novel, this is an audacious act of constraint, and like all narrative constraints it grants a strange freedom of movement, often in a direction you never thought possible. Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, for example, a novel about a man going up an escalator, constrains physical movement to reveal the endlessly branching kinesis of thought; and Thomas Bernhard’s monologue novels burst with demented polyphony. While this is Rombes’s first novel, as a film theorist he’s already been using constraint to shape his scholarship. Earlier this year he published a book titled 10/40/70: Constraint as Liberation in the Era of Digital Film Theory, the premise of which sounds almost Oulipian: Rombes pauses a film at the 10-minute mark, the 40-minute mark, and the 70-minute mark, and writes just about the three single frames he’s left with. As the subtitle suggests, this is not just an exercise in constraint, but an investigation into the collision — and the possibilities this collision opens up — between two media: the movement of film and the control of digital.
The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing explores a slightly different collision: between image and word, the visuals of film and their exegesis. We see this conflict first in the narrator’s understanding of Laing as “a man who staved off disorder and chaos by sorting, by documenting, by naming.” There is something about all these films that escapes words. For Laing, the ineffable, all that words fail to capture and control, is both terrifying and alluring, and so he attempts “to destroy the regime of the image.”
One of the few clear and sustained glimpses we have of the narrator’s void, the death of his daughter, comes when he returns to Laing’s motel for a second day of interviewing. Laing appears to be gone but a red X has been painted above his door, reminding us of the red lines —searing, sun-like— that appear at the end of the films Laing has burned. Looking at the red X, the narrator feels:
the presence of my daughter Emily so strongly, so intensely, as if she had not died at age nine but instead lived and blossomed into a young woman beside me now, making the adventure complete, snapping pictures of the marked door as if it was too dangerous (“hot,” she’d say, “it’s too hot”) and we needed to keep our distance and not look at the door directly in the same way you shouldn’t stare at the sun.
An imagined presence, a person as hypothetical, is perhaps a more haunting ghost than a literal specter could ever be, as it opens up a void, enacts a reality that is now simply impossible.
The narrator imagines Emily as the documenter of the visual, while he, the journalist, is left to turn it into words. So when Laing cites a (perhaps fictional) essay by Lionel Trilling “where he says something like, maybe cinema will be able to step in and do what literature is no longer able to do: tell the truth about life,” we begin to recognize this scene of two men, who have suffered and inflicted immeasurable loss, as a scene of two men cycling back to and interrogating scenes and images for some elusive scrap of truth, a desperate attempt to recapture and articulate images now lost. The narrator writes, in the middle of another wormhole sentence, that,
those films whose fleeting traces of beauty can now only be conjured in words, as if the words could approximate the images and edits and cuts anymore than my words can make Emily—with her in-turned left foot and slight lisp and yellow plastic butterfly barrettes that held back her unwashed hair—anymore than my words can make her real for you like she was real for me . . .
This desire for words to reincarnate the lost resonates profoundly in the novel’s final pages, which provide the absolution of the title. While an absolution normally connotes closure, this absolution is inextricably bound up with new questions, leaving readers with a profound and unsettling sense of mystery. Indeed, after considerable time with this book, I still can’t say exactly what it’s doing or how it’s doing it. I want to keep thinking about it knowing I’ll never fully understand it, and I consider that the highest praise. Like the best of Borges (Borges, another film scholar and curator of secret histories), this novel has the erudite and exegetic tone that suggests answers and solutions, while understanding that riddles don’t resonate because of their answers, but because of what they ask.