The enigma at the heart of Marisha Pessl’s sophomore novel, Night Film, is a dark, mysterious movie director. Stanislav Cordova seems part Kubrick, part Godard, part Hitchcock, part Herzog. The suicide of Cordova’s daughter becomes the catalyst that plunges disgraced journalist Scott McGrath deep into Cordova’s orbit. In trying to understand the girl’s death, McGrath and his sidekicks (a wannabe actress named Nora and a pretty-boy, drug dealer named Hopper) descend into Cordova’s world and much of the novel’s tension comes from wondering if they’ll solve the mystery and, even if they do, will they ever escape Cordova’s dark world. But for all that the novel explores film as an art form, and the troubling genius of the auteur, Night Film revels in literary references, jokes, and twists. As such, the novel embraces its Post-Modern bridging of genres (including insets of photographs, news articles, and webpages, as well as an app that reveals hidden content) while remaining deeply, playfully literary.
Rather than detail all the literary jokes and references (many of which I’m sure I missed), here are a few presented for your consideration:
Ashley Brett Cordova: The mysterious director’s daughter is beautiful, bold, a musical prodigy, a potential vessel of evil, and/or a victim of her father’s dark vision. Her name also inverts that of one of Ernest Hemingway’s most challenging heroines, Lady Brett Ashley of The Sun Also Rises. Both women are burdened by their beauty and both defy the limitations put on them by a restrictive society. And depending on your perspective, both ruin the men who swarm to them like moths to a flame becoming “Circes who turn men into swine.” Are both women witches (literally? metaphorically?) or victims of patriarchal systems?
“Do I Dare?” (*mild spoilers*): As the director’s personal motto, one which he forces on his children and acolytes alike, this phrase asks the individual how far she is willing to go to experience life and break out of social norms and expectations. It reminds the individual to avoid being safe, to ask when presented with any possibility, “Do I dare?”.
However, this phrase “Do I dare?” comes from the T. S. Eliot poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (which the novel informs the reader straight away). And “Prufrock” is no “suck out all the marrow of life” poem. Instead, it’s a modernist, anti-heroic examination of a person who lives perpetually by the rules, a weak man who doesn’t “dare” do much of anything. One of his final pleas comes down to “Do I dare eat a peach?”, even this simple act of sensual pleasure seeming beyond his abilities. Thus, Pessl’s use of “Do I dare?” as the Cordova motto might be a gross misstep on her part or, more compellingly, an intriguing ambiguity or misreading at the core of Cordova’s worldview.
The Heart of Darkness (*proper spoilers*): In significant ways, Night Film‘s Scott McGrath mirrors Marlow from Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness (with Cordova as the enigmatic Kurtz). Both McGrath and Marlow narrate his story, and each details his fascination with a man who seems equal parts compelling and disturbing. Conrad’s Africa becomes Pessl’s world of Cordova cinema, not only the movies but also the estate in which Cordova lives and makes his films, The Peak. Both novels also comment on their historical moment, seeking to explore the savagery underneath society’s veneer of restraint, control, and respectability. And, of course, Heart of Darkness inspired Francis Ford Copolla’s masterful film Apocalypse Now, lending further credence between the literary-filmic connections in Night Film. Heart of Darkness ultimately seems Pessl’s greatest inspiration, her novel a post-modern retelling of Marlow’s tale.