Long before I started writing book reviews, I had a steady (unpaid) gig writing movie reviews (and still contribute occasional, long-form film articles to DailyGrindhouse.com and Cinedump.com, for anyone who just can’t get enough of me and my sweet, sweet opinions). I have BA’s in English and Film Studies, and have written stage plays, a novel, and a screenplay adaptation of that novel. To paraphrase what is, as best I can tell, an OG William Saroyan zinger, I have forgotten more movies than most people will ever know. I can even admit now, through the 4K HD lens of hindsight, that it was kind of a problem for a while there. I definitely needed to get out more.
I don’t say all this to be a film snob (okay, well, maybe a little—the Marvel shit has gotten really out of hand), but rather as preamble to saying that despite all my hours of dedicated study—all my auteur binges and tracking shot rewinds and PoMo theorizing—no one class or director or film has ever made me think about the nature of performance—the nature of acting—quite like Samuel Kaye’s fascinating novel Cinema.
The book holds its center around Nick Clement—a mild-mannered cog, when we first meet him, in a nameless, characterless, meaningless corporate enterprise in Sydney, Australia—but soon begins spiraling out around him like a greased fire pole, winding ever deeper, down through a dizzyingly layered structure that feels equal parts Christopher Nolan and Charlie Kauffman. Almost before Nick even realizes what’s happening, he’s befriended a young screenwriter, and been cast to play Friedrich Engels opposite Daniel Day Lewis’ Karl Marx, Tilda Swinton’s Jenny von Westphalen, and Kate Winslet’s Viktoria Asarov (Marx’s longtime secretary and The Secret Writer of the film’s title). The globe-hopping, ultimately 4½-hour epic explores the story of Asarov’s own brilliant, unrealized novel about the nomadic Romani Gaurige family—which itself becomes a kind of film-within-the-film (complete with new lead Alan Rickman), and in which all the principals, including Nick, are cast as multiple, secondary characters who exist only within Asarov’s imagination (but who have also, of course, been informed by her real-life acquaintances—AKA the actors’ primary roles).
While all this might sound a little daunting, Kaye’s direct, disciplined writing style keeps this intertextual whirlwind spinning with the synchronous control of a pirouetting ballet troupe. Nearly every sentence of Cinema is a declarative statement, either of an action taking place, or a feeling being felt. It works as a decisively intentional corrective to the modern authorial mantra of “show don’t tell.” It’s all tell. It tells you everything. It actually refuses to let you get confused. The idea of the actor as medium rather than artist is one Kaye returns to again and again, and through this kind of stylistic, meta tour de force, Nick becomes a conduit for Kaye’s writing in much the same way that he does the film’s. Once he is deemed a preternatural talent by his more decorated costars (especially Daniel Day Lewis, whose dedication to method acting is cast as Nick’s polar opposite), slowly but surely, the effortless, affectless quality of his performance works to break down the invisible barriers between not only actor and role, or actor and text, but all the different roles he and his costars play within their own lives.
Despite the genuine fun of running around Europe and the South Pacific with some of the greatest actors of ours or any generation (and indeed, drafting well-known celebrities into his story is yet another subtle masterstroke among Cinema’s multilayered investigation of the nature of performance) perhaps the novel’sboldest risk is its commitment to Nick’s dreadfully dull former life in Sydney, a world completely removed from the hustle and glamour of the film shoot, but which he keeps a stubborn toe in throughout. Via a sea of exponentially banal jargon and arcane-bordering-on-absurdist bureaucratic nitpickery, Kaye creates a brilliant contrast between a supposedly “everyday” job where seemingly everything is hidden behind a polite firewall of subtext, and a “performative” job where subtext is all but eliminated (as well as crafting legitimately one of the best-realized deadpan satires of modern office culture you’ll ever read). For as crazy-making as the corporate sections can be, they are vital in driving home what feels like the book’s central argument: that humanity has grown so interconnected and self-aware that we can no longer help the fact that we are all acting, all the time (and that, perhaps because of this, self-identified, professional, capital-A “Acting” has supplanted everyday living as the most honest form of human expression).
For whatever reason, my Film Studies degree never really came out from behind the camera. I’ve never read Stanislavski or Strasberg, and can remember my professors mentioning them only in passing between entire lessons on things like mise en scène and diegetic vs. non-diegetic sound. With the tools I do have, I could happily spend another five paragraphs unpacking all of Cinema’s delicious twists and reveals; its thematic superimpositions and characters in triplicate—but I’m gonna check myself and cut things off here. Part of the joy of this book is feeling it unfold page by page, line by line, and anyone who considers themselves a film-lover should absolutely seek it out.
Just by way of closing, however, I would like to take a stylistic cue from Kaye and plainly state what a wonderfully strange sensation it was reading Cinema as a lifelong cinephile and realizing how very little I understood, or had really even thought about what most would consider a movie’s chief component—the acting (a sensation which maybe even mirrored Nick’s own experience of being swept into that world sight unseen). Through Nick’s and Day Lewis’ dueling styles, Kaye gets at the psychological toll of the craft, and the underlying instability and artifice of human identity, in ways that I will be turning over in my head for years to come. I like to think I’ve worked hard to find my voice and be my true self—authenticity is important to me in both my relationships and my work—but it’s impossible to deny that almost all of us self-censor and behavior-modulate for context daily. It’s the nature of the human brain, especially in the internet age. But then again, as Nick himself notes upon first reading the screenplay for The Secret Writer, the narrative ultimately isn’t about the characters at all—let alone the actors. They are each subject to the whims of time and fate and history and imagination, and their places in the story—even Asarov, the story’s ostensible author—are secondary to the story itself. They are the medium. The writing isn’t about them. They’re about the writing.
Cinema, by Samuel Kaye. Whiskey Tit, December 2020. 290 pages. $18.00, paper.
Dave Fitzgerald is a writer living and working in Athens, Georgia. He contributes sporadic film criticism to DailyGrindhouse.com and Cinedump.com, and his first novel, Troll, is set to be released early next year. He tweets @DFitzgerraldo.