Published by Summit Books / Chicago Review Press, 1991, 608 pages.
“[E]ntertainment rules more lives than art and rules them more despotically. People don’t put up their guard when they’re being entertained. The images and the messages slip through and take hold deeper.”
Flicker is a thriller, a history of film (with a conspiracy theory thrown in) and a cautionary tale about the power of movies.
Jonathan Gates, a young film student in Los Angeles, becomes obsessed with a German B-grade movie director called Max Castle. He discovers Castle’s films at The Classic, “the best film repertory film house west of Paris… a legendary little temple of arts wedged between Moishe’s Strictly Kosher Deli and Best Buy Discount Goods”. The Classic is run by Clare Swann and Sharkey, who handles the antiquated movie projector.
Jonathan begins an affair with Clare, who is a trenchant film critic. She hunts out forgotten films to show at The Classic, and finds a copy of Castle’s lost film, Judas Castle. The film leaves them uneasy, feeling unclean.
Jonathan becomes an expert on Castle, tracking down his films and finding the few people who knew him. Thanks to him, the films find a cult audience.
In his search for the elusive Castle, Jonathan keeps coming across the Orphans of the Storm, a powerful sect. Descended from the Cathars, the sect sees the body as a living hell and advocates not bringing children into the world, not by killing but turning people off sex. This puts them in direct opposition to the Catholic church, which encourages procreation. In the Middle Ages, the Cathars were hunted down by the Church and went into hiding.
The modern Orphans of the Storm has partly emerged from the shadows and is known for taking care of abandoned children. However, its real power has never been acknowledged. Its influence is far-reaching—having infiltrated politics, entertainment and everything else, the Orphans spread their creed, always behind the scenes. The young Orphans are taught film-making and how to insert images under the actual film—the flicker—that has a subliminal effect. Castle is an Orphan but fell out of favour because of his independence.
Meanwhile, Clare becomes a respected film critic and lives in New York. The theatre is taken over by Sharkey, who is showing mostly low-grade films, with lots of violence and sex. Like the films of Arthur Dunkle, an 18-year-old who makes graphically violent films.
Dunkle’s films take the world by storm—it’s not just the kids who love him but also the critics. Jonathan hates the films but can see the skill with which they had been made. To him, they signal the loss of taste, of real storytelling. Not surprisingly, Dunkle is one of the Orphans. Jonathan, still on the trail of Castle, uses the excuse of interviewing him to get into the orphanage in LA. But the more he learns, he gets deeper he gets. Until he takes one step too far.
I read Flicker in the early 1990s and thought it was brilliant. It didn’t make it to my top 15 books, but came close. This year, I decided to reread some of these books and see whether I felt the same about them.
It was an interesting experience. There was a lot I had forgotten about it. I remembered Jonathan, Claire (a wonderful creation), the Classic, the inserting of images and the twist in the tale but everything else felt new. It’s a good story, and I can’t resist convoluted plots. But reading it now, I found it much more disturbing and bleaker. Maybe it’s the times we live in: the graphic violence in films and the way AI has seeped into our lives makes it feel almost believable. And like a good conspiracy theory, it’s impossible to prove or disprove. Not that I’m saying I believe any of this happened—this is, after all, fiction—but it left me feeling uneasy, in the way I imagine Max Castle’s films would. This is not a book that you will forget, and believe me, you will never see a film in quite the same way again.
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