From a Google Image Search – You Tube
Anthony Marra’s most recent book is called Mercury Pictures Presents. I decided to read his book A Constellation of Vital Phenomena first and that did give me a glimpse into his most important theme, war, its absurdities and dislocations. This time we are focused on a village in Italy, San Lorenzo in the time of Mussolini and Hitler, in World War II. Two young people from that village end up in Los Angeles, escaping the constant fear of a misstep that will inspire the local commissioner to put you in a box under the floor of the jail and force you to suffer a sentence of isolation and sensory deprivation.
We begin in the office of Artie Feldman, head of Mercury Pictures where we meet one of those young San Lorenzo escapees, Maria Lagana, daughter of Giuseppe Lagana, once an occupant of the San Lorenzo isolation cell. Maria is Artie’s extremely talented assistant, a woman in a man’s business who is trying to change her fate and produce movies. We also meet Artie’s varied collection of toupees, named and displayed on wooden mannequin heads. Nearby is a perfect model of the entire grounds of Mercury Pictures right down to the back lots, in miniature.
In San Lorenzo we meet the villagers whose lives, once placid and one might even say boring, have been turned chaotic because of a dictator who leads by fear and threats, creating rules that are impossible to keep track of and all too easy to run afoul of. Maria’s father lives in this village. He is a photographer who takes photos for visas. He always takes two photos. One he uses for the visa. The second is torn in half and one half is given to the customer. Giuseppe’s address is on the back. He asks the traveler to send the other half back to him when they arrive at their destination. He rejoins the two halves and mounts them in an album.
Maria’s father takes in a young man who wants to learn photography. Although he was from San Lorenzo, he was a student for a law degree in Rome until he met Giuseppe, smelled the dark room chemicals, and saw the photo album of the travelers. With his first camera he was hooked. Through a complex set of circumstances this young man Antonio “Nino” Picone arrives in Los Angeles with a new name. He is Vincent Cortese, supposedly the son of Concetta Cortese. Maria knows his real name because the man who took him in is her father. She wants nothing to do with him.
The motion picture industry in Los Angeles is competitive and unstable. Your studio can be popular and rich at one moment and in dire circumstances the next depending on the quality of the movies the studio produces and the acceptance of movie goers. Once Japan bombs Pearl Harbor America gets involved in war movies which are important as propaganda for the war effort. However, there is a problem with capturing war footage or photos that show the drama of modern warfare. Most battles happen at night and photography cannot film action at night beyond bursts of light from weapons. In the daytime everyone is asleep in a trench, unwilling to risk daylight exposure to the enemy. Nino, now Vincent Cortese, left his law studies to become a war photographer. He can document the preparations for battle and the aftermath of battle, but not the actual battle. The Japanese have been interned in camps and other foreign nationals from enemy nations have severe limitations on their movements. Since it is difficult to make a believable war movie given the current way war is waged Mercury Pictures uses the miniaturist who created the model in the front office, a refugee from Germany, to build a scale model of her old Berlin neighborhood so it can be bombed and filmed to look authentic.
Eventually Nino does return to San Lorenzo, and he travels around Italy filming the aftermath of war. He is sent to a small Italian village to recreate the capture of the village using the techniques he learned at Mercury Pictures to make it look like he was embedded in the original battle. “Ninety percent of the shots the moviegoing public associated with war drama realism were physically impossible outside the sound stage. The other ten percent were only possible by sacrificing the cameraman,” the author tells us.
This is a plot-driven novel, and the plot is complicated. We do get attached to the characters although sometimes the San Lorenzo characters can get a bit confusing. Somehow at the end it all comes together. Thematically, since we are experiencing war through the lenses of cameras we are removed from the horrors of war and we are with the civilians, experiencing the war as it affected people “behind the scenes.” Our point of view does not make war any more palatable. The movie connection is what makes the novel interesting and unique. The commentary on war is the author’s passion. War permits humans to act in extremely inhumane ways, which are often horrific, and occasionally absurd. It took me a long time to read this one, but it was because life kept interrupting.