A long-retired moviemaker recalls the early days of silent films in Smith’s atmospheric follow-up to The Last Painting of Sara De Vos (2016, etc.).
In 1962, 85-year-old Claude Ballard lives in a run-down Hollywood hotel and spends his days gathering mushrooms and photographing street scenes. He has not made a movie since his “grand cinematic experiment,” The Electric Hotel, appeared in 1910. As his reminiscences to young film scholar Martin Embry unfold, we eventually learn the reasons for his decision, but first we get a wonderfully vivid re-creation of the spell cast by the earliest films, when photographer’s apprentice Claude sees the Lumière brothers’ first reels exhibited in the basement of a Paris hotel in 1895: “every inch of the screen was alive…you burrowed into the screen, dug it out with your gaze.” His work for the Lumières takes him to New York, where the audience’s loud response to a moving picture next door to her theater infuriates touring French actress Sabine Montrose. She winds up in bed with Claude and in the new medium; buccaneering producer Hal Bender finds them a studio perched over the Palisades in New Jersey, where he hopes to elude Thomas Edison’s litigious Motion Picture Patents Company. Smith skillfully blends film history with the adventures of his cast; a Stanislavsky-obsessed acting coach and an Australian stuntman are among the intriguingly idiosyncratic folks who join Sabine, Claude, and Hal, each haunted by damage a parent has inflicted, to joyously invent a new art form. The novel climaxes with a brilliantly detailed account of the filming of The Electric Hotel and its triumphant premiere, followed by multiple blows that have been deftly foreshadowed. The account of Claude’s traumatic experiences filming the devastation of World War I is something of a letdown, but a final scene with Sabine ties up emotional loose ends, and Martin’s screening of the restored Electric Hotel provides a moving finale.
A compelling plot, robust characters, and finely crafted prose richly evoke a bygone age and art.