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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Night Film

Marisha Pessl

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To purchase Night Film

Title: Night Film
Author: Marisha Pessl
Genre: Novel
Written: 2013
Length: 592 pages
Availability: Night Film - US
Night Film - UK
Night Film - Canada
Night Film - India
Die amerikanische Nacht - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B- : far too plodding

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist B 17/8/2013 .
Entertainment Weekly B 16/8/2013 Melissa Maerz
The Guardian D- 5/9/2013 Steven Poole
The LA Times D 15/8/2013 David L. Ulin
The NY Times D 15/8/2013 Janet Maslin
The NY Times Book Rev. B 18/8/2013 Joe Hill
Publishers Weekly . 10/6/2013 .
The Telegraph A 2/9/2013 Elena Seymenliyska
Wall Street Journal . 16/8/2013 Sam Sacks
The Washington Post A- 20/8/2013 Ron Charles

  From the Reviews:
  • "Ms Pessl swiftly veers from the standard whodunnit to deliver a more inventive, reality-warping tale about family curses, black magic and the manipulative influence of film. (...) Shrewd storytelling is marred by convenient confessions; high-octane thrills tempered by relentless exposition. Worst of all is Ms Pesslís penchant for italics, her constant need for emphasis undermining all subtlety. Yet for all its faults, Night Film is an engrossing yarn, full of twists and cliffhangers." - The Economist

  • "(I)t looks like Marisha Pessl has strung the story together from little scraps of jotted-down ideas -- ambitious ones, mostly, about the power of myth and the need for magic in an ordinary world, but also a few crazy ones (.....) Assuming you don't mind a little crazy, the first 400 pages of Night Film make for a masterful puzzle. (...) The trouble, though, arrives in the last 50 pages, with so many fake-out endings, it's hard to tell what happened, even in a literal sense." - Melissa Maerz , Entertainment Weekly

  • "The task of describing Cordova's own films in such a way that they justify the awestruck epithets heaped on them by the novel's characters, however, is too much for the author or at least Scott: they sound comically dull. (...) This is not an unremittingly bad book. (...) I counted one decent joke and one half-sentence of thoughtfully imagistic description" - Steven Poole, The Guardian

  • "It is also, at 600-plus pages, at least a third too long, an overwrought narrative that hints at much but delivers little and, for all its feints and twists, remains surprisingly unsuspenseful in the end. (...) This is a key problem with Night Film -- that it is driven less by the concerns of its characters than by a sense of authorial schematics, as if we were involved in an elaborate shadow play." - David L. Ulin, The Los Angeles Times

  • "But credibility problems plague Ms. Pessl from the moment she first toots the Cordova horn. His films sound terrible, at least as they are described here. (...) Ms. Pessl seems to take it on faith that her readers will want more than the page provides. But thatís hardly guaranteed. This is a book that plods along for 500 pages without developing any momentum at all. (...) There is a haunting suspicion running all through Night Film: that this book was more exciting to write than to read, and that Ms. Pessl reveled too contentedly in the universe she created." - Janet Maslin, The New York Times

  • "In the first two-thirds of the book, Pessl captures the feel of one of Kubrickís compact, relentless chillers, but during this not-quite-climactic climax, Night Film begins to feel more like one of his glacially paced statements -- Eyes Wide Shut, without the redeeming value of celebrity nudity." - Joe Hill, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Though the structure is classic noir, Pessl delivers lifelike horror with glimpses, in the form of faux Web sites, of the secretive Stanislas, his films, and his fans. Things slow down when Scott breaks into Stanislasís estate; sustained terror depends on what is withheld, not what is shown." - Publishers Weekly

  • "(L)ike a Japanese puzzle box, Night Film is a clever mystery, a tricksy construct that permits entry only after a complex set of precise manoeuvres. (...) Nothing else matters while there are pages to turn and, once the book is over, the world seems an emptier place." - , The Telegraph

  • "Night Film is a book made primarily of prose, and prose is just not Ms. Pessl's strong suit. (...) And when the book tries to evoke the horror of Cordova's films -- alleged to be so scary that watching them "is like passing through hell" -- with folderol about black magic and Satanism, the whole production collapses into a mishmash of B-movie camp and Twin Peaks fan fiction." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

  • "As a study of a great mythmaker, Night Film is an absorbing act of myth-making itself. (...) Part of the dastardly fun of this novel is the way Pessl folds the plots, characters and motifs of Cordovaís films into Scottís panicked investigation. Beneath its occult fragrance, Night Film is a rambling exploration of the way pop culture infects our expectations, our concepts of reality. (...) Unfortunately, Scott is much better as an unreliable narrator than as an efficient one. Cordova, the master editor, would have snipped at least 200 pages from this manuscript." - Ron Charles, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Night Film is narrated by disgraced investigative journalist Scott McGrath, undone in his attempt to write a piece on legendary but ultra-secretive and reclusive filmmaker Stanislas Cordova years earlier. The novel opens with the death of Cordova's daughter, Ashley, an apparent suicide at twenty-four. McGrath can't suppress the old investigative itch, and off he goes again, digging into the man and the myth that is Cordova.
       McGrath was a successful writer, with a couple of books under his belt, too. Now, at forty-three, he's divorced and only occasionally sees his young daughter (which seems to be for the best -- focused on getting the story, he's not a very good father). But his Cordova-investigation quickly lands him with an ersatz-family: there's the coat check girl-slash-actress Nora who had an encounter with Ashley shortly before her death, a waif who moves in with him (bringing along her parrot but little else). And there's the more slippery Hopper, who also has a connection to Ashley -- a stronger one than he initially lets on. The trio goes around digging into Cordova lore and trying to reconstruct what happened in Ashley's last days -- but find that some forces also seem to be conspiring against them. Certainly, the Cordova family don't seem to want anyone sniffing around this case.
       Night Film isn't just McGrath's account of what happens, as Pessl sprinkles in documentary bits as well: magazine articles, newspaper clippings, e-mails, screen-grabs from 'the Blackboards' (a secret and exclusive Cordova fan-site), and the like. They break up the text and it's not the worst way of presenting a bit of story-background -- a not-too-fancy narrative 'trick', of sorts, but welcome here in breaking up the largely monotone drone of McGrath's account.
       A basic problem with Night Film is that not one but two of the central figures remain largely intangible -- unseen and elusive. Worse yet, they're both super-human -- not just remarkable, but incredibly remarkable. Cordova is as legendary as legendary could be, Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, Geroge Lucas, Roger Corman, and Thomas Pynchon (among others) rolled into one. Ashley, meanwhile, was a child prodigy, her piano playing -- which she then mysteriously abandoned -- of an incredible (and adult) intensity and depth.
       Yes, Night Film is the story of a search for these two characters, but with them basically off-stage throughout the novel. It's a hard trick to pull off, and Pessl's still-limited storytelling chops don't help. A few newspaper and magazine articles -- Ashley's obituary, a Time spread on father and daughter -- fill in the basics early on, but Pessl struggles in adding piece by uncovered piece to the picture; eventually she succumbs and offers some lengthy second-hand accounts by those who had personal relationships with one or the other, the only way she can pack the information she needs to convey in.
       The big problem with Cordova is that he is, pretty much, all legend, so readers have to base their picture of him on the words of McGrath and those he quotes; alas, it never really feels convincing. Notorious for living in seclusion and filming on the estate he apparently never leaves, there are few reliable accounts of anything to do with Cordova. Even his films are hard to come by -- and the mere claim that they are transformative and brilliant isn't enough to really convince readers. And, to compound matters, Pessl has most of those who have been in any way in contact with Cordova claim it to be a distinctly surreal experience:

Surely you've noticed that the space around Cordova distorts. The closer you get to him, the speed of light slackens, information gets scrambled, rational minds grow illogical, hysterical. It's warped space-time, like the mass of a giant sun bending the area surrounding it. You reach out to seize something so close to find it was never actually there.
       That's setting the bar pretty high; disappointingly, Pessl almost never comes close to convincingly conveying that.
       McGrath's investigation, with his two new sidekicks, Nora and Hopper, proceeds fairly slowly -- though somehow McGrath manages to stumble from one clue (of sorts) to the next, and finds the right people to talk to. But Pessl proceeds very much by the numbers -- you can almost see the chart she wrote out beforehand and which she constantly consults to keep track of her proceedings -- and this is about as plodding as a thriller can get. There are lots of break-ins and trespasses, and a few chases, there's a secret club and people living in seclusion. There's even some witchcraft, or black magic, or some similar nonsense ("'Definitive evidence of doll magic,' Cleo blurted excitedly into the receiver, relaying what I'd just explained") -- meant, presumably, to spice things up by offering yet another alternative for McGrath (and readers) to consider in trying to make sense of all the goings-on. Some of these episodes are enjoyable (though most bog down on the individual level, too), with a few (though too few ...) creative touches; Pessl's florid style is nicely broken up by the dialogue-heavy presentation, which livens things up a bit. (The overuse of italics is, however, grating -- it's not at a Tom Wolfe exclamatory level, but it's pretty bad.)
       Considered just in summary, there seems to be a lot of potential here (i.e. you can see how the few-page book proposal was an easy sell). Yes, Cordova (and his films) and even Ashley are exaggerated elements, but the nutty, dark filmmaker and his ways are certainly intriguing. As important, Pessl actually has some decent answers on offer in the resolution of the novel's mystery elements: both the answer to what happened to Ashley (and why), as well as the mystery of present-day Cordova are entirely satisfying. The problem is pretty much all in the presentation -- and that's a pretty big problem. This is one long-winded thriller (and a long one at that), and any excitement is rarely sustained for more than a page or two. It's not exactly a boring book -- Pessl stuffs enough action in to keep readers moderately curious where it will all lead -- but it is a slog. And despite some decent answers to the mystery, even the resolutions, as presented, aren't very satisfying (and, like everything in the novel, just drawn out too long).
       There are tantalizing small bits of a real thriller strewn all about here, with all the unusual elements Pessl throws in, from Corodova's dark movies to his personal style to some very weird goings-on at his estate, and there are moments when she seems to be onto something. There's a nice creepy sense to exchanges such as:
     "So, you'd like to know about Cordova, dearies," Marlowe whispered.
     "Yes," said Nora.
     "You sure ? Some knowledge, it eats you alive."
       But, as so often, Pessl sets the bar way too high for her limited abilities and here too the let-down quickly follows every hopeful twinge of apprehension.
       Night Film isn't nearly the thriller it's meant to be. Disappointing.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 August 2013

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Night Film: Reviews: Marisha Pessl: Other books by Marisha Pessl under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Marisha Pessl was born in 1977.

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© 2013 the complete review

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