Movies in Literature Part 1: Walker Percy’s ‘The Moviegoer’ (continued)



The above painting is Edward Hopper’s New York Movie (1939.) It is well known that Hopper was heavily influenced by cinema in his painting style.. This painting actually depicts a cinema (the screen is on the far left.) I’ll get to this in a little while, but first let’s start with The Moviegoer (1960) and the short sequence from the last post, which opens Walker Percy’s novel. If you haven’t read this yet I suggest going back to it before reading this post..

It’s a strange and fascinating sequence. Not unlike much of the rest of the novel, which seems to flit from one idea to the next without any apparent narrative ‘motivation.’ The motivation is instead very much psychological and seems to serve the purpose of placing us squarely within the psyche of this man and thus the mindset of a moviegoer. Which begs the question, What does Percy think goes on in the mind of a moviegoer?

Well o.k., firstly I’d better warn you that I think the answer is ‘pretty dark stuff’.. He seems to be comparing movies and moviegoing to denial (1.) Acting like a soldier at hearing of one’s brother’s death would surely not really be a good idea.. Let it all out, that’s what I say. And the memory of this injunction and his apparent contentedness to follow it reminds our protagonist of a movie he saw in which a character up and leaves his whole life behind to start anew. Admittedly it’s blamed on amnesia, but this was a typical trope of post-WW2 film noir, usually with some relation (however metaphorical) to a wish to forget, i.e. deny/repress, the traumatic experience(s) of WW2. It seems rather that cinema has become our character’s method, in his adult life, of continuing this controlling of his emotions (2.)

There is something extremely perverse about the fact that our character says ‘It was a fine night and I felt good. Overhead was the blackest sky I ever saw; a black wind pushed the lake toward us.’ I guess a black sky might denote a lack of rain clouds (!) tho this is hardly our initial impression. Rather the character seems to be relishing in darkness which I would say is the darkness of depression; just as Churchill famously called depression his ‘black dog.’ I like the way in this sequence the real world seeps into the movies in the sound of the waves and conversely the movies blare out to the outside world from the sidewalk speaker. This interchangeability of the two spaces finds a purpose when we realise that pleasure in ‘the blackest sky’ outside is for our character only an extension of the darkened room of a cinema. Our character’s moviegoing is presented as not merely a pastime, but as something that envelops his life, a dark sky of depression and denial, which he seems to relish.

I think this is the point at which we can begin to compare this sequence with Hopper’s painting above. Here we equally have a dark, slightly depressive cinema, its audience, on the left of the image, pointedly male and in shadow. And the girl on the right of the frame could very easily be Linda, the secretary in this sequence of The Moviegoer, all dressed up, with movie-star glamour, but with no-place to go – solemn and pointedly abstaining from watching the film. In New York Movie she’s an usherette; in The Moviegoer she’s the secretary and girlfriend – in both cases money has something to do with the situation, tho it is not necessarily everything..

Percy and Hopper even both choose to define their ladies by the colour blue (the usherette wears blue while Linda likes to dance in the Blue Room); in both cases this is in contrast to the male black. That said, I don’t think either of these texts have a great deal invested in an overt feminist critique of patriarchy. Yet they can both be read as to some degree sympathetic to women’s struggles within patriarchy, each for example emphasising the woman’s negative emotions in her situation. In fact they register these emotions in very similar ways since the description of Linda in The Moviegoer could just as easily be that of this usherette, as she ‘stood by unhappily.’ The ‘standing by’ is essential here, pointing to the characters as being on the periphery, i.e. outside of patriarchy.

The most significant difference between these texts is that in New York Movie we remain within the cinema – the real world is really only a mysterious possibility, up the stairs.. Indeed, as already noted, the usherette looks like a movie-star.. She’s in a way not an entirely real person, still part of the dream, like a ‘real’ person in a David Lynch movie maybe (3.) (That’s not to say that there isn’t enough reality in her for us to register her unhappiness, as noted in the previous paragraph, however; just that she comes across as significantly more trapped within the movie world.) I’d say The Moviegoer offers some level of contrast to this. Linda forces the protagonist’s hand as she gets him to take her dancing. And the crashing of the waves create a racket that you can hear even from inside the cinema. The waves offer up something more elemental than cinema and also don’t really lend themselves to being perceived as merely a projection of the protagonist’s mind, as the black sky does..

Each perspective has its purpose. In the Hopper painting, we are trapped in the insular, unified world of the cinema. The faux-glamour of the orange lights above the patrons is parodied by the simplicity of the orange lights by the usherette. Yet at the same time these may not be the opposites we first take them to be. The added orange of the curtains add to the sense of the cinema as a unified universe. This speaks of  the way in which Hollywood cinema can suck us into its narcissistic self-reflexivity, without first warning us that we may never get out.. 

In contrast, Percy in The Moviegoer wants us to be aware of an alternative to cinema and to the life of a moviegoer, which as I’ve suggested is perceived as one of denial. We can see this reflected in the style of this sequence, and indeed the book as a whole, with each paragraph seeming to jump on from the previous without filling in the gaps. This is a style that is maintained throughout the book, so that while it’s easy to read for plot, it’s much more difficult to actually understand its ideas (tho well worth the effort..) This jumping-ahead is just like the idea of a kid acting like a soldier, denying past trauma rather than working it through – simply ploughing on ahead without reflection. Since the book rigidly follows the thoughts of its central character, we come to recognise the falsity of this way of living.

A good example of Percy’s wish to show the world outside of the Hollywood image can be seen in the aberration of this cinema to which the protagonist and his girlfriend go. We hear it was built in the hope that it would be one part of a suburb that would grow out to meet it. The suburb never grew and the cinema is instead an absurd ‘pink stucco cube, sitting out in a field all by itself.’ Thus on the macrocosmic scale we see this idea of jumping-ahead without thought. It is a cinema, yet it is the antithesis of the glamour that Hollywood promises. It represents a dream that went horribly wrong..


(1) Percy appears to be influenced by Jean-Paul Sartre who argues in Being and Nothingness that the individual chooses projects for himself which can be harmful but which allow him a sense of identity, of his ‘being.’ Acting like a soldier might be considered one such ‘project’ for our protagonist, aimed at denying his emotions, and moviegoing is a ‘determination’ of this project, meaning that it is another project determined by the first project. Sartre would have us believe that this acting like a soldier is also a ‘determination’ of yet another project that is broader still and that this pattern of ‘determinations’ will lead us back ultimately to the character’s failure to attain ‘Authenticity’, which is the first ‘determinable’ causing a string of ‘determinations.’ This failure to attain ‘Authenticity’ Sartre labels ‘Bad Faith.’ In The Moviegoer the protagonist dramatises this concept of having a project as he returns continually to a rather vague project, which appears important to him but which is never really explained, which he calls ‘the Search.’ Percy may have developed Sartre’s ideas in his own direction.. A very easy, helpful and trustworthy summary of Sartre’s Existential Psychoanalysis can be found here.

(2) Incidentally, in Paul Auster’s Oracle Night the central character, an author, describes a very similar scenario as appearing as a minor aside-story in Dashiell Hammett’s novel of The Maltese Falcon, which never made its way into John Huston’s film.. I think it’s not amnesia but a near-death experience that causes the character Flitcraft to change his life, but there is a similarly bourgeois conclusion and a similar existentialist emphasis on this hope for a change being false, a case of ‘Bad Faith.’ Auster’s fictional novelist then writes his own version of the Flitcraft story in which the man ends up getting himself locked inside an underground nuclear bunker with the only key that could get him out on a man who has just died on the operating table. It’s tempting to imagine that Auster was thinking of this passage from Percy’s novel.. Or even that Percy was thinking of this section from Hammett.. Other films in Percy’s novel are named but this one is not, could Percy be playing with the relationship between literature and film? And does Auster know this? Is Auster quoting Percy, quoting Hammett while thinking of Huston. The answer to all of this is very likely no. But it gives me more than enough pleasure that the possibility exists..

(3) Thanks to Todd Swift for his suggestion of a link to David Lynch in this painting, which can be found here.


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