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Memphis Flyer Movie Madness

By Leonard Gill

Pandaemonium, By Leslie Epstein St. Martin's, 398 pp., $24.95

AUGUST 4, 1997:  Since its publication in 1939, Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust has served as "the quintessential novel of Hollywood" for the simple reason that West knew better than anyone to keep the rottenness he was depicting to scale, to petty scale if necessary to distinguish the true horror. Even the book's climactic riot scene is, in riot terms, small potatoes, and the ensuing holocaust only an imagined one on the part of a single character. But West's minor masterpiece had something else going for it too -- a dissociation of sensibility I leave to Edmund Wilson to note as the book's "peculiar combination of amenity of surface and felicity of form and style with ugly subject matter and somber feeling."

Sixty years after The Day of the Locust, small-mindedness and Hollywood plague us still, but the word holocaust now comes with a capital "H" and rottenness seems to know no scale. The answer, if it's a darker history of the movie industry you seek and another dark history of the 20th century you can stand, is Leslie Epstein's novel Pandaemonium, a 400-page page-turner set in California and across Europe during the late 1930s/early '40s and displaying that peculiar combination Wilson described, minus one ingredient: the somber feeling.

What we get from Pandaemonium's author is a very peculiar combination of high seriousness and crude comedy, demon figures out of history and outrageous invention, and cruelties on top of cruelties to make one wonder if this may be the first fictional narrative on record to suffer from multiple-personality disorder. When, in overlapping scenes, you have an aged, Jewish studio head pitifully giving in to Hitler's terms, Hitler's mistress masturbating astride an elevator handle, and Peter Lorre (yes, Peter Lorre) trying to make sense of the comical rise and fall of that same elevator, you'll get a taste of the pathology displayed here -- and a taste of what you are or are not willing to put up with in this crowded balancing act of a novel.

Lorre (born Laszlo Lowenstein) is the on-again, off-again narrator, and we see him suffering on every possible front. He despises his Mr. Moto roles and craves the better ones offered to him, dotes on actress/star Magdalena Meza-ray, lusts after his "Queen B," Rochelle Hudson, submits to the dictatorial demands of the inspired and impossible director Rudolph Von Beckmann, and carries with him evidence, should anyone stop to listen, that the Jews in Europe are disappearing.

During this same period, though, it's the day-to-day business of Granite Films in Los Angeles to turn out grade-B fodder and generally outdo in dollars what the competing studios outdo Granite in "artistry." (In the head-to-head title match for most vulgar movie mogul, Epstein uses real-life names and calls it a draw.)

When catastrophe strikes the set of Mr. Moto Wins His Spurs, Von Beckmann removes cameras, cast, and crew to a remote desert setting, starts filming on a Western version of his dream production of Antigone (retitled Pan-daemonium), and works his indominitable will before completely losing his mind. In the process, cast and crew are put on water rations, consigned to a mineshaft for insubordination, brainwashed into a distrust of outsiders, and, acting strictly on orders, turn a staged massacre of marauding Indians into a real-life massacre of, in Von Beckmann's view, a lesser race of men. (On the side of pure accident, however, gossip columnist Louella Parsons steers the propeller of a DC3 into Victor Granite, thus making his warring brother, Manfred, literally sole studio head.)

Killings and complications too numerous to mention follow, but the real killer for Granite Studios is Pandaemonium's premiere date on the evening of December 7, 1941. The film is shelved in the U.S., but never underestimate the magic of the movies. Pandaemonium the book closes with Pandaemonium the film succeeding quite nicely projected on a white sheet before delighted natives stoned on betel nuts in the forests of Borneo.

As a youngster in Hollywood during the period covered in this novel -- the author's father and uncle, who act as wisecracking funnymen throughout Pandemonium, wrote the screenplay for Casablanca -- Leslie Epstein may have grown up amid tantrum-throwing grown-ups. But when it comes to his portrayal of Jewish dominance in the film industry, satire this savage begins to look like unworked-through self-loathing. Let's hope, then, he's got some things out of his system. I shudder to think of Epstein following Hollywood's suit by invading television and supplying us with Pandaemonium II: The Next Generation.

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