Fictional Academy Award-winning director Stanislas Cordova’s oeuvre consists of 15 films released from 1964 to 1996. As controversial as he is revered, his last five films were released independently and are collectively known as the “black tapes.” His fans, known as Cordovites, regularly stage secret showings of these films called red-band screenings. Enigmatic and reclusive, Cordova hasn’t been seen in public or granted an interview in years, but stories about Cordova’s family and lifestyle at his private estate, “The Peak,” are the stuff of urban legend. Stanislas Cordova is also the elusive focus of journalist Scott McGrath’s personal journey into the heart of darkness in Marisha Pessl’s second novel, Night Film.
Night Film opens with the apparent suicide of Cordova’s beautiful and talented 24-year-old daughter, Ashley. Her death piques the curiosity of Scott McGrath, an investigative journalist whose remarks about Cordova on a national television program resulted in a libel suit. Despite paying a substantial settlement to Cordova, McGrath still believes he is a dangerous man and he starts an investigation into Ashley’s suicide, intent on proving Cordova was somehow responsible for what happened to his daughter.
Joining McGrath in his quest are two strangers who have a connection to Ashley: Nora Halliday, a coat check girl who encountered Ashley shortly before her death, and Hopper Cole, who met Ashley when they were teenagers. As McGrath, Cole, and Halliday trace Ashley’s movements in her final weeks and unpack the mysterious nature of Cordova and his films, they learn the unsettling truth about a genius filmmaker and his family.
As a movie fan, I was interested in reading Night Film because the book’s plot and the character of Stanislas Cordova sounded intriguing. Pessl did not disappoint. Her characterization of Cordova and the descriptions of his films are so vibrant and detailed that I finished the book regretting that Cordova’s films do not exist in real life.
I’ll admit I had a rather mixed reaction to Night Film’s protagonist, Scott McGrath. On the surface the character seems awfully similar to Mikael Blomkvist from Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (both are divorced investigative journalists whose reputations are tarnished by high-profile libel suits). Scott’s investigation is compelling and the friendships he forms with Hopper and Nora are sincere and poignant. Ashley Cordova may be dead at the beginning of the book, but Pessl does a nice job bringing the character to life, so to speak, through newspaper and magazine articles, interviews with film actors and acquaintances, and, especially, through her relationship with Hopper.
Another effective aspect of Night Film is Pessl’s use of multimedia elements. These elements are extensive and include copies of internet slideshows, news articles, and web pages from the Blackboards, a secret web site dedicated to all things Cordova. The narrative is fast-paced and engaging, but these multimedia elements truly immersed me in Cordova’s life and work. This experience doesn’t end once the last page is turned. There’s even a free app for smartphones called the Night Film Decoder that readers can use to scan select pages of the book and access videos, audio clips, and slideshow presentations. The additional content is a lot of fun and complements Pessl’s vision of Cordova, his family, and his films.
“Mortal fear is as crucial a thing to our lives as love. It cuts to the core of our being and shows us what we are.”
– Stanislas Cordova (Rolling Stone, December 1977)
Check the WRL catalog for Night Film