Just Because You’re Paranoid
A film of Joseph McElroy’s Lookout Cartridge
Directed by Steve Villa

Review by Garrett Rowlan

It had been a paranoid’s dream double-bill, Antonioni’s Blow Up followed by the ill-fated film version of Joseph McElroy’s Lookout Cartridge, which ended about eleven-thirty at night. The twenty or so people who’d stayed for the second movie walked out of the New Beverly Cinema in West Los Angeles and into drizzle.
Down the street, they were shooting a movie, garish arc lights cut through the mist, illumination amplified by water.
We stood outside the theater, huddled in our jackets against the cold, drinking the last of the Expresso that the snack bar served, gabbing, looking down the street at the film crew. I wondered if anyone looked back; such was the effect of Lookout Cartridge.
I always thought it was curious choice to film McElroy’s 1974 novel, four years after its release. The book was hardly a commercial success, though it has had its private devotees, intrigued by the unusual narrative style: the flat, first person narration that reproduces in prose the two-dimensional world of the film-watching experience. In Lookout Cartridge consciousness is a camera and memories are flashbacks, spliced into remembrance. A writer’s writer, McElroy’s been called, which is usually the kiss of commercial death. (Though I note that the Overlook Press re-released the book in November, 2003, perhaps the movie’s own curious history has re-spurred interest!) In the movie, as in the book, the protagonist Cartwright searches to know just what images his documentary film had contained that induced certain entities to destroy it, steal the diary associated with its making, and murder a woman connected to its financing. The first time that I’d seen this film in this same theater, fifteen years ago, I was disappointed that the movie didn’t condense and, frankly, make sense of the book’s roving and complicated narration. McElroy’s plot, unlike the conventional “mystery,” isn’t deductive, but rather partakes of an induction that increasingly suggests subplots and characters and doesn’t solve the mystery it raises, at least to this reader.
Certainly, the movie reproduces the book’s scenes of intrigue and danger, yet there is an oddly context-less quality to them, suggestive of the documentary film that Cartwright and his partner, the ominously named Dagger DiGorro, had filmed. The novel’s many locations – places like Corsica, Stonehenge, and the Standing Stones of Callanish – are reproduced in the film, creating vast slabs of scenery seemingly unconnected to the foreground drama.
“Interesting movie,” I muttered to someone.
“Maybe more interesting for what it leaves out.”
I knew what he meant. The film was a flop. It didn’t even have the hip, ironic, or stylish touches that would have inspired a cult. It had never graced the multiplexes, nor been released on video. It went straight to revival. It starred one Wes Blake who did a credible slouch as Cartwright, moving through landscapes and city streets in a trench coat only to find himself spliced into moments of ominous dialog that floated free of context, like some broken floe drifting over a northern sea. I knew that the movie had been funded in ways that its producer had been unable or unwilling to mention before he’d died in a car “accident” (his BMW was found in a ditch) shortly after the film’s release. “The movie I produced was never made,” he said in a final interview. This failing was not simply a matter of “creative differences” but, in a bizarre example of life imitating art, certain portions of the film had gone missing between the location shoot and editing room. (Perhaps, some have speculated, the footage was burned, the same fate that befell the novel's documentary film.) As a result, the finished movie was like a jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing.
Tonight’s showing had been advertised as “The Director’s Cut,” which was rather a poor pun, considering that the director, one Steve Villa, had died of a knife wound administered in a New York alleyway, shortly after the Lookout Cartridge was released.
“The director’s cut,” I asked the man. “Did you see anything that looked restored?”
“Some additional footage,” he said. “Nothing conclusive.”
“Conclusive?”
“You know. Something that might have been there that even the filmmaker’s didn’t know. That’s what happened in the novel. Perhaps it happened in the film. Did you see anything?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Those shots of the silos in the distance. They had some kind of lettering around their sides.”
“What do you think the lettering said?”
“I don’t know.”
(On the other side of the crowd, a woman spoke into her cell phone. She seems to have angled the instrument toward me. Is it one of those that can take a picture?)
“I don’t know either,” the man said.
The drizzle increased to a light rain. By ones and twos, the small knot of people gathered outside the theater began to peel away, head down the street toward their cars. I did the same. I walked in the direction of the film location, then turned down the side street, past dark houses with sloping lawns and the parked cars that usually gathered around the New Beverly. Footsteps behind me faded as engines coughed into life and cars drove away. I crossed a second street and, as I approached my own vehicle, a heard a fresh set of footsteps coming my way.

(Entry by Garrett Rowlan)