Book review: The Electric Hotel by Dominic Smith

(cover image courtesy Allen & Unwin)

History is all too often the art of looking back at facts and not personalities.

When we examine the big epoch-defining events of our time and those that preceded it, we are often apt to look at what took place rather than who made it take place.

That is largely because facts are often, though not always, easier to corral than messy cat-herding motivations of people, but it does mean that we often take in history shorn of the very humanity that gave it life and meaning in the first place.

Dominic Smith’s superlatively well-written novel, The Electric Hotel tries in its own, highly-successful way to right that omission, albeit by inserting fictional people into events that came to define how we, quite literally, see ourselves at the start of the twentieth century.

Taking its title from an era-defining film by director Claude Ballard – all fictional but representative of films of the time which took an early revolutionarily transformative invention of Auguste and Louis Lumière which allowed moving images to be projected onto a screen and ran with it – the book takes an arrestingly affecting deep dive into the relationship between the director and his muse, mercurial and self-absorbed though glamorous French actress Sabine Montrose.

A pioneer of cinema who began an agent for the Lumière brothers before striking out on his own, an act of independence that both blessed and cursed him, Claude is a man who finds himself, in the early 1960s, living alone in an L.A. hotel, the Knickerbocker, well past its prime, sealed into his hotel room and deliberately cut off from the technological leaps of the time such as modern cinema and the automobile, a prison of his past in many debilitating ways.

“Within minutes she had fallen asleep with her blindfold on. Claude lay awake for hours, staring into a whorl of darkness just below the ceiling, hie eyeglasses folded by the bed, his life a baffling and beautiful mystery. If there was an anchor point, some place to go back to and say here was the beginning of his ruin, it was here, in that hotel room, a hazy twilight floating between him and the moulded ceiling. He felt weightless, invisible, out of time. Something enormous has been roused in him and he thought Sabine Montrose was the cause of it.” (P. 76)

Into this captivity, which is not wholly damned with Claude going on foraging trips for mushrooms into nearby hills and photographing interesting people on Sunset Boulevard, comes Martin, a film student who is eager to explore and document the history of cinema and rightly sees the now 85-year-old Frenchman as a direct link to an age that has captivated him since he was a young boy working as a projectionist in his grandparents’ cinema in Texas.

Claude, still trapped in the detritus of his past which includes a harrowing period filming the bloodthirsty events of World War Two and being a victim of Thomas Edison’s ruthlessly monopolistic desire to control the nascent cinema industry absolutely and completely, is not interested at first but little by little finds himself opening up to Martin and in so doing, making peace with past events that had long haunted him.

Martin’s interviews provide the book with a perfect way of moving between past and present and of opening up a period of history of which much is known, even if the many of the films that it produced are not lost, tragically, to the ages, but whose personalities, the people who made it all come to pass, aren’t as well appreciated.

The result is an utterly immersive and profoundly affecting book which examines what it means to live a large and vibrant, epoch-defining life only to have it ripped out from under you by forces well beyond your control, those within and without.

Dominic Smith (image courtesy Allen & Unwin)

Filled to judiciously-used bursting with a myriad of facts about the early days of cinema and the people who pushed it along from small minutes-long, plot-less snatches of moving images to the hours-long storytelling we know today, The Electric Hotel is an exquisite joy, a book subsumes you in gloriously imaginative fashion in an era that appeared, and was to a large extent, endlessly glamorous and ambitiously otherworldly but which also came with more than its fair share of life shattering developments.

In a perfect world, for instance, Claude’s magnum opus, The Electric Hotel, would have been gone onto stellar success, ushering in luminous careers for all concerned in its production from Claude and Sabine to Australian stuntman Chip Spalding and cinema impresario Hal Bender but we do not, alas, inhabit such a place.

Instead, we live in flawed and broken place in which usurpers claim the cinema crown, truly talented people are sidelined as collateral damage of a corporate drive to creative and technical domination, and lives are sullied and ruined in the aftermath.

It is also one in which poor decisions lead to lifelong loss, and people who once bestrode the world in all its glory and promise, find themselves locked away in its petering eddies, scraping to find a shard of the epic possibilities that once seemed easily there for the taking.

But while The Electric Hotel is brutally honest about how cruel and unforgiving life can be and how easily our hopes and dreams can be summarily dismissed and destroyed, it is also home to some profoundly beautiful and uplifting truths.

“It occurred to her sometime that summer that she was no longer afraid of the white days stretching out at the end of her life. It wasn’t happiness she’d found—she doubted she had the disposition or capacity for that abstraction—but joyous distraction, the wild good cheer of being alive and entertained by others. She had never felt so necessary, so amusing. Children were easy to make laugh—you imitated them, pouted when you didn’t get your own way, sang at importune moments, played with accents, and belched when they least expected it. She gave herself completely to them, treated them as her confidants and co-conspirators.” (P. 255)

It puts forward the idea that while much can be lost, something can be regained and often from the unlikeliest of sources.

Claude, at the time of meeting Martin, is convinced his life has run its course; not that he is close to death for there is a stunted vitality and curiosity to him still, but simply that everything new and possible has long ago, very long ago, been realised, and that what awaits him is more of the same and nothing new and redemptive.

But Martin’s arrival, slowly but surely and quite realistically in a way that feels deeply human and real, ushers in the kind of change Claude, a man who once dreamed of the impossible and found a way through cinema to create it, no longer thought was within his grasp.

The Electric Hotel is gently honest about what this late stage re-invention and redemption looks and feels like, but it doesn’t make it any less affecting with the book taking us to the pain of the past and the listlessness of the present and then beyond in gorgeously well-written passages that carry with them wholly beautiful and insightful windows into the vagaries of the human condition.

A book that acknowledges both how powerfully rewarding and intimately destructive hopes and dreams can be in their rise and their fall, The Electric Hotel is a wholly absorbing delight that takes much of what is known about the early days of cinema and gives them perspective-transforming human form and emotion, enriching history and our understanding of one of the great inventions of our time in ways that linger far beyond the final narratively rich and poetically infused page.

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