Review: “Mercury Pictures Presents”, by Anthony Marra

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About halfway through the novel, Maria finds herself in the studio screening room browsing through a copy of “Triumph of the Will” as she helps oversee the studio’s new wartime efforts. As she watches Leni Riefenstahl’s infamous piece of Nazi propaganda—”infamous” precisely because of its cunning—she can’t help but wonder, “What were Hollywood’s valentines against this opus of domination?” How could a film industry historically prohibited from propaganda compete with a film industry created to resolutely pursue the goal?

What undermines Riefenstahl’s film for Maria, in the end, is its coldness, its ability to build spectacle “without betraying the slightest curiosity of human beings”. What drives Marra’s novel, conversely, is the opposite: an almost limitless curiosity as it probes the lives of an expansive cast, not just that of Artie, Maria and Giuseppe, but also that of a German miniaturist named Anna Weber; a Shakespearean actor named Eddie Lu, who was reduced to performing racist caricatures; notably that of a photographer named Vincent Cortese, whose Italian roots intertwine with those of Maria and whose real name, indeed, may be something else. Even Ned Feldman, Artie’s twin brother who fights him for control of the studio and is the closest this novel has to a villain (it’s the classic Hollywood constellation, with a brother the creative force and the ‘other the New York bean counter), is rendered with warm, if gently detached comic interest.

But the nature of art, of course, changes over time, as does the nature of propaganda. “Mercury Pictures Presents” is shot through with artifice: studio sets that look like Italy, suburban camouflage painted on the roofs of Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica, even a gargantuan Berlin reconstituted for the purposes of propagandistic realism in the Utah. This artifice is more than a mere commentary on Hollywood or on propaganda: it seems more like a remark on the nature of reality itself. Art, or propaganda, is never simply one thing or the other: each might borrow against the other’s persuasions, or might have to confuse each other a bit to exist. The compromises and contradictions of art, Marra suggests, are precisely those of human nature. The success of “Mercury Pictures Presents,” both the novel and the Hollywood entity it portrays, is both evanescent and ambiguous, enduring and clear. Whether Artie, the showman, and Maria, the historical anchor and ethical conscience of the book, will survive is a question, but the ideas posed by Marra’s novel assuredly do, and they resonate all the more strongly through our own contemporary, painfully fascist. moment.


Matthew Specktor is the most recent author of “Always Crashing in the Same Car: On Art, Crisis, and Los Angeles”.


MERCURY PICTURES PRESENTS, by Anthony Marra | 408 pages | hogart | $28.99

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