Along with airplanes and shopping malls, movie theaters are among the most common places for people to have panic attacks. One can imagine that this would come as no surprise to Voice film critic Michael Atkinson, whose collection of essays, Ghosts in the Machine, describes an experience of moviegoing that is unnervingly intimate, destabilizing, and terrifying. “Sometimes we are made to feel that we’re choking on our own hearts,” writes Atkinson, “frozen on the dark brink of complete bedlam, and it’s that taste of burnt nerves and raw pleasure that is one of movies’ primal selves.”
The topics here range from rock biopics to Planet of the Apes to the career of Ousmane Sembene. Regardless of the subject matter, Atkinson is always alive to the anxiety of moviewatching: the dark theater, the spectral images, the agitation that movie narratives ritualistically provoke and quell. His interests run toward the gothic. He weighs the legacy of Ed Wood (“a visionary . . . whose work scans like a clubfooted parody of dementia praecox”), writes a paean to Heavenly Creatures director Peter Jackson, and traces the literary and cinematic heritage of the Mitteleuropa-flavored animation of the Brothers Quay. But he’s just as comfortable talking about blockbusters or early silents, rhapsodizing Jean Harlow’s blondness or questioning why we never actually see Hollywood characters working. Atkinson gives the impression of having seen every movie ever made at least twice. If the essays sometimes lapse into enthusiastic catalogs of film-historical minutiae, you’re inclined to forgive him—it’s the price for the broad perspective and exhaustive scholarship that he offers. And his voice never falls into reference-library detachment. The fevered excess of Atkinson’s favorite genres seems to infect his prose.
Writing about a recent crop of road movies, he hopes that “once again the image of a faded luxury model from yesteryear soaring through the heat ripples and fog and endless night of a flat turnpike or overgrown backstreet, dashed hopes trailing behind it like so much exhaust, will conjure not just the tired postmod clichés of a hyperactive pop consciousness, but the mysterious, detrital lyricism of human hunger and loneliness.” If he’s sentimental, it’s for the best reasons. Movies matter; they have a hold over us that we don’t fully understand. Atkinson has made it his business to explain, or at least appreciate, their exquisitely terrifying power.