Movieola! by John Domini. Dzanc Books. $15.95, 152 pp.
John Domini’s latest work of fiction has met with praise from Padgett Powell and David Shields, and attracted the attention of publications as diverse as BBC Culture, Vanity Fair, and The Millions. The reviewer for the latter called it “a concise and intelligent assessment of the state of modern storytelling . . .” Yet, in a review of Movieola! that appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, John Madera, a fellow practitioner and proponent of innovative work, admits that it is “a bravura performance by a still largely unsung writer producing his best work.” With this kind of attention, the question arises: Why is Domini not better known after a career that, so far, has produced acclaimed novels, criticism, and short-story collections?
Sadly, it’s unlikely Domini’s status will soon change, partly because the reading public is regularly fed large amounts of review prose (boilerplate praise that, with slight alterations, could qualify as advertisements) dedicated to popular/realist writers whose works answer either the needs of genre fans or middlebrow readers (possibly both).
The ten pieces that make up this collection are breezy in their confidence, shrewd in their knowledge of pitch-speak, humourous and grim (but not grimly humorous), and delighted in their front-and-center advocacy of the idea that you don’t need the presence of a fuzzy, likeable Joe or Jane Schmo to root for in fiction (though no one’s despicable either). What you can get by with, and on, is style, which is hardly what the plot summarizers of most publications present to the dwindling audience of readers.
Much can be gleaned from these titles of these ten pieces, which are: “Making the Trailer,” “Assassins, Storyboards to Date,” “Bookstores of Hollywood,” “Wrap Rap Two-Step,” “Royal Jelly, Pitch & Yaw,” “Blinded by Paparazzi,” “A Shrill Skype in the Night,” “Players, Tawkers, Spawts,” “Home’n’Homer, Portmanteau,” and “Closing Credits Fun & Counterforce.” Immediately apparent is the thread from beginning (storyboard) to end (credits). We are given an arc—both a surprise and also not—that takes in the stories of pitchmen who resemble conmen as they cast screenplay scenarios, frequently involving zombies, in front of Hollywood studio executives who have an eye out for the next mass hit.
The opening story involves, among other things, transitions between shots of hit men, an aging rock star, and a lesbian couple, and also includes a coup de théâtre:
That’s good, thataway—but look, what are we doing making trailers in the first place? What, if not to really drive them out of their minds in the last ten seconds? So we zap them with a departure from form. An experiment. The critics go crazy for that kind of thing, when the buzz starts among the tech people, and what we do is, we go to a kind of kiss. A larger-than-life kiss, extreme closeup: we see just the guy’s mouth up there. The way a mouth looks, up there surrounded by the dark, it’s very weird, it’s a great gimmick. Something fetal in its folds and balances.
“Making the Trailer” is a teaser for what follows, both a look at how a show around the show is created—the equivalent of an introductory chapter in a conventional novel—and a template for what’s to come: atmospherics, a reliance on the second-person plural (thus co-opting us into these schemes), fragmented narratives, cartoonish figures, and quick dissolves.
If that description, and the trailer itself, makes it seem like issues are avoided, the second piece, “Assassins, Storyboards to Date,” in a by-the-way manner that’s effective for that very method of presentation, addresses what we see in most movies and television shows, and that we read about in the wake of the Sony hacks: the putdown and economic disparagement of women. In a proposal made by a man, a “girl sick of the same-old,” possessing degrees but without a love life, becomes a woman who’s regarded as “old enough . . . but she’s still good-looking, sure, hot when she wants to be. . . . We could go as old as thirty-five.” She meets a man, an assassin, in a bookstore, and they hit it off. Complications occur, love is thwarted, and as the story closes the narrator, addressing the incompleteness of the idea, says: “Which is as about as far as we’ve got . . .” The inclusiveness parallels how the story dribbles to a stop rather than coming to a tidy end. The movie idea is hoary, but the main point was made early on—actresses have a shelf life while actors can go on forever. No one questions this. We might even miss this as we anticipate that the end will tell us the real message.
The third piece, “Bookstores of Hollywood,” features Nola, a woman more into “narrative” than story, who, through mental effort and a giving herself over to inspiration, conjures up, in the skies outside a Barnes & Noble attached to a Starbucks, settings, scenes and people from a yet-to-be-made period-piece. The event is termed “the Visualization that Ate the Mall,” as it appeared in full view of everyone around, attracting desperate and hopeful customers to Nola: “How had she collected them so quickly, cards that claimed to belong to writers, actors, production people pre- and post-, cards that revealed no small investment in design and paper stock? How could there’ve been so many moviemakers among the discount racks at the font of the store?” There’s clever fun in the linking of “investment” with “stock,” and the dual insult that these people who cannot afford anything but the least-expensive books can be had at rock-bottom rates. It’s a fine stylist who can insert commentary on money, the social pecking order, and an examination of the plight of the creative artist into two sentences. Domini is paying attention to the words even as they seem to whiz by. What does Nola feel when she, for a second time, at a different coffee shop, attempts to conjure up the rest of the movie to fill the gaps left by the first vision? The narrator sums up her potential experience: “In a mall like this she’s a long way from a Venti and a madeleine, it’s more like a Slurpee and Twizzlers.” That’s a sting we can appreciate, but Nola, while understanding it, may be inured to insult considering her career in the industry.
“Wrap Rap Two-Step” takes us inside a hideous workshop in screenwriting. Whatever sympathy we may feel for a teacher in this field is removed as he builds up, with suggestions from the partially engaged class of would-be writers, a potential story relying on terrorism and names like “Salem Shellac’em.” “It’s what I was put here to teach,” he says, “the lullaby of the megaplex, the night language of a nation.” For some, that combination of elements may conjure up Fox News more than the efforts of the perceived left-wing tilt of Hollywood, yet what could be more right-wing than exhibiting yet another dreadful trope in suspense movies that cast people from other countries and other faiths as the Other with evil designs on America.
“Royal Jelly, Pitch & Yaw” and “Blinded by Paparazzi” deal, respectively, with zombies and time-travel. From “Blinded by Paparazzi” I especially appreciate Domini’s quiet venting of a shared sentiment: “They came back to empty salad plates, Matty and Spada, under a speaker playing ‘Moondance.’ The inevitable ‘Moondance,’ the greatest hit of white wine, and in fact on the table beside their plates there stood two nearly full glasses.” Over what seems like two decades, the laziest directors and their music advisors have beaten that dreadful tune into the ears of people who must suffer through their paucity of imagination.
The blank page or screen that writers face has its analogy in the blank wall that one actress must face. “How’s she supposed to brandish a sword and growl an imprecation, when all she’s facing is a big square sound-absorbent nothing?” wonders Alya in “Home’n’Homer, Portmanteau.” She visits a CGI tech named Zachary who, seduced by her “star power,” shows her the “mockups” of the creatures she’s meant to fight. This gives her what she needs to get a handle on the action. However, it has a consequence. Like Nona, Alya is able to conjure up a vision, but at home that night a very tangible, personal, and frightening “rat-tailed, hook-nailed bastard, also mantis-armed, plate-faced” comes to visit. Following a long bout of panic, she comes to terms with this creature as an emanation from the dream factory she works in that has followed her, in a manner of speaking, from work. The satire here is quieter than usual. Instead, we’re given a plumbing of depths of a woman with a troubled past going through a divorce who needs her new movie to succeed so she can survive, and it’s a smart departure from the usual tone.
The final story, “Closing Credits Fun & Counterforce,” opens by addressing the nature of Movieola!: “So you’ve seen what there is to see, start to finish, but you’re still in your seat. Wasn’t a great flick, no, that’s not what brought you out.” Though that’s one approach postmodernist fiction uses to show its self-reflexive side, from there Domini side-steps to the running-down of movies, of story-telling as a whole, as a diminishing force in the world, where cannibalistic letters in the credits eat their siblings: “the F has ’shroomed and gone carnivore.”
In a couple of spots where the white flotsam and jetsam have been sucked away, the letters and what-have-you sucked into the big vowel’s gape, whoosh, in a couple spots the black doesn’t hold out either. Not only the credits themselves get vacuumed from the screen—also the credits’ backdrop, the black, rips loose and tumbles into the vacuum. The very earth beneath our feet!
Or something like that, if you can picture our eyeballs having feet. It leaves you wondering: what’s underneath? Behind the black, the border of our universe, if eight or ten bucks could buy you the universe—what?
Not much of the backdrop tears away, a scrap here and there, and beneath it the most you can make out is more scraps, fragments again, this time composed of color and jitter.
This imminent disintegration is repulsed by a “counterforce,” with smaller letters attacking the “marauding jumbos. Where the fabric of the former universe burst open, where there’s an outbreak of story, no matter how bizarre and pyrotechnic, they can sling lines of containment.” Having reached the climax of this collection, we can interpret what the narrative is telling us, that danger (or implosion leading to chaos) has almost outwitted the plucky underdogs (the lower case), but even in such times storytelling can save us from vanishing into the unknown, mysterious void. More precisely, or so it seems to me, Domini is saying that well-arranged words that are suited to the times can hold back our extinction. In a world (so to speak) of fake news and alternative facts, we are in dire need of graspable narratives that restrain the encroaching peril symbolized by cannibals and zombies. “Next thing you know, anything’s possible, it’s fresh dynamics altogether, here a Visigoth or a chimera, there a warrior saint or a comely stranger with a quick sword and a reflecting shield.” The film may go blacker than black, but art that’s vital can save us.
I said at the opening that some writers can get by on style. (Isn’t that what many celebrities get by on, and indeed, what we crave from them much more than substance?) Domini balances on the knife-edge of sheer surface content and the profundity that literary fiction, especially anything that verges on the experimental or exploratory, is expected to have as one of its characteristics. After so many novels and movies about filmmaking it’s hard to see how any writer can say something newsworthy about the core of the industry. For the most part Domini focuses on the surface because that’s where the producers, directors, screenwriters, and stars reside, and because that’s where the film genres lie that he wants to explore.
What stays with me is the mouth from the first story because Hollywood and Movieola! are built equally on selling concepts through persuasion that utilizes clichés, familiarity, and stock situations—in a word, rhetoric—even when it undercuts them through “departure from form.” The author doesn’t let his own field and his fellow writers escape the point of these stories. He may be saying that fiction-making can be as empty and forgettable as the latest blockbuster or art-house feature. Certainly, we at times obey the demands of publishers to supply titles like our own presumably fresh new work in order to help marketing people establish the contours of a marketplace they can approach; we must abase, inflate, and offer ourselves to the whims of social media to capture an audience while building up excitement; and we answer to the requirements of public relations to ensure our book gets noticed. In Movieola! John Domini is merciless in his skewering, and we, as moviegoers and as readers, must feel the prick, for do we not at times encourage, in our viewing and our reading, and perhaps in our reticence to criticize, the trashy and the trite? Do we not, also, occasionally despair and see blackness where, if we stuck around out of hungry curiosity, we might witness “color and jitter”?
Canadian writer Jeff Bursey is the author of two novels, Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015) and Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010), and a collection of literary criticism, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (Zero Books, 2016).
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