In college I had the brilliant idea of creating my own major, an application of literary theory to film studies. I’ve since had to explain what the hell “Narrativity in Film” means on every job interview, and no matter how highfalutin’ I make it sound, I think every potential employer has been able to tell I spent four years watching movies and reading Roland Barthes instead of, you know, learning something applicable to the real world.
But I’m a hit at parties. And I can talk about story theory for hours—what’s the point of a good tale? Is it simply to entertain? Does reading novels make us better people? Should I feel good about myself, morally or intellectually superior, if I make it through Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker without falling asleep (I didn’t), or beat myself up for passionately loving films like the irony-drenched Mexploitation flick Machete, or the over-the-top kung-fu movie The Bride with White Hair, or what’s surely the greatest American musical of the Twentieth Century, Grease?
Owen King does an amazing thing in his debut novel Double Feature by making the stakes to these questions matter to his characters in a fundamental, identity-forming way; he clears the air of stuffy academic arguments or stoner philosophizing in order to ask why does storytelling matter? No small task, this.
The novel opens with Sam Dolan, just out of college, directing a film he spent his entire academic career (and much of his young adult life) fantasizing about, a Noah Baumbach-esque movie called Who We Are that—through a brilliant time-lapse technique—collapses four years of college angst into one crazy day. For Sam, the film is an extremely serious attempt at making high art and starting down the road to auteur genius. Perhaps too serious. Sam’s father Booth Dolan, an actor famous for bringing chutzpah to no- and low-budget B-movies like Hard Mommies and Rat Fiend!, tells his son the film’s script is “Portentous” (lovely how close to pretentious that word is; and yet it’s bigger, grander, an even graver artistic sin to commit).
Booth goes on: “It’s so simple [in a movie] to pull out the rug and make everything bleak and awful. Isn’t it more interesting to try and dig down into the hard dirt and scrape out that precious nugget of possibility? Of redemption? Of humor? Of hope? Cynicism is the predictable route.”
Sam disagrees wholly with Booth’s ideas of what narrative cinema should do for the viewer. In the early exchanges between the two, Sam plays the punching bag and Booth the boxer. The father’s a giant, both physically and in Sam’s psyche. As Sam’s mother (dead before the novel’s main action but seen often in flashback) puts it, life is just more when Booth is around. More fun, more crazy, more intense, more everything. Booth’s hammy, charming, and needy, he’s a womanizer who falls for crazy blondes, he flies by the seat of his pants and can’t pay a phone bill on time, he dominates the screen with the force of his charisma and creative use of prosthetic noses, and he’s one of those characters that light up a scene whenever he walks on the page.
Booth also casts one hell of a shadow—whenever a character flips on a television, you can count at least one of Booth’s flicks will be showing—the shade of which Sam is desperate to escape. Sam’s furious at his father for walking out on him and his mom many years before, a betrayal that left his mother sad, but not, perplexingly to Sam, angry. And so Sam wants to beat his dad at his own game. He envisions his film as everything his father’s movies are not—beautiful, profound, an important statement on youth and adulthood—taking inspiration from classics like Sydney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (in particular the performance by the wonderful character actor John Cazale), Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, and the films of Ingmar Bergman (the epic Fanny and Alexander especially).
But after a (literally) crazy Assistant Director sabotages the final cut, interspersing scenes of a naked, well-hung satyr fornicating with logs and rubbing himself with feces while delivering mock-heavy lines that undercut Sam’s dialogue, Who We Are ends up a cinematic footnote, a cult classic that inspires raucous midnight screenings at bars and drinking games, one of those movies that’s good only because it’s so ridiculously bad. And that’s the thing: fans don’t laugh with the movie, they laugh at it, rendering Sam’s attempt at artistic sincerity a bigger mockery than any of his father’s work. Fast forward nearly ten years: Sam’s bitter and single, estranged from his family, choking on rage and sadness, and funneling his artistic ambitions into shooting poncey weddings in Brooklyn (he’s known for producing videos in the style of various movies, like a Citizen Kane wedding video, replete with deep focus and ceiling shots, for example.)
In his novel, King strikes a balance between the grand narratives of popular storytelling—there are affairs and phone sex, jilted lovers and enraged cuckolds, budding romance, emotionally unstable teenagers, fights both verbal and physical, and of course a satisfying resolution in the end—and the small, sharp details of higher-brow, character-driven, artsy fare. Like the television series Arrested Development, which occupies a similar middle ground between the popular and the peculiar, King repeats story details—a poem about disappointment and misery, for example, or a television show about a man who dies trapped in a panic room of his own creation—such that they gathering meaning and humor over the course of the novel. Especially humor, which King uses to lighten the ballast of Sam’s oh-so-serious outlook on life. (A comparison of President Obama to a Segway is probably my favorite of King’s running jokes, in part because it brings to mind Arrested Development’s GOB Bluth.)
Characters end up having surprising relationships to one another, the downside to this strategy being an end scene that brought all of the major principals together in an Agatha Christie-style Parlor Scene that felt too pat to me. If I had any issue with Double Feature, it was that King packs so much in, the story is almost too audacious. There are layers upon layers here, bringing to mind Charlie Kaufman’s brilliant Adaptation, a movie that gradually becomes the very kind of schmaltzy mass market adventure that the main character (a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman, played by Nicolas Cage) deplores. As in that movie, King has his cake and eats it too, and I couldn’t help but admire his boldness and storytelling craft even though part of me (a part Sam Dolan would recognize) rebelled against some aspects of it, which felt overly plotted.
Throughout, King deftly weaves ideas about art and storytelling. Is Steven Spielberg’s E.T. an emotionally effective film, a modern classic (as Booth argues), or a pedestrian piece of trash that we overvalue because it pulls at our heartstrings (as Sam thinks)? Is Orson Welles—who served in part as a model for Booth, and is also one of the few directors Booth and Sam agree to admire—an artist with a vision that proved too big for the screen, or an arrogant asshole who couldn’t maintain relationships with cast and crew? Perhaps both, King seems to be saying, in either case.
The literary and the popular can coexist. Double Feature makes this point, and proves it too.