Movieola! is a collection of fragmentary stories linked solely by the author’s feverishly exuberant riffs on the world of moviemaking. If the language of show business is like a caress to you—storyboards, turnaround, dailies—if you don’t need Variety to tell you what a MacGuffin or a Moviola is, this is the book for you. Oh, and it would also be helpful to have a passing acquaintance with Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Flaubert, magical realism, metafiction, and the Delta blues, since author John Domini blasts out the cultural references Rambo-style, pausing only between fragments to slam in another clip.
“Making the Trailer,” “Closing Credits Fun & Counterforce,” and the eight stories in between plunge the reader into language that is both highly visual and incredibly verbal. Domini, an Iowa-based writer whose previous books include Highway Trade and A Tomb on the Periphery, has a tremendous ear for movie shorthand and the way creative hustlers talk over each other. His stories tell us how movies are helplessly hostage to elements no individual artist can control. It’s got to be this leading actress, we need to have that product placement, Studio X just hijacked our plot twist, scrap the Armani suits, we’re going Gilded Age instead.
And that’s just during development. With a little ingenuity and a lot of luck, if you actually produce the movie that whole neighborhoods were mortgaged to finance, with a CGI budget equal to the GNP of the entire former Soviet bloc, you may find your preview audiences laughing in all the wrong places. And that means a re-shoot and your Thanksgiving weekend nationwide opening shot to hell, not to mention your Oscar bid.
In “Royal Jelly, Pitch & Yaw,” one of Movieola!‘s best stories, two screenwriter/producers identified only as “Venice” and “Silver Lake” are pitching the zombie movie to end all zombie movies, expertly massaging the ego of their unheard listener (agent? actor? studio boss?) as they pummel her with the story.
It opens on a wedding ceremony. Beautiful, traditional. But the groom’s side is all zombies. How can this be, a beautiful, healthy bride marrying a zombie? Well, she’s a scientist! With degrees in chemistry and botany, and a doctorate in the undead. Flash back a couple years to Miss America in her lab, slaving away on some sort of miracle vaccine, when her future zombie-bridegroom breaks in—it’s a “Meet Angry” scene, says Silver Lake—and she has no choice but to throw her chemical pixie dust in his face, instantly rendering him biddable. That’s the miracle of this vaccine: it domesticates zombies. I don’t think I’ll be the only reader who finds herself wanting to watch this slice of summer action cheese in some air-conditioned movie palace. As Silver Lake exclaims, “Have you ever so enjoyed the end of the world?”
Of the ten stories in Movieola!, six are entirely dialogue or monologue. “Players, Tawkers, Spawts” might be on a charter jet; then again it might be in a bar. Domini gives us just one end of the conversation, if you can call it that: The guy we can hear is spinning an endless yarn about a sports movie project that can’t seem to get out of turnaround. He’s a lout who clearly considers himself an industry player, like every blow-hard on a cell phone that you’ve ever had to endure in a maddeningly enclosed space. The doomed project is bold, “artistic”—it’s a story about a real-life always-a-bridesmaid-never-a-bride sports franchise like, say, the Cubs, that makes a deal with the devil in exchange for a championship season. But in the end they reclaim their integrity and do the right thing—they back out of their deal with Satan and settle for being the losing team they really are.
Unfortunately, the real-life team embarks on a huge winning streak while the movie is still in development. Since one of the sport movie project’s bankrollers is also its A-List actress (the other producers calls her the Check Magnet), they change the team to a women’s team, and they find an actual struggling high school basketball team to be their real-life anchor. But wouldn’t you know it, the real-life women’s team suddenly starts winning every game. And so on and so forth—the story moves to Africa and Bono gets involved, but the same thing happens. Yeah, it’s a shaggy dog story, but it’s also hilarious, calling to mind Mark Leyner, or Portnoy-era Roth, or even, going way back, Sid Perelman, who punched up Marx Brothers scripts when he wasn’t writing deliriously silly New Yorker sketches.
If some of the stories in Movieola! have shortcomings, it’s their fragmentary nature. Domini references the need for a reliable “story arc” more than once in this collection, but sometimes he doesn’t quite manage to end a scene or fully realize some delightful premise he’s established.
It’s sort of a relief to float out on the last story, “Closing Credits Fun & Counterforce,” a whimsical piece of Barthian meta-froth in which the credits at the end of a movie refuse to stay put but instead begin cannibalizing each other. “You never realized the letter F posted such a threat, you never noticed its Tyrannosaur overbite, but here the F has erupted out of some perfectly well-behaved word, some tidy and justified line of print.” Just as the screen itself appears to succumb to a whole pack of ravenous capital Fs hellbent on ripping a hole in reality as we know it, some lower-case w’s and h’s stage a brave defense and save the day.
The flicks themselves may seem to have run out of stories to tell, Domini suggests, but anything is possible: “here a Visigoth or a chimera, there a warrior saint or a comely stranger with a quick sword and a reflecting shield.”