Nathanael West’s classic novel The Day of the Locust, unsurpassed in the writers-writing-about-Hollywood genre, ends with West’s would-be painter protagonist Tod Hackett in the back of an L.A. police cruiser, attempting to determine whether the noise he hears is the squad car’s siren or his own voice bellowing out a plaintive, animal howl. For eighty years now, Hackett’s death-rattle screech (“tod” is German for “death”; he’s literally a dead hack) has stood as an emblem of the silent but no less maniacal inner wail of every true artist that has wound up as collateral damage in the Hollywood carpet-bombing of the ancient territories of drama and storytelling.
When I recently picked up John Domini’s Movieola!, which pitches itself as a story collection but really isn’t for reasons I will explain in a moment, I figured it would add a new wrinkle to a well-established sub-genre. Anticipatorily, I thought back on several recent additions to the HollyLit tradition. First I recalled Stuart O’Nan’s West of Sunset, which chronicles F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Zelda-less time in Tinseltown, his loneliness a triangulation on the city’s institutional mandate to suck souls. Next I thought of Woody Allen’s latest anti-film film, Café Society, which resurrects the Studio Era in all its glorious finery only to crucify it, and makes its most pointed statement when a man at a glittery soiree is introduced as a two-time Academy Award winner, but warns, “You haven’t heard of me — I’m a writer.” And last, digging back a bit this time, I recalled Charles Johnson’s “Moving Pictures,” a wonderful little meditation on books-turned-into-films that is eclipsed by several even better stories in Johnson’s much-undervalued collection, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
Of these, Movieola! is closest to “Moving Pictures,” but Domini’s offering is no mere twist or turn on a trajectory you already know. Rather, it’s an amplification of Tod Hackett’s mournful scream – a new shriek for a new century.
There are two kinds of short story collections, both of which have merits. The first is simply an assemblage, a sampler plate of an author’s various experiments or momentary preoccupations (e.g., The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), and it is perhaps this sort of anthology that John Cheever was thinking of when he described his own collected stories as “a naked history of one’s struggle to receive an education in economics and love.”
The second kind of story collection — the so-called “connected” stories — may come in two versions of its own: first, stories connected by plot and characters; second, stories connected by theme. It may be a mistake to call either version a “collection,” as the word suggests an absence of an overriding book-length idea. Stories that are connected by character, however, certainly have some of the same goals as novels (e.g., Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid), and stories connected by theme can sometimes seem quite treatise- or manifesto-like (e.g., Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried — sure, there’s lots of character in there, but the book’s true purpose is its philosophical thread on truth and storytelling).
Movieola! is a volume of the latter sort, a compilation of pieces first published here and there, but which adds up to a whole lot more than the sum of its parts. Of course that was the goal all along. The book borrows its structure from its subject, launching with a meditation on movie trailers, and ending with another on closing credits. In between, Domini offers a range of visions and voices that reflect anew, each in their own way, on what Hollywood has done to storytelling and culture.
For example, there’s “Wrap Rap Two-Step,” the monologue of a weary script guru at the end of a weekend-long concept seminar (tailor-made for NPR’s “Selected Shorts,” if anyone is listening…), and this piece, along with several others, emphasizes that to write for the screen, these days, is to set up shop at the unholy intersection of Hollywood and self-help (i.e., the secret of The Secret is that you don’t have to “read” it). As well, there’s “Home’n’Homer, Portmanteau,” in which a latter day Norma Desmond, preparing for her scream rather than her close-up, wanders home to find all her anxiety and regret channeled into the vision of a creepy little bugbear sprung not from a nightmare but from something more like DreamWorks SKG. Hence, à la West, Hollywood generates madness.
These are two of the more traditional pieces in Movieola! Others include disembodied dialogues; pieces sunk so deep into the free indirect thing you sort of forget they’re in the third person; and meditations in a royal “we” that reads likes the dark twin of the critical “we” that pollutes scholarship. This last comes off almost like an intrusive narrator, the sort that long ago forsook the novel, and the suggestion of this voice — which we hear bantering about story ideas as stories unfold — is that we really, finally have become Roland Barthes’s “scriptors,” compiling readymade snippets into tales that please with familiarity rather than novelty. The deep-down message of Movieola!, then, is that stories no longer emerge from communion with a nubile muse curling her finger from the other side of a lacy partition of consciousness, but rather from a much lewder encounter with our own corrupt souls.
Introducing a mid-eighties edition of The Day of the Locust, critic Alfred Kazin noted that the truly horrific days of Hollywood were over. It was now possible to make films outside the studio system; the monopoly was ended, the trust busted. Today, they say, we’re in a golden age of television, the vast free market of cable opening up new avenues for how moving picture stories come to be. So is the crisis averted, then? No. Part of the thrust of Domini’s argument is that big screen filmmaking now finds itself threatened by its own creation, all those little screens like an army of ants taking down an elephant. One monster replaces another.
And that such a thing can even be claimed about a book pitched as a collection of stories reveals that Movieola! is much more than just that. This is made most clear in the conclusive “Closing Credits Fun & Counterforce,” an address to a movie viewer still plopped down in his seat:
You risked a doddering and fusty entertainment based on how long a person can go without having to pee. The flicks themselves have long since run out of surprises: if the assassin doesn’t fall in love, the bookish girl in black whoops it up in a candy-colored romper room. There never was much opportunity for surprise, in ninety minutes or a hundred, and there’s even less these days, when you need a multimillion-dollar urban-renewal package just to save the downtown moviehouse. The star-studded American shebang, winding up through the coming attractions and down through the credits in their grave-rows, that’s long since been squeezed dry and shoehorned into smaller screens.
There is no character here, no story at all. Thus, Movieola! is not aptly described as a gathering together of fun tales. Rather, it’s a concise and intelligent assessment of the state of modern storytelling, and its joy — it’s edge-of-your-seat, cliff-hanger thrill — stems from what it offers by way of philosophical critique.
Have you ever had a beautiful experience that was suddenly marred by something ugly and unexpected? Have you ever walked the beach hand in hand with your beloved, waves lapping at your toes, only to have a hovering seagull squirt shit across your arm? When your firstborn was presented to you at the hospital, the child’s face full of unspeakable possibility, did he or she vomit in your hair? Piss in your lap?
I ask — crudely, I know — because of what you did to the copy of Stewart O’Nan’s West of Sunset that I recently checked out from my local library. What you did — in case you’ve somehow forgotten — was this: while reading this sad, lovely tale of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final days, you picked your nose. As O’Nan’s Fitzgerald drank his way through Hollywood with Humphrey Bogart and Sid Perelman, you explored your nostrils for the treasure within. And you didn’t stop there.
Instead of doing what a decent person does — cleaning one’s fingers with Kleenex or toilet paper, or rolling the evidence into a ball and flinging it behind the couch, wrongly assuming it will eventually disintegrate — you wiped it directly onto the pages of West of Sunset. And — not that this would excuse your barbarism — your boogers weren’t off to the side, limited to the margins, but directly across O’Nan’s glowing prose.
The effect of your wipery — on myself and anyone else unlucky enough to have borrowed West of Sunset after you — was this:
She was just leaving the floor, sweeping gaily along the fringe of the parquet in an ash-gray evening dress with a red velvet sash that accentuated ** BOOGER! **
His money was gone and there was blood on his jacket, and when he called Sheilah, before he uttered a word, ** BOOGER! **
They nattered on, Zelda mimicking Sara’s sleepy lilt, drawing out her ** BOOGER! **
Every 15 or 20 pages, I was ripped from the story by your nostril-rubbings, forced to grimace and soldier on. It’s a testament to O’Nan’s skill that I was able to finish the book; a lesser novel might have gone back to the library unfinished, me hesitantly returning to the stacks — now a little scarred, a little gun-shy.
How do you live your life, Booger-Wiper? My first instinct is to imagine your home as a mucus-smeared nightmare hovel, mold at the corners and suspicious stains everywhere. But upon further reflection, I think your home might actually be fairly tidy — seeing as how you so freely deposit your filth on things that don’t belong to you. If I lent you a pair of socks, what would lurk inside of them when I got them back? If I left a piece of Tupperware in your kitchen after a dinner party, would you return it to me, empty and clean? Or would it ruin my day?
Part of what’s so galling about your crime is that you chose this book to besmirch. West of Sunset is so elegant, so elegiac, so worthy of respect. If, unable to escape your foul pathology, you have to do this to a library book, why not do it to more deserving title? Try Fifty Shades Freed or Trump: The Art of the Deal. You’re obviously sick — that much is clear — but at the very least, don’t drag down Art with your slimy fingers.
To read West of Sunset — and I know you read it all, because your vandalism is evident to the end — while boogerizing its pages combines the high-minded and the gutter in an intriguing way. Putting aside my disgust for a moment, I must ask: Is there a pattern to your transgressions? When you go to the opera, do you ease out silent, queasy farts as the aria swells? When you enjoy a glass of long-cellared cabernet, do you drool into it first? Do you go unwashed for days, letting your armpits ferment, then revel in their stench as you stroll through a rose garden?
What the fuck is wrong with you?
I finished West of Sunset, despite the harm you inflicted upon it, and I’ve moved on to another library book: Mo Beta Blues, Questlove’s music-focused memoir. The odds that you’ve borrowed both seem slim to me, though I haven’t yet flipped through to check for your handiwork. But if I find so much as a flake of one of your awful rocks in Questlove’s book, you will hear from me, you repugnant snot-monster. That much is certain.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.