Down on the Cutting Room Floor
(Dzanc Books, 2016)
Allusive, digressive, transgressive, John Domini’s Movieola! upends Tinseltown’s cheap dream factory, its empty fantasias, the book’s title a reference to a clunky 20th-century contraption that allowed editors to view and tweak movies in real-time. Domini’s collection is less that obsolete machine, however, than a kind of mirroring of its functions, each narrator tearing apart the making of various parts of or kinds of movies and movie-making processes, from pitch to storyboard to trailer to closing credits, freely moving in and out of the made and unmade, forward momentum always disrupted by verbal hijinks and narratological displacements, all of which encouraging the reader to traverse the reel and the “real.”
“Making of a Trailer,” which, appropriately enough, opens this book of linked fictions, finds a huckster sleazily and cynically reflecting on this making, calling it “a hundred seconds or so of grabber screentime: start with killers in an airport.” “Assassins, Storyboards to Date,” features various interpolations of the famed phrase “what dreams are made on,” one of the book’s many nods to the Bard, a nod among nods, each of the book’s engagingly intricate sections brimming with intertextual references, filmic, literary, and otherwise, dizzying in their twists and turns. In fact, Movieola! offers a literary, mythological, political, and pop-cultural pantheon, featuring Flaubert, Fellini, Guy Fawkes, Huck Finn, Little Richard, Strega Nona, Endymion, Michael Jackson, Madonna, and many more besides. “Players, Tawkers, Spawts” finds Domini continuing to skewer the crass filmmaker-as-moneymaker, who can “spot a viable pitch. The high concept, the balls and alacrity, the miracle no matter the demographic.” Movieola! is itself a “talkie,” “disembodied” voices appearing throughout the book, like the self-explanatory “A Shrill Skype in the Night,” and “Royal Jelly, Pitch & Yaw,” where interlocutors, in a comic exchange worthy of Padgett Powell, are reduced to place names.
Movieola!’s front matter honors a number of writers, among them John Barth, Donald Barthelme, and Stanley Elkin. Domini’s fictions, with their many digressions and speculations on fiction’s “constructedness,” echo Barth’s writing, particularly his linked collections, e.g., Lost in the Funhouse and On with the Story. The texture of Barthelme’s tendency toward the incidental, toward uncertainty, marks these fictions as well. Echoes of Elkin’s extravagantly garrulous orators can be heard in the voices of Movieola!’s many narrators. Conspicuously absent, though, is an acknowledgement of Robert Coover, genius literary trickster, whose A Night at the Movies, or, You Must Remember This weighs heavily against and on Movieola!’s form, structure, and language. Like Coover, who satirizes detective, cowboy, mad scientist, and vampire vehicles, Domini pokes fun at Hollywood’s B-movies, taking special delight in cutting up rom-coms, zombie films, and hitman thrillers. Both employ a host of literary techniques indebted to cinema, including jump-cuts, dissolves, montages, extreme close-ups, etc., but whereas Coover reimagines the genres, extends them, drags them to extremes, Domini winningly destroys them— cuts them up into a series of false starts.
“Closing Credits Fun & Counterforce” finds Domini at his most playful in what is already a very playful book, this playfulness toggling between creation and destruction, the narrative at one point becoming an adult version of Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, the famed children’s alphabet book, where anthropomorphized letters experience many kinds of injury:
There’s the F run amok, and okay, F as in freak and fierce and fuck-all. But what’s this one, an R? That letter’s always seemed a peaceable galoot, the better half of purr. Look at it now, though, R as in fuck-arr, a capital that towers over the rest, galumphing around and using the long front strut like a tentacle. The letter yanks smaller ones out in clusters and scoops them up into its belly bulge. It’s complicated. First the names and name fragments get plucked up and shoveled into a black belly, then inside that white outline the white nubbins cook down, in enzymes or something, and then as those crumbs of captured chalk evaporate the chalk outline around them grows denser. The breakdown of one seems to buttress the other. It’s complicated, it’s not uninteresting—and it’s not even the weirdest thing. You’ve got the shreds of former signifiers frittering away inside the R’s parabolic gut, and you’ve got an F ripping out dreams before they happen, and it look [sic] as if the party’s just beginning.
There’s a musicality to the language here, assonance and consonance expertly handled, phrasal and clausal repetitions adding rhetorical and musical force to the flow of sentences. Throughout Movieola!, Domini employs what might be called a “lingua Americana,” where shyster jive and these-mean-streets argot flow into journalese and puppetmaster nudge-nudge, wink-wink. Like one of his characters, he gives “voice to a wordless, fitful music, full of pain it seems, yet bristling with sarcasm,” while also echoing another character’s “murmurs in hardboiled understanding.”
Movieola!, moreover, is an exploration of the ways in which hyper-privileged consumers navigate their way through life’s uncertainties, whether sitting in front of so-called silver screens, which brings “a bunch of strangers together in the dark,” or, within what you might call the zone of the most enriching solitude: between the pages of a book. In short, Movieola! is a bravura performance by a still largely unsung writer producing his best work.