Review of John Domini’s MOVIEOLA!

text by Elizabeth Harris

John Domini’s new story collection MOVIEOLA! is a wild ride, a madcap satire of movie-making whose originality is its comic burlesque of voices from a period of the Industry. Writing that makes fun of the movies is of course a comic tradition from S. J. Perelman and P. G Wodehouse through Michael Tolkin and Charles Bukowski—and that’s not even to address movies and television that do the same. Satire of the Dream Factory in multiple forms is probably inevitable, given the numbers of writers who have worked or wanted to work there.

Domini, who has done neither, has previously published two collections of short stories, two novels, a collection of poetry, and a translation of Tullio Pironti’s memoir, Books and Rough Business. The new collection MOVIEOLA! is not his first creation of a pop culture setting. (For that, you have to see his first novel Talking Heads: 77, recently reissued like the rest of his fiction in e-versions from Dzanc Books).  He’s always been a lyrical writer; what’s new from Domini in MOVIEOLA! is its full-on orientation towards language.

What’s new in satire about MOVIEOLA! is its burlesque of jargon from the period of “corporate oppression”— Mike Medavoy’s pronouncement—after the studios had been bought by corporate conglomerates, when seeking formulas for successful films had come to seem like good business. The Industry aside, characters confident in rigid formulas were a staple of comedy—think Moliere’s Tartuffe, Gogol’s Inspector General—long before the movies. Characters like these are memorable for monologues and dialogues in which they skewer themselves: they are set up—or, as in several of Domini’s stories, sent speeding thorough cyber- or interstellar space—and given the lines to talk themselves into absurd silliness.

The voices of MOVIEOLA! rant, crow, hector, and babble about storyboards, arc mojo, and the Reveal; bankable talent, Oscar moments, and title scrabble; shot focus and provocative color saturation and maybe going more FX here, all in the imagined interest of inventing, pitching, producing, directing, acting, or promoting. A project might be gawk’n’gag, splatter-saga, Pixar-Matrix, nano-alchemy, 3-D on a creature feature, post- or even zombie-apocalyptic in pursuit of—one of my favorite sly phrases in MOVIEOLA!—“the bottom line arc,” the elusive pay-off in “elephant bucks.”

The great thing here, for readers like me who love the oral folk arts of slang and jargon, is MOVIEOLA!’s wholesale recreation of them in literary art. 

Many of these stories are also culturally and psychologically acute. A recurrent irony in MOVIEOLA! is the cynical self-confidence of its self-anointed “creatives” that all good stories are variations on the same, while the stories they enact imply otherwise. Sometimes Domini’s characters are defeated by their contempt for worlds beyond their own. In a story about secret government assassins, a screenwriter counting on the necessary triumph of love can’t quite bring it about but seems, like one of his characters, to be imitating an ecstatic image he can only see in video.

The world beyond screenwriters’ control in MOVIEOLA!, often but not always on planet Earth, surpasses them. The movie-monster hope of two writers—Skyping from opposite sides of the Earth, no less—is outdone by an online amateur video of an ordinary octopus. A self-described Industry player, outbound aboard a chartered interstellar space shuttle, recounts to his seatmate over “Botox and rye” how the Flexxies, a species who love drama and can manipulate gravity, repeatedly ruined the shooting of his sports movie with their insistence on the simple peripety of losers-becoming-winners.

And if cliché binds in MOVIEOLA!, power blinds. An edge-seeking carny barker of film-making in search of something for the storyboard at his symposium can only lead it into a tangle of familiar, PC memes. A prospective auteur-director, discovering the literal power to visualize the movie she wants to make, is distracted from seeing its essential details the first time by the spectacle and newsworthiness of her own power. Will she succeed in visualizing the movie on a second try?

Maybe. Though there’s a certain repetition of themes here, Domini’s comic bumblers aren’t all preposterous failures: some are preposterous successes. In my favorite story, the cumbersomely named “Home ‘n’ Homer, Portmanteau,” a martial arts star who must study how to fight monsters is visited by her private, house-pet-sized monster and finds being able to summon it at will the key to her continued success.

Many of these stories were published in periodicals before being collected in MOVIEOLA! and all bear re-reading. Some require it (“is she really an alien or is that a metaphor?”), such is the bizarre cosmos that Domini creates and furnishes with worlds.

Click here to purchase MOVIEOLA!