Sunday, April 14, 2013

Owen King Expertly Explores Filmmaking and Fatherhood in 'Double Feature'...

He never wanted to be in movies, and now he didn't want to make movies. All he wanted, in the words of the saddest soul ever frozen on a slide of silver nitrate, was to be let alone.

The first thing I do when I pick up a book-- or more commonly these days, download a book-- is check out the page count. If it's under four hundred pages, I don't get too attached, assuming what I am about to rip through is a quick and easy read, good for a long lunch break, extra long bubble bath, or afternoon spent in the sun. The subject matter may vary, and it may not always be a lighthearted read, but I will be able to get in and get out. The fact that Owen King's debut novel, "Double Feature," clocks in at "just" 412 pages was therefore extremely misleading to me. At that length, I expected depth and evolution of time in plot, but I expected many of the major revelations would be the readers' to project onto the protagonist, not that the protagonist would become self-aware to them, too. I don't know why I underestimated him, but I did. Maybe it had something to do with the title itself. Everyone knows, and King astutely points out within his novel, that the first story in a "Double Feature" is the lesser one; the best is saved for later, when it can really be appreciated. But King doesn't treat this first book like such filler; he savors every moment, every character, every detail. Like any great auteur, he carefully selects with what he sets each scene and truly seems to relish in crafting even the simplest, smallest of details with which a lesser writer wouldn't have bothered to infuse into his story at all. It's a bit sad to admit that these days, it's rare that I get so lost in a fictional world I am willing, able, and just plan not tempted to take breaks after a few chapters to flick my finger across my iPad (it's just so easy!) and multitask by checking email, Twitter, or even the clock. King helped fight this ADD affliction by breaking the various parts of his story up by small breaks, rather than full chapters, but really, it is the rich world he created that made me want to stay there as long as possible.

"Double Feature" follows a young filmmaker named Sam Dolan, the son of a B-movie actor Booth Dolan, who grew up loving the medium despite not quite respecting his father or his father's role within that world. We meet him when he is in college, embarking on his thesis film, an arty character piece called Who We Are, designed to shine a light on the seriousness of that time in a young person's life by evolving his characters through four years, gradually and wordlessly, over the course of the film. It's exactly the kind of thing I would have expected my film school friends to make. Hell, it's exactly the kind of thing film school me would have wanted to make. But it doesn't mean we should have made it. Such projects designed to comment on youth and all its flaws are best made with hindsight, distance, and most importantly, objectivity.

It sounds somewhat pretentious, but that's who we are at twenty-one or twenty-two, having grown up introverted, making up stories in our minds, deeply passionate about this work, and so desperate to prove that we know what we're doing-- that we're good-- that we deserve to be acclaimed, alongside greats like Orson Welles (who is not surprisingly held up as a shining example in this story). But the brilliant thing is that at twenty-one or twenty-two, we are stuck in our own little bubbles of arrested development, and ten years later, when we look back on the things we said and did, we shake our heads in disbelief over the cracks and the flaws we let through, unnoticed or ignored in our hubris. King manages to explore this over time with Sam without ever being preachy and somehow, miraculously, still inspiring through his creativity and reminding me personally of all of the things I once loved about working in independent film: the creation, the teamwork, the passion, and of course, the heartache.

Sam was always a serious kid, so his thesis film topic and execution should not come as a surprise to anyone. King takes great pride in detailing Sam's earliest films when he was a child, creating stop-motion dramas with plastic figurines of post-apocalyptic mutants called Nukies. But to showcase balance, he takes equal care with the details of Booth's over the top B-movies and also crafts some middle ground: films they see together-- from dragons and gnomes to French arthouse tales of attraction and magnetism. On one hand you have someone deeply struggling to be an artist, and on the other, you have someone happy to keep working at what he loves to do, untethered to a desire to be the best or have the biggest message.

It is not a spoiler to tell you that Sam doesn't draw critical acclaim from Who We Are. Though he gets breaks many film students would only dream of to make the film as perfect as possible (never once drawing on his dad's famous name, by the way), in the end it goes up in smoke, and sabotaged by a collaborator, Sam simply chucks the finished product-- which was not the product he envisioned-- at the trash. I say "at" the trash on purpose because the film eventually finds its way online and later further distributed and merchandised as a cult classic not unlike The Room. It is not the kind of thing Sam wants to be known for, and the experience was so traumatizing for Sam that he didn't pursue working in that field after the debacle went down. It's a fascinating idea to sit with: that someone could have poured so much of his hopes, dreams, aspirations, and self into one project, only to then be able to walk away from it all. It shouldn't surprise you, then, that Sam's relationships over the years suffered or were barely existent. It's as if he gave up on everything after Who We Are failed in his eyes, as if he didn't know who he was anymore and simply got by on the bare minimum required to keep existing only. His passion expired as his childhood dreams came crashing down around him, and he was too immature and prideful to try to pick up the pieces and try again. Instead, he gave up; he never even tried to reshoot or recut the film. I couldn't help but be reminded of my favorite quote from Chris Ware's "Building Stories" at that notion: "I don't think you can make yourself into an just have to be born that way, like being gay or something...That was my problem, I think: I was just art-curious."

For every many aspiring filmmakers who can't quite break into the business or move up to the specific title they hope to hold in the business, there comes the point where they have to consider if they really have what it takes; if they really have the vision, the talent, the fortitude to drive on and push through the pain and the rejection and the instability. You have to be a certain kind of personality to be willing to put up with so much struggle for sometimes very little reward. Sam didn't spend years trying to make it work as a starving artist. By all accounts, he quit something he supposedly had such a passion for without any real fight. He walked away from his childhood dreams without a second thought, which catapulted him into such a stunted adulthood, you couldn't really feel like he made the right decision. It was as jarring as a director walking off-set mid-shot-- but it really should be more so considering he kind of just walked out of his own life as a whole at that point. It may not have consciously haunted Sam, but it haunted me.

Sam thought he knew everything about what made a good movie versus a bad one when he was young, but he didn't know enough not to qualify art by "good" or bad." His reasoning for why E.T. didn't work was sophomoric and somewhat cynical and something I am sure I said when I was a teenager, too. But it grew on him over time because tastes change, and maturity leads to being able to see without such a personal bias. For a personality that is so "all in" as Sam, it is also fascinating to think about why he didn't try to stop this bastardized version of his film from circulating because even if people loved it, it wasn't the message he wanted to put out there. But by then, he was already evolving, maturing, moving past the need to define himself by that project. So it is even more haunting to stop and think about what could have happened if Who We Are had turned out the way he wanted it to-- if he had gotten a little bit of a name or notoriety for himself off of it. At the end of the day (or in this case, quite a few years later), if he looked back on it and realized it was just a pretentious, somewhat solemn kid's narrow view, he wouldn't want his name on it any more than the version it actually turned out to be. No one wants to be defined by one thing, especially one thing that doesn't represent the man he grew into.

In all honesty, this film-within-the-novel is just one part of "Double Feature." It's really a jumping off point to dive into who Sam was, is, and wants to be-- and how it all affects the relationships he keeps (or doesn't, as the case turns out to be many times). Just as Sam's opinions of films as art change over time, so do his opinions on his father, a man he came to pretty quickly write off as a kid because the loudmouth character actor who had a prosthetic nose for every occasion wasn't around and when he was, was often breaking promises and spinning stories to cover his own deceits. I am focused on the film part here because of how much it spoke to me due to my own history with the medium and decision to leave abruptly, especially after devoting my entire adolescence to claiming it's all I wanted. But this review isn't about me, and in all honesty, "Double Feature" uses film references (some explicit and some more thematic) as the means by which to explore the complicated relationship between a young man trying to make a name for himself separate from his father and the father himself, who was always celebrated as a surface entertainer and not quite sure why his son's expectations were deeper.

King expertly weaves through time in a non-linear fashion to show Sam and his family at various points in their lives. Though this is not a traditional multiple narrator story, certain parts do switch POVs to gain additional perspectives on shared situations and relationships. Spending time alone with Sam's mother, a woman who could have been a tired, tragic cliche of a character (stuck in an infatuation with a narcissistic actor who repeatedly cheats on her), proves just how unique she is not just to this story but to the literary world in general. Gradually, King throws in more and more references to people we have read about in one character's POV in another's part of the story-- a personal favorite is a late in the novel mention of a now-deceased former bingo patron of Booth's-- making it clear that everyone will intersect and overlap by the ending; it is the circle of life, after all. But even when you see the "reveals" coming, bringing so many diverse characters together serves the story to come in the pages we won't get to read, rather than wraps up the ones we just finished with a Hollywood-style happy ending. We travel along with Sam on his journey of unmet expectations, and even though he doesn't quite wallow, he certainly gets stuck for awhile. Surrounding him in the end with so many colorful characters that only tricked in and out of his life one or two at a time previously inspires hope that maybe now his life will turn around; he'll be more present, more engaging; he'll live up to the potential he thought was solely tied to filmmaking. King doesn't commit one way or the other at the end. The stage has been set for Sam to have something really great by the end, though; the players are all in place; it's just up to him to call action, finally, on the new take of his life.

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