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Onyx reviews: Double Feature by Owen King

Readers familiar with Owen King's collection We're All In This Together may notice some similarities between his debut novel and the title novella from his earlier book. Both deal with the importance of families, even oddball ones. In Double Feature, the family consists of Booth Dolan, star of countless B-movies, his long-suffering ex-wife Allie, who is dead before the novel starts, their son Sam and his half-sister, the profane but wise Mina.

The book is told from Sam's point of view, with occasional flashes back to the days when Booth and Allie met. It focuses on two important times in his life: his final year in university and the present. As a film student, Sam is dedicated to producing and directing the script he wrote for his thesis. Who We Are is a pessimistic, semi-autobio­graphical piece that compresses his and his friends' years in college into a single day. Its major theme is how young people set out to make something new, but by the time they figure out what that means they're already locked into the same track as their parents. 

Sam's father believes that life is like a double feature at a drive-in. The first film, childhood, screens before dark. The images on the screen may be hazy and unclear. It isn't the picture everyone has come to see—it's the warm-up. The second feature, adulthood, is always better. It has all the exciting stuff that the audience will want to discuss later. It's the real adventure, full of scares and surprises. Sam is stranded between the two features, waiting for the reels to be changed. 

Booth and Sam have vastly different outlooks on life. Sam has been serious and dour all of his life. Booth likes to say that Sam looked terribly aggrieved the moment he was born. In some ways, Double Feature is a coming-of-age story about someone who grew up way too soon and now needs to reconsider his position. Booth, on the other hand, is a hedonist, an approach to life that allowed him to shirk many of his adult responsibilities. He was away from home often when Sam was a child, sometimes working on films, sometimes cheating on Sam's mother. Eventually he started a new family with another woman. 

Their differences are reflected in their opinions about films. Booth likes all movies. They are diverting and amusing, he believes, nothing to be taken too seriously. He calls Sam's script "portentous." The irony is too thick, he says. "Isn't it more interesting to try and dig down into the hard dirt and scrape out that precious nugget of possibility?" Like Sam, he got his start directing a feature he wrote in the late 1960s, using his larger-than-life personality to convince people to do things for him. His approach was simple: obtain all the needed coverage and you're good. None of his films would be considered classics (although he did work with Orson Welles on the director's final, unfinished movie), but it's hard to turn on the television late at night without stumbling across one. He wears a different false nose in each movie, radically altering his appearance. People go to movies to see characters, not Booth Dolan, he believes. 

Before he could say more than a few words—and before his father proved to be such a disappointment—Sam emulated Booth's habit of using his fingers to make a camera lens, composing imaginary scenes. Even then, Booth criticized Sam's serious attitude. "You have a severe directing style," he says. "I've seen the hell you give those plastic people of yours." Sam thinks B movies are cheap entertainment, beacons of untruth, composed of everything he abhors: Characters who are absolutely good or evil. People who crack jokes in the face of danger or who become killing machines when their children are in danger. The avatar of Sam's disdain is E.T., which he considers senti­mental and disingenuous, depicting the lives of children of divorce as magical, which wasn't his experience. The movies Sam considers exceptional are artful and true. Their opposing viewpoints bring to mind the debate about genre versus literary novels.

Sam knows Who We Are won't make much of a dent in the film world, but it is his statement about life. He cobbles together financing from a number of sources, including family and a start-up production company willing to invest if Sam hires at least one recognizable actor. The rest of the money comes from a wealthy but schizo­phrenic film student named Brooks Hartwig, Jr. Without Brooks, Sam's production would have been doomed several times by unexpected delays and cost overruns, but the tradeoff is that he has to put up with the man's oddball behavior: Brooks believes he is constantly being filmed by a documentary crew. Officially he is the assistant director, but in reality he's little more than a flunky. In one of Sam's worst moments, he forces Brooks to stand in the rain for hours so he can report back the moment it stops so they can continue filming. Sam believes he can always apologize later for whatever offenses he causes during production. In that sense, he's more like his father than he'd ever admit: act now and worry about cleaning up the mess later.

Sam is almost finished assembling the footage when the unthinkable happens. His vision is irrevocably altered, and the movie's fate is forever sealed when he casually tosses a DVD toward—but not into—a trash can. The corrupted version of Who We Are ends up on a file sharing service and turns into the 21st century's version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Being associated with the movie ruins whatever cinematic aspirations many of the participants had. Sam is spared the worst of the humiliation because he didn't appear onscreen, but his dreams of becoming a filmmaker are scuttled. He ends up working in a video store, scoffing at the movie choices of his customers, before becoming a wedding video­grapher, popular for his movie-themed packages. 

Whenever he stumbles upon a screening of the movie, he is plunged into depression. He receives but never cashes the residual checks for the adulterated version of Who We Are, which over the years amount to tens of thousands of dollars. His life stalls. His girlfriend dumps him, but he continues to sleep with her, even after she marries a retired baseball player. He moves in with his college friend, an agoraphobic hoarder famous for his internet product reviews. He's still living like a college student, waiting for the second feature to start, but when he meets an intriguing, flirtatious young woman while filming a wedding, he flees from her rather than risking a relationship. 

Double Feature is replete with witty, droll and amusing set pieces. A large chunk of the first half of the novel details the filming process, with all of its setbacks and complications. The scene where Sam is forced to screen the corrupted version of his film for his financial backers is so awkward that it's hilarious, as the would-be auteur resigns himself to his fate. The details of the changes made to his film are scandalously funny. Several years later, Sam's exploits with his oddball band of friends take him in unexpected directions. He tries to be a father figure to his half sister, aware that Booth isn't up to the task. His non-traditional relationship with his ex-girlfriend comes to a head in an amusing scene that involves a car, a house and a tree. Sam's life isn't as terrible as he thinks it is, but something needs to change.

The core of the novel is about how Sam awakens from his stasis. His opus would have vanished without a trace after a few film festival screenings if not for the unauthorized changes, whereas in its present form it's special, in a twisted way. Sam struggles to understand his father, who is constitutionally incapable of being embar­rassed, and his late mother, who gave up everything for Booth and could still love him after all he did to the family. He spends more time with Booth and comes to understand that he doesn't need to be like his father to accept him. He learns to be less sure of himself and less serious, thereby growing up. Movies don't always have to punish people with the truth, he realizes. They can simply be entertaining diversions from life. 

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