Soon to be a Major Motion Picture: A Novel

By Warren Dunford

Alyson Press


Paperback 255pp

Reviewed by Alistair McCartney

Let me be honest with you: I didn’t approach Canadian writer Warren Dunford’s debut novel “Soon to be a Major Motion Picture” in a particularly good temper. Living in LA, one is so bombarded by the movie biz that books feel like a peaceful refuge from its all-pervasive nature. To my mind, novels about “the industry” are as to be avoided as novels written by actors.

So conscious of my bias, I dove headfirst into Dunford’s debut effort, and was at first pleasantly surprised. It’s narrated by one Mitchell Draper, a gay man in his late twenties living in Toronto. Mitchell is a screenwriter, and dreams of making it big in the film industry. But he’s forced to work degrading temp jobs and to write porn tales to make a living, while waiting for that elusive big break. He’s not alone in his yearning. His best friend Ingrid works at a coffee shop: while slaving away at the espresso machine she too dreams of becoming a famous painter. And then there’s Ramir, Mitchell’s hyper-cute friend who works at the whole food store; he occasionally scores bit parts in TV melodramas, forced to play a wide variety of indeterminate ethnicities.

One day Mitchell gets a call from “Carmen Denver,” a classically unbearable Hollywood producer with no table manners, no understanding of the word tact and big hair to boot. She hires Mitchell to write a screenplay for her that appears to have a real potential of making a big splash in Hollywood. It seems as if his prayers have been answered, but Carmen has a shady agenda. Mitchell’s dream quickly turns into a nightmare as he gets verbally and physically threatened, and life once again feels like one long rut.

Mitchell Draper is an extremely appealing gay hero. He’s an eminently likable mess, who can only be calmed down by TV or tequila. I found myself empathizing with the strategies he comes up with to get around his nervousness. At Ingrid’s art opening: “I turned to get in line for a cup of coffee. Holding a cup would give me something to do with my hands… After I’d finished my coffee, I kept sipping from the empty cup-just so I wouldn’t have to let go of my prop.”

Self-doubt isn’t the only plague that’s haunting him. After a drunken slip-up with an ex, he’s taken an HIV test, but never returned to get the results. His AIDS paranoia doesn’t help his already wonderfully fucked up relationship to other men:

“Here is my psychosis: I am attracted to men who match my fantasies of larger-than-life elegance and glamour. I immediately put them on pedestals-imagining a future of glittering dinner parties and international travel. And then as soon as something goes wrong, as soon as I inevitably realize that the guy is merely flesh and blood, I lose interest and try to escape.”

Written in plain, sharp prose, the first half of the book is eminently readable. Dunford has a keen eye when it comes to satirizing the nuts and bolts of the biz, and to highlighting the irony of an industry that specializes in the ridiculous, yet takes itself so damn seriously. The first screenplay Mitchell wrote, “Hell Hole” is described as

“a modern-day horror story about the insane landlord of a rundown apartment building. He takes gleeful pleasure in creatively killing any tenant who dares complain. The climax involves the hero pushing the landlord into a garbage incinerator, which results in the spontaneous explosion of the entire city block.”

Dunford is also a dab hand at displaying the degradation screenwriters must go through. After reading an early version of the screenplay she’s assigned to Mitchell, Carmen voices her displeasure: “ ‘How could you do this to me?…Do you know what I went through to even get them to take my call? I can’t send them shit like this.’”

Mitchell tries to defend himself, but Carmen quickly reminds him of the power structure ” ‘Okay, so I respect you. But you still fucked up. And in this particular situation, I’m the one with the money, so what I says goes. Do you get my point?’”

Poking fun at the film industry, though enjoyable, is pretty much a one-liner. As Dunford tries to extend his one joke into a novel, the joke quickly wears thin. It would take a master of satire to sustain such a point of view, and Dunford is clearly not that—quite yet.

There are lengthy sections in the book where we read Mitchell’s screenplay: although Dunford’s tongue is firmly in his cheek, and it’s made clear to the reader that the screenplay is meant to be corny and cliched, this doesn’t make it any more pleasurable to read. Worse is when Dunford employs the screenplay format to tell the rest of the story. It’s an experiment that simply doesn’t work.

What really drags the novel down is the plot itself. As Carmen’s terrible intentions surface, the story descends into the absurd—as opposed to the absurdist. The plot does not so much as thicken as coagulate. It becomes ludicrous, unbelievable, and not particularly funny.

Far more interesting are the casual asides and small observations Dunford makes; he has a great take on the oddities of modern gay life, and the dreariness of modernity.

As Mitchell strolls through his gay neighborhood, he describes “Heading down Church Street, I passed the regular gang of denim-clad men, cruising on the steps in front of the Second Cup. Every sip of coffee was a demonstration of sexual technique.”

And the office of one of Mitchell’s dreaded temp jobs is seen as ” a sea of powder-gray ‘workstations,’ formed entirely of molded plastic. Padded half-walls rose up in every direction. Viewed from above, I’m sure the floor would look like a massive hedge maze.”

He also is capable of doing some shrewd analysis of the culture of star worship his characters (and his readers) are living within. Mitchell runs into Anne Murray of all people and describes the exchange they have: “When I passed, she glanced at me-looked into my eyes with the expression you give a stranger. A bit of questioning, a bit of reserve, but mostly blank. It was unsettling, even sort of frightening, to have someone I know so intimately look back at me completely without recognition.”

The interpersonal life of Mitchell and his unholy trio of slacker wanna-bes is similarly insightful. Mitchell’s infatuation with Ramir, Ingrid’s fear of showing her paintings, The trios’ collective struggle to escape from the everyday grind and to put their artistic stamp on the world is deftly handled, and quite touching.

But these moments where Dunford dives beneath the surface are all too rare; they get sacrificed to the story-line, just as Dunford’s characters sacrifice their real selves to ambition. If Dunford had stayed with his gift for graceful observation and exploring the lovely tangle of human relations, the book would have been infinitely more satisfying.

Alistair McCartney is a writer and journalist living in Los Angeles.

©1995-2000 Oasis Magazine. All Rights Reserved.