‘Movie Game’ by Michael Ebner begins with an incident cinephiles will relate to; Joe, our protagonist, is so enraged by a couple talking during a film that he follows them home and vandalises their front door. “Movie talkers attract stalkers” is his motto and it is one he wholeheartedly follows through. It’s an opening that grabs the reader’s attention, refusing to give it back until the end of the novel.
Essentially, ‘Movie Game’ is about a film-obsessed teenager, his overactive libido and his messed-up family, but that’s a reductive way to describe it; there’s far more afoot here than you find in a typical YA novel and, if anything, I would suggest it is more of an adult book due to the varied references and ideas. A theme that runs throughout is the use of fiction as escapism; Joe’s sister, Loren, leans on novels, while Joe depends on films to forget his reality, even as it becomes increasingly unreal. Ebner neatly sums this up in the narrative: “their excessive consumption of fiction was an essential distraction from their broken home.” This is an idea emphasised later on in the action too, and it provides an interesting prism through which to view the events of the story.
I describe this as a weird book in the most complimentary way possible. Film references are interwoven throughout, immersing the reader in Joe’s obsession; the lines between the fictions he enjoys and the fact of the story are blurred by Joe’s conscious mission to make his life cinematic. The tough-guy dialogue often reminded me of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade or Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, which I think is quite a feat; the sparsity of the language and its lack of emotion point to the trauma of Joe’s adolescence (don’t worry; this is not one of those books) and his preference for ignoring it. The noir-ish tone runs throughout; there are femme fatales (albeit femme fatales whose modus operandi is to offer intimate favours in return for their targets reading a book), shadowy government agents and serious crimes in the background while Joe spends his time sneaking into his local multiplex. There are also some delightful turns of phrase; one character, we are told, “talked like he wished he could live in the ’60s indefinitely but wanted to take everything from the Apple Store with him,” providing descriptions which allude, rather than tell. Another favourite passage of mine made clear Joe’s manifesto on cinema behaviour: “snack consumption was legal but Joe expected anyone dining on the distracting shit to synchronise chewing with car chases and shootouts regardless of the genre. The Popcorn Pig was treating the space like a pie-eating contest. The buttery snack was his instrument and he was doing a sound check with the venue’s acoustics.” Sigh.
In case you’re wondering, the eponymous ‘Movie Game,’ goes as follows: a player names a movie, the next player names an actor from that film and then the next player names a film featuring that actor, and so on. I kept trying to play along but, sadly, all I watch these days is ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ which proved pretty unhelpful.
I really recommend ‘Movie Game.’ It’s inventive, knowing and witty, clever without being irritating. I woke up disgustingly early this morning and, rather than internally cursing my sorry luck, I thought, ‘oh good, now I can finish this book before anyone else wakes up.’ Now there’s one for the dust jacket.