- Attraction, Death, and Digital Jouissance in Robert Coover’s A Night at the Movies
A Night at the Movies, or, You Must Remember This (1987) is a collection of short fictions written by Robert Coover during the late seventies and early eighties and miscellaneously published in 1987.1 In comparison to Coover’s more overtly sociopolitical works—The Public Burning (1977), which denounces the social fascism of the American establishment through the narration of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s execution, and The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (1968), where the thirst for individual power leads to solipsism and demise—A Night at the Movies engages with a comprehensive media discourse that was redefining its theories and boundaries at the delicate crossroads of the Ford-Carter-beginning-of-Reagan’s eras, between 1974 and 1981—the years when Coover wrote his stories. This was a time when global communication networks were being shaped (Turner founded CNN in 1980) and the Federal Communications Commission had begun to implement programming on, and diffusion of, basic cable television via satellite, positing the basis for a (quasi-)deregulated media proliferation.2 In parallel, a growing use of computer graphics in film and photography introduced digital image processing into analog practices (materializing bodies and objects over a given filmed background), so that new notions of reproducibility and simulation were challenging traditional visual arts and modes of representation.3 Attuned to these transformations of the media scenario, Coover proposes in A Night at the Movies an ungovernable universe of simulacra, where the characters (and the reader) find themselves at a loss, facing the undecipherable nature of reality when massively transformed into “reel.” [End Page 247]
Coover’s fictions display an ambiguous feeling towards the whole visual domain pervading the verbal territory and the human experience. The author puts media at the centre of his literary fantasy to illustrate the dangerous entropy of communication processes in the postmodern age, but also to show the augmented interconnectedness of languages as well as the possibility of renovating popular myths through different media. A Night at the Movies’ stories reflect both Coover’s skepticism and fascination about the power of American visual culture and lay bare the uncertain evolution of the relationship between media, film history, and literary language on the threshold of global televised communication. For instance, Coover captures the cultural climate identified by Neil Postman’s competing communication model, according to which old technologies (literature, but film as well for Coover) are always threatened by the rise of new ones and cannot coexist with them (“television [is] attacking the printed word” [Postman 18]). Unlike Postman, however, Coover imagines literature as a middle ground where all media (film and digital technologies in particular) can converge and negotiate their reciprocal creative possibilities. As a truly complex and self-conscious writer, Coover entangles in his work many different critical mindsets related to media and technological power, overwhelming the reader with the multilayered significance of his ominous figurations. However, in spite of the dreadful and absurdist “reel reality” he imagines, where the risk of death is always impending for the characters, Coover eventually legitimizes intermedial culture and practices through his act of fiction, freeing literary discourse from any ideological or instrumental subjugation to the very “other” systems he decides to incorporate.
Acknowledging Coover’s endorsement of systemic relations among media, my aim is to discuss three forms of intermediality that A Night at the Movies embodies, one of which is also openly intertextual. The first form of intermediality I would like to address occurs at the level of structure and incorporates film in its historical nature of popular show. In looking at the table of contents of A Night at the Movies, we are informed that what we are going to read/watch is a series of “attractions,” a term that connects Coover’s literary framework to the first Nickelodeon’s shows and style of entertainment. Fragmented into brilliant, tragicomic bits of film plots as the early “attractions” screened in theatres were, this “night at the movies” is spectacular and breathtaking, mixing stories from the classics of, mostly, the thirties and the forties with cartoons and Westerns...