Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 890
Told from the perspective of a second-person narrator, who interprets the thoughts of a man viewing a film in a theater, “Moving Pictures” does not involve the usual interaction of characters. It is a roving excursion through the thoughts of the unnamed viewer of the matinee. At times, the man appears to be either a novelist turned screenwriter or simply a highly imaginative viewer who fantasizes that he has written the ninety-minute Western film. The narrator creates uncertainty about the identity of the man: “Perhaps you have written this movie. Perhaps not.” The man’s observations are filtered through the commentary of the narrator, who initially makes remarks about the American film industry.
The man is aware that the James Bond films have been seen by countless people, which indicates the immense popularity of films. The narrator notes the high status of film directors and the importance of movie houses as arenas of visual culture. The narrator also analyzes the motives of the viewer, who is a kind of Everyman in search of enlightenment and perhaps an experience of transcendence.
In probing the thoughts of the main character, the narrator informs the reader of the viewer’s background. He grew up during the Aquarian age of the 1960’s and now lives in the fast lane. Sanka, traffic jams, and hectic business schedules are part of his current existence, which contrasts with his earlier life when he was addicted to methadone. The man, who has a degree in English, uses the Neptune Theater as an escape from the tedium of his daily routine.
The background of the viewer is continually unraveled by the narrator. The man is experiencing a failed marriage to a woman, named either Megan or Daphne, who is a semiprofessional actress. The worlds of illusion and reality—especially concerning the man’s identity—become indistinguishable. Details of the failed marriage are presented. The pending separation, resulting from disaffection on both sides, poses a series of depressing complications involving children from a former marriage, a tax audit by the Internal Revenue Service, mortgage payments, and alimony. There is also an allusion to the death of the man’s mother.
These bothersome thoughts are shelved when the film begins with the usual trademark images, which become hopeful signs that the dream merchants will provide either a tragic or farcical experience of value. The narrator identifies the man as a screenwriter, who may have written the film he is watching. The man attempts to locate his name in the credits and recalls crew members and the difficulties in shooting on location in Oklahoma cow towns.
The narrator explores the man as screenwriter. His novel, which had been read by the director, resulted in his having been offered the scriptwriting assignment. The director’s concern with sex scenes is contrasted with the screenwriter’s goal of genuine depth. The man’s educational background, his dissertation on literary theorist Jacques Derrida, are contrasted with the entertainment necessities of filmmaking. The film project caused the screenwriter to receive admiration from his friends, many of whom became distant after his success. As the credits roll, the man compares the demands of novel-writing technique with the easier task of scriptwriting.
The man makes a variety of observations unlike those of the average viewer. He knows the traits of the actors, the producer’s motivations, and the casting suggestions with which the writer ultimately complied. The film business itself is critiqued as part of a corrupt industry in polluted Hollywood.
Uncertainty about the man’s identity is furthered by the narrator, who continues to question whether the film was actually written by the man. The action of the film is described from the perspective of a screenwriter. The main characters of the Western, Bret and Bess, are part of the opening scene, which involves a funeral. This scene causes the man to choke up because he is reminded of his mother’s funeral. He realizes that the true magic of film is that the viewer is the repository of the emotions that appear on the screen.
The man recollects the editing process and his interaction with Coates, the film editor. As the film ends and the final credits appear, the man realizes that the film can no longer fool him or transform his feelings. He recalls the technical aspects of the project rather than its emotional effect. Edited lines and visible microphones are the reality of the process that is connected to those parts of the film that evoked laughter from the audience. The happy ending, the marriage of Bret and Bess, is clearly ironic because they had disliked each other as actors. Furthermore, the man is experiencing an unhappy ending in his own marriage.
When the man leaves the theater, he discovers that his car has been broken into. His checkbook, spare house keys, and a report due the next day have been stolen. The photograph of his wife that falls out of the glove compartment reminds him of the tragedy of his life, the pending separation, the grinding boredom of his job, and the demands of his children. He releases the anger that is building inside him by banging his fists on the car. He finally climbs inside, cranks up the car’s engine, and curses as he lowers his head to the steering wheel.