Publishers Weekly called it “"an innovative blend of film criticism and literary memoir...these essays, combining cultural criticism with deeply personal reflections on love, religion, family, and the nature of art, offer brilliant analysis and food for thought for film aficionados and casual fans alike."
MY movie lessons on losing virginity came from two Natalie Woods movies: “Splendour in the Grass” and “Marjorie Morningstar,” both cautionary tales from a more innocent (or perhaps just more secretive) era. Coming along ten years later (Tara is, ahem, a bit younger than I am) Tara’s choices are… well I’ll let her tell you.
TARA ISON: I love both of those movies! Poor tormented, passionate Natalie Wood - you can see all that longing in those huge brown eyes of hers... (Although my true connection to Marjorie Morningstar is the novel - my mother gave it to me when I was thirteen, and I reread it every few years.)
The "loss of virginity" movies that most impacted me are Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Little Darlings. That one scene in Ridgemont High, where 15-y-o Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) has sex for the first time in the baseball dugout with some older guy who doesn't care a thing about her...it's so dreadful and sad. She's doing it for all the wrong reasons, she feels so empty afterward, and can't even admit that to herself.
And Little Darlings is amazing - 15-y-o Tatum O'Neal and Kristy McNichol are at summer camp, and the other girls get a contest going on which of them will "become women" first. Tatum picks gorgeous young Armanda Assante (!), Kristy picks gorgeous young Matt Dillon (!), and they have very different but equally profound experiences.
As I say in the book, both movies are unusual in their focus on the female perspective of sexual awakening - they're both cautionary tales, but neither movie is anti-sex, they both just ask that we appreciate the power and potential of sex. Those two films helped me decide to wait just....a bit longer! (I think they should be required viewing for every 12-y- girl!)
HALLIE: My memories of going to the movies begin with the Saturday afternoon cartoon marathons that my father would drop us off for at "The Beverly,” the movie theatre at Beverly Drive and Wilshire Boulevard that had a sultan’s dome on top of it. First real movie ever was The Wizard Of Oz, only no NOT when it was first released (1939). Tara, do you remember your first?
TARA: Not the actual "first" - those childhood cartoons and Disney movies are a bit of a blur... But one early experience I remember so well is Gone With The Wind - I was probably 8 or 9 and my mother dropped me off at a revival (I know, I know...but it gave her a free afternoon. And it was a different era...)
I was enthralled, enraptured, transported. The mid-point scene where Scarlett arrives back at the devastated Tara and proclaims "As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again!" was so thrilling and moving to me - her determination and strength, her transformation from a spoiled, sheltered brat at the beginning.
Then the curtain came down and the lights went up for Intermission. But I'd never been to a movie that had an Intermission - I thought it was the end of the movie! (It isn't a bad ending, after all...) I left the theatre in a daze and waited outside for my mom to pick me up.
I don't know how long I waited - I was busy running moments of the film in my head. Finally a theatre worker saw me outside, and brought be back in for the second half.
HALLIE: What inspired you to write this book, and where do your fantastic categories come from?
TARA: A few years ago someone asked me why I became a writer, or when I knew I wanted to be a writer. And I realized it actually began with the movies: I saw the film Julia, about Lillian Hellman, when I was 13, and fell in love with those images of The Writer: the beach house, the Parisian garret, the red wine, the old plunk plunk plunk manual typewriter. So romantic and glamorous!
And then other "writer" movies, too - Reds, Dr. Zhivago, Rich and Famous - all the writers seem to have thrilling love affairs and wear great clothes and drink martinis at the Algonquin with their editor. I liked the look of being a writer, I liked the label. (Of course, the movies don't show the actual effort involved...grr...)
So, I began writing about that, and wound up with the essay called: "How to be a Writer: The Beach House, The Bathrobe, and Saving the World." And I realized so many other aspects of my identity, of who I am in the world, have been shaped, influenced, defined by the movies, the core universal experiences of love, sex, illness, death, faith.
So I kept writing! Hence,
- How to be a Jew
- How to Go Crazy
- How to be Lolita
- How to be Mrs. Robinson
- How to be a Slut
- How to Die with Style
HALLIE: Any category that you tried to but couldn't write?
TARA: I planned to write a chapter called "How To Love A Poodle," about dogs in films, and how powerful those stories are, how meaningful our connection to animals is: Old Yeller, Benji, those Disney movies about animals crossing the country in the snow to get home, etc. But every time I started writing, well, I would start to cry. I lost my dog about 5 years ago (a little poodle mutt), and the idea of sitting and watching all those scenes again and tapping back into that pain...
I can watch war scenes, illness scenes, depictions of terrible suffering, but you show me the little dog in peril at the edge of a cliff or something, and I just lose it.
But I do keep thinking about other categories that would be fun, other films that illustrate who we might be or how to be in the world: "How to Wear a Corset," "How to be a Sister/Mother/Friend," "How to be a Californian/Blonde," "How to Run the World," etc.
HALLIE: So, yes, let’s play fill in the blank. What movies taught YOU how: "How to Wear a Corset?"
I'll start: "The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and her Lover" with an R-rated (or possibly X) Helen Mirren looking amazing what might be a corset.
What else (ahem) fits?
(Continue the conversation here today and find Tara in person in (LA, SF, Tempe...) or meet us January 22 in Boston at Newtonville Books, 7 pm)