Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Tara Ison: Reeling Through Life

HALLIE EPHRON: Tara Ison is a self proclaimed “child of the movies, a movie freak, a film junkie, a cineaste.” And she’s written the perfect book for those of us who are similarly afflicted. “Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at the Movies” is part memoir and part a cavalcade of those movies that moved us and taught us essential life lessons like “How to go Crazy,” “How to be a Drunk,” and “How to Lose Your Virginity.”

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)


  1. Oh, I do love movies . . . although I didn't see many movies when I was growing up, I have had the pleasure of discovering a great many of them as an adult.
    The "taught me how to wear a corset" movie: Tap Roots with Van Heflin and Susan Hayward . . . .

  2. This sounds like a fabulous book, and so clever! There must be a movie about becoming a cook, right? I can only think of recent ones like Chef and the Hundred Foot Journey. Julie and Julia?

  3. Tap Roots - will have to check that out.

    On the corset front, what about GONE WITH THE WIND. The scene where she gets laced into one? And seems like one played a prominent role in Dangerous Liaisons.

    Where are our historical fiction writers who know all about this stuff??

  4. Welcome, Tara! I hear you about the dog thing — could never do it either. Yes, later, I'm still bitter the movie I Am Legend didn't come with a warning....

  5. Okay, I'll say it: "How to Fake an Orgasm." When Harry Met Sally.

    I am anti-corset. And dog movies...Where the Red Fern Grows. SOB.

  6. Ramona, you are so naughty - but that scene was hilarious.

    I'll go more recently for corsets with Pirates of the Caribbean and Kiera Knightley being laced into that high-fashion gown. I still remember my daughter looking at me and saying, "Really?"

  7. The movie JULIA-- isn't that the one in which Lilian Hellman throws her typewriter out of the window in frustration? I have been tempted to do that, but my office is in the basement.

  8. Hi, All! Just learning to leave a comment right now...

  9. Ellen, I love JULIA! I discuss it at length in "How to be a Writer" chapter! That movie made me want to be a writer - but I really just wanted to live in that beach house and have Jason Robards/Dashiell Hammet dig me clams for dinner...

  10. "How to Fake an Orgasm," love it! There was a movie about British political scandal - blanking on the title - where Bridget Fonda and Joanne Whalley have a threesome with politico John Hurt, and fake orgasms in a really hysterical way....

    Oh, I think it was called Scandal?

  11. And a good corset scene (in a bad movie) is TITANIC, where Kate Winslet's mother is lacing her up while telling her she needs to do the "right thing" and marry the rich guy in order to support her mother...text, meet subtext.

  12. Amadeus. (Which I just saw again and is fabulous. How about "talent wasted" movies?)

    My favorites are "Ugly Duckling" movies. Working Girl. Desk Set. Devil Wears Prada. There must be many more. (Okay, not Carrie.)

    LOVE this! What a fun blog. Thanks, Tara!

  13. Thank you, Hank! I think "How to be an Ugly Duckling" would have been a great chapter! Maybe a follow-up...

  14. How to be an ugly duckling... great category!

    What was that movie with Emma Thompson as the ugly nanny who looses her hideousness... And Sixteen Candles. And The Devil Wears Prada... And of course Gigi. And Daddy Long Legs...

  15. With my love of movies, this sounds like an interesting book. I'll have to look for it.

  16. Funny Face! Audrey Hepburn becoming a fashion model with Fred Astaire in Paris - what a perfect "How to Become a Swan" movie! (As if Audrey Hepburn could ever be an ugly duckling...)

  17. Funny Face? I dunno. Audrey wears cool, bohemian clothes and works in a bookshop; then she meets Fred and becomes a high fashion model in tight girdles and killing shoes and marries a guy old enough to be her father (even if he is Fred Astaire).

    First movie -- Old Yeller. But I'm not sure it taught me anything. Certainly I didn't learn not to get too attached to my pet in case it got rabies and I'd have to shoot it.

    Best corset scene in a movie: Indiscreet, when Ingrid Bergman's sister says to her, "Go put on a girdle; you'll feel better."

    But Julia. Yeah. Ah,the writing life in movies! (Hey, there's a subject for a Reds posting.)

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  19. I LOVE Funny Face! I worked with Richard Avedon, and of course that movie is about him..

  20. Maybe this is for another book, but any TV shows you grew up with that taught you how to be... ? Since I lived in a small town and couldn't really see a majority of these seminal movies until I went to college, TV was more of a daily presence and perpetual influence. For example How I Learned to Be a New Yorker was from "That Girl." Show biz? "Dick Van Dyke Show."

  21. The Mary Tyler Moore Show taught me a LOT: How To Be A Good Friend, How To Be A Happy Single Gal With Good Priorities, How To Be Self-Sufficient...

  22. Agree with you on Audrey, Susan D - she is far more adorable pre-makeover. I especially love her dance number in the bohemian club, black sweater and leggings! (Trivia - she wanted to wear black socks, too, but the director convinced her to wear white, to actually highlight her dancing, rather than let her body blur into one line...)

  23. Hi Tara,

    Here's an essay I'd love to see: "How to Wear Vintage." I love the old classics with the beautiful outfits. OH man ...

    Or how about "How to Do Everything with a Cocktail in Hand" ? :-)

    I also hear you about the dog thing -- can't go there. I can watch anything but animal endangerment and, interestingly, needles going into skin (whether addiction or medical scenes).

    If I were to write an essay it would be called "How to Avoid Needles."

  24. Lisa, I'm with you - im fine with really gory stuff, arms getting ripped off or something, but can't bear needles. Watching people shooting up completely freaks me out - so I miss a lot of good movies that way. I've never seen Drugstore Cowboy, because I'm too scared....

  25. I so loved Natalie Wood's movies. Love with a Perfect Stranger had some great comedic moments with Steve McQueen and Woods. Then there was the horror of the backstreet abortionist, which I didn't fully appreciate the first time I saw the movie, but when I was older, its importance stood out. Splendor in the Grass, West Side Story, Gypsy, and This Property is Condemned were all films I loved in my youth, but most of them I saw on TV, as I was a bit too young when they appeared in the movie theaters. There was a strength of women I found in Wood's characters, even with the tragedies in so many of the roles.

    Now, one of my favorite movies I did see in the movie theater that gave me a view of love, duty, and passion was the great Dr. Zhivago. Julie Christie and Omar Sharif so passionate for one another, with Rod Steiger and Geraldine Page representing other sides of relationships, bad and good. Of course, when I later read the book, I realized just how much love the good Dr. Zhivago had to spread around.

    Oh, and When Harry Met Sally also gave me the great example the fake orgasm. And, the great line at the end, "... when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible."

  26. Kathy: "... when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible."

    HOLD THAT THOUGHT! Tomorrow we talk about immortal lines from the movies and that's one I forgot about!

  27. Kathy, Dr. Zhivago is a huge favorite - that's one I can watch over and over. in the book, I talk about Zhivago in two essays - How To Be A Writer, and How To Be A Slut - Rod Steiger calling Julie Christie a slut was the first time I ever heard that word, and it really stuck...

    (BBC did a miniseries a few years back, with Keira Knightly as Lara and Sam Neil as Kamarovsky - worth watching!)

  28. Love this concept. Lots of how to be a writer movies. Writers were popular characters, but JULIA was one of my favorite of those. (Funny how none of them got it right.)

    Lucy/Roberta, one of the best for how to become a cook was SABRINA with Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, and William Holden.

  29. My all time favorite book about being a writer: The Wonder Boys. Reminder that writing is about making choices... and that being under the influence can help you overcome writer's block and produce a whole lot of crappy prose.

  30. My favorite How To Be A Writer film is probably The World According To Garp - great sequence of Garp wandering through town and sitting at his typewriter, weaving in the sights and sounds of ordinary life into fiction. Closest depiction to what goes on in a writer's mind Ive ever seen.

  31. Hallie, do you mean Nanny McPhee? I've not seen it, but always wanted to.

    Another one in that category could be Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. LOVE that movie, with Amy Adams and the always wonderful Frances McDormand.

  32. My intro-to-corsets movie (if we don't count Frank N. Furter in the ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW) was the gorgeous costuming of THE DRAUGHTSMAN'S CONTRACT, an almost surreal genre-blend of historical, erotica and country-house mystery. An amazing movie and well worth the watching, even for those of you who - unlike me - might not be heavily into 17th century history.

  33. Thanks, Everyone! And huge thank you to Hallie Ephron, and Jungle Red Writers for having me!

    Please join me on Facebook at Tara Ison Writer, or my website: www.TaraIson.com

    Cheers and regards, Tara I