by Risa Nye
Tara Ison’s book, to borrow a line from Jerry Maguire (1996), had me at hello. Before I even looked at the first page of Reeling Through Life (via Amazon or IndieBound,) I imagined the dulcet, breathy voice of the late Don LaFontaine, inviting me into “a world” … where watching movies is a way of “inhabiting other realities, other lives.” Movies, Ison says in her introduction, have “gotten under my skin, formed my perceptions, influenced the choices I’ve made. I’ve learned how to live at the movies, from the movies; I am who I am because of movies, and, to some degree all the other movie freaks out there are, too.” This movie freak was ready to settle back in her chair and enter that world.
Anyone who loves movies and who learned about certain critical aspects of life while sitting in the dark with a bag of popcorn or a box of Good & Plenty will relate to this book in a big way. As someone who has spent thousands of hours enthralled, enchanted and entertained by actors looming larger than life on the big screen, I expected to find several of the signposts of my own life in Ison’s collection of essays, which are neatly categorized into nine essential lessons: How to go crazy; how to be Lolita; how to be a Jew; how to lose your virginity; how to be a drunk; how to be a slut; how to die with style; how to be Mrs. Robinson; and finally, how to be a writer. (Let me clarify here: the lessons I learned from seeing many of the same movies Ison writes about didn’t prepare me to go down all the same paths she did, but reading about the films she saw left me with more than a few déjà vu moments. However: as a girl, a teenager, and later as a young woman, I did learn what to anticipate in situations that may have been years ahead of me.)
Ison artfully curates a collection of iconic movies that she uses to illustrate and amplify the subject of each essay. A talented novelist and screenwriter, she knows the power of words. Intertwined with her memories, perspectives, and lessons learned are poignant scenes from screenplays, showing through dialogue how the words affected her— allowing the reader to revisit these scenes within a hybrid memoir that is fueled by films.
One reaction readers may have upon seeing movies grouped together in this way—described and deconstructed in essays with subtitles that intrigue and titillate (“Lolita: the Schoolgirl, the Nymphet, the Muse, and the Inexorable Ticking Clock,” followed later by “Mrs. Robinson: Seductions, Trysts, and the Inexorable Ticking Clock”) — is to start making lists: films I want to see again, films I would’ve included here, films I never saw but now want to see, films I won’t see but should, etc. Ison’s approach to movie writing will often have you smacking your forehead and thinking, “Yes, of course. I learned about (fill in the blank here) from watching that one, too!” Your responses and memories will vary, but as she points out, “We all have our own subjective, idiosyncratic collection of indelible cinematic moments.”
The book doesn’t shy away from topics that are often glamorized in the movies, but painful and destructive in real life. For example, in “How to be a Drunk,” she discusses her own battles (and those of her father) with alcohol, in the context of films like Days of Wine and Roses (1962), The Lost Weekend (1945), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Flight (2012), Leaving Las Vegas (1995) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). By using these movies as a backdrop, Ison creates a way to face difficult truths about herself and her father. She also takes a long, unflinching look at how women alcoholics are portrayed in the movies. She doesn’t gloss over her alcohol abuse, but neatly incorporates excerpts from the screenplays to further illustrate how her struggles paralleled or departed from those of the characters.
While Ison’s essays are deeply personal, they are also universal—addressing issues relating to mental health, sex, death, religion, writing, and the finer points of seduction. Can you broach the subject of dying in the movies without mentioning Love Story (1970), Dark Victory (1939), Million Dollar Baby (2004), Harold and Maude (1971), Glory (1989), or Thelma and Louise (1991)? Neither can Ison. She first saw Love Story at age six, accompanying her mother, who told her it would be “a very adult story with adult themes . . . but such a beautiful story about a man and a girl who were in love, and then the girl tragically dies, and I was very mature for my age, and she couldn’t get a babysitter, and she was sure I could handle it.” It’s difficult to rewind an adult’s knowledge to a pre-knowledge state, especially on the topic of death and pain, but Ison accomplishes this while describing her childhood memory of sitting next to her sobbing mother as Oliver and Jenny lie together in the final moments of a “beautiful, peaceful” death: a perfect ending.
The essay on How to Be a Writer is subtitled “The Beach House, the Bathrobe, and Saving the World.” Mentioned here are: The World According to Garp (1982), Doctor Zhivago (1965), The Big Picture (1989), Wonder Boys (2000), The Shining (1980), Sunset Boulevard (1950), and Julia (1977), among others. To set the scene for this essay, Ison recalls seeing Julia in 1977, when she was thirteen:
“. . . we enter the beach house to find Lillian Hellman typing away, in a chenille robe, her hair rumpled, the toughening touches of a cigarette dangling at her lip and a tumbler of half-drunk amber liquid nearby.”
What thirteen year old wouldn’t want to be a writer after reading that? Ison even claims to covet the “lumpy cardigan” Hellman wears in a later scene. (As every writer knows, a sweater like that is essential.) The bathrobe appears again in Wonder Boys (2000), only this time it’s a pink one worn by Michael Douglas as Grady Tripp, a “one-hit wonder” novelist. Ison readily admits she has faced the same situation as a writer, struggling to repeat past successes. She addresses head on the fears and insecurities that come with writing, and acknowledges the fact that she’s bought into the “cinematic image of the Writer—the abbreviated moments of typing that magically create Art, and both the charmingly furrow-browed struggle and the illusion of ease.”
In her desire to include every possible relevant movie, Ison may have provided an overabundance of material, and some of the connections to her own life are tenuous. But film lovers will understand and appreciate the difficult task of editing, and enjoy reading the very personal and thought-provoking mashup of memoir and film retrospective that is Reeling Through Life.
And by the way, if you’re wondering what Ison has to say about Mrs. Robinson’s leopard-skin accessories and Lolita’s lollipop, you’ll have to read the book.
Risa Nye lives in Oakland. Her articles and essays have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Monthly, Hippocampus magazine, and several anthologies. She writes about cocktails as Ms. Barstool for Nosh at berkeleyside.com and about other things at risanye.com.