(Book Review) Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at the Movies by Tara Ison

“Going to the movies has always been, as far back as I can remember, both an event and a way of life. … You go to the movie theatre, you cross the threshold to a sacred space dedicated wholly to that experience, smelling of popcorn in hot oil, strangers and their unfamiliar toiletries, and dry, stale velvet.” – Tara Ison in Reeling Through Life, page 3

ReelingI wrote here recently about a novel in which the main character has been struck down by the power of film to the point that he lives only half a life. In Tara Ison’s new book of film criticism and memoir, Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at the Movies, the author has seemingly been brought to life by that same power. It has been her teacher, her big sister, her muse, her tease, her companion.

Ison’s book is separated into nine chapter-length essays, each organized around a theme: How to Be a Drunk, How to Die with Style, How to Lose Your Virginity. In each chapter she tells us about an aspect of her life, her story, and how movies have intersected with that part of her life, informing, provoking, comforting, or antagonizing her along the way.

“So, for better or worse, whether it’s due to subliminal absorption or conscious emulation, my identity has been as shaped by movies I’ve seen as by anything else in real life. The very thing that concerns my friend [editor’s note: her friend does not allow her children to watch movies for fear they will not have real experiences to remember] is unalterably, inextricably part of my reality: Movies have created entire aspects of my self. They’ve given me definition. They’ve taught me how to light Sabbath candles, how to seduce someone with strawberries. Bulldoze my way past writer’s block. Go a little crazy. Characters are my role models, my teachers; the movie theatre has been a classroom.” – page 5

Ison is not a professional film critic or historian, but her insights into the films she discusses here are astute. And those films are an interesting lot. The movies that have resonated with Ison are an odd and delightfully unapologetic assortment. We choose the movies we watch, but we don’t necessarily choose which ones impact and resonate with us, and Ison is honest about the greater and lesser films that have resonated with her. There are certainly some established classics among these films – Taxi Driver, The Graduate, and Franco Zeffirelli’s 1967 Romeo and Juliet, among others – but there are far more that don’t generally make their way into books of film writing. Many of these movies are melodramatic, campy, or just simply forgotten and passed over. I don’t say any of that to their detriment; indeed, I love more movies I’m not supposed to as a serious cinephile than I can come up with time to properly defend. And I do often feel that need – to defend them, to apologize for them, to preempt criticism. I was thrilled to notice throughout Reeling that Ison does none of that. The films that have moved her are the films that have moved her, and there is no need whatsoever to apologize for them.

Ison’s analysis of these films is excellent, as I said, but it is the way she weaves the themes of these films and the impact they have had on her into the gorgeous prose she devotes to her own stories that is what makes the book something special. This is film writing at its most powerful, drawing the reader into the very experience of connection with cinema that impacted the writer in the first place. I deeply respect the writing of many academic film writers and serious film critics, and their work is invaluable and necessary, but what Ison is doing here, when it’s done as well as she does it, is my favorite kind of film writing. I felt as I read her essays like I was talking to a friend and fellow film lover who gets it.

Ison tells her story here with forthright honesty, a word that gets overused in book reviews these days. Ison earns it here. This isn’t a cheap honesty, but one that shows us her self-doubts, her victories, her failures, her virtues and vices. She discusses her family’s history of mental illness, her father’s struggle with alcoholism and her possible problem with drink as well, her sexual history, her self-doubt as a writer, and much more, but also circles around to question these things in herself and evaluate whether her “problems” are as real as they’ve seemed or if she’s inflated them to seem interesting, whether her confident decisions have been as unflinching as she’s projected. It is a bold piece of confessional writing, and a warmly and bravely feminist one, a lived-in feminism.

Ison is the author of three critically acclaimed novels (and the screenplay for a cult classic movie), and Reeling Through Life is her first book of non-fiction. While I have no doubt her fiction is delightful to read (I will try to catch up with her novels soon), I do hope she publishes more writing about film and about her life. Her vision of cinema-as-classroom allows us to sit with her as both our fellow student and our teacher. Read Reeling Through Life as soon as you can.


Reeling Through Life is available now at Greenville Public Library.

7 comments

  1. In a world where church is more and more a thing that shines meaning only for old people, the movies and television have become the moral beacons for greater and greater sections of the world’s populations. Old Testament-like stories find more relevance when told in super hero extravagances. The value and proprieties of friendship are taught in the rerun lessons of Friends and Big Bang Theory. Questions about love, honor, and allegiance are addressed in vampire and outer space sagas. For my part, I admit to being heavily influenced by films that spoke to me, much as you suggest certain movies answered some of life’s puzzles for Tara Ison. I guess that is why I am so indignant when respected film-makers create cynical, dark projects, which fail to shed light on how to better deal with life. With so much of today’s viewership hoping to find direction through the shows they watch, it sickens me that so many expensive or intellectual films and cable series pander to our salacious appetites for what is twisted, self-serving, and nihilistic about human behavior. As someone who gained insight and inspiration from the works of Frank Capra, William Wyler, George Cukor, Elia Kazan, Walt Disney, and John Ford, I acknowledge the “sacredness” which can be found in a movie theater. I am so glad that Tara Ison revealed and exhalted what millions of others have experienced, the power of good story-telling in modern form and how that educated and guided her understandings and choices.

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    • Thanks for your thoughts, Paul. As you know, I tend to see the role of the artist differently from how you do with this. I think art has a responsibility to tell the truth, and sometimes the truth it ugly. Bad things happen. People get hurt, or exploited, or abused, or just live meaningless lives. When art can only be uplifting, those people’s lives and stories can be erased, which is an injustice.

      That said, I loved many of those same films and directors you reference here. I always love our discussions, Paul!

      If you enjoyed this review, you should check out the interview I did with Tara a few weeks later. It was posted in early February. Very interesting conversation.

      Thanks again!

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  2. […] Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at the Movies by Tara Ison (Soft Skull Press) – Ison writes about film the way I want to write about film: through the lens of personal experience. We bring ourselves to the movies, and that doesn’t stop when we write about them. Ison’s book is a memoir of sorts that shows us the way films–both canonized classics and campy personal favorites–impact and inform the way we process our experiences and identities. […]

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