By David Nilsen
I recently had the privilege and pleasure of speaking on the phone with Tara Ison, author of Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love and Die at the Movies, which was recently reviewed on this site. Tara’s book seamlessly weaves a rich and insightful perspective on cinema with honest and moving passages about her life. It is beautifully written and truly unique among both memoirs and film books.
Our conversation on the phone was peppered with laughter and was truly enjoyable. Tara is a kindred spirit, and I hope we have the opportunity to talk about film, writing, and life sometime again. The interview runs long, but it’s worth it. Be sure to check out Tara’s social media links at the bottom of the interview.
David Nilsen for Fourth & Sycamore: First of all, thank you for being willing to do this. The book was wonderful.
Tara Ison: Thank you. And thank you for your beautiful review. That was so nice.
David: I really enjoyed the book. The way you write about movies and weave them in with your life is my favorite kind of film writing. I feel like a lot of film writing, and I read a wide variety of it, is sometimes kind of coldly academic and there is a place for that, to learn and gather information, but I love reading about it the way your wrote about it, the way movies have impacted your life.
How did the idea for this book come about? How long have you known you would end up writing a book like this about the impact movies have had on your life?
Tara: You know, I didn’t think I would ever write a book like this actually. A while ago somebody asked me in an interview about how I knew I wanted to be a writer or why I wanted to become a writer. I’ve been asked that for a really long time now and I usually answer how much I loved reading as a child, which is very true. I loved books and I loved literature, and that sort of shaped my desire to be a writer. But when this question was asked of me again a while ago I suddenly realized that the reason I became a writer, or wanted to be a writer, had less to do with writing and more to do with movies. I remembered going to see a movie called Julia when I was twelve or thirteen years old, with Jane Fonda playing Lillian Hellman, the writer. I fell very much in love with the image of the writer in that movie. I talked about this a little in the book in the essay How to Be a Writer. She’s got this beach house, and she’s walking up and down the beach and she’s wearing great clothes, and when she’s having a hard time writing she goes to Paris and drinks wine. It all looked so glamorous and exciting, and I loved the image of being a writer. So I wanted to be a writer long before I ever really wanted to write. I started writing about that and that became the essay called How to Be a Writer, and in writing that I started thinking about so many other aspects of my life, and so many other aspects of my identity, that have been shaped and influenced and formed by film, by the cinematic images of how to be a writer, or how to be a drunk, or how to be a Jew, or how to go crazy, or how to be Lolita, and that’s when I thought, “Wow, maybe I can keep exploring this idea and make it a book.”
David: What was the process like for choosing which films to include and which not to include in the book? I’m sure there were more films that have had an impact on your life than what made it into the book.
Tara: Absolutely. The first thing I did was just sit down and make a list of themes that have to do with identity. I was certainly tapping into the universal themes: love, sex, death, faith, career, family. Then I made a list of all the movies I could think of that have affected me, that have moved me, that have stayed with me. And sometimes that was really just one line of dialogue, or one visual image, or one swell of music. I started making all of these lists and mixing and matching and trying to find the moments in film that specifically affected me in some of these thematic ways. The movies that specifically affected my sense of…illness, or death and dying, or the movies that really spoke to my sense of sexuality when I was an adolescent – how to be a girl, to be a woman – dealing with my sense of sexuality for the first time. I tried to find those connections where the film impacted and illuminated my life experience, but also where my life experience really connected to a film. Like you said, there were a lot of films – some of my favorite films – that aren’t in the book because I couldn’t quite find a way to talk about the relationship between my identity and the film in the way I wanted to. There’s certainly a lot about my life that isn’t in the book either because I couldn’t find those specific cinematic references.
David: What ended up being the hardest film to exclude in the end? One that had had a big impact but couldn’t be fit into one of those themes?
Tara: Two things come to mind. I had wanted to write more than I did about body image. I talk about this a little bit in How to Be Lolita and How to Lose Your Virginity, but I would have liked to have explored the presentation of the female body in film more, and how that has affected my sense of body image. I would have looked at films that use female nudity or the shaping of the female body – women in corsets, for example. I always think of the scene in Titanic – which is actually a movie I don’t like at all. I think it’s a terrible movie – the scene where Rose’s mother – Kate Winslet’s mother – is lacing her into a corset, and they’re talking about her duty and responsibility to marry, and to marry well because that is her role in life. I thought that idea and image and theme was a perfect moment. I also would have liked to include one of my all time favorite films, which is Paper Moon, but I never could find a place for it in the book. So I didn’t get to spend any time talking about one of my all time favorite movies.
David: You talk a lot about your relationship with your father, so I can definitely see that movie being one that would resonate.
Tara: Yeah, and it could have. I could have talked about it a little in How to Be Lolita, because here is a little girl who is the opposite of Lolita, the opposite of Shirley Temple, the opposite of the cute, sentimentalized, adorable little girl. I probably could have found a way, but it just didn’t happen.
David: Sure. In that scene in Titanic, if I remember correctly, there’s almost an element of punishment in that scene. The mother is kind of taking something out on Rose.
Tara: Absolutely. There’s all of this anger the mother has, and this resentment as she’s tightening that corset on her daughter. It’s really a power play. It says a lot about gender roles and mother/daughter relationships. It’s one of my favorite moments in that film.
David: One of the few redeeming ones in that film. I agree with you for sure on that. I revisited that movie a few years ago thinking maybe I had been harsh on it, and…no, I hadn’t.
Tara: I loved it once they hit the iceberg. Visually it was so beautifully done, but that two hours leading up to it is sort of excruciating.
David: It’s an effective metaphor for that movie itself – the movie sinking slowly.
You chose some films for this book that wouldn’t normally be included in a book of film writing, and with some of them, they’re not films that would usually be taken all that seriously by film lovers. I love that you included them and never apologize for them. Can you talk about that a little bit? Were you conscious of that while you were writing about those movies?
Tara: I talked in the introduction about the fact that I’m just not that discriminating as a film viewer. I want to look at something interesting and I want to feel something. Sometimes what I want to feel is escape and entertainment. Distract me from my life for ninety minutes. Sometimes I want to be moved, I want to be challenged. Sometimes I want to be frightened. Sometimes I want to be stimulated. We go to films looking for so many different kinds of experiences, and even “bad” films or mediocre films or films that maybe aren’t considered worthy of discussion or deep analysis because that isn’t their intention – sometimes those films can still push a button, or have just a moment, a line of dialogue, an expression on a character’s face that speaks to us when we are at a very specific moment in our lives so that that experience of the film will resonate in a profound way for a very long time, even if the rest of the film is forgotten or forgettable. The power of film is very subjective, and there are certainly films out there that someone could write entire books about that left me very unmoved or very unengaged, because I simply wasn’t at a place in my own life where what was being explored in the film spoke to me in a visceral way.
I’m curious if you want to be specific about which films? I’ve made a joke in the past about the fact that I couldn’t find a way to discuss Paper Moon and yet I had room for three Charlton Heston movies.
David: No, I hope you don’t take anything I’m saying as looking down on those movies. I feel similarly. There are so many movies that I’m aware are maybe not among the all time classics, but I love them. Either because they resonated with me in a particular way, or sometimes it’s just an affection. There are movies I have an affection for in some ways because they’re failures. There are movies that are earnest failures, and I love them for that. I think of the last decade or so of Francis Ford Coppola’s career. He’s made these little indie films that are nowhere even close to the level of the stuff he was doing in the ’70s, and they’re not that good, and yet I kind of like them for that. Here’s somebody who could easily have just hung it up and rested on his laurels from making some of the all time great films, and yet he’s still financing these little indie flicks he’s writing himself. They’re not that good, honestly, and I like them for that, for the fact that here is someone who is still trying to express himself five decades into his career when his glory days as a director are behind him.
Tara: I think that’s a great point. Not every film has to be Citizen Kane.
David: I loved hearing you talk about The Ten Commandments (1956) and Fiddler on the Roof. I grew up watching both at least annually. I especially love The Ten Commandments. It’s so great, and it’s so bad at the same time. That’s part of its charm. If it were legitimately a great film, whatever the objective criteria for that would be, it would lose something. The charm of it is somewhat tied to the way Anne Baxter says “MOH-ses” every time, and Yul Brynner and Charlton Heston glaring at each other in such a way that you’re not sure if they’re going to fight or make out in the next scene. I want it that way.
I grew up as a child in a very conservative Christian home. My dad was a traveling preacher. We watched The Ten Commandments every year on Easter, and it was presented to me as pure, unvarnished historical and religious truth. As a precursor to Christianity, versus how you watched it related to the Jewish faith – you’ve got it in your chapter How to Be a Jew. My dad still thinks, completely unironically, that it’s the greatest film ever made. What is your relationship to that movie now as an adult when you also watched it as a child and you’ve got all that nostalgia with it, and all of the cultural and religious background that went into it for you then?
Tara: When I sat down to rewatch it to write about it for the book there was a cognitive dissonance. The adult me was rolling my eyes and laughing at the highly simplistic, inflated, melodramatic depiction of the whole thing. And at the same time I was moved, and it did take me back to my childhood. I didn’t have a religious childhood, but we culturally identified as Jewish, although my father isn’t Jewish. It does speak to that whole awkward relationship I have with faith and religion and Judaism itself. I’m not a religious person. I don’t observe any religious ritual or tradition. And yet at the same time, something moves me. There’s some reason I still do identify as Jewish. I don’t know if it’s a DNA thing, or if there was just enough cultural conditioning to affect me as a child, maybe? You never quite shake that identification. I don’t know what it is. I consider myself an agnostic, if not atheist, and yet there’s still a pull toward some kind of tradition. I don’t know if it’s just respect for history, or a respect for literature, if I want to think of the power of story. I think whether or not you believe in God, Christ, Judaism…this is a powerful story. As a writer I have a lot of respect for the power of theological storytelling to move people. That earns a lot of respect.
David: I wrote an essay recently about Marilynne Robinson’s books. She’s an intellectual giant, and yet she still writes books that relate to characters who have faith. I, like you, have long since left my religious background, and would identify as agnostic now. I wrote this essay about her books, because once you grow up with a religious background that vocabulary and that imagination never really leaves you, even when you no longer believe it. It’s still shaping the way you think about things, and it’s still shaping the vocabulary you have for processing those big questions, even when you no longer believe in it at all.
Tara: For sure.
David: You talk in the book about having seen a lot of movies with mature themes well before you were really old enough to understand them or even handle them. I can relate, though it was usually because the movies I was allowed to watch were too scary rather than too deep or mature. What do you think about a parent allowing a child to watch something they really aren’t able to process or handle? I know you talk in the book about the fact that you’re not a parent, but if you were, how would you handle that with your child? Do you think the net gain in the long run is better from them being exposed to that stuff early, or should they not watch stuff that is beyond them?
Tara: I don’t think there’s any “should” or “shouldn’t” one can apply in that situation, because it depends so much on the developmental level of that specific child. Whether we’re talking about sex or violence or nudity or scary stuff – different children are going to have different relationships to those images and different experiences. There’s no way I could say, “There’s no way you should ever take a twelve-year-old to see this particular movie.” Some sixteen-year-olds might not be ready for that particular movie, and there might be some twelve-year-olds who actually could process it on a level that is ultimately rewarding. I joke and make fun of my parents a little bit – I’m a little harsh to them in the book – about their their obliviousness regarding taking me to see certain films. No, I don’t think that a twelve-year-old should necessarily see Taxi Driver, or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but you can’t make that a blanket rule. At the end of the day, I’m grateful my parents erred on the side of permissiveness rather than restrictiveness in allowing me access to movies and books. Yes, some of those were inappropriate, but I learned a lot, and it opened my mind to a lot. It all worked out okay, I think. It’s tough to answer. I believe in erring on the side of experience rather than shutting things out.
David: Sure. I have a seven-year-old, so she’s right at the age where I’m trying to feel some of those things out. I always assumed I would err on that side, but then when my seven-year-old comes and wakes me up in the middle of the night because she had a nightmare, it’s…I don’t know.
Tara: Yeah. I think it depends so much on the specific developmental place the child is in, but it also depends a lot on the relationship. You’re being very mindful of what your daughter is able to process and what she isn’t able to process. I think having the conversation with a child is really the way to go. Both before in trying to feel out whether something might be appropriate – having the preliminary conversation with a child – but then certainly following it up with a conversation. That’s something my parents didn’t do, which I think they would have been smart to do – have a debriefing after some of these outings at the movies to explain some things to me, and check in with me to see what my experience was like, what I was feeling and processing. They didn’t do that. I had to do that on my own thirty years later writing this book.
David: One of the most impressive things about Reeling Through Life is the way you seamlessly blend your film analysis with the memoiric passages about your life. The book never feels imbalanced between those two aspects. It just flows together really well. Did that happen pretty naturally, or did it take an intentional effort to keep from running off in one direction or the other toward just writing about the films or just writing about your life?
Tara: I hope I found the right balance. That was so important in this book, that it’s both memoir and film criticism and not wanting to go to far in one direction or the other. I was consciously asking myself as I was writing – if I was writing family history or some of the more autobiographical sections – if I went more than two or three pages I would stop myself and ask, “Okay, what does this have to do with film? Am I wandering too far away?” The same would happen if I was writing about film. I would have to stop myself and say, “You’re being too theoretical, too analytic, but what is your experience of the film?” It was like when you drive down a corridor or a narrow street with cars on either side and you want to be careful not to veer too far to the right or too far to the left. That helped me focus the book. I look at it now and I think there were sections where I did go a little too far with film analysis or too far with memoir. I think there are sequences where I could have blended it more or found a better balance. I wanted that true path to be the blend of the two, that constant dance between the two.
David: If it means anything, I think you found that balance very well.
Tara: Thank you, David. I appreciate that.
Another thing was, because I’m not a film scholar, any time I started feeling uneasy about expressing a critical opinion about a film, I could go back to memoir. I could say, “Hey, I’m just talking about my own subjective personal experience.” The reverse was true also. Any time I was focusing on memoir and I felt it was getting too personal, or too self-absorbed, too navel-gazing, I was able to go back to film and ideally keep it from being too self-absorbed.
David: Right. You answer this a little in that question, but when it came time to actually write the book after you’d made your lists you talked about earlier and went through that process of selecting the films you would talk about and the themes, how did the actual daily process of writing this book differ from your process for writing your three novels?
Tara: When I first sat down to work on the book I tried to sketch out the memories of the films strictly from memory, because I wanted to tap into that visceral, subjective experience from first time I saw the film. Then I went back and rewatched all of the films and took massive notes. Sometimes it would take me six hours to watch a ninety minute film. I wanted to be accurate when I was quoting dialogue or discussing the story, but I also wanted to be able to layer onto that visceral, immediate, subjective memory a slightly more sophisticated and objective analysis. I was conscious of that the entire time – the nine months I was writing the book. The writing and the watching of the films were very symbiotic. I was constantly going back and forth between writing about the films, writing the memoiric aspects, and going back and reimmersing myself in the films. Some days all I would do is watch films, and some days all I would do is sit and try to generate memories onto the page.
David: You talked about starting out and just looking at that visceral memory without rewatching it. There’s a critic named Nicholas Rombes, and he actually just wrote a novel recently about what you’re talking about there. His premise for the novel and for some of his nonfiction film writing is that with the advent of digital media and the internet we’ve lost the ability to misremember films. Often movies that we see one time, or that we saw a very long time ago -we might misremember them. Something we remember that impacted us might be inaccurate, and yet it still impacted us, and when we go back and see it, having those memories cleaned up is, in some way, a detriment.
Tara: Absolutely. You lose something. It’s like, “Wow, I remembered that moment being more powerful. I remembered in that movie that we followed the characters into the room and saw what happened,” and when you see it again you realize we didn’t. Sometimes it’s that intimate relationship of imagination and the film that creates its own experience. I think that’s very valid. You want your stories to spur imagination and to engage people on that level, so that in their minds they run with it.
David: There’s an act of co-creation that takes place.
Tara: I like that. Beautifully put.
David: There’s a particular type of honesty in autobiographical writing – and I’m not talking about your book, but in general – that can seem to the reader more naked and difficult than it is. You share a detail or a “secret”, or the writer talks about a problem he or she deals with, and I think for me as a writer – I don’t know if you’ll agree or not – those things aren’t always as hard to write about as they seem. But there is a type of honesty you give in Reeling Through Life that does seem difficult to me, and it stood out to me. The times where you second guess the struggles you’ve talked about having, or you wonder aloud if you’ve inflated a problem to sound more interesting, things like that. That seems to me like a step beyond in the honesty department. Do you agree that it’s more difficult to do that than to give some of the factual honesty, and how did you choose to go about writing in that way?
Tara: Wow. What an amazing question. I appreciate the question because this is something I tried to do. We all have our dark places, our secrets, things that are painful to talk about. One of the things I’ve wondered about in my own life is the relationship between the public persona we all have and what really goes on inside of us. I talk about this a lot in the book, that I was a good girl. I was a well-behaved, well-adjusted, easy kid and teenager and young woman in a family that had a lot of dysfunction, and I think sometimes you pay a price for that. When you are the good girl, when you’re the easy one, it doesn’t really allow you space to have any problems, or pain, or struggles, or fears. But that’s human. We all have that, but when you have this sort of perfect persona it’s actually a little dehumanizing. But what can you complain about? You’re going along. You’re well-adjusted. There are all these other people around you with problems that seem bigger and darker and more legitimate. And yet you still feel fear, pain, loneliness, anger, you’re just sort of not allowed to express those messy feelings. One of the things I talk about in the How to Be a Drunk essay is, “Do I have a drinking problem, or do I just want to have a drinking problem because I think it will make me seem deeper, darker, and more complex?” You could say that if you’re even going to worry about that as a question, something is wrong. There is something really wrong if you feel the need to assert your complexity by developing a drinking problem that you may or may not have. I don’t know if I’m making any sense.
David: You are, for sure.
Tara: Again, we all have our secrets and we all have our dark places, and it could be about sex, or drugs, or alcohol, or relationships, or any kind of dysfunctional coping mechanism, but I did almost want to go one step beyond just saying, “Wow, I’m so disturbed, I’m so dysfunctional,” and ask that question. Am I? And if I’m not, why would I want to be? I’ll wrap this particular question up by going back to films. I say this in the book when I talk about Sarah T. – Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic – one of the lessons of films is that they don’t make movies about good girls. They don’t tell stories about people without problems. They don’t tell their stories, because they’re boring. You have to be a dark, disturbed girl. You have to be a girl with problems in order to be interesting enough to have the movie made about your life. That’s a weird message to come away from movies with, but it’s definitely a message I came away with.
David: I think that makes sense. I think probably the reason I keyed in on that is because I think I can relate to that same feeling of, “Yeah, I have problems, I’ve had this or that happen in my life, but it’s not as bad as that person.” No one’s going to write a novel about my life. Nobody’s going to make a movie about me. You start to feel like there’s a glamour to the friend who struggles with some severe problem.
Tara: Yeah. There’s a line in How to Be a Drunk about wondering if it lends a justifying glamour to my story, that it makes my story worth telling. It’s this fear that in order for my story to be worth telling, I have to be more disturbed than I maybe am.
David: Sure. Everybody wants to be interesting, but I think especially as a writer – what are we going to write about? Nobody wants to hear about me losing my car keys yesterday, they want to hear about the three week suicidal episode I was dealing with. Especially as a creative person it’s almost like you have to have that, so if it’s not bad enough, you start looking for ways for it to be bad enough.
David: So what’s next? Do you have another book in process?
Tara: I do. I have another book coming out this fall, actually. I have a collection of short stories coming out this fall. It’s very dark and disturbing. I’m a little worried, actually.
Tara: They’re stories that I had been writing the last several years that we’ve put into a collection. We’ll see. It’s my first short story collection.
David: Are they themed in some way, or just the best of what you’ve been writing?
Tara: I would say emotional dysfunction, although we could say that about most fiction. These tend to deal with romantic-sexual dysfunction. I’m interested in characters who – it’s sort of attached to what we were just talking about – who have tried to behave appropriately, and yet the intensity of an emotion finally pushes them into a behavior that is very disturbing.
David: Do you have a title you can share with us yet, or is that still under wraps?
Tara: Yep. The title is Ball.
David: Great. Okay, last question, just for fun – What’s the best movie you’ve watched in the last month and why?
Tara: I’m going back two months. I haven’t seen any movies in the last month because things have been so crazy, but my favorite movie of that last two months would definitely be Nightcrawler. Loved it.
David: Okay, cool. I haven’t seen that one yet.
Tara: Oh, David. Dark, disturbing, really well acted, really well told. You know the movie I’m talking about, right?
David: Yeah, Jake Gyllenhaal, right?
Tara: Yeah. He’s amazing. I loved it. I actually saw it twice, and I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie twice.
David: I have a friend who saw that, and if I’m not mistaken that’s the kind of movie that specifically lends itself to being seen twice, right? If I recall what I’ve heard, because of the way the movie is told, watching it a second time is going to greatly benefit understanding it. Is that right, or no?
Tara: Well, I know exactly what you’re talking about. Something like The Usual Suspects is certainly amazing to see the second time because you get so much more out of it. But I don’t know that I would put Nightcrawler in that category. But it’s definitely worth seeing a second time just on its merits. It’s a really well done, really intense, very disturbing film.
David: Tara, again, thank you very much for doing this.
Tara: This was a total pleasure. I’ve really enjoyed talking with you. Thanks.
Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at the Movies is available at Greenville Public Library.