In Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love and Die at the Movies, Tara Ison taps into her subconscious and squeezes out a rich stream of life lessons. Weaving her personal stories together with scenes from iconic films, Ison reflects on the “influence of film on [her] own authenticity” (5) and specifically examines how these powerful celluloid images influenced her definition of self as a Jew, as a writer, and as a female wrestling with sensuality and sanity. Not only do we learn about Ison, but we are introduced to the cast of characters in her life and, through her lens, we are reminded of our own cast of characters and the movie moments that shaped us and guide us to this day.
Ison’s nimble shifts in point-of-view, along with objective and subjective narration, create a highly dimensional experience for the reader as we move across time, while delving into deep emotional territory. In the chapter entitled “How To Lose Your Virginity,” we are taken on a field trip to see Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, along with Ison and her classmates. Ison puts us in the film of her childhood memories of watching that film and experiencing a sexual awakening right there in the Nuart Theater.
These powerful celluloid images influenced her definition of self as a Jew, as a writer, and as a female wrestling with sensuality and sanity.
Just as soon as we understand the roots of that longing, Ison uses another film to support the notion that she “was not alone in this,” quoting Tatum O’Neal from the film Little Darlings, when she says “I envy Juliet.” Little Darlings influences the teenage Ison’s decisions about losing her virginity as does Fast Times at Ridgemont High several years later. Ison splices together scenes and sound bites from multiple movies per chapter—as many as ten or more—while consistently editing in the most important footage of all—footage from the movie called Tara Ison’s life. Just as Ison refers to movie titles as “Proustian,” her juxtaposition of classic film sequences with pivotal life experiences triggers a Proustian reaction for readers whose minds will connect their “first time” moments with their own influential “first time” film series.
Ison’s “How To Go Crazy” opener and her “How To Be A Writer” closer seem to act as bookends for the seven chapters that fall in between. An assertive first person statement kicks off both and places us squarely into the never predictable world of Tara Ison, before releasing us for intermission between chapters with a memorable takeaway. In the preface, Ison says there is “a time for examination, and a time for immersion,” referring to her reluctance to analyze film as a moviegoer. That said, what makes Reeling Through Life so powerful is the examination and the exactitude with which Ison shares highly nuanced and emotional experiences. She has done the work for us so that now, as readers, we can sit back with some popcorn and immerse ourselves in the flickering memories of her resonant words and ideas.
Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at The Movies, Tara Ison, Soft Skull Press, 2015.