Mountain View

An Interview with Tara Ison

Tara Ison Reeling Through LifeI never imagined that I’d recommend anything other than Netflix movies on here, but when I finished reading Reeling Through Life by Tara Ison, I decided it was worth adding an extra section on the blog so I could bring this collection of essays to your attention. Rather than merely adding to the growing number of glowing reviews for the book, I wrote to Tara with some questions I had about the essays, and I’m delighted to say that she wrote back with answers that I’m sharing with you here.

Better still, Tara has agreed to give away a signed copy of the book, which will be sent out to the best contributor to between now and March 17 2015.
[EDIT: Congratulations to our winner, Vanessa! Follow her on Twitter, Facebook or check out her website: War of the Movies!]

Tara IsonFor those of you who are unfamiliar with Tara’s body of work, it includes the novel A Child out of Alcatraz (a Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize) and a co-writing credit for the cult movie Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead. Tara is also an accomplished short fiction writer, essayist and poet, and is currently Associate Professor of Fiction at Arizona State University.

Reeling Through Life is her latest collection of essays, which explore how movie-watching has taught her how to grapple with issues of career, family, faith, illness, sex and love. You can read an excerpt from it here.


CM     While I highly recommend Reeling Through Life to anyone interested in movies (or life in general), I must warn people that it CONTAINS SPOILERS, which are on occasion detailed and integral to the movies concerned. This is currently a contentious issue on the Internet. For me a film has never been ruined by knowing what happens in the end, but I was recently hauled over the coals on Reddit for the mere suggestion that there might be a twist at the end of The Usual Suspects (1995). Did the need to include spoilers present a dilemma for you when writing the book?

TI     No, I didn’t feel I needed to worry about that in Reeling Through Life. It’s one thing to post the ending to a thriller on social media while the film is still in theatres – that makes me cranky, too (especially when a spoiler is in the headline of a piece, and near-impossible to avoid.) But it’s quite different in this kind of work – it’s not subject to the immediacy of the Internet, and I don’t believe it’s “spoiling” anything to discuss a film that’s already been in the public discourse for years. And I think anyone picking up this book understands that a comprehensive discussion is likely to include integral plot points, the ending, and so on, as it relates to my experience of the film – a book reader is actively seeking out that sort of analysis.

I recently read a study that “measured” people’s enjoyment of a film and compared their pleasure when they knew the ending vs. not knowing the ending – and people who knew the ending in advance reported greater enjoyment! After all, don’t we see our favorite movies over and over again? Reread our favorite books? And get something different yet equally rich each time? I actually enjoyed The Sixth Sense (SPOILER ALERT!) more the second time I saw it, because I felt more engaged in and appreciative of the mystery.

CM     I couldn’t decide if Reeling Through Life was more analysis of cinematic motifs with reference to your own life experiences, or thematic autobiography elucidated with film references. What angle did you set out to take and did the finished book differ from what you originally had in mind?

TI     I was going for a 50/50 balance of film criticism and memoir, so maybe I got that proportion right…  I didn’t want to write a straight memoir – I’m just not that interesting. And I’m not a film scholar, or knowledgeable enough to write a book on film without a more personal, subjective angle. So I was hoping the meeting of the two – autobiography and film criticism – would offer a fresh perspective on each, that using the lens of film to examine, or re-examine, aspects of my own identity might illuminate both.

The finished book did differ slightly from what I had in mind, yes. I’d had an idea of which films and which life themes and incidents I’d probably discuss, but both changed during the writing process – if I couldn’t find the symbiotic relationship between a film and my life, it told me I should either be looking at a different film, or focusing on a different aspect of my experience or identity. That principle helped focus the book.

CM     Did your memory and interpretation of either your own life or the movies you revisited change or develop as a result of the writing process?

TI     Absolutely, especially when writing about the films. Initially I sketched out the film analyses strictly from memory, because I wanted to tap back in to that visceral, emotional experience of watching the film at age 12 or 16 or 20 or whenever. But then I went back and rewatched every film I discuss (about 115 films, I think), in order to be sure I was accurate about details, the dialogue, and so on. And that process sometimes revealed interesting differences between my memory of the film – the line of dialogue or the visual image that got under my skin and I’ve lived with for years  – and the actual work, perhaps the themes or moments I didn’t necessarily appreciate or understand at the time. And I often explore those discrepancies in the book, which allowed me to layer on a more objective, perhaps more mature or “sophisticated” perspective, primarily in regard to the films of my adolescence.

CM     One of my favourite chapters in the book is ‘How to Go Crazy’. Comparing ourselves to fictional ‘crazies’ on screen seems a rather unscientific (and potentially perilous) approach to self-diagnosis and the development of coping strategies, and yet I’m sure we’re not alone in having done just that! I also note that you start your introduction by talking about a friend who doesn’t let her children watch movies at all, preferring that they experience ‘reality’ before being exposed to the movies.
With both of those thoughts in mind, are there any movies you think you would have been better off not seeing either as a child or an adult because they were in some sense bad for you?

TI     I look back on some of the films I was taken to as a young child (Cuckoo’s Nest, Taxi Driver) and I’m stunned my parents were so casual about what they exposed me to – I’m not a parent, but no, I probably wouldn’t take a six-year-old to see a PG-13 or R-rated film. There are multiple examples in the book of disturbing images that, well, disturbed me a great deal, especially when I was too young to contextualize or process them, and impacted me in a profound way.

However…I can’t really regret any of those experiences. As I say in the book, for better or worse, films have shaped who I am. They’re all part of me. And I’m enormously grateful to my parents for erring on the side of permissiveness rather than restrictiveness when it comes to arts and culture – it has ultimately been enriching and rewarding.

CM     Finally, you reference movies spanning several decades from The Wizard of Oz (1939) to Don Jon (2013). Do you feel that movies being made now are as relevant to you as they have always been? Are there any releases scheduled for 2015 that you are particularly looking forward to?

TI     I’d still rather see a movie than do just about anything (including write….!) I’m probably not as impressionable as I once was – at this point, I pretty much am what and who I am – but that pleasure in the power of film to surprise me, move me, frighten me, inspire me, delight me, instruct me, hasn’t waned. Sometimes I want to be primarily entertained (The Lego Movie, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, any James Bond…), sometimes I want to be challenged to think or feel a bit more (Nightcrawler, Whiplash), and I think the range of films today offers all of that.

As for 2015 – I’ve been so immersed in films of the past 40 years I haven’t paid any attention to what’s in store. But I’m looking forward to seeing a lot of movies without having to take notes!

Thanks for your interest in the book, Craig – much appreciated!

Reeling Through Life: How I Learned To Live, Love & Die at the Movies is available from Amazon, and you can follow Tara on Twitter and Facebook.

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  • Tyler

    Very interesting! 🙂

  • Brandon

    Sounds amazing! I’m a huge book lover myself and this sounds right up my alley!

  • Jack’s MovieReviews

    Definitely an interesting idea book, I’ll be checking it out in the not so distant future.

  • CheatingwithFandango

    Omg I love “Don’t tell mom the babysitters dead!” I love a good read too. This is right up my alley. Thank u for sharing!

  • Brian Eggert (DeepFocusReview)

    It’s always fascinating (and reassuring) to read about someone’s personal experiences with great films as life-shaping moments. Beyond just the pure enthusiasm for the artistry of film, the emotional influence of film has been a determining factor in my life, just as it was for Ms. Ison. It’s inspiring to discover that she’s putting down her deeply personal experience with film into a book form, because more often than not, we lovers of film (that includes you, Craig), resort to writing about film as enthusiasts–as opposed to exploring the profound personal relationship we have with film. So, thank you Craig, for showcasing Ms. Ison’s book and story.

    • With each review I usually open with one (and only one!) aspect of my personal life in an attempt to highlight my own highly subjective experience of the movie. I decided early on to do that partly so I could definitively categorize this site as a selective blog (as opposed to an attempt at a comprehensive review database), and partly as a get-out in case I recommended a movie that a reader thought was rubbish.

      Tara says that she’s neither a film scholar nor is her life interesting enough for pure autobiography. I feel that applies to me too (only much more so – on both counts!) and that’s the reason why I write the way I do and also the reason why Tara’s book appealed to me so much.

  • War of the Movies

    Amazing interview, I can’t wait to read her book. I think that movie lovers analyse themselves with some characters at one point. Many people I know thinks that movies are only meant to de an entertainment, that if there’s no action it’s boring and useless, but it’s great to read how emotionally it can touch your personal life.

  • Tara Ison

    Hey, Everyone – Craig, thank you again for inviting me to discuss the book, and thank you all for the comments! If you do get a chance to read the book, I hope you enjoy it – and happy to continue the discussion. Cheers, Tara Ison

  • jediash1

    Thanks for the review!