Movie lessons on sex, death and being Jewish

By Michael Miller

Who hasn’t left a movie theater carrying the aura of the characters who have leaped from the big screen to leave their imprint on the audience, just as the taste of a fine entrecote steak lingers on the palate long after the last morsel has been savored?

Tara Ison

Tara Ison

This feeling of being a participant in what she has seen, rather than an observer, has had a profound effect on author Tara Ison. In her insightful new book she analyzes how movies have influenced different aspects of her life, including sex, death and being Jewish.

In “Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love and Die at the Movies” (Soft Skull Press. $15.95 soft cover), Ison delves into her inner-self in a series of “How to…” essays such as “How to be Lolita,”  “How to Die with Style” and “How to be a Jew.”

Ison’s first Lolita-ish movie experience came at the tender age of six when her parents  took her to see “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” in which one of Miss Brodie’s pupils, 17-year-old Sandy, played by Pamela Franklin, is seduced by art teacher Teddy Lloyd (Robert Stephens).

Later, when Ison herself is 17 and yearning to be seduced, she revisits the scene in which Sandy taunts her lover, saying, “How much longer are you going to be tempted by this firm young flesh?” Replies Teddy, “Until you’re 18 and over the hill.”

The words haunt her as she watches 13-year-old Lolita, played by Sue Lyon in the film of the same name, having her sex with the nymphet-fixated much older Humbert (James Mason). Ison realizes that the days of her “firm young flesh” falling to the temptations of seduction are numbered. “What am I? I am seventeen now, and I have only just, at last, gotten my first period. Hello, womanhood,” she bemoans.

But fear not, dear reader, sex is just a few chapters away. In “How to be a Slut,” our heroine relates how she not only blossomed as a promiscuous lover, but did so with both men and women. By her mid-twenties, “I am having delightful or tortured affairs, thrilling sex, falling in lust all over the place.”

The film “Lolita” reminded Tara Ison that youth passes quickly.

The film “Lolita” reminded Tara Ison that youth passes quickly.

Later she falls in love with her best girlfriend and, in an effort to learn “How to be a Lesbian,” starts watching “dreadful movies” that “show lesbian sex in the blandest, most boring way possible.” “Thankfully I go on to sleep with a lot of other women and erase those tepid or faux-lesbian images from my mind forever,” she writes.

Born to a Lutheran father and Jewish mother in Los Angeles, Ison says religion was never a factor in her early childhood. In fact, she was hardly aware of being a Jew – until she was seven and was taken to see the movie version of “Fiddler on the Roof,” starring Topol as the Russian Jewish peasant Tevye, a poor milkman who dreams of being rich one day.

She recalls not so much watching the film, set in the 1890s, but injecting herself into it as one of Tevye’s daughters, delighting in the life of a poor but happy Jewish family. “Our Jewishness is made luminous with candles and copper kettles and fresh milk. We glow with our Jewishness. I became a Jew when I was seven.”

Ison’s introduction to death came at the age of six. In a movie, naturally. It was “Love Story,” the tale of two young lovers, played by Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw, in which MacGraw’s character dies a slow but painless death due to a mystery illness. Then, three years later, death becomes personal when a close friend of the family dies painfully of cancer at the age of 34, and Ison remembers the line from “Love Story,” “A girl like that, so alive, so entitled to live.”

REELING bookIson felt death’s breath herself in her early twenties when she suffered a grand mal seizure and was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She immediately set about planning her death with dignity, planning to go out like Maude, played by Ruth Gordon, in “Harold and Maude” who secretly takes an overdose of pills to hasten her death and is last seen being happily wheeled off on a hospital gurney, twirling a daisy.

“If I can orchestrate the circumstances of my death, then of course I can be all ready,” writes Ison. “I can meet it beautifully and finely. For months I had been feeling I had a life without the living; now I can have the death without the dying.”

It turned out, however, that Ison did not have a brain tumor, merely a benign cyst. Now she is left to wonder again what death has in store for her. “Will I have lived a life that makes me ready to meet death beautifully and finely? Or will I fight to the last, try to barricade that door, claim every last second, last breath, last beat of my heart before it is the end of the thing that is me, and the thing that is me disappears for ever?”

Tara Ison is the author of the novels “The List,” “A Child Out of Alcatraz,” a Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and “Rockaway,” selected as a 2013 Best Books of Summer by O Magazine. She is also co-writer of the cult film, “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead.”

Michael Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer.

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‘Stanley Kubrick’ opens today at LACMA

Director Stanley Kubrick sits in the interior of the space ship Discovery from “2001.” © Warner Bros. Entertainment

Acclaimed filmmaker Stanley Kubrick’s storytelling sometimes leaves me cold, but I’ve always admired his arresting images and balletic camera. I think his best movies are his classic noir and neo-noir titles – “Killer’s Kiss,” “The Killing,” “Lolita,” “Dr. Strangelove” and “The Shining.”

Born in New York in 1928, Kubrick began as a photographer. He had his first photograph published in Look magazine when he was 16 (he was paid $25). Later, as a Look staffer, he shot on city streets, often swathes of nighttime blackness pierced by patches of light. His desire for precision and painstaking quest for technical innovation started early and stayed with him for the next 55 years.

The range and richness of his art are explored in the first U.S. retrospective of his work, co-presented by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Railroad station, Chicago 1949. Stanley Kubrick photo for Look magazine/Library of Congress

The exhibition highlights Kubrick’s bond with film noir, noting: “In the title of his first feature film, ‘Fear and Desire’ (1953), Kubrick declared two themes that he would return to throughout his career. The atmosphere of film noir – its claustrophobia, paranoia and hopelessness – creates a worldview made more tangible through style: low-key lighting, high-contrast and silhouetted images, the blackest shadows. These characteristics of noir, together with the camera movements that would soon be identified with the director, were coherently articulated in Kubrick’s three early features.”

And later: “What Kubrick began with ‘Lolita’ (1962) – disrupting the conventions of film noir – he accomplished completely with “Dr. Strangelove” (1964). Kubrick made the decision to treat the story as nightmare comedy.”

Kubrick’s films, including “Paths of Glory,” “Spartacus,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “Barry Lyndon,” “Full Metal Jacket” and “Eyes Wide Shut,” among others, are represented through archival material, annotated scripts, photography, costumes, cameras and equipment, set models, original promotional materials and props.

Sue Lyon stars in “Lolita,” based on the novel by Vladimir Nabokov.

In one of several letters rebuking Kubrick over the making of “Lolita,” the Bible Presbyterian Church of Tampa, Fla., decries that the movie “is based upon sex appeal. And that appeal is quite degenerate in its nature.”

There are also sections on Kubrick’s special effects and an alternate beginning to “2001” as well as displays about projects that Kubrick never completed (“Napoleon” and “The Aryan Papers”).

Kubrick died in 1999 in England, at the age of 70. He garnered 13 Academy Award nominations and “2001” (1968) won the Best Effects Oscar.

The exhibition, which runs through June 30, 2013, will be accompanied by a film retrospective at LACMA’s Bing Theater beginning this month.

From “The Shining” (1980): The daughters of Grady (Lisa and Louise Burns). © Warner Bros. Entertainment

To kick off the film retrospective, on Wednesday, Nov. 7, the Academy will present an evening of clips and tributes to honor Kubrick, hosted by actor Malcolm McDowell. The event will also launch the Academy’s Kubrick exhibition, which will be open to the public through February 2013.

As for the LACMA/Academy collaboration: “It is a taste of things to come when we open the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in the historic Wilshire May Company building on the LACMA campus,” said Dawn Hudson, Academy CEO.

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The Noir File: ‘Top of the World, Ma!’ and more classic Cagney moments

By Michael Wilmington

A noir-lover’s guide to classic film noir on cable TV. All the movies listed below are from the current schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).


James Cagney in 1939

White Heat” (1949, Raoul Walsh): Tuesday, Aug. 14, 10 p.m. (7 p.m.) “Top of the world, Ma!” James Cagney screams, in one of the all-time great noir performances and last scenes. Cagney’s character (one of his signature roles) is Cody Jarrett, a psycho gun-crazy gangster with a mother complex, perched at the top of an oil refinery tower about to blow.

Edmond O’Brien is the undercover cop in Cody’s gang, Virginia Mayo is Cody’s faithless wife, and Margaret Wycherly is Ma. One of the true noir masterpieces, “White Heat” boasts another classic, hair-raising scene: Cagney’s crack-up in prison when he hears of Ma’s death. Script by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts; music by Max Steiner. At 7 p.m. (4 p.m.), preceding “White Heat” and “City for Conquest” is the documentary “James Cagney: Top of the World,” hosted by Michael J. Fox.

Friday, Aug. 10

12 a.m. (9 p.m.): “Key Largo” (1948, John Huston) Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson are pitted against each other in this tense adaptation of the Maxwell Anderson play. Bogie is a WW2 vet held hostage (along with Lauren Bacall and Lionel Barrymore) during a tropical storm by brutal mobster Robinson and his gang. Claire Trevor, as a fading chanteuse, won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

Bogie is a vet held hostage (along with Lauren Bacall and Lionel Barrymore) by Robinson.

Saturday, Aug. 11

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Lolita” (1962, Stanley Kubrick, U.S.-Britain) Kubrick’s superb film of Vladimir Nabokov’s classic comic-erotic novel – about the dangerous affair of college professor Humbert Humbert (James Mason) with nymphet Lolita (Sue Lyon), while they are nightmarishly pursued by writer/sybarite Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers). It has strong noir touches, themes and style. With Shelley Winters; script by Nabokov (and Kubrick).

Tuesday, Aug. 14

7:30 a.m. (4:30 a.m.) “The Public Enemy” (1931, William Wellman) Quintessential pre-noir gang movie, with Cagney, Jean Harlow, Mae Clarke, booze, guns and a grapefruit.

12 p.m. (9 a.m.): “Each Dawn I Die” (1939, William Keighley) Cagney and George Raft in prison. Reportedly one of Joseph Stalin’s favorite movies.

Wednesday, Aug. 15

1 a.m. (10 p.m.): “The Night of the Hunter” (1955, Charles Laughton) The great noir with Robert Mitchum as evil Preacher Harry, Lillian Gish and Shelley Winters.

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