After writer Maggie Nelson’s aunt Jane was murdered, Nelson’s mother could no longer stomach films in which women were threatened by guns. Going to the movies years later, Nelson describes how “whenever such a scene arose I immediately felt my mother close beside me in the dark theatre. Her hands spread across her face, her pinkies pushing down on her eyelids so she can’t see.” There are many things I like about this description, not least the pressure of fingertips on eyelids, the simplicity of which speaks to the direct and visceral response that films can exact. But more than this, the possibility that we watch through the eyes of people absent as well as present—the same way that there may be more people in the bed than the ones actually having sex—is an idea that makes the act of viewing film so much more interesting than it normally appears.
Nelson’s excerpted memoir appears in Life as We Show It, an anthology of essays, screenplays, and stories about watching movies that has the virtue of not treating life and cinema as obvious antagonists. In the introductory essay, co-editor Masha Tupitsyn recalls a classic scene from the 1958 film The Blob in which the eponymous monster, oozing out of a projection booth, devours the bodies of moviegoers and expands until it spills out of the movie house and onto the street. The scene is a nice conceit for the impossibility of confining film to the movie theater—not merely because of its proliferating presence on the small screens of today’s wired households but because films tend to infiltrate our minds, forming prosthetic memories that are hard to distinguish from real ones. But if the intertwining of cinema with our personal lives has often been material for frightening scenarios of invasion and possession, the talented writers in this collection make clear that this is too passive an understanding of the relationships we form with films. While many of the stories told here consider what films do to viewers—such as Abdellah Taia’s aching account of how watching a film catalyzed his sexual awakening as a gay man—quite often the emphasis falls on what viewers do with films. In Rebecca Brown’s “My Western,” for example, the iconic film Shane is treated as a series of clues into the far more important tale the narrator is composing about her disappointing father. In Myriam Gurba’s disturbing story “The Gospel According to Larry,” a traumatized girl cannibalizes scenes from Larry Clark’s film Kids in order to fill in details of the personal rape she cannot remember, and in “Outtakes” Lidia Yuknavitch rewrites Rebel Without a Cause to drive home the redundancy of women in the boys only romantic fantasies favored by Hollywood.
One of the pleasures of this collection is that writing about movie viewing produces a cheerful and salutary indifference to conventional judgements of a film’s “importance.” In Richard Grayson’s charming paean to the suburban cinemas of his youth, Victor/Victoria is remembered not for being a great film, but for marking the first time the author held hands with another man. For me the two highlights in this regard are Wayne Koestenbaum’s essay about the body of Elizabeth Taylor (which might, just might tempt you to look again at Cleopatra), and “Phone Home,” Dodie Bellamy’s story of her preoccupation with E.T. when her mother was dying of lung cancer. Life as we Show It is not without flaws. Some of the pieces could have been pruned and the book needed more editorial explanation for the selection and grouping of individual works. But I would buy this book for Bellamy’s piece alone. To watch as cinema’s most famous stranded alien becomes by turns a figure for the narrator’s alienation from her mother’s body through illness and age, the alienation of the able bodied from boys like Matthew De Meritt, the boy with no legs who helped bring E.T. to life by walking on his hands, and finally an opportunity to reflect on what alien technologies like cinema can do to repair these rifts—is to have one’s own ideas about how and why films matter to us completely and productively overturned.