Sight, Sound and Sex

Adam Mars-Jones

  • Innocents and Others by Dana Spiotta
    Scribner, 278 pp, £17.95, March 2016, ISBN 978 1 5011 2272 9

Long before electronic media came up with the phrase, literature had been relegated to the status of preferred ‘content provider’ for films. Bestsellers achieve special ontological status on the screen, and the classics get retrospective plastic surgery, so that Jay Gatsby receives the looks first of Robert Redford then Leonardo DiCaprio. Anne Hathaway’s blandly pretty mask is tied with cinematic ribbon over Jane Austen’s blurry features – a criminal defacement however photogenic the impostor.

Traffic the other way, taking cinema as the basis for fiction, tends to focus on headline-grabbing aspects of the industry: narcissistic stars, autocratic directors, clashes of ego. Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others is very different, an examination of a filmmaker whose sensibility is open to any number of influences and has only a minimal interest in a marketplace. The central figure of the book is Meadow Mori, who is introduced to the reader by way of an internet essay, part of a series entitled ‘How I Began’ on a site devoted to Women and Film. After graduating in film studies Mori supposedly wrote to an obese ex-wunderkind of the screen, now reduced to voiceovers and chat show appearances (someone who can only be Orson Welles), before going on to interview him and eventually becoming his companion and lover, while telling her parents she was joining a filmmaking collective in upstate New York.

It’s left to the reader to decide whether this tall tale is simply a hoax (Welles’s last serious film was F for Fake) or some sort of allegory of influence. Learning that you have a self-proclaimed unreliable narrator on your hands – ‘I have always liked stunts (and also, as you may have guessed, pranks, hoaxes, games)’ – is the literary equivalent of discovering that you have invited a kleptomaniac into your home. In fact the ‘lie’ about filmmaking in upstate New York is close to what really happened, though there wasn’t a collective, just Meadow inviting her old friend Carrie Wexler on a visit to see the footage of trains she had shot with equipment paid for by her father. This was the mid-1980s, early days for the sort of on-the-fly filmmaking, done solo, that can now be taken for granted, but was then still far from cheap.

Before any account of the formative period in Gloversville, when with Carrie’s help Meadow experimented with fantasy reconstructions of lost films, there is an unconnected section in which a woman establishes intimacy with an influential man over the phone. ‘[Jelly] rarely used “uh”, but it was an important wordish sound that introduced a powerful unconscious transaction. Used correctly, not as a habit or a rhythmic tic, it invited another to complete the sentence. An intricate conjoining, it was an opening without content, just the pull of syntax and the human need to complete.’ This seems to be a stunt of a different order, a confidence trick.

Then the narrative skips back in time, following this new strand, though the effect is more of an avalanche of backstory than a deepening of context: ‘Many years before Jelly called Jack, before she had begun phoning men for love (not work), and before she had recovered her sight, she had fallen in love with Oz. She met him in the summer of 1970 at the Center for the Blind.’

When the elements of the novel begin to settle down, the material isn’t so very far from standard-issue female friendship, in all its glory and limitation, though the storytelling never loses a residual perversity, so that the ‘Jelly’ episodes don’t reveal their connection with Meadow or Carrie until almost two-thirds of the way through the book. Of the two friends, it turns out that Carrie is the one with the worldly success; not only that, she comes close to the mirage of ‘having it all’, with a husband and the prospect of family as well as a career. She works inside the studio system and within genre conventions, delivering audience-friendly comedies with a faint (possibly even illusory) feminist spin. Growing up in the 1970s on a diet of television programmes that she realised even at the time were terrible, she didn’t rebel against pap but learned to treasure the times when it created a recognisable human moment or spontaneous laugh (‘the shitty stuff made you really appreciate the good things’).

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