Living at the Movies With Dana Spiotta’s ‘Innocents and Others’

Spiotta's work is a vivid and enduring argument for the powers of imagination.

“That is the thing about films. They don’t change. You change.”

At the beginning of Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others, Meadow Mori receives her high school senior prize. Her thesis project involved watching Orson Welles’s City Lights 20 times over three days. To accomplish this, a teacher brought Meadow a pristine print of the film. A couch was set up in a school office; food was ordered in. “It was that kind of school.” Meadow explains.

Innocents and Others is partly a novel about movies, and any American book about motion pictures is at least partly about Los Angeles. Meadow and Carrie Wexler meet in high school. Both will become successful film directors, but their successes will be as different as the films they make.

To be a female writer writing about Los Angeles — or, more broadly, California — is to risk comparison to Joan Didion. Now age 50, Spiotta has received her share of Didionesque analogies for her sharply observed writing about Los Angeles. However easily made, however, the resemblance crumbles on closer examination. In novels like Play It As It Lays and A Book of Common Prayer, Didion writes of a Los Angeles rotting beneath movie wealth and miles of freeways. Her protagonists are fragile, emotionally adrift women given to aimless drives on Interstate 5 (and that’s just the fiction). Spiotta’s characters are more grounded, even when documenting invented music careers (Stone Arabia, fleeing the law (Eat the Document), or making movies.

After high school Meadow moves to upstate New York, where she dedicates herself to learning filmmaking. A beautiful boyfriend named Deke provides documentary material that jump starts her career while ending their relationship. This begins a pattern Meadow ignores at her peril.

Carrie, meanwhile, can only envy Meadow’s panache. A latchkey child, Carrie spends her formative years binge watching television. Readers who came of age in the ’70s will cringe while reading Carrie’s after-school TV schedule: The Love Boat, Charlie’s Angels, The Bionic Woman, Good Times, The Jeffersons, Donny and Marie.

By adolescence Carrie has already begun battling her weight; constant comparisons to Meadow’s willowy beauty leave her coming up short:

I was uncomfortable and awkward in my body, and what impressed me most about Meadow was how confidently she inhabited herself. She glided into a room and every eye turned to her and she seemed unfazed by the attention.

Meadow commandeers the pair’s social life in a pre-home video, pre-cable era. The pair forgo other entertainment to view films at the Los Angeles art house theatres of the era, such as the Westwood or NuArt: “We were different, even then. Meadow was very serious about seeing what she wanted to see, and she was always more obsessive than I was.”

That seriousness strains their adult friendship. Even as Carrie remains unfailingly loyal, enthusiastically supporting Meadow’s films, her friend does not return the favor.

Meanwhile, in upstate New York, a woman nicknamed Jelly places telephone calls to men she doesn’t know. Jelly possesses a lovely speaking voice, but more importantly, she is a gifted listener at work on an archaic cultural object: the dial telephone.

“The ring of another person’s phone sounded so hopeful, and then it grew lonelier.”

Music producer Jack Cusano is easily won over. He plays Jelly newly-composed music over the line, then pours out his inmost thoughts, wishes and fears. Jelly knows exactly how to respond:

Only after she was done listening did she form her response. And it worked like this: find the words — out of the millions of words — that would describe the experience.

After a bout of Meningitis nearly blinded her, Jelly (whose real name is Amy), met an adept “phone phreak” — a skilled manipulator of the phone system. Jelly, who enjoyed chatting with fellow phreakers, parlayed her newfound interest into telemarketing work. A chance opportunity with somebody’s powerful Rolodex led her to cold-calling men in the entertainment industry, including some mutual acquaintances of Meadow Mori.

Until Jelly called Jack, her telephone relationships were minutely orchestrated: “Parameters. Predictability. Pace was important. She would make him (Jack) her Sunday call, and as the weeks of talks would go by, he would accept her terms.”

Jelly has expertly terminated past relationships when men began pressing for more — photographs, in-person meetings. But things are different with Jack. Jelly allows her control to slip. When Jack starts asking for more, Jelly doesn’t refuse.

By the time an intrigued Meadow tracks Jelly down, the phone calls have stopped. Jelly agrees to a meeting. The results, avidly filmed by Meadow, are disastrous.

Stereotypes are founded on a grain of truth; one is the great yet callous artist. James Joyce took notorious advantage of Sylvia Beach. Anaïs Nin cuckolded her husband Hugo, whose financial support enabled her writing career. Colette scorned her daughter, Colette II, for her homosexuality despite a highly public relationship with the Marquise de Morny (Missy). While not a Colette or Nin in terms of talent or monstrosity, Meadow will exploits others to obtain the optimal film.

Herein lies the crux of Innocents and Others. Without spoiling the plot, Meadow endures a painful reckoning. Spiotta’s handling of this material lifts her from merely good to great. The education lies not in watching the movie 20 times in a row, it’s in revisiting it over 20 years. Life abrades you: the movie becomes clearer.

Innocents and Others is full of puns, in-jokes, and asides. This reviewer knows she missed many of them. But Meadow’s unusual name and Jelly’s pastime may be a sly reference to Muriel Spark’s 1959 novel Memento Mori. In it, the protagonist and her circle receive repeated calls from an anonymous individual who warns: “remember you must die.”

“Film and television stimulate the body too, in big ways. A nine-foot handsome face, and its three-foot-wide smile, are irresisible,” writes Annie Dillard in The Writing Life. The “too” in there, meaning also, refers to life. As in, why write literature when life, and the movies, are more compelling? “Because a book can be literature.” Dillard argues. “It is a subtle thing — a poor thing, but our own.” Innocents and Others is in no way impoverished. It’s a vivid and enduring argument for the powers of imagination.

RATING 9 / 10
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