Michael Magras

In Film According to François Truffaut, the great director of The 400 Blows and Jules and Jim says, “I always preferred the reflection of life to life itself. If I chose books and films, from the age of eleven or twelve, it’s because I preferred to see life through books or films.” Truffaut wasn’t the only one who felt this way. For some people, film isn’t just a passion. It’s the prism through which they view the world. 

No author knows this better than Dana Spiotta. Her earlier works, including Lightning Field and Stone Arabia, focus on characters who live and breathe the arts and concoct identities for themselves based on their obsession. Now, Spiotta covers similar terrain in Innocents and Others, a novel with two very different female filmmakers at its center: a documentarian so obsessed with filmmaking that she’ll lie down in the mud to shoot the wheels of a train as it hurtles along its track, and a maker of romantic comedies who is far more interested in attracting an audience than in pushing the art form. The result isn’t as satisfying as Spiotta’s other books, but it is still a compelling portrait of cinema’s hold on many of its adherents.

Carrie Wexler, the only child of a constantly bankrupt father and a mother who teaches at a private arts school, grows up in Los Angeles watching the “constant hum of cliché and contrivance” of bad '70s TV. She attends the arts school for free because of her mother’s employment. At the school, Carrie not only discovers the subversive thrill of foreign films and sophisticated comedy but also becomes friends with her classmate Meadow Mori, the wealthy child of an entertainment lawyer.

Both women are film lovers, but of different types of film: Carrie prefers lighter fare, such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High, whereas Meadow gravitates toward more serious works, such as Jean Eustache’s My Little Loves. We learn from the book’s opening pages that Meadow is the more obsessive of the two. In a “Women in Film” essay, Meadow describes her teenage affair with the immense, long-past-his-prime Orson Welles in his final months. She’s also the less reliable narrator: in one of the book’s many clever conceits, the essay ends with a comments section in which commenters suggest that Meadow may have invented the affair.

As Carrie—whose surname, a tribute to the late cinematographer Haskell Wexler, is one of many knowing film references in the novel—goes on to make commercially successful Hollywood films such as Girl School and We Are the Ones Our Parents Warned Us About, Meadow moves to a “hot and airless” brick warehouse in Gloversville, New York (where the young Samuel Goldwyn lived and worked as a glove salesman before moving to Hollywood and becoming a legendary producer) to pursue quirkier projects. It’s in Gloversville that she shoots her first success: Portrait of Deke, in which her assistant/boyfriend Deke gets drunk on whisky and talks at length about his upbringing, his evil stepfather, and his desire to sleep with every woman he meets. The interview, written in the form of a screenplay, goes on for too long, but it offers subtle insights into film’s mesmerizing effect, as when Meadow thinks, “Deke was such a beauty that sometimes it was hard to hear what he said because his prettiness upstaged him.”

After Portrait of Deke wins documentary awards, Meadow makes a successful film about the 1970 Kent State shooting. When her next two films receive lesser acclaim, she comes up with an idea based on the novel’s third main character, a woman named Amy Anne Thomas. In the early '70s, a meningitis infection blinded Amy overnight. She then began a relationship with a blind man named William, nicknamed Oz, who recruited her to join his team of “phone phreaks” who use red plastic whistles to emulate ringtones and thus break into telephone switching stations anywhere in the world. 

But it’s Amy post-Oz life, after her eyesight returns, that Meadow finds fascinating. Under the nickname Jelly, the lonely Amy telephones Hollywood types at random to have meaningful conversations with another human. In one of the book’s more poignant examples of people co-opting identities, Jelly is not the slender young woman she pretends to be but an overweight forty-one-year-old whose fleshy thighs “grew into her knees, making them dimpled and lumpy.” She carries the fantasy to such an extreme that, when one man asks for a photo, she sends him a picture of her more attractive friend Lynn because, as Jelly says, “she needed to make things last just a little longer.” Meadow tracks Amy down in the hopes that the story will revive her flagging career and perhaps help her to achieve a level of success that Carrie seems to effortlessly enjoy.

As you can tell, Innocents and Others has a lot of storylines, and that’s part of its problem. So much is going on that no one storyline seems fully developed. Spiotta establishes that Carrie makes successful comedies, but we learn little about the raunchy films for which she is celebrated, and we never see her making her films. And Jelly is a one-note character, although her story has a heartbreaking conclusion.

Yet the novel compensates with its many keenly observed moments. There are brilliant touches, as when Oz says he first realized he was blind when his mother sat him on her lap and read stories to him. He felt the smooth pages and realized “that she got the stories from the page, the smooth pages that gave me nothing.” And, near the end of the book, there is a devastating sequence in which Meadow interviews a thirty-eight-year-old woman she believes was wrongly incarcerated for arson twenty years earlier, a sequence that demonstrates that not even the artifice of film can assuage the pain of traumatic events.

Despite its flaws, Innocents and Others is a thoughtful tribute to the hypnotic allure of cinema. In her own “Women in Film” essay late in the book, Carrie writes that Meadow never had an affair with Orson Welles, and that the clues are in Meadow’s essay. “All of it is a magic trick to Meadow, and that is part of what makes it so miraculous and beautiful: it isn’t real life.” François Truffaut would have understood.

Michael Magras is a freelance writer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His reviews have appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Houston Chronicle, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, and BookPage.

Innocents and Others
by Dana Spiotta
$25.00 hardcover; ISBN-13: 978- 1501122729
288 pages