Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others is a truly remarkable–brilliant–novel, centering around two young women from the Greater LA area, who attended a private high school specializing in film studies/film history. Meadow Mori, the real narrator/protagonist of the novel, is, no doubt, aptly named, as she begins to create films of her own back in high school years, and will go on to become on the most noted filmmakers of her own era–at least through about age 35. Her name refers to momento mori, the European term for still life (as in paintings), as the Dutch still life painters of the l7th century, in particular, understood that all those ripe fruits and flowers in full bloom would, days after capturing them in paint, die; the momento mori is the capturing of that moment of ripe freshness (in objects as well as in people) right before they fade (similarities exist here with Japanese painting; the Japanese aesthetic is most captivated by very early spring and very late autumn, life as it just peaks out in buds on trees and flowers, and those last late leaves clinging to maple trees, before they fall and die). Meadow’s friend/colleague, Carrie Wexler, is also a very gifted filmmaker, though she will make more “popular” films, that center around the lives of girls/young women, for a larger, mass audience. Both young women understand Meadow to be the greater talent, the true “artist”.
Spiotta understands the fascination that the world of film holds upon /over young Americans, and her own understanding of both film history and various types of cameras, and other technical aspects of filmmaking, are brilliantly rendered throughout this novel. Mori is single-handed in her approach to filmmaking; it’s taken over her life entirely, and that obsession is both her great strength, and will be her undoing (which, frankly, was a bit of a relief, as Mori rarely seems human in much of the novel, more robotic, but Spiotta is creating her thus deliberately). Upon graduation from high school, both young women are accepted into NYU’s superb Tisch School, and both are supposed to study filmmaking, but Mori never enrolls, while Wexler does. Their parallel paths and on again, off again (more on than off) friendship as both careers succeed is part of the core of this excellent novel: friendship between two professional women is relatively new territory in fiction, as it is in contemporary life and culture. The reader will learn a great deal both about such friendships and the single-handedness of a career in film , by reading this novel. And the extent to which film shows ‘reality’ in documentary form, and/or the extent to which film is always an invention, is another core issue in this novel, and so timely as Greater Cincinnati is about to embark on its third FotoFocus, as this year’s theme is The UnDocument, and will examine in exhibitions to what extent photograph does or doesn’t create or reflect the “real”. Anyone interested in this topic should run to read Spiotta’s novel, much of which defines that very same territory.
Momento Mori looks at people as if they are still lives, to be plucked out of their “real ” lives and made into objects/festishes for her films. Mori uses real people she meets, or hears about, most often in her documentaries; when she goes to rethink the Kent State killings in the early seventies, she will find a multiplicity of possible interpretations of that event, all of which are fascinating , and all of which are possible. But when she learns about a real woman calling herself Nicole, who’s spent much of her adult life calling executive men in the entertainment business, and with whom the men frequently fall in love (Nicole, aka Amy, is a superb listener), she persuades Nicole and Jack, one of her telephone friends/lovers (no sex is ever involved in these calls), she makes the near fatal error of having those two meet live (which Nicole had always refused to do with any of her callers: her sympathy’s on the phone, and she’s decided that she is not an attractive enough woman to meet any of these men live (another fascinating subtext of this novel: how women view themselves). And Mori will finally discover that what’s art to her and her followers may be truly harming her subjects, and once she actually understands that, she is unable to do any more filmmaking, and she teaches film history instead. Her fanaticism about film and its history, and the extent to which she may or may not confuse film with reality, eventually implodes. Through all these creative years, from high school graduation until about 35, the two women continue to meet; Mori shows increasingly little interest in her friend’s increasingly successful films, though the friendship doesn’t ever crack: that this friendship is often brittle , but doesn’t break, comes across very credibly in Spiotta’s fine hands. And both Mori and Wexler will pick up men for their own sexual pleasure and dismiss them when they’re no longer useful, even when they’re in Mori’s films: there’s much fodder for thinking, here, as the women are behaving towards men the same way feminists complained that powerful men behaved towards women. I didn’t , for example, ever like Meadow Mori, though I found her fascinating, and though I liked her friend Carrie, I did not find her that interesting: such are the power and skill of Dana Spiotta’s abilities at capturing character: she finds these complex, highly creative
women, lets us into the very heart of Mori’s creative processes, allows us to be frustrated with Mori but complicit in her art making and her obsession with film and the expense of all relationships with live people.
Innocents and Others is a completely brilliant novel, breaks new ground in dozens of ways. You may have to suspend disbelief a little more frequently in this novel than in others–but that’s what we do when we see a film, anyway, and film’s the model in this novel, the centerpiece around which two talented women will make their livings and accrue acclaim, much at the expense of their personal lives: one of the key plights of successful contemporary women is thus woven throughout this exceptional novel, which I urge our readers to pick up. Spiotta is a dazzling writer, and her novel’s full of brilliant insights into both people and into film and their interrelationships.