Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Movies as the Splice of Life

Charles Jensen’s Splice of Life is not the first book I’ve ever read that tells a personal story by way of the films that have shaped the author’s life. I remember with affection John Manderino’s Crying at Movies. In that charming book Manderino admits learning how to kiss through watching the Swedish art film Elvira Madigan, and divulges that his apparent physical resemblance to The Graduate’s “rodent-like” Dustin Hoffman won him an unexpected bed partner. But Jensen’s new work, subtitled “A Memoir in 13 Film Genres,” is both the smartest and the most complex example of the genre that I’ve ever encountered.

 I know Charles Jensen as the highly dedicated director of the Writers’ Program, offered both “on-ground” and online through UCLA Extension. Before I read his new book, I was aware that he is a serious poet, as well as a man deeply committed to providing learning opportunities to students of every stripe. But Splice of Life has given me new insight into the fellow who oversees the screenwriting classes I offer twice a year. It’s a deeply personal look at Charlie’s in-depth fascination with movies, and how films intersect with the high and low points of his own sometimes complicated life. 

The early chapters detail Charlie’s awkward acknowledgment of his own sexual leanings by way of films like Mean Girls (which neatly parallels his high school years) and Fatal Attraction. I love his smart close reading of the latter film, in which he views not the sexy seductress Alex (Glenn Close) but the philandering husband Dan (Michael Douglas) as the villain of the piece. His take on Fatal Attraction led me to think hard about how the “victim” label in movies is sometimes used to excuse what he calls “peak male fuckery.” He has also taught me a new key term—“queer coding”—that indicates how (in popular films like Scream) gay subtext is partially concealed, except for those with eyes to see.

One of my favorite chapters goes back to classic Hitchcock: 1943’s Shadow of a Doubt.  Charlie’s analysis of this great film (in which the seemingly amiable Joseph Cotten secretly dispatches wealthy widows) uncovers more “queer coding,” but it also plays against the startling real-life story of a member of Charlie’s extended social circle, who was ultimately convicted of murder.

 As Charlie shows himself evolving into a relatively happy and productive Angeleno (following the awkward years in the upper Midwest and the formative ones in Arizona), his film pairings sometimes become more lighthearted. He matches Get Him to the Greek with the poignant but also rather wacky story of the burial of his grandmother’s cremains. We also, in various chapters, learn about his hair-loss anxiety, his body-image issues (he deals here with the obsessive ballerina in Black Swan), and—somewhat climactically—his semi-successful appearance on Jeopardy! To capture the emotion of his big moment on the tube, he writes about the raw competition spelled out in The Hunger Games. It all leaves me wondering how the UCLA Writers’ Program will figure in his next book, and what film he’ll choose to illustrate the complexities of his current job.

 Charlie opens Splice of Life with three wonderful quotes from master filmmakers. I can’t resist quoting them here, because they all figure into what he’s achieved between his book’s covers:

 Cinema is a mirror by which we often see ourselves. —Alejandro González Iñárritu

 Anything that is not autobiography is plagiarism. —Pedro Almodóvar

 A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet. —Orson Welles

 Congratulations, Charlie!



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