Issue #46: Writers On The Edge 🖋️
Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir + Everything is Copy
What does it mean to consider art? To consider the artist? And, perhaps most interestingly, how can you do it in a documentary format? As things eke closer to a new normal, we took some time to slow down with a couple of our favorite writers. First, Zosha on framing Amy Tan and the breadth of her work in Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir. Then, Cate on Everything is Copy — Nora Ephron: Scripted & Unscripted, and how the romcom queen cemented her legacy. This one’s for the ladies.
Zosha on Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir
On some level, many of us are familiar with the story of Amy Tan. Author of The Joy Luck Club, Tan’s life — her experiences, her family’s, and beyond — showed up in surprising ways throughout her work. Surprising perhaps because so many of them were true; as Amy Tan: An Unintended Memoir frequently shows, using shots from The Joy Luck Club film as a visual stand-in for family memories that pop up through the film.
How lovely then that An Unintended Memoir should provide such an astonishing portrait of an artist. I can’t recall seeing a documentary that’s felt as touching and precise as this one. Tan leads us through a life (along with interviews with those around her, including her brother, husband, best friend, and even mother, through home videos) that has an awesome amount of documentation, thanks to ample family photographs from her father and home footage.
Perhaps it’s because Tan has considered her life so closely that An Unintended Memoir ends up feeling so holistic. It’s a good 50 minutes before we even get to her writing career, and another 10 or so before she writes the novel that would change her life. But there is no time wasted in the documentary. Instead we get a vision of artistry from the ground up, a careful and kind look at a dark period of Tan’s life. It ends up giving the film a better bookend than so many documentaries get; this is not merely a story that starts and finishes. Like her stories, the documentary weaves the past back and forth, always keeping it close in our mind. A stray anecdote at a conference might become a capstone to not only Tan’s image of herself as an artist, but her father’s place in her development.
Director James Redford (who died this past October) has a keen eye for moving us through time in a way that is both clear and concise; as Tan’s books roll out we hear the introductions over an ever-growing stack amidst a table of trinkets. Only seldom does he resort to animation, but often it is to smart effect — illustrating Tan’s mindset around editing and privacy or imagination.
In so many documentaries you can feel the gears shifting: 10 minutes on backstory gives way to 10 minutes on a tidbit; we move from the “family” section of the film to the “away to college.” An Unintended Memoir is always graceful, fluid in its approach. This is not a life story being vivisected for our entertainment. It’s a life flowing to you, like good conversation or a peaceful river.
Rarely saying anything too concretely, An Unintended Memoir works as a beautiful ode to artistry as well. “What I’d like to do tonight is tell you what kind of experiences went into me to propel myself into writing,” Tan tells a crowd in the film. It is clear how important to her to ever detangle and demystify all the stories of her life. We get some brilliant ruminations on her craft, but so much of it is between the lines as well, as she considers the traumas and hardships that pushed her into a fictional world. When she thinks back on this time she comes off as wisened, but a little hardened. These things didn’t have to happen to make her the person she is, but she now is tasked with understanding how they did.
It could be said that An Unintended Memoir punts a little on larger questions of Tan’s work, but I think that is not as interesting as looking at what the film is trying to do: take the same magnanimous consideration of an artist as she does of her world. It moves through the world with the same thoughtfulness and grace we come to understand of its subject, and it’s as lovely a documentary as I’ve ever seen.
Cate on Everything Is Copy — Nora Ephron: Scripted & Unscripted
The legend of Nora Ephron is in some ways bigger than the woman herself. A reporter turned essayist turned novelist turned screenwriter and director, Ephron’s legacy looms large because she’s a woman who left an undeniable impact on the lives of the people she met and left her mark on Hollywood just because she could. Everything Is Copy—Nora Ephron: Scripted & Unscripted examines her extraordinary life, and illuminates some of what made her tick.
Writer and directed by her son Jacob Bernstein, Everything Is Copy presents Ephron as both enigma and open book— a dazzlingly exuberant presence no one could fully decode. With interviews from everyone from Meryl Streep to Steven Spielberg, the documentary examines her motivations and impulses, turning each aspect of her life over to uncover what lies beneath.
Led by Bernstein as interviewer, the film accomplishes its goal to varying degrees. Jacob’s closeness to the source material initially grates as he narrates his musings on her mother’s impact. Of the moment camera choices distract from and interrupt some of the film’s most enchanting interviews, but the interference quickly succumbs to the preferred status quo. Bernstein lets his subjects talk at length about their relationships with his mother, remembering her wit, skill and determination. Actresses like Lena Dunham and Meg Ryan read excerpts from her many essays and convey what her legacy left for them.
Where he is speaking to family, Bernstein joins his subjects onscreen as with his aunt, author Delia Ephron and father, journalist Carl Bernstein. It’s the one intrusion that works, and Jacob pulls from them both a more honest reckoning with the difficulties of a stubborn personality. The story of the demise of her marriage to Carl — his cheating, her novel about his cheating — is used to demonstrate how she turned every situation to her advantage. Pregnant and scorned, she took her pain and made it a comedy, a skill that would come in handy again and again and her screenwriting career progressed.
But the film really sings when it turns to the issue of Ephron’s passing. Dead by cancer at age 71, Ephron kept the details of her impending demise a closely-guarded secret, flying in the face of her mother’s long held ethos—everything is copy. Very few people knew she was dying, including her own family. Rather than indulge in long goodbyes, Ephron took those she loved out to long dinners and lunches where they could reminisce and remember. It was only after she was dead that they divined what she’d been up to. In a touching scene, Meryll Streep puts it best — “she achieved a private act.” It was a momentous achievement in a world where her own life had always been her best fodder for material. Ephron’s last works — a book of essays and the film Julie & Julia — were informed by her awareness of her own mortality, and several people mention that Ephron became softer around the edges in those days.
Everything Is Copy is by no means perfect, but it is a loving portrait of a woman who worked because she had to, and never stopped trying to prove her own worth to herself. Her son’s film does her justice, and reminds viewers just how extraordinary a talent she really was.
Assorted Internet Detritus
ZOSHA: The oral history of the Dawson’s crying meme. An excerpt from Casey Wilson’s book. The strange (un)death of middlebrow. What the sexual violence on Game of Thrones begot. Peeking into the history and conflict of the Oscar® swag bags. How Falcon and Winter Soldier fought against itself so persuasively.
CATE: The ideal vaccine for hot vax summer, Liza Minelli—outliving, puzzling over puzzles, the lasting ripples of Kent State, rich man swings his dick around, nothing is in style so just wing it, and Madonna’s Truth or Dare turns 30.
In Issue #47— short films. Probably. No promises. See you next week!