Michelle Orange’s name will be very familiar to anyone who’s kept an eye out for sharply written nonfiction and criticism in the past few years. Her new collection, This Is Running For Your Life, follows 2006’s The Sicily Papers, and includes work ranging from a meditation on aging on film (through the prism of Ethan Hawke, specifically in the time between Before Sunrise and Before Sunset) to a powerful account of her grandmother’s fading years. Orange is equally at home attending a psychological conference as she is sending dispatches from the civil war in Lebanon; the result is a constantly shifting collection, one which illuminates particular areas of life and culture methodically and unexpectedly.
For this piece, I asked Orange for an in-depth look at three of the essays. “Beirut Rising,” which first appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review; “The Uses of Nostalgia and Some Thoughts on Ethan Hawke’s Face,” which first appeared in The Rumpus, and “The San Diego of My Mind,” which focuses on a company using brain scans to assist in marketing films.
Many of the essays in This Is Running for Your Life fall into the realm of cultural criticism. “Beirut Rising” is an exception: it’s a jarring look at life in a city beset by civil war. Here, Orange finds memorable, occasionally absurd details even as she keeps the reader aware of the larger political situation.
How did you come to write this piece?
I took a very last-minute trip to Beirut shortly after New Year’s, 2008. I had been thinking about going for a while; I thought it might jump-start an idea I had for a short story. I remember having a really terrible New Year’s Eve and thinking “I need a flight out of here, maybe it’s time for Beirut.” Not the smartest financial move, but then I didn’t realize the recession was already underway.
It first appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review; how does writing about politics and current events for them differ from writing about the same topics elsewhere?
I wrote the essay not knowing where it would end up. The beauty of VQR is their openness to all sorts of subjects and approaches. They genuinely encourage the essay format, which is rare especially with regard to writing on political or current events. What comes to mind as a good example of the difference is that between the post-9/11 Middle East reporting Megan Stack did for the Los Angeles Times and the book she wrote about that same period, Every Man in This Village Is a Liar. The book opens up her experience of those years and the events she covered with lyricism and personal urgency. That type of writing strikes me as one of VQR’s great strengths.
Have current events in Lebanon ever made you consider a return trip?
I would like to go back someday. I have wished I could have a more thoroughly guided experience of Beirut and elsewhere in the region. When I think of Lebanon these days, my heart breaks for Syria. Lebanon’s stability is so fragile, and so deeply enmeshed with that of Syria. It’s a very dark moment.
When you were revising this essay for the collection, were you tempted to increase the historical scope of it to include more recent happenings?
That happened even in 2008 — I wrote the essay fairly quickly, and it sat at another publication, where it was first accepted, for about six months. That spring there was an uprising in Lebanon, so by the time the essay found a home at VQR, I had to consider whether to incorporate subsequent events. Initially I was hung up on the idea of timeliness, but I think, for this essay, that was the wrong idea. It’s not really designed to be timely, first or foremost. I figured then and again when the opportunity came up to revise it for the book that it was more important to sharpen the picture I had of that moment.
In an interview with VQR‘s blog in 2009, you talked about wanting to travel to Riyadh and China — did either of these trips come to pass?
Unfortunately, no! I still have hopes for a Riyadh story, but I’m only one woman, with a freelancer’s bank account, and I couldn’t swing the trips alone. At the time VQR was interested in the story but we couldn’t get the money together. I’ve actually never been sent anywhere on assignment. That’s the big challenge. Otherwise it’s a matter of whether you’re willing or able to finance something yourself, write on spec, and hope for the best.
In this essay, Orange discusses the ways we perceive specific cultural works, examining the question of whether we feel the greatest affinity for music, books, and movies encountered at a certain age. This segues into a consideration of the idea of nostalgia; Ethan Hawke — and the effects of time on his appearance in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset — figures into it prominently.
As there’s now been news of a third Delpy/Hawke/Linklater Before film, I’m curious: what are your thoughts on it?
I’m still clearing away my emotions so I can gather some thoughts on it! The second film created such a perfect balance with the first that a third one posed a potential threat. Like some fans, I felt protective of that unit’s integrity. But the third film opens the story out in a way that feels natural and necessary. And it gives you the sense that as long as these characters and the sensibilities shaping them are involved, any number of future integrities is possible. It’s really exciting.
How did your column at The Rumpus first come about?
When Steve Elliott was thinking up The Rumpus we had many conversations about what it could be and what role I might play. For a minute I was the film editor, but neither of us quite knew what that meant. It was clear the site would sort itself out over time, and in the very early months, late 2008 to mid-2009, a lot of us treated it as a place to experiment. After I wrote the first draft of what became “The Uses of Nostalgia…” Steve said, “That should be a column. Just write about whatever strikes you. For free.” He may not have said the last part.
How did it evolve from a collection of film links to a series of essays?
That is a good question! Maybe it’s still a collection of film links.
How significantly did you revise the piece between writing it for The Rumpus and its appearance in the book?
It’s the one I thought would be easiest, and yet I struggled with it the most. I think it’s twice or maybe three times its original length. I found the essay’s revision tough on a number of levels. At every stage I’d leave it to last, like a nasty gift to myself.
“The San Diego of My Mind”
Here, Orange examines the concept of neuromarketing — essentially, using high-end medical technology to comprehensively examine viewers’ response to a film. Also present here is a critique of a certain type of large-scale filmmaking: one that seems committed to sensory overload at the expense of storytelling, or subtlety of any kind.
What first drew you to this subject — both the idea of “neuromarketing” and, more specifically, to the company MindSign?
I looked into neuromarketing after watching The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, the Morgan Spurlock documentary, at SXSW in 2011. When I saw there was a move toward using fMRI to market research movies as well as, say, Swiffer pads, I knew I wanted to write about it. MindSign, a relatively new firm run by two young men, was intriguing for a number of reasons: They claimed to be the only privately owned fMRI facility in the country, which meant they could do whatever they liked with the machine; their focus was movies, or as they call it “neurocinema”; and they were both Hollywood exiles who had left their positions at Sony and Dreamworks because this new frontier in movie marketing held more appeal than their experience in the world of actually making movies.
Did you ever get the results of your session back?
I did not. Not yet!
In this essay, you allude to films that have been overstimulating, sensorially speaking. Do you find that this has increased in the time since you wrote it?
I’m not watching as many of those movies, but I doubt my withdrawal had much effect. A critic friend told me he thought of the San Diego essay while watching Die Hard 5. He had that sinking, disorienting feeling of sitting through a movie that peaked with its trailer, or whose point was its trailer. I remember getting that feeling watching the preview for Prometheus. I didn’t see the movie, but that trailer is an alpha specimen of what I find most bizarre and alienating in movie culture.
Remember A.O. Scott’s review of The Avengers with that devastating last paragraph? “The price of entertainment is obedience.” Rather than just saying, “this is a bad movie,” he examines what its specific quality of badness might mean. And he did so knowing The Avengers would be the highest grossing movie of the year, which it was. That seems like a good example of what criticism should do.