Real to Reel

When an old friend told me she had produced and directed a major motion picture, I was pleasantly surprised. Then she told me what the movie was about.

"And you're going to meet your maker," she shot back.
Beneath this bravado, I could detect traces of the truth, and more than a little fear on both our parts. Julie could too. "I really hope you like the movie," she said. And then: "I can't sleep so well since we started talking again. All this nostalgia is making me jumpy."

"Crucial to any understanding of me is how I was in high school. I was a misfit. Always." Julie Davis, auteur, director, star-in-the-making, was speaking on the phone from her home in Studio City, California. I was in my apartment in Brooklyn. I was interviewing her about her film, weeks before we were to meet in Miami. This was one way I had decided to deal with my trepidation about that meeting. I would write a story about the whole twisted business.

She cleared her throat and repeated herself. "A misfit. A fucking misfit."
This was true. Along with 2700 other suburban teenagers, Julie and I spent the better part of the mid-Eighties incarcerated at Palmetto High School, a huge institutional building in east Kendall's strip-malled darkness. At first I wasn't friends with Julie. I was too busy indulging in the smart-alecky remarks that teenage boys trade so that they can make sense of the world. (Jon Kessler, during a discussion of William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily," was asked by an overtaxed English teacher to define "catatonia," and he answered, "It's a pasta dish with a delicious light cream sauce." He was sent to sit in the hall.)

Julie was a different kind of clown -- she didn't mouth off to teachers, she rarely played the fool in class -- but she was a clown nonetheless, as much as you can be when you're a beautiful young woman with obvious assets and talent. Her clowning was visual. She dressed like a cartoon starlet, all plunging necklines and push-up bras. One of her favorite outfits was a cherry-covered replica of the dress Marilyn Monroe wore in The Seven Year Itch. She showed cleavage, and lots of it.

As a teenage boy, I admired cleavage greatly. I started to talk to Julie, to write her letters, to stuff those letters in her locker. The letters became more elaborate; they incorporated stories, drawings, poems. To my everlasting shock, she responded in kind. After a while, cleavage wasn't the only draw. We were friends.

Many days after classes we sat in the school parking lot in her silver Trans Am, a lean trout of a car. Behind us Palmetto rose out of the flat terrain like an aqua behemoth. The side of the building was emblazoned with the logo of our school's sports teams: the Aqua Behemoths. Or was it the Panthers?

Memory intensifies details -- makes them funnier, sadder, more ironic, or more significant than they really were. And nostalgia reupholsters memory. Still, we were there. I am sure of it. We sat in the car and talked. I flirted shamelessly, and Julie told me that she wasn't interested in sex for sport or self-exploration, that she would find her way to sex only through love. I understood what she was saying, but my libido wouldn't let up. My attempts at seduction bounced bonelessly off her resolve.

I don't remember much about our graduation. I know that it was held at Miami-Dade Community College. I know that I delivered the salutatorian's address in an incoherent mumble that was amplified to greater incoherence by the shabby sound system. I know there were tearful scenes with friends, and that I overcame my sadness with sarcasm. I remember only one conversation with Julie from graduation week, a short exchange on the phone in which she told me she was worried about college, scared that the people there wouldn't understand her any better than the people at Palmetto.

What I took away from that conversation was this: Being misunderstood was Julie's skeleton; remove it, and she would fall.

Her senior year at Dartmouth, Julie left the cold of Hanover, New Hampshire, and traveled north into the even harsher climes of Quebec, where she directed an hour-long adaption of Sartre's 1952 film The Respectful Prostitute for her senior thesis. The movie, shot on Super VHS and starring Marla Schaffel, set forth the themes that would be central to Julie's later work: the war between self-knowledge and sex, the difficulty of trusting others, and perhaps most important, the supreme importance of control.

Weeks after graduating from Dartmouth, she moved to California, hoping to make her career as a film director. She went to parties. She started to network. She got involved with an older man, a director. But she couldn't crack Hollywood. Then she got hit by the car.

"That was like a metaphor. I had been crashed into by a relationship, by my career. But the accident steeled me. At a time when I was so confused by adversity, it reminded me that life is short and that filmmaking is something I love." After three weeks in the hospital and three months of rehab, Julie was revitalized, and opportunities started to knock. She went to Germany to work on a film, and back in L.A., landed a series of gigs as a stand-in.

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