There may be quite a few of us, actually: not even fans necessarily, just onlookers — fellow humans who worry, intermittently, about the erosion of Ethan Hawke. Because he is too young, at 42, to look as weathered as he’s looked for years now, too young to have that sandpaper-scratched voice.
If you are one of us, and you happen to pick up Michelle Orange’s “This Is Running for Your Life,” your first eager impulse may be to dive in where this collection of 10 essays starts, with “The Uses of Nostalgia and Some Thoughts on Ethan Hawke’s Face.” Finally, at last: someone else thinking about Ethan Hawke’s face! But the piece feels undisciplined, self-indulgent; it gives the impression, ultimately, of being a shaggy-dog tale.
Beginning at the beginning, then, is not the way to go. Like an album frontloaded with a band’s weaker songs, “This Is Running for Your Life” is best experienced in shuffle mode. There’s some good stuff inside.
Orange is at her strongest when she is brave enough to write personally. One of the finest essays here is “One Senior, Please,” a compassionate, admiring portrait of her grandmother Rita. In 2003, Rita began sending her granddaughter — then in graduate school for film studies — her recent movie-ticket stubs, annotated with emphatic impressions. Here she is on “Once Upon a Time in Mexico”: “Love Johnny Depp. 1/3 Good, 2/3 Guns Guns Guns.” And on “A Touch of Pink”: “Amusing. My companion didn’t laugh.” But by the time we meet her, she has been installed unhappily in an elder-care complex. “Rita is on the verge of being kicked out of independent living for various bodily insubordinations,” Orange writes. “The terms have an existential vagueness: if you can’t take care of yourself, you can’t stay. My own independent lifestyle couldn’t stand the scrutiny.”
Figuring out how to live is part of what Orange is doing in that essay and also in “Ways of Escape,” perhaps the best piece in the book. “Historically I had considered running an aberrant form of activity,” she writes, yet in college she ran so obsessively, and so recklessly, that her period stopped and her toenails turned black and fell off. “Looking back, looking from above, all that running appears as a radically, almost pathetically physical solution to a metaphysical problem of homesickness, a search for the portal or spatial alignment that would release me back into the world, even as I pounded into my bones the idea that to get anywhere a person had to be alone.”
One of the most peculiar things about this collection is that, though Orange is a film critic, she is sometimes at her stiffest when writing about movies. She succumbs to an eye-glazing tendency to quote Susan Sontag and makes blithe assertions that feel regurgitated from a seminar, as when she writes of Hollywood movies in the mid-1970s, “What there was little room for during those years was fantasy: the male gaze had been bagged and tagged as part of the feminist project, and to think in terms of a traditional ideal was to earn a lashing with someone’s discarded Wonderbra.”
Elsewhere, she goes on too long, with a bloggy sort of looseness, or gets tangled in her own prose. She also has a lifelong smarty-pants’s habit of straitjacketing herself in academic-speak: “If World War I had a reanimating effect on America’s sociocultural infrastructure, with World War II the transformation was manifest.”
I once wrote about a playwright who spoke of the people he loved in terms of what he wanted for them. I don’t know Michelle Orange, but I do love some of her writing. And there is something I want for her, because her perspective is worth our attention. I want her to have what every good writer deserves: a good editor, who will read closely and ask questions and help her shape and pare away until, finally, she is saying clearly and well what she means to say.