Saturday, August 28, 2010

The isms in Eat Pray Love

by guest writer Mary

[A few weeks ago, my daughter asked me to drop her off to see Step Up 3D, so I decided to take in Eat Pray Love at the same time until I walked into the lobby and encountered a little women’s group of five or six mothers of recent seniors I had taught in A.P. English. (No, they were not members of a Book Club who had read the bestselling memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert; as it turns out, they were rather giggly Javier Bardem fans.) Wanting a little space from reminders of school during the last weeks of summer vacation, I instantly changed my plan and decided to see Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, but that movie wasn’t starting for twenty minutes so I went to sit with my daughter and watch the previews before her show.

Up comes a preview for Scott Pilgrim and it looks dumb so I quickly get up, deciding to sneak into Eat Pray Love which had already started. Standing in the dark for about fifteen minutes, I gave up after Billy Crudup as Stephen announces to his wife that he wants to further his education, maybe become a teacher, and teary-eyed Julia Roberts as Liz gets down on her knees and begs God to deliver her from this marriage. Quick! Back to Scott Pilgrim, which had just started. And I rather enjoyed it. I had thought I was done with Michael Cera’s pervading persona, but here he is quite endearing, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead is engaging as the girl of his dreams. A fun portrayal of 20-something angst in our time – though the fight scenes go on too long.

Anyway, this is all in the way of relating how I did not see Eat Pray Love, and that my wife, Mary, did see Eat Pray Love, wrote a review of it, and offers it here as her writing debut on Little Worlds. So, without further preamble, welcome Mary to this blog and enjoy her review. - Hokahey]

I have to confess that I have not read the book on which the film Eat Pray Love is based. Therefore, if I have a quarrel with it, I am not sure whether my quarrel is with the book or the film. Word is that the film is a pretty faithful adaptation. Apparently the book was very popular, and the movie is proving so as well, earning 23 million on its opening weekend; currently it is # 2 at the box office.

To me, the film raises some interesting questions about various “isms” – sexism, racism, and classism.

Sexism: A recent article in The Atlantic by Sady Doyle notes the success this summer of so-called “chick flicks” such as Sex and the City 2, Twilight: Eclipse and Eat Pray Love. What is most remarkable about these films, she writes, is not their popularity but “the derision and contempt they inspire in cultural commentators.” The reason for this contempt, says Doyle, is that they deal with matters which are important to women: romance, marriage, divorce, loneliness – basically, relationships.

As a woman, I like a good movie about these topics. I’d be happy if there were more good movies about them. Notice that I said good movies, however. I did not dislike Eat Pray Love because it deals with subject matter often associated with women. I disliked it because it was utterly shallow. To its credit, it tries to tackle serious subject matter: depression, spiritual alienation, the failed marriage of two basically good people. Its answers, however, are jaw-droppingly superficial. Apparently if we all ate lots of pasta and pizza and drank a great deal of wine, tried to meditate a bit each morning before we eat some more and chat, and moved to a gorgeous “hut” in a tropical paradise (all while wearing ever-so-chic loose, swirly clothing, of course), life would improve dramatically.

Every character in this film is one-dimensional: David is the sexy young guy who is Liz’s “rebound” after her marriage; every single person in Italy embraces life with gusto, exemplified by their lusty eating and drinking; Richard, the Texan Liz befriends at the ashram, is a wisecracker on the outside but he’s hiding a shameful secret; the medicine man in Bali is like Yoda: cute, funny and wise; Felipe is the perfect, adorably rumpled foreigner. There are no surprises here, only clichés. I actually cringed when Julia Roberts uttered the line, “I don’t have to love you to love myself!” when perfect Felipe arranges for them to sail on his boat to a deserted island for some days of bliss. Of course, she goes off in a huff, with artful tears glistening in her perfect eyes (they never spill over; she never gets a red nose), saying that she’s going back to America alone. But first she has to have a final talk with Yoda, who tells her that it’s OK to love. Then, of course, she heads back to Felipe, and they (literally) sail away into the sunset. If this is what is supposed to appeal to women, I’ll pass, thanks.

Racism: There is a subplot involving a teenage Indian girl at the ashram who is unhappy about her arranged marriage. She longs for the freedom that American women, like Liz, embody. Unhappy and fearful about her future, in one scene she puts her head on Liz’s lap for comfort. Shortly thereafter, we see her wedding. Everyone is wearing gorgeous saris, everyone seems blissfully happy while watching the proceedings. In a moment alone together, Liz tells Tulsi that she dedicated her meditations to her, envisioning her and her future husband “happy and kind to one another.” The only unhappiness Liz seems to feel comes from her memories of her own wedding day. So, all of a sudden, the girl is supposed to just suck it up and accept that this will all turn out fine? Isn’t this movie sort of supposed to be about female empowerment? The film seems almost racist here in its calm acceptance of this girl’s fate – oh, well, she’s not a rich white American woman, so of course she won’t have the choices that Liz does.

Classism: Wayan, the local healer in Bali, fares better than Tulsi. We learn that her former spouse was abusive; she left him, but in Bali women lose all financial rights if they divorce their husband. She and her daughter do not own a home, and her daughter dreams of a house with a beautiful blue floor like the discarded tile she found at a hotel construction site. Liz to the rescue! Good thing all her friends are rich. Liz takes up a collection via e-mail, then presents Wayan with $18,000, which apparently goes pretty far in Bali. Soon a house worthy of Architectural Digest arises, with a huge cobalt blue tile floor shimmering in the Balinese sun. The message here: the poor indigenous people need to be rescued from their own backward culture by American money (and we must teach them to adopt our standards of materialism). Presumably Wayan is suitably grateful.

The biggest “ism” of this movie? Commercialism. It’s making money, so of course tie-ins have sprung up to make even more money. A luxury travel specialist is apparently offering a 14-day trip, for women only, which recreates Liz’s experiences as closely as possible. The price tag: $8,685. If that seems out of reach, how about a $275 tote bag from the Eat Pray Love store on the Home Shopping Network? I suppose this huckstering is appropriate for a film that has all the depth of a television commercial. It’s a very pretty commercial, but let’s ask ourselves exactly what it’s selling.

(You may address comments to Mary and/or Hokahey below.)


Simon said...

You're so right, man. This entire movie insists that people in Italy are fidgeting around, just waiting for an American woman to cater and dispel wisdom to. Lovely post.

Joel Bocko said...

The "you don't like crappy, shallow movies because you're sexist/racist/classist" line is becoming pretty popular in academia and journalism, and I think you do a marvellous job turning it on its head here. I have not read nor seen Eat Pray Love, but most of the people I know who object to it are women who reacted much as you did - recoiling from the character's (apparent) smug narcissism. And I despise the whole notion of squeezing spirituality in between romantic dalliances and a good meal and some wine as just one wholesome part of a well-balanced loosey-goosey bourgeois 21st century lifestlye. A Corn Flakes for the soul, if you will. Nothing's difficult or requires struggle or sacrifice - the world is your cake, have it and eat it and write a bestseller about it. Am I misconstruing Gilbert's message? On the basis of your and other reactions, it would seem not but in the interests of objectivity let's just say that IF this is indeed the philosophy of Eat Pray Love, I've no use for it.

Excellent write-up here: hope to hear more from you on this site (between you, Hokahey, and Jason Bellamy the clan's got writin chops/astute perceptions to spare).

portrower said...

Thanks, Simon and MovieMan, for your comments. MovieMan, I agree with your thoughts about "squeezing in spirituality in between romance, a good meal and some wine." The film wants us to believe that Liz's journey to enlightenment required struggle, but it just doesn't make us believe it. It all seemed like "struggle lite." Diet Coke for the soul, perhaps?

Mary (a.k.a. portrower)

Jason Bellamy said...

Mary: This is terrific.

As a woman, I like a good movie about these topics. I’d be happy if there were more good movies about them. Notice that I said good movies, however.

You've nailed the crucial ingredient. See, there's the argument that all the outrage over Sex and the City-type women's fantasy movies is sexist, because every year there are handful of movies that play to male fantasies -- violence, goofy humor, etc. -- and when those movies make tons of cash, no one blinks. But while there's some truth of a double-standard there, the truth is also that a lot of people do blink.

For example, going by Rottentomatoes scores (an imperfect exercise, but it works here), the first SatC movie got a 49 percent favorability rating. Not good. But the first Transformers movie wasn't much better: 57 percent. The second SatC movie got a 16 percent. The second Transformers? Twenty percent? Adjusting for the fact (I think) that there are more male reviewers than female reviewers being charted by RT, and, well, the bottom line is that when a movie sucks, the critics usually say so, regardless of whether the masses flock to it or not, regardless of whether men or women are the target audience.

Again, I do think there's a double-standard, because when a Transformers movie does well, we rarely find an article in the Arts section talking about what an outrage it is that people are spending their money on crap, but you might see that kind of thing with an SatC. Not to be overlooked though is that a lot of the recent press about the box office success of SatC and Twilight has been of this ilk: "Gee, women (older and younger) are a profitable demographic!" That's condescending, but not indicative of a double-standard.

I'm rambling.

I haven't seen (or read) Eat, Pray, Love but my take is that these films are indeed fantasies, not meant to be deeply sophisticated any more than The Expendables is meant to be -- which isn't to imply that both films don't have moments where they try to be deep. I'm not offended by the idea that men might find some fantasy escape in The Expendables, even though I don't. And I don't think women should take it too personally when a film comes out the plays to the romantic notion that "What if climbing out of depression meant traveling a foreign country and falling in love with a beautiful man?"

What we should all take personally, however, is unsophisticated films in general.

The Film Doctor said...

Nice job, Mary, at exposing the cultural biases underlying the movie. I was mostly bothered by all of the romantic comedy back-lighting. Everywhere, except for the scenes in India, looks extraordinarily gorgeous. Julia's character has gorgeous movie stars fighting over her. I see nothing unrealistic about that. Javier Bardem looked bemused by his role.

Mostly, the comparison between Rome, India, and Bali exposed my bias. I have a serious love for Italian food, so when Liz moved on to India, I couldn't understand it.

portrower said...

Jason and FilmDr, thank you both for your thoughtful comments. Jason, I dislike thinking of movies (and books, for that matter) as "for men" or "for women." Though obviously there is usually an audience in mind, the best stories are created for ANY discerning viewer/reader.

FilmDr, with the exception of the token beggar children accosting Liz's taxi in the opening scene of the middle segment, I thought India looked awfully good, too. Sure, she refers to some mosquito bites, but those floor she was scrubbing looked rather lovely, and her "spartan" room had a certain "Pottery Barn primitive chic" to it. I agree with you, though, that the film makes you want to move to Italy and do nothing but eat and drink for the rest of your life.


Jason Bellamy said...

Jason, I dislike thinking of movies (and books, for that matter) as "for men" or "for women." Though obviously there is usually an audience in mind, the best stories are created for ANY discerning viewer/reader.

No disagreement there. Alas, too often I think Hollywood does have the audience in mind first. "We know X likes Y, what crap can we give them?"

The novel Eat, Pray, Love might have been personal over commercial. I'd guess it was the other way around for the producers of the film. Just saying.

Daniel said...

I've no idea why I was ever considering seeing this movie, as I found the hype around the book (which I did not read) to be as shallow as the movie appears to be. All of these people (mostly women) were raving about how enchanting the story was, but, and this may be a little unfair, couldn't you say the same thing about a romance novel?

Moreover, from the perspective of a newly married man, I found the causation behind Gilbert's divorce fairly disheartening. Imagine how her ex-husband feels, seeing her leave him (on questionable grounds?) to cavort around the world and make millions telling people how liberated she was.

Again, I've not read the book or seen the movie, so take this rather cynical take with a grain of salt. Nice review, Mary!

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks for all the comments to Mary's post.

Daniel - Your comment about the end of the marriage is where I left the movie. I'm sure there were other factors, but the juxtaposition between his saying he wanted to further his education and her praying to God for help was, as you say, disheartening.