Friday, August 20th, 2010

'Eat Pray Love' and 'I Am Love': Class Warfare

Today, two women look at summer lady-blockbuster 'Eat Pray Love' in the context of other movies with strong female characters. After this: Maria Bustillos on 'Life During Wartime.'

If your experience is the same as mine, and you do not garner your cultural criticism solely from the pages of O: The Oprah Magazine, you've heard of Eat, Pray, Love largely through negative press coverage. A veritable battalion of sudden class warriors have emerged in recent weeks to bash Eat, Pray, Love for its portrayal of cluelessness in rich white yoga-lady form, a near-universal object of derision if ever there was one in this culture.

It's not that I don't have a certain degree of sympathy with the pile-on, of course.

Like any young white lady of a certain age who's hit a stumbling block in recent years, I've dodged countless exhortations to read the book. In my opinion, a book that contends that the way to get away from the anomie imposed by modern professional life and its empty materialism is to take a year off and spend a whole boatload of money ought only to be read in a haze of mood stabilizers and blood pressure medication. Particularly when the reader is newly unemployed, like me.

And I'll be honest: that's not least because if Eat, Pray, Love is right, if travel and boiled down essentialist Orientalist "Eastern" mysticism is the only true path to meaning in this world, we might as well all throw up our hands now, because most of us, and by us I mean "people on Earth," simply can't do that. We might as well let the Gilberts continue on their quest to write the rest of us right out of existence, push us to the margins of whatever real story it is the rich are living, because we'll never have a piece of it.

I do want to admit that this vein of "class-based" criticism has been extremely fruitful as an inspiration of snarky Internet remarks. (A personal favorite line was by Dustin Rowles, at Pajiba's: "Fuck you, and your Buddhist Ayn Rand bullshit philosophy.")

But dare I say that I find some of the criticism a overwrought? Here, for example, are some things that people have recently written about Eat, Pray, Love:

1. David Edelstein at New York, always notably, uh, sensitive to marginalized women's concerns, described the plot as "… Gilbert stumbled into a scenario that resonated with women in search of their own autonomy-specially white women with a bit of money."

2. Peter Travers at Rolling Stone remarks that "the movie left me with the feeling of being trapped with a person of privilege who won't stop with the whine whine whine."

3. Andrew O'Hehir at Salon gave a nicer and more nuanced thumbs down, noting, "[Elizabeth Gilbert's] aware that her personal and literary odyssey contains potential contradictions: The tale of a well-connected New York writer traveling the globe on somebody else's dime and sampling an array of seemingly disconnected experiences might strike many people as a symptom of our cultural dislocation and commodity fetishism, not a cure."

Why, I don't know that I've read so many reviews using first-year intro to sociology terminology in my life. Now, people are doing real structural critique of Eat, Pray, Love and related phenomena, of course, and I am not trying to lump their work in here-but the mainstream critical narrative seems to be coopting their rhetoric.

That appropriation of leftist language in these reviews has irked me. It's done so even though I am also the kind of person who will agree to see Eat, Pray, Love only if someone's paying me to do so, and no one has, as of yet, so no dice. I'm going to suggest to you anyway that all this blather about the "self-indulgence" and "privilege" of this film, when delivered by these white, and largely male, film critics, is disingenuous, and, even worse, philosophically empty. I'm going to do it having not seen the film, of course, but then again, I'm not so much interested in defending the film itself. It may very well be crap. The point, I think, is that if it is crap, it's important to describe why that's so without lazy rhetoric.

I'd love to call this straight-out misogyny, and in fact I'd have backup, and not only from feminist blogs! A.O. Scott at the Times noted that "the kind of class consciousness that would blame Liz for feeling bad about her life and then taking a year abroad to cure what ails her strikes me as a bit disingenuous -a way of trivializing her trouble on the grounds of gender without having to come out and say so."

But I think it might be a little more than that.

The other night I saw I Am Love. That film stars the much more filmsnob-acceptable-than-Roberts-but-also-female Tilda Swinton person! I am quite susceptible to that kind of snobbery, myself. With the exception of the Narnia movies, Swinton is the kind of actress I follow from movie to film back to movie without even needing to see so much as a trailer beforehand.

In any event: I hated I Am Love. This is not a popular opinion. Rotten Tomatoes tells me that 81% of critics loved it. Just as a contrast, if you click over to have a look at the reviews for Eat, Pray, Love you get a comparatively abysmal rating of 38%. No person with actual taste is admitting to actually going to see Eat, Pray, Love, of course, but like me, a significant snobbish subset is willing to watch I Am Love.

I find this interesting.

I Am Love is a story about rich white Italian people. Rich white Italian people, the movie informs you, live in stunning surroundings and hold lots of dinner parties with the aid of servants in matching uniforms. They have beautiful clothes and beautiful children and most importantly, they eat beautiful food. They are sensual people, these Italians. But they suffer from a certain ennui, from time to time. And thus, when their marriages become impermissibly frigid, they go and fall in love with their children's friends, friends who are chefs, because food is sensual. (I hope you caught that totally subtle metaphor!) And the only thing that matters, you guys, is love. Lovelovelove. Love. We should all be so lucky to be in love. The End.

Sound somewhat familiar? Toss in some time in Bali and Javier Bardem and the surroundings start to look awful familiar, don't they?

Of course, the reason why people of self-appointed taste and discernment might enjoy I Am Love but not Eat, Pray, Love, might be a matter of execution. I won't deny that there's beautiful cinematography in the former that I can't imagine exists in the latter, though it's mostly the gratuitous shots of flowers and food that provide the pretty there rather than any of the principal photography. I also won't deny that you are going to have a hard time maintaining the same level of subtlety in your $60-million blockbuster summer Hollywood chick flick than you can in your low-budget independent European movie.

But that's not what anyone's actually saying, it seems to me, when Eat, Pray, Love is sneered at as a rich white lady movie. The objection underlying the sarcasm is about content-how dare this white lady write so much about such trivial self-absorbed matters-not style. And that's where it starts to get messy, the criticism, not simply because it's inconsistent, but because it cloaks itself in faux-leftist rhetoric that's… well, to be blunt, kind of morally repugnant, no?

If any of the critics I listed above cared one whit about class in this country or any other, and thus hated the artistic treatment of privileged whining, they'd have to throw out what I'd imagine is more than half of Western cinema. This, they are not prepared to do, however. What Edelstein, Travers and the like do is a drive-by on class issues, for hating rich people (just as much as Sarah Palin does, I might add), without doing the hard work of interrogating actual social privilege. It's self-congratulation for not being that kind of vulgar white (incidentally lady bits-having, not that there's anything wrong with that except that it means "your" movies are suspect for self-indulgence) person who falls for this claptrap. It's not structural critique.

It's a common thing to talk a good leftist talk as a way of being socially acceptable to other liberals while being blithely unaware of just how deeply uncommitted you are to those issues. The curious thing about whiteness or richness, about social privilege of any kind, is that it's not an attitude, not a pose, not just something you can shrug off if you like the right kind of movies and read the right kind of books and make your annual donations to the right organizations. It's a thing you live every day, all the time, whether you choose to participate in it or not. It confers unseen advantages-advantages like the ability to reduce the experience of Bali as a place to what white Americans think and feel about it, blithely, without challenge, and be paid millions of dollars to do so. And you can't vault yourself out of privilege rhetorically, not if you want to dismantle it. As a person who shares many of Gilbert's privileges, you see, it's unfair for me to try and claim I could never share her blinders. To reduce racism and classism to a matter of individual personality would let me sidestep the systemic nature of it. And whatever else is true, whatever tacit participation I have in the structure that makes this a racist and classist world, I care enough about dismantling it acknowledge it as a system, not a series of individual mistakes.

All of this is what led me, the other day, to remark to a friend that I simply couldn't listen to another white guy turn Elizabeth Gilbert into a symbol of What's Wrong With Rich People In America today. She might be self-indulgent-though the more I hear that term the less sure I am of what it means, other than being a sort of literary swear word writers use for each other-and she might be clueless, and indeed I have very little interest in reading her work, myself. It's not that I really want to mount a defense of her work. But the people who are criticizing her at the shallow end on the basis of "class" strike me as just as blind. Their work exhibits no more interest in a better world for everyone than hers does.

Michelle Dean has written for Bitch and The American Prospect. She blogs at The Pursuit of Harpyness.

68 Comments / Post A Comment

egad (#1,355)

Close italics? hmmm

MarcG (#7,030)

I haven't read or seen Eat, Pray, Love or seen I Am Love. But I think some of the ire generated by EPL is because the indulgence isn't perceived as earned by Gilbert. She's not spending money she'd banked, she's spending a book advance. If she really was rich, as the folks in IAL are, there'd be less reason to resent her. Had she been a world-beating CEO for 15 years and then watched her marriage crumble, then yes, sure, by all means, take a year (or more likely, more) and travel and love and tell us all about it. But the marriage ended, and you got someone else to fund your recovery? That's a bit of cold water.

Jim Demintia (#1,815)

Coming this Summer–Meg Whitman in, 'Eat, Pray, Shove'.

synchronia (#3,755)

@MarcG: How is successfully getting a book advance not earning your money?

doubled277 (#2,783)

Yes, this is what I'm wondering. I think jealousy is the better word for it. Hell, I know I'm jealous. I want a fucking book advance to fund my travels. And I want it now, Daddy.

MichelleDean (#7,041)

I'm a bit confused as to why, particularly in this world we currently live in, being a CEO of a large corporation denotes actual "earning" by dint of "work." Please to explain?

metoometoo (#230)

I didn't read Eat Pray Love, but I didn't think the movie was terrible. It was cheesy and silly and had some dumb moments, like most big Hollywood movies are cheesy and silly and had some dumb moments, just in a different way. Also, I thought the cinematography was pretty nice.

Bittersweet (#765)

Funny, I (finally) saw Avatar the other night and that's exactly what I thought of it, too.

Brian (#115)

Right? How hard is it to make a flower look beautiful? Where flower also = Tilda Swinton. Not a great movie.

deepomega (#1,720)

Friend of mine once described photos she'd taken as "ordinary photos of beautiful things," which I like. This sort of cinematography does not impress.

doubled277 (#2,783)

The cinematography was not just ordinary of beautiful things. There were some breathtaking sequences put together in this film. I have to differ on this (I know you were holding your breath to see where I stood on this!)

toadvine (#1,698)

You know, part of the resentment is that the entire concept of the story is bizarrely imperialist, Orientalist, and offensive.

So, you know, after you get past the hilarity of the yoga, organic-food, rich white chick's general malaise — and it's hilarious — then you have the enriching encounter with the OTHER thing. Like Dancing with Wolves for chicks. No thanks.

doubled277 (#2,783)

I think you fell into the very trap the author was trying to expose here?

toadvine (#1,698)

No,not at all. My complaint is not about class warfare. It's that the whole idea that a more simple foreign culture can make the scales fall of the eyes of a westerner is completely Orientalist and offensive.

egad (#1,355)

I take your point, and having neither read or seen EPL maybe I am not qualified to comment, but could the problem be that EPL is largely autobiographical? Whereas I Am Love is fiction? Therefore people are actually critiquing a social context for the movie as opposed to one purely on the screen?

To my mind I Am Love was more about a woman who completely surrenders her identity for her family/life, and even though she does she is never completely accepted. So she takes her chance at freedom when it presents itself and once her 'work' is complete (three grown children leaving the family home). The wealth, food and lover are just (very beautiful) devices.

Tranpsosed (#709)

Agreed, which is why it might be worth mentioning that Tilda Swinton's character was not, at least in her very Italian surroundings, actually Italian. That household was quite staid when "the Russian" wasn't creeping in, which is probably where the selling of the family business/critique of globalization can be shoehorned in.

MichelleDean (#7,041)

I won't argue that there is a difference between fiction and nonfiction and that people react differently depending on what they're told they're watching. That said, I still think fiction has political implications, and particularly does so as regards class, and I don't think it gets to escape social context merely by being fiction. It is still one way of representing how "things are," even if it's not a literal translation.

TheStarterWife (#4,478)

See also: SATC 2.

(Also, I love the Brooks Brothers ad I'm seeing in the sidebar on this post.)

das motorbike (#3,228)

also, just a thought, but the lives of the people in IAL are so completely foreign to my personal existence that I consider it to be pure fiction, and therefor not offensive in the least. however, all of us 'self-righteous but really fake' leftists know some asshole who has fallen into unearned money and "traveled the world to get some perspective" which boils down to getting more ammunition to be obnoxious at cocktail parties. that, i think, is what's making EPL so offensive to so many – that experience is real (and really infuriating) to us (to me).

deepomega (#1,720)

What makes her money unearned?

bb (#295)

yeah I agree with this. I find that a lot of people who loved Eat Pray Love are not New York writers who do yoga and eat delicious "authentic" food. It's more of a removed interest/admiration.

deepomega (#1,720)

Great piece. I think a lot of the backlash over Gilbert is more cultural than literary. Her book goes to a lot of effort (from the parts I've read) to excoriate herself and make it clear that she blamed herself for her marriage's failure and &c. And she made a big deal of how her desire to travel was a very personal one, not a universal solution to problems. But then she got picked up by the Oprah zeitgeist and started being read everywhere and recommended to anyone with anything approaching a uterus and was sold as a solution to modern ennui. Which grates.

HelloTitty (#830)

Bingo. The connection between EPL and Oprah is precisely why I HATE it– book, movie, associated merchandise, all of it. My prejudice against all things associated with Oprah is sweeping and non-apologetic.

deepomega (#1,720)

I'm also gonna add "the speed with which a book was made of it" to the list of things that suck.

deepomega (#1,720)

gack *a movie was made

MarcG (#7,030)

@synchronia Well, she hadn't written the book yet, for one thing. "Give me a pile of money for work I will do for you in the future." I'm pretty sure that doesn't work in most other industries. That said, she surely delivered for her publisher in a very major way, and earned every cent of said advance. But could she have written the book without it and had the experiences without it? No.

synchronia (#3,755)

Wait, you're opposed to the concept of book advances in general?
Also, note that she was a successful writer (fiction and nonfiction) long before Eat Pray Love.

jfruh (#713)

I know, right? Most contemporary novels couldn't have been written without book advances. These books probably could not have been created without those advances, because otherwise the author would have had to have gotten a real job and not had time to write it. Does that make those books fake somehow, because they were paid for in advance?

La Cieca (#1,110)

I think I see where MarcG is coming from. It's one thing to accept an advance in general, say when you're writing a biography of Zelda Fitzgerald or a Bildungsroman or a cookbook. But Gilbert's advance paid for the life-changing philosophical experience that was the subject of her book. That experience would not have been possible (or else it would surely have been very different) without that advance. In fact, the experience she's describing is in general available only to a very small minority of women: those who have substantial unearned wealth or (maybe even a smaller group) those who have hit upon a rare combination of great financial success and the luxury of taking a year's sabbatical from whatever endeavor so rewarded them. Or, smallest minority of all, successful authors who have committed to writing a memoir about the self-finding process. Whatever the experience, it's an anomaly because it's inescapably overlaid with self-consciousness.

deepomega (#1,720)

@Cieca: Do you think Gilbert wrote EPL as a universal truth, or as a memoir? I think you're responding to the cultural book-jacket-review of it, in which she writes a book about how yellow people and travel are the solution for all white women. But she herself talks a lot about how her travel was a personal decision, not a universal prescription.

Matt (#26)

I look to the words of noted sage Adam Yauch here, as I often do in times like these: "If you don't buy my record / I got my advance"


La Cieca (#1,110)

Well, the way I see it is, there are two general reasons for writing a memoir. The first is if the author has led an exceptional life or at least has lived through some exceptional incident or incidents. Let's say, then, a famous film star or political figure, or someone who survived an avalanche on Mount Everest. The point here is that content has intrinsic interest because it's all exceptional.

A second type of memoir would be the ordinary or at least not unusual experience, told in a persuasive way: a cancer survivor's memoir, for example, or Emily Gould's life thus far. The point here is not primarily the content (though, naturally, there have to be some life events included) but rather the sincerity with which the life experience is shared with the reader.

That doesn't have to be life lessons in the heavy-handed sense; a memoir can be light and breezy and feel-good. But whatever the tone, this second type of memoir I think does aspire to a certain universality in the sense that the reader can identify with the author's struggles and failures or triumphs– not necessarily with the specific content of the struggles, but with the emotional truths underlying them.

The sharing of that emotional truth, the sense that what I'm reading is what the author genuinely feels and thinks, is (I think) a sort of covenant between the author and the reader. I pay for your book, I put in the time reading your book; in exchange, you tell me the truth.

The truth that Gilbert's book professes to tell is that a specific woman found spirituality and through that spirituality found love. If this were a description of an isolated incident, an anomaly, the story would be trivial and meaningless. If the story has meaning, then it is in the commonality of that longing for spirituality and love, a longing shared between the author and the reader.

The point of reading the book is for the reader to ponder her own dissatisfaction or to count her blessings or some combination of the two. But either way, it's not just about something that happened to Elizabeth Gilbert. The specifics of her experience, yes: those are her own, but the general theme of the book is, I think, meant to be universal.

Here, I think, is where the problem creeps in, because it can look like Gilbert was not really playing fair. The goal of a spiritual journey is supposed to be enlightenment or at least clarity, a spiritual reward, in other words. There's a suspicion in Gilbert's case that the goal was not spiritual, or not primarily spiritual, but rather career-driven: accepting the advance meant that she had a stake in the journey's turning out in a particular way. So even if she's telling the truth about what happened on the way, the way itself is tainted, driven by the need for a neat narrative.

A "neat narrative" is not a universal need; in fact, it's pointless and even destructive to anyone who doesn't have a book to write. So that's the disconnect I feel between the experience she claims to share with the reader and what her true experience might have been.

Would we be having this discussion if Gilbert had returned home saying, "well, that's a year of my life I'll never get back?" And is "Eat, Pray, Massive Waste of Time" the title of a book she'd deliver to her publisher?

But this is, by and large, exactly how grant proposals for writers work. I tell a funder that I will do this fascinating thing for a book project if they'll only give me the money to do so, then include their name in the acknowledgments. In fact, it turns out to be rather difficult, in a lot of cases, to get funding without such a dramatic project in mind.

look_lookatme (#2,056)

I just assume the critics are just angry that the movie expose how boring and shitty and shallow well-educated, literary people are. If you think about it that way, the movie does a pretty good job.

wozerina (#7,036)

I have read EPL. I have seen EPL the movie. And I have seen I Am Love.

As for EPL the book, not my cup of spiritually fulfilled tea but Gilbert is not without her merits as a writer and I could squeeze out some sympathy for her situation. As for EPL the movie, Roberts being miscast — I never believed she had any ounce of self doubt — was the biggest flaw. Meanwhile, I Am Love? A big steaming pile of Douglas Sirk over-the-top hooha! We should root for Tilda's awakening, caused by a plate of shrimp, with her son's not especially attractive friend? Because they roll around in the bugs and grass sans clothes? Then she brings utter ruin to her family? I think not. Put Julia Roberts in that role and male critics would riot.

blily (#1,411)

"Self indulgent" just means "I can't relate." "Self-searching" or "brave" or "meditative" means "I totally relate!"

doubled277 (#2,783)

Good point I think. Using this

MrTeacup (#4,677)

I agree that most of the "unexamined privilege" critique is shallowness masquerading as depth – "Do you realize how many people cannot afford plane tickets to exotic destinations!" So the problem here is that the movie depicts white middle-classness without the usual awareness-raising exercises? Yeah, lame and boring.

The real leftist critique is that her method of transformation involves a kind of vampiric exploitation of the sensual lifeblood of the lower classes, examining and even bemoaning our decadent white privileges and how they cut us off from the authentic being that they enjoy. The logic is similar to those fables where the king disguises himself as a peasant, mingles with his subjects and becomes aware of their suffering, their compassion for each other and quiet nobility, etc. He returns to the throne revitalized, resolved to be a good ruler, fair and just and whatever. He doesn't renounce his crown and join the people's struggle against the aristocracy. And there's something sinister in this story because it implies that if the peasants behave nicely, put down the pitchforks and stop building guillotines, they can spare themselves from a cruel tyrant, that their exploitation is a result of their attempts to revolt.

So in Eat Pray Love, the celebrated Other who cures us of our American decadence and teaches us how to live also subtly inscribes a subservient place for them as their authentic mode of existence. Afterwards, she returns to her true position at the top, reluctantly giving up the simple pleasures available to the powerless and prepared to once again shoulder the burdens of privilege.

There's also a kind of political correctness to these kinds of transformational stories. It suggests that today, we want a more sensitive kind of heroic journey where the obstacle to be overcome is internal and psychological, rather than an evil out there, in the world. This is not the transformation of the disenfranchised suffragette, the slave or the oppressed demanding justice. The message is to find deep wisdom in apathy and not rocking the boat, and seeing the root of alienation in an unenlightened attitude that doesn't see the peaceful wisdom of political apathy and satisfaction of consumer pleasures.

Are Italians still beneath us? And unexamined is how the accommodation of Westerners can be a deliberated response.

I may be conflating Bustillos' piece with yours a little bit, but here goes:

Guilt: I think the critics are feeling the pricks of their own conscience. They fucking watch movies for a living! I don't think it takes very many American Pie movies to feel unfulfilled.

But at the same time, they are expressing the social sanction against guiltless women. Now, Emma doesn't appear repentant, but that's a segue…

The Passive Woman: Emma gets a pass because she's acted upon. both by convention and by the male chef-seducer.

Where this breaks apart is the process of reclaiming agency without stigma (from inside or out), with an added ideal of "doing good by feeling good."

Where I diverge from your analysis is that I think its important to introduce the shorthand examinations of privilege. Where I don't diverge is that this has to be invoked by shaming – something that comes from both males and females, but the baggage is different for each.

I think the shorthand is acceptable because everybody is afraid of that guilt. Adding a layer of context can incorporate that into future decisions. Worm it into daily thought. It's still something growing in consciousness outside of academia (hence, I think, your characterization of how it's been expressed).

I don't think it's necessary to be polite in debate, but outside education takes a softer touch. Workers don't seek out Marx when they feel like shit. Upper classes don't examine privilege because of their bargaining with guilt. That shit is hard, man.

On re-reading this, the part that starts, "Where this breaks apart…" is really underwritten. Mostly because it's just a huge issue. What I'm trying to describe is the risk of losing an appropriate sense of responsibility, while still transcending inappropriate guilt.

MichelleDean (#7,041)

Yeah, I actually don't disagree that the shorthand makes sense sometimes, but the way in which it was delivered, in this instance, is what bugged. In general I do agree with the strategy of the soft touch, but the soft touch has to be accompanied by sincere engagement with the issue, and I'm not hearing that sincerity from these critics.

paco (#2,190)

Um, seems to me that the attempts in the article to dismiss the "first-year intro to sociology terminology" used by mainstream critics in hating EPL fails here, given that the author herself relies on tried-and-true empty "intro to whatever at random liberal arts college terminology" like "interrogating" and "structural critique." These are the terms of the third-year at Vassar, trying to wrap relatively bland thoughts in some expensive finery. It's hard to think of words that are more overblown and unnecessary. What would "interrogating actual social privilege" actually look like? (The article here doesn't say, just alludes.) How is "interrogating" any different than "analyzing" — do the words actually have different meanings? Or does the author choose "interrogating" because that's the word that was thrown around in her second-year poli sci class on the history of sexuality? Etc.

paco (#2,190)

"fails here" –> *fail* here

MichelleDean (#7,041)

That's a fair point, I'd say, about my language. On a related front you present I will defend myself: my goal is not to dismiss the terminology per se, but rather the lassitude and disingenuousness with which it is wielded. I do think that words like "privilege" and "interrogating" and "structural critique" have real meanings, and useful ones, and that they are helpful in articulating how one builds a fairer world. But again my issue is not the presence of the terminology itself here, it's that it's being wielded by a bunch of rich white guys who could really give a shit about what it means that rich white people build their "enightenment" on other people's backs.

paco (#2,190)

I understand. But, what should we expect of the mainstream movie critics you cite? Should we expect less lassitude in their critiques of mainstream films? Should we demand that if they begin to make movements toward the actual "hard work" of building a critique that "interrogates social privilege" that they do so with more vigor and with full commitment? Are we shooting fish in a barrel? We are upset with mainstream critics for being insufficiently rigorous and committed to a progressive program whose terminology these critics sometimes wield?

I guess I'm just not sure I see the point here. Yes, mainstream critics are glib, superficial, annoying. It's true. Still, that these moronic critics happen to also say these things about EPL does not make the criticisms any less true.

MichelleDean (#7,041)

It doesn't make them any less true, but it makes it more difficult to embrace them in a way that isn't glib, I guess I'm trying to say. Like, I don't think that people reading all the vitriol being thrown at EPL are waking up the next day going, "You know what, that is TOTAL racist bullshit!" They're mostly thinking, "Damn, I can't afford a plane ticket to Bali" and/or "Women are Silly." Because that's as deep as the criticism goes.

I agree re minstream film critics being mainstream film critics, though what I'm seeing is that sort of populist language seeping down into, say, even relatively literate and thoughtful populations like those that read this website! (BTW, I mostly used mainstream film critics because they're easy to cite, and the only other thing that's as easy to cite are internet commenters, and elsewhere I have already sort of poked fun at grand theses developed by evidence of internet comments.) And it's there that I'm concerned the glib critique, the, "ugh, I'm glad I'm not one of those clueless white people" refrain, is getting entrenched. And that's wrong, because there's just as many privilege blinders in "effete liberal" (to borrow TNC's phrase) circles as there are elsewhere, in my experience. And that's where the sidestep of what I'm calling "actual structural critique" gets dangerous.

paco (#2,190)

But if one is in fact concerned with actually making the world a fairer, more just place, is directing one's ire and calling out mainstream movie critics really the most useful direction in which to point one's ire? Sidestepping "actual structural critique" may be, as you say, "dangerous." I would suggest that getting bogged down trying to work out why mainstream critics are not fully committed to the lingo they may appropriate — even if that appropriation is annoying — may itself be "dangerous" to the project of actually making the world a fairer place. It may in fact be an example of conspicuous consumption, conspicuous leisure, conspicuous education — idling like the engine on a Porsche in a driveway in Orange County, etc. Even if the analysis is accompanied by the requisite self-flagellation.

paco (#2,190)

N.B.: First sentence in my reply makes no sense.

elijahpollack (#1,407)

I think both movies look equally repulsive and I had no interest in seeing either.

However, (and I don't think this was highlighted very well in the article), both of these movies are fantasies, and I think they're both ultimately aimed at similar sets of people.

Eat, Pray, Love being a fantasy for upper middle-class self-proclaimed liberal women who turn to things like new age spirituality and expensive trips to break the monotony of their dissatisfying marriages and an increasingly fascist upper middle-class urban liberal society (with its playdates and its relentless competition to see who can be the greenest, most creative parent.)

I Am Love being a fantasy for middle to upper middle-class academic women and gay men who have grown a bit more callous and don't need the feel-goody spirituality edge, just some beautiful food and some Jean Paul Gaultier bodices being ripped.

What I'm wondering is, where is the fantasy for people like me? You know, where Julia Roberts lands in India just as a full-blown Naxalite revolution breaks out? I want to see her clawing at the boarded-up doors of the American consulate and screeching, "But wait! I'm an American!" while the working class of West Bengal rampages through the villages tearing tourists, expat yoga instructors and shady foreign spa owners limb from limb as the children of the revolution dance gleefully in the blood-soaked streets and chant Maoist slogans.

Where's MY version of I Am Love, where Tilda Swinton's Jean Paul Gaultier bodice is ripped not by the chef as he seductively shoves foie gras down her throat, but by a scrappy, by-all-means-necessary grassroots movement bent on helping Gramsci's dream for Italy reach its logical conclusion?

lbf (#2,343)

PLS TO WRITE THOSE BOOKS. See, THIS is what advances should be for.

lbf (#2,343)

alternately, give Romain Gavras and M.I.A. a call, they might help you.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

We have an Italian movie about Italy. I'd say: that might be worth watching. Then, we have an American movie about… really, any place in the rest of the world… well, excuse me while I go and laugh my ass off until I barf!

JudySandra (#7,048)

Ah, critics. Can't live with em', can't shoot em'! (To paraphrase my friend on men.)

Michelle, I have to agree with most of the points in this article about film criticism in general. I thought it was a smart and thoughtful assessment. I sometimes write about film and film festivals for a magazine, and I am appalled at the egregious posturing I see sometimes amongst the crowd of critics out there–some of whom I have met personally. (I live in Los Angeles.) These kind of faux feminist comments are really hard to take from those priveliged white men–who have done what for women lately? But more disappointing is the continuous parade of movies about women that are so inauthentic.

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed this piece and will continue to follow your writing. Well done.

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

Crap, did I totally miss the point of I Am Love? I thought it was that capitalism makes love impossible!

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

(Which I liked, by the way!)

MichelleDean (#7,041)

Well, yes but it blithely does so on fairly capitalist grouns. I mean, I'm just sayin.'

iplaudius (#1,066)

I Am Love gave me a look into a world I will surely never know. I could smirk at the rich-people ennui and all-but I guess anybody can end up unhappy in life, rich or poor? It was interesting to see that kind of family, that kind of social system.

For me it was not really about love love love. It was about change change change. And the thematic emphasis on change was heavy handed indeed, down to the image of the bird escaping through the church windows when she tells her husband of her affair.

I kept thinking about The Cherry Orchard (perhaps her being Russian is a nod in that direction?), the rich family and class system crumbling-though the threat was not poverty but change. Changing times, changing business, changing social mores, changing sexualities, changing loves.

MaryAnn Johanson (#7,050)

I have not read *Eat Pray Love,* but as a professional film critic — and one who is frequently taken to task by readers for being too aggressively feminist — I have seen and reviewed both *Eat Pray Love* the film and *I Am Love.* And it seems to me that one major difference between these two stories is that, regardless of how authentic Julia Roberts' search for herself and a sense of spirituality is in *EPL,* her character is essentially rewarded for daring to be "selfish" and living for herself. But Tilda Swinton's character in *IAL* is "appropriately" punished for her audacity in transgressing the social boundaries that often constrain women. Which is "good," in the minds of some, I figure: Imagine the disaster if more women decided to chuck unfulfilling marriages! Or never got married in the first place.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

"Tilda Swinton's character in *IAL* is "appropriately" punished for her audacity in transgressing the social boundaries that often constrain women".

Let me continue that sentence for you "…who use marriage to rich and successful (and conservative) men to improve the material quality of their lives".

MichelleDean (#7,041)

Yes, although would you really say that the Swinton character feels "punished" at the end of the movie? I'd say she's presented as liberated. Albeit liberated to a cave that looks like a womb, but them, I'm never fond of womb imagery…

A little late, but I have a nagging question. What would a narrative about Gilbert examining her privilege be like? I don't think male critics would be very kind to that either.

Are there books like that? Not like Ehrenreich, with a defined experience to explore, but some kind of open-ended journey.

MichelleDean (#7,041)

As I say above it's obviously all about execution. I do think in essence it would be very difficult to write a book with any kind of happy ending in this regard. And I think it would have to focus more on the humanity of others than Gilbert's own inner journey. It would have to be about the ways in which the travel persuaded her that her "inner journey" was not the point, or at least wasn't actively separable from what was going on around her in these countries she visited.

I would agree male critics wouldn't be very kind, if they're the kind we're all talking about in this article, but then I hadn't room in this already overlong piece to get into all the ways in which I think there are slippages between film criticism's "aethetics" and flat-out sexism. I mean, Edelstein presents a very blunt case on that score, since he cannot seem to write a review about a movie that focuses on women without offering some kind of gross remark about how attractive and/or unattractive he finds the leads. But there are subtler ways than that, of course, to be sexist.

I saw EPL, didn't read the book and didn't see IAL. I related to EPL as someone dealing with depression…am I wrong?

KeithTalent (#2,014)

I actually didn't hate the book, but won't be seeing the movie because I'm still recovering from coyote ugly.

anewnadir (#1,896)

If any of the critics I listed above cared one whit about class in this country or any other, and thus hated the artistic treatment of privileged whining, they'd have to throw out what I'd imagine is more than half of Western cinema.

How's that for a "structural generalization"? The only movie I can think of which also does this (that is, the 'artistic treatment of privileged whining', whatever that actually means) is "Garden State", and I'm pretty sure any critic worth his salt panned that one.

Name some others. I don't think it's an untenable position to be tired of rich white people whining and whining on the big screen. The only critics of such films tend to be whiney rich white people anyway.

My only confusion about Eat, Pray, Love, and the reaction from critics is: why not go Eat, Pray, Love, and Orientalize on your own? Put the $14 you would otherwise pay for a movie ticket into a bank account. You'll be able to afford a one-way ticket to India having skipped less than 100 movies.

Stray Bullet (#3,237)

Regardless of how you want to deconstruct the film or it's criticism, What it really boils down to is what are the facts of the book/film/story. Everybody is allowed their own opinion. But they aren't allowed their own facts. And the facts are thus: She left her husband for reasons she admits she can't even elucidate. She told her publisher about what she felt would be a great idea for a book, and based upon the quality of her previous writings, offered to underwrite the whole shebang. She had a fantastic time, had the luxury of ignoring reality for a whole year, and did some serious navel gazing. Took her notes, wrote the book, got incredibly ideal publisher backing(they were shopping it for movie before it was published), got the movie deal which was implied from the start, made boatloads of cash. Whether any great moments or learning experiences occurred are entirely in the mind of the reader, as it should be. Do you dislike this person for having such boons placed upon her(remember though, she was quite an accomplished writer before this) or do you dislike the message YOUR mind gleaned from the story. There is a difference. Personally, I thought the book was just so much fluff. She is a good writer, in a turn of the century sort of way(my disdain for the present state of literature is showing). But I also recognize that what I got out of it is unique to me, and I don't think it serves any end to presume others should adopt my conclusions. Now if it was terribly written as well, that's a whole 'nother ball of twine.

Stray Bullet (#3,237)

p.s. I want to have Tilda Swinton's babies.

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