'Eat Pray Love' and 'Life During Wartime': Self and Selfishness

Today, two women look at summer lady-blockbuster ‘Eat Pray Love’ in the context of other current movies with strong female characters. Previously: Michelle Dean on ‘I Am Love.’

Two movies currently in the theaters treat the subject of forgiveness-forgiveness of self, and of others. One offers a blissfully hopeful, “upbeat” message, and the other is on fire with truth and pain. But the first story turns out to be the cynical, destructive one, while the second is full of possibilities for liberation and even redemption. So it’s unfortunate that millions and millions of people will see Eat, Pray, Love and only some thousands are likely to experience Life During Wartime.

American women seem to either love or hate Eat, Pray, Love, the memoir of a divorced woman taking off for exotic places in order to “find herself.” There are over six million copies of this book in print. The mostly-female audience I saw the movie with, in Los Feliz, seemed to enjoy it a lot. It’s got a curiously seventies vibe, with its ashrams and its earth tones and meditation rooms and all that Me Generation self-exploratory bushwa, which is of course still very prevalent in our part of the world.

The oft-heard complaints that the character of Elizabeth Gilbert is spoiled and rich fell a bit flat for me when you actually see the movie. The journey depicted here is very different from the monstrous Middle Eastern circus of consumption that was laid on in SATC2. Gilbert’s crumbling Roman digs are literally propped up with bits of scaffolding, and she is required to fill her bathtub from a teakettle. Instead of being driven around by liveried chauffeurs, she tools around Bali on her bicycle. There are no Yay Expensive Shopping! montages, the way there usually are in these chick movies (cf. Pretty Woman.)

(An aside. One of the hardest things about watching a Julia Roberts movie, aside from the hundreds of huge teeth in closeup, is the unspoken convention that literally everyone of any consequence in a Julia Roberts movie must love and/or desire Julia Roberts. This movie is a little different, and amazingly, for the first time ever, my detest-o-meter didn’t redline. Well, I tell a lie, because I so enjoyed watching her crawling around the floor all foaming at the mouth and poisoned in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Anyway, at one point in Eat, Pray, Love James Franco turns Julia Roberts down in bed, and that is a great and surprising thing.)

Even though the movie tries to be about a woman finding herself, nearly every scene is about the pain of Gilbert’s sexual loneliness, and how Javier Bardem eventually comes to the rescue. He literally knocks her off the bicycle of her self-realization in one of those ghastly would-be adorable “meetings” that weaken the movie so profoundly, and would have sunk it entirely were it not for the skill (and, I daresay, the beauty) of Bardem.

The subtext, though, and the real message of Eat, Pray, Love, is about expiating guilt, “self-forgiveness” and “letting go of the past” and all that Oprah-type rubbish. It emerges that Gilbert blames herself for the end of her marriage-she wanted out and her husband didn’t, and the reason given for that is pretty blurry; that’s the movie’s biggest weakness. It seems to have something to do with the fact that he is hopelessly un-careerist. She doesn’t even discuss this with him, though, which he has the sense to bring up at their divorce meeting. It’s just suddenly, oh, by the way, “I don’t want to be married.” Then she goes off to Find Herself instead. Such a loathsome phrase. You’re right there! Where you are! What the hell do you need to Find Yourself for? I mean, who is the flighty one, here? Seriously.

This basic message, of finding yourself and looking after yourself and forgiving yourself, is very like that of the once-popular California philosophy, est. Werner Erhard, the egregious founder of est, got into all kinds of scrapes-messy divorces, IRS troubles and so on-but est wasn’t all bad. The putting of self first is good advice, for some; in fact, if you are a big doormat to begin with, it might help you a lot. Everyone knows people, men and women, who just never make it onto their own list because everyone else comes first. They let everybody else suck all the life out of them, supposing this to be “selfless” and good, but it’s really not good at all. That’s why some people love Eat, Pray, Love so much; they see in it the positive aspects of looking after yourself well.

There are a number of philosophies that advocate more attention to self. Some insist that you always be the very first or even the only one on your own list, like Objectivism, modern Republicanism and est. Other, more subtle philosophies-and surprisingly, the philosophy of the film Eat, Pray, Love falls into this class-suggest that you balance attention to self with attention to others. That seems a manifestly helpful way of thinking.

But if you have got narcissistic tendencies to begin with, being told to put yourself first is only pouring gasoline on the flames of your self-regard. That’s why so many people hate Eat, Pray, Love; they’re seeing the familiar spectacle of legions of self-involved people taking so enthusiastically to the idea that more and more self-involvement is great.

Though Eat, Pray, Love is nominally advocating balance (“not too much God, and not too much Self”), this message is not clear from events as they fall out in the film. It’s child’s play to fall for the easygoing wish-fulfillment on display here. But Gilbert’s self-forgiveness comes much too easily, even delusionally. She has a vision of her ex-husband dancing with her, and yay! now everything is great. There are no real consequences to her betrayal of him, so of course her guilt conveniently vanishes. I mean look, I have got a veritable herd of exes myself, and you know, sometimes it really was your fault, and you hurt someone, and you just have to know that and live with it. Your part in causing someone else pain is never going to go away, and maybe it shouldn’t. I mean, if the reality was anything like the movie, Gilbert was such a dick to this guy. Her self-forgiveness looks more like what you first expected from this movie-self-indulgence.

In a similar vein, the family of Gilbert’s friend “Richard from Texas” has fled his drinking ways, and now he regrets so much he’s gone to Bali to sit crosslegged and yell every morning, okay. He should and will forgive himself one day, maybe, the story is saying. He is really sorry! But what if he really had run his son over and killed him? People do stuff like that by accident every day. Sometimes they are drunk and sometimes they are just stupid and thoughtless, they leave the baby in the hot car while they get their nails done.

That is the sort of eventuality that interests Todd Solondz, the director of Life During Wartime. Wartime means both A) the post-9/11 world wherein nobody is openly admitting what a bloodcurdling mess this country has made in the Middle East, and B) our own time on this earth, with all these personal bloodcurdling messes we commonly make, which are also all swept under the rug.

Some of the characters carry over from the director’s earlier Happiness, which concerned itself more with simply exposing those hidden realities. The redemptive quality of Solondz’s work is somewhat akin to “tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner” (“to understand all is to forgive all”, an old sentiment evidently first given this formulation by Tolstoy, in War and Peace.) If we will persist in painting a pedophile as a monster, forbidding him human status, we are missing something crucial about what it means to be human. This too is human, he is saying, and it must be faced. The Solondz view is liberating because it is the truth, the point of departure from which we could be making better calculations about how to conduct our lives and our institutions. His regard for the truth is pitiless, and Swiftian. “I go for the cojones,” Solondz explained in a recent interview. “That’s what I want.”

Life During Wartime goes Happiness one better by requiring us to consider what we are to do with these unbearable truths once we manage to face them. Wow, does Ciaran Hinds do a spectacular job of taking up where Dylan Baker left off. But Hinds is a whole other kettle of fish. Dylan Baker could never have banged the magnificent Charlotte Rampling (whose performance provides something like a concentrated outline of the whole movie) with anything like the same excruciating, tormented, absent, testosterone-laced force.

The ruthless candor of Charlotte Rampling’s paint-peeling performance makes Julia Roberts’s attempt at a “realistic” portrayal of womanhood in Eat, Pray, Love look like an episode of My Little Pony. To say nothing of Allison Janney, who deserves one hundred Oscars for her performance here; you feel like you are being electrocuted when you hear the stuff that is coming out of her mouth and yet it is all so completely, utterly believable. The things that are unsayable, impossible, but are nevertheless what everybody is thinking.

There are things that cannot be forgiven, ever; that one cannot forgive oneself, that can’t be meditated away or drowned in any amount of green tea or attempts at “personal growth.” The cynical and really somewhat depraved Eat, Pray, Love philosophy tells us that everything can be made whole and healed. You just need a guru to give you permission, and off you zoom with Javier. That only puts an extra burden on real human beings, to pretend, and then to insist, that they can do what cannot be done. This cruel philosophy only exiles people to the hell inhabited by the worst of Solondz’s poor bastards, where everything must still seem to be “all right” despite torrential amounts of evidence to the contrary.

By exposing that hypocrisy, Solondz’s work has given us a gift of immeasurable worth. Given that this is what we’re doing with our guilt every day, his clear-eyed worldview could not be more helpful or more redemptive; it is truly humanist.

This is how Solondz put it.

People say, “I love humanity,” but what does that mean? Humanity’s abstract. It has no real substance. We are all defined by our limitations. To what extent can we open ourselves up to that which is most-demonized; that which is most-”other.” Can we embrace everyone “except”? Except what? What are those lines? And what does it say about us?

Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo: The Macho of the Dork and

Act Like a Gentleman, Think Like a Woman.