It’s been a long time since I’ve been pissed off by the critical dismissal of a film the way I’ve been pissed off by the reaction to By the Sea. (And this, before I had even seen it, so I’m not talking about the “How could people dislike the thing I like” kind of attitude.) I’m usually more annoyed when something I find totally lacking ends up being universally praised. (Phone call for Her.) Maybe annoyed isn’t the word. “Baffled” is more like it. But the pans of By the Sea, Angelina Jolie’s fascinating, pained, gorgeous exploration of not only a marriage in ruins but the decadent/distant/flat-affect style of 1970s art-house cinema got my back up before I had even seen the film. It was one of those instances when the WAY the film was being criticized made me suspect, “I’m probably going to love this damn thing.” And I was right. I didn’t feel that way because I felt protective of the film, because I didn’t – Angelina Jolie does not need my “protection,” this wasn’t some fragile little movie done by a first-time filmmaker on a shoestring – THERE I might be more inclined to feel protective. No, my sense that I would love the movie was because the criticisms lobbed at the movie (“self-indulgent,” “slow,” “vanity project”) sounded extremely vague, first of all, and those critical terms are often descriptive of the movies I end up loving the most.
In terms of the “self-indulgent” critique:
Please, if you’re talented: INDULGE yourself. BE self-indulgent. If your “self” is fabulous and inventive, then indulge the hell out of it. What else was Picasso doing but being self-indulgent and doing what HE wanted to do even though it baffled/enraged almost everyone in the beginning stages of it. Picasso did not do his art to get approval from others. He needed to INDULGE himself in what HE wanted to do, and genius was the result. James Joyce didn’t give a damn about what people thought and indulged himself all over the place, even though his wife, staring at a marked-up draft of Finnegans Wake, a manuscript he had been working on for 16 years at that point with no end in sight, sighed, “Jimmy, why can’t you write a book that people would want to read?” Well, because Jimmy didn’t roll that way. He “indulged” his SELF, in all its complexity and simplicity, his love of fart jokes, his fascination with puns and language, his love/hate relationship with Ireland, his obsession with his wife (the only woman who actually existed in the world for him). These were all very specific “neurotic” “too-much” obsessive interests, things that (very often) ONLY interested him. But Joyce did what he wanted to do, and wrote what he wanted to write. In 1954, teenager Elvis, goofing off in Sun Studio while on a break, started jiggling around to “That’s All Right” … and in that relaxed moment, he was INDULGING himself. And it was in that moment, when he stopped trying to imitate the ballad singers he loved, when he let others see/hear the private dreams he had indulged only in his bedroom by himself, probably … that history was made. For great artists, there is no other way. I wish more artists would be self-indulgent, because then we might get more personal movies in the movie theatre. (Granted, if you’re no good, then being “self-indulgent” will just expose you more quickly as having not much of a self to indulge IN – but that’s the breaks.) So Angelina Jolie being “self-indulgent”? Fascinating, even as a concept.
The movie wasn’t even given a chance (and you can bet if the movie didn’t star two of the biggest stars in the world, but unknown non-American actors, it would have at LEAST been given a chance by the critics, they would at least have TRIED to SEE the movie, and understand what it was trying to do.) There was a hostility in the pans that seemed pre-determined. I don’t like assigning motives to people, because honestly, who can know what motivates others? But sneering hostility to celebrities/famous people/rich fortunate people is so endemic in coverage of Hollywood that it does make me wonder why writers who hate the industry (and the actors) so much devote the majority of their lives to writing about it.
When By the Sea is dismissed as a “vanity project,” I wish people would be more specific so that I could actually hear how their minds work. “Vanity project” is shorthand. People toss it off as though it has universal meaning, but it doesn’t. It’s like when someone says a performance is “over the top.” I want to know what the person means when they say that, because if they took the trouble, and the 5 extra minutes (although it takes MORE than 5 minutes to write a sentence well, and that’s probably the problem), to describe what they meant by “over the top”, and how it manifests in said performance, I might be able to better engage with their ideas. Throwing around terms like “vanity project,” “over the top,” “self-indulgent” … well, it starts to sound like Orwell’s newspeak. (Along with this, is the Biggest Bugaboo of them all: the epidemic of “he just played himself.” I could not lay it out more clearly than I did here. I discount you automatically as a critic or a thinker or an observer if you say that phrase even ONCE. It’s actually helpful: it saves me time. Not everyone is worth listening to.)
It is true that the term “vanity project” is more often used when a woman “indulges” herself as opposed to a man. (Look at any time that Barbra Streisand has directed herself for evidence. More on Barbra Streisand in a minute.) It is seen as “unseemly” somehow when a woman indulges her own fantasies/dreams/ideas in film. I don’t know why that is, but I imagine it has something to do with the historical belief that vaginas are scary and maybe a little bit gross, and what is IN there?, and why can’t I SEE in there??, and fuck HER for withholding it. I mean, the belief is that primal (and that stupid), as well as long-standing (meaning millennia. It won’t be gotten rid of in a generation). So men set the terms of how fantasies/dreams/ideas were to be presented, and women played supporting roles in the fantasies of others, and that’s just how the world was seen. (And don’t get me wrong: If you’re an artist, I want to know your fantasies/dreams/ideas, I don’t care about your genitals. I love the fantasies/dreams/ideas of men, too, James Joyce, Herman Melville, Godard, John Cassavetes, Howard Hawks, Oscar Wilde. So it’s not like I think women’s dreams intrinsically have more value. Please. Women can come up with cockamamie shallow sentimental half-baked ideas just as quickly as a man can. Genius does not spread itself evenly throughout various populations. But the idea that seeing the world through a man’s eyes is NATURALLY the default position … well, that idea MUST be murdered. Preferably in a public square. With knives. And crossbows.)
I met a young film critic last night (his blog is Serving Cinema) at a screening of The Revenant (we stood in line together, it’s amazing the friends you make when you stand in line), and it turns out he loved By the Sea too, and we had a great conversation about it. It’s on my Top 10 List, and he said it was on his too until it got bumped for something else. We were talking about the whole “vanity project” thing and my point about that is:
In order for that criticism to be valid, Angelina Jolie would have cast herself as the luscious sexually-alive object-of-desire living next door, seen through the hole in the wall. But Jolie didn’t do that. Instead, she plays a woman jealous of that golden happy sexy woman next door. Jolie’s character is a narcotized miserable wreck, whose sense of humor has been killed (if it ever existed), who takes a walk on the beach only because she wants to contemplate suicide. And it’s not a sentimentalized martyr-ish MOIST character. Jolie does not plea for our sympathy. Her character ends up behaving in malicious completely unsympathetic ways (although you ache for her, because these actions come out of her own despair). Jolie presents to us a beautiful dead-inside woman who suddenly decides to USE her beauty in order to destroy somebody else’s marriage. It’s a knowing commentary on the power of beauty, and how destructive it can be if used consciously. Jolie plays the most un-ingratiating character possible. This is why I say I want to hear what people MEAN when they say “vanity project.” Don’t rely on the shorthand. Go deeper. Put it into words. Then maybe you’d have a valid argument.
Jolie’s beauty tends to generate hostility, but this is just the envy of mediocre people responding to an extremely fortunate DNA combination. It’s not Jolie’s FAULT she looks like that, but as long as she does, of COURSE she should “use” it, and play with it. Of course she’s aware of it. It would be ridiculous for her to play a drab regular-old kitchen-sink character. She knows that and she has rarely tried. She’s smart about her persona, in the way Joan Crawford was smart, in the way Cary Grant and John Wayne were smart. (See my review for more on that.)
Honestly, the more people I talk to about By the Sea, the more I hear how much people loved it. Not only here on my own site, but out there in the world. The critics did their best to kill it. Why? Because Jolie and Pitt are stars? What a strange way to approach writing about the industry. (Good luck with killing either of those two icons, nerds.) I’ve met people who went to see By the Sea, almost on a whim, and then were surprised at how much they loved it, how deep it was, how funny and strange and new … and they were surprised because they understood, through osmosis, that critics railed at it. I went out with a friend the other night, who had seen By the Sea, and she said, “My God, that movie understands marriage.” These are deep personal responses, the kind that are sorely lacking in so much of cinema, the kind of personal response that filmmakers HOPE to achieve.
It is my prediction that By the Sea will have the last laugh. It will have a second-wind once it’s released on DVD, and audiences will discover it who missed it in the theatre (because it didn’t play long enough), and will love it, and wonder, “What the hell is there to hate about this thing?” Its shadow will be a long one. It will make the critics who panned it look as silly and short-sighted as the critics who greeted any number of films that went on to be regarded as classics with incomprehension and irritation.
And now back to Barbra Streisand. I’ve been re-reading Pauline Kael recently, and I came across her review of Funny Girl.
Barbra Streisand is such an institution at this point that, outside of die-hard Babs fans, it is perhaps not remembered just how destabilizing a presence she was in those earliest days. If she had stayed a nightclub act, she would have had a certain kind of career. But she was destined to be a star (she herself felt that destiny in a way that echoes Elvis’ self-knowledge. A lot of people feel a destiny for themselves and are, frankly, delusional. But the ones who actually BECOME what they DREAM – like Babs, like Elvis – should be listened to very closely. They are exceptions, for sure, but they have much to teach us too. It’s no surprise that when Barbra Streisand was in charge of a movie for the first time – the re-make of A Star is Born – her first choice for the role of the washed-up country singer was Elvis. Kindred spirits in destiny.)
So Barbra Streisand, who had been taking Broadway by storm in first a small part (which took over the show), and then the lead in a smash-hit, as well as making television appearances that showcased her otherworldly vocal gift, was suddenly a leading lady in the motion picture version of the Broadway hit that made her a star, Funny Girl. Her performance in the film was hailed and celebrated, but she was also viciously attacked. You can almost feel the undercurrent of both misogyny and anti-Semitism in some of those reactions: Does this ugly-duckling Jew broad HONESTLY think she’s beautiful enough to be a romantic lead? She’s gotta nerve. The reactions sound sometimes like people are personally affronted by her – if she had played a wise-cracking sidekick you wouldn’t have heard a peep of complaint: it was the movie insisting that she is beautiful, that she has value as a woman and a romantic figure – that pissed people off.
You could ascribe this to the “male gaze,” although I think there’s a lot to be said for the “male gaze.” I stick up for the “male gaze.” The “male gaze” gave us Dietrich. The “male gaze” gave us the Mona Lisa. So come on now. HOWEVER, the negative side of the “male gaze” basically boils down to: If I do not PERSONALLY want to fuck this woman, then I am offended at the sight of her in romantic material, because she does not line up with my own PERSONAL fantasies. I mean, it sounds so ridiculous when it is boiled down like that, but it’s the reality. Women, raised in the atmosphere of the “male gaze” don’t make pronouncements like that. We have our personal preferences, but we aren’t OFFENDED when someone is touted as “the new thing” and he, for whatever reason, doesn’t do it for us. I do not find Benedict Cumberbatch a compelling sexual figure at all. I think he’s a good actor, but I clearly don’t see what other women see in him. But early Mickey Rourke? Robert Mitchum? Sean Bean? My God, yes. But I’m not personally offended at the fact that so many women seem to want to sleep with Benedict Cumberbatch. Go for it, sisters. Whatever floats your boat! But it’s different with male reactions to women. And so some actress appears in romantic material, and men think it’s a valid thing to say, “I don’t find her attractive, personally, therefore it is not realistic that ANY man – anywhere – would want to sleep with her.” And if someone somewhere admits they DO want to sleep with that woman, it then calls into question the critical male’s concept of the world and how it works. Can you imagine the ego? Granted, to actually say stuff like that out loud means their Mamas didn’t raise them right, and therefore they deserve our pity more than our outrage.
Barbra Streisand initially got this kind of reaction. (“It’s not realistic that a couple of men would fight over Barbra Streisand. She’s lucky ANYONE is interested in her, and etc. and so forth.”) It got even worse when she had the NERVE to step behind the camera. But that’s not what this digression is about.
The hostility to stars (and to beautiful people) is strange, as I mentioned, and feels a little bit like the free-floating envy of the AV Club in high school towards the cheerleaders. And look, I get it. I was a nerd in high school, too, and I was a pudgy drama geek, not pursued romantically at all. It’s a scarring experience to not be seen as “valid” romantically, and it took me years to recover from it. But, you know, I grew up, I matured, I found my “tribe,” I followed my star, did my own thing, and some men ended up wanting to sleep with me even though I didn’t look like Brigitte Bardot, and some of them even fell in love with me, and it all worked out in the end.
Pauline Kael’s review of Funny Girl starts with the following ringing paragraph. I re-read it last week, and it made me think of By the Sea (and all of the things I have just been talking about.) Leave it to Kael to say in one paragraph what I just took 10 paragraphs to say, but so be it. This blog has always had a sort of jazz-riff vibe to it, and I’m okay with that. One of the best things about Kael is that her writing demands engagement, whether you agree or disagree. (And it’s better when you disagree: Kael expresses her ideas so CLEARLY – none of this “vanity project” shorthand. Kael actually takes the time to say what she means in her own words. And you, the reader, may think, “Oh my God, Pauline, you got this one SO WRONG” but at least you’re engaging with HER, not some re-tread of someone else’s words said 80 years ago and then watered-down through generations into lazy newspeak.)
Kael’s words so express what I had been trying to say in my review of By the Sea that I wanted to share it. It’s about beauty, and stars, and persona – lost arts today, and more precious because of that.
Pauline Kael on “Funny Girl”, 1968
Barbra Streisand arrives on the screen, in Funny Girl, when the movies are in desperate need of her. The timing is perfect. There’s hardly a star in American movies today, and if we’ve got so used to the absence of stars that we no longer think about it much, we’ve also lost one of the great pleasures of moviegoing: watching incandescent people up there, more intense and dazzling than people we ordinarily encounter in life, and far more charming than the extraordinary people we encounter, because the ones on the screen are objects of pure contemplation – like athletes all wound up in the stress of competition – and we don’t have to undergo the frenzy or the risks of being involved with them. In life, fantastically gifted people, people who are driven, can be too much to handle; they can be a pain. In plays, in opera, they’re divine, and on the screen, where they can be seen in their perfection, and where we’re even safer from them, they’re more divine.