On By the Sea … Again


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.

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41 Responses to On By the Sea … Again

  1. Sheila – You did for me what I did for you with In the Family – you got me to watch it and want to watch it. I think it’s a successful film, an homage to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff and Antonioni while still being its own thing. Although it is long and slow, I found I couldn’t quit on it. It wove a spell and created a mystery that pulled me in. I did not see Angelina and Brad, I saw Vanessa and Roland; they played parts, not themselves, and anyone who says otherwise is lazy or stupid or both. The situation in which Vanessa and Lea found themselves – wives/housewives – and Vanessa’s specific pain as a subject were from another time, but that I never caught on that this was a period piece. Jolie Pitt used the location so well to suggest a timelessness, a look at primal acts and emotions that felt like something out of the classical Greek theatre.

    Thanks so much for putting me onto this mesmerizing experience.

    • sheila says:

      Marilyn – so happy to hear you responded to it in such a way!

      // Jolie Pitt used the location so well to suggest a timelessness, a look at primal acts and emotions that felt like something out of the classical Greek theatre. //

      I really like that observation!

    • sheila says:

      and I agree: “mesmerizing” is the perfect word.

  2. Stevie says:

    Gorgeous post, darling. I love Kael’s last words in the Funny Girl review – something about “Barbra Streisand proves that talent is beautiful.”

    • sheila says:

      I just looked it up. I love it – here’s what Kael says:

      “We do not ask of a musical like FUNNY GIRL that it gives us the life story of Fanny Brice; we know that her story is simply the pretext for a show, a convention of our realistically rooted musical theatre, which seeks protection in great names or big properties from the past. What we do ask is that an actress who plays a star like Fanny Brice be able to live up to the image of a great star; if she isn’t, we cannot accept the pretext, and the show is exposed as just an attempt to cash in on past glories. There is no such difficulty with FUNNY GIRL. The end of the movie, in a long single take, is a bravura stroke, a gorgeous piece of showing off, that makes one intensely, brilliantly aware of the star as performer and of the star’s pride in herself as performer. The pride is justified.”


  3. Jeff Gee says:

    All right, you win, it’s on my queue. But there better be a fart joke or something.

    • sheila says:

      Nope, not a fart joke in sight! You’ll have to read Ulysses for that. :)

      And yay, I won!!

      • Jeff Gee says:

        It took a year, but this finally made it to the top of my queue. BP looking through the pipe and giving the play-by-play of the disaster they’ve just provoked next door to AJ caught me up short. It’s a scene I’ve never seen before, and that doesn’t happen much these days. (When he says, “Congratulations, you just destroyed a happy marriage,” I thought– wait, is this going to turn into “One Ordinary Day with Peanuts”?? Please??).

        So thanks for the tip. I would never have given this a shot without your pieces here.

        Absolute bummer: The DVD was partly hosed, so although the movie played fine, I couldn’t watch the extra with Gena Rowlands beyond the first two minutes!

  4. I haven’t seen the movie (it was released today here) yet but I celebrate this post. Because I have already read such bad things about this movie that I can’t believe it all. I’m a big Angelina Jolie fan, yes, but I have always been impartial about her films (as an actress and as a filmmaker). But it reminds me of when W.E. directed by Madonna came out. I expected to be awful as many film critics said it was and I find a beautiful movie. I felt like everyone hated it because it was just directed by Madonna.
    Hope to see By the sea this weekend! ;)
    BTW, I couple of weeks ago I found another interesting article I liked about this movie: http://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2015/11/vanity-kills-sexism-critical-dogpiles-by-the-sea.html

    • sheila says:

      Yes, I saw that article!

      I came to By the Sea pretty impartial. I love Angelina Jolie, but I’m not a fangirl or anything like that. I support her as an artist, and am always interested to see what she’s up to. But I didn’t come into it (as I said) feeling “protective” of AJ. There are other actresses I like more – but very few fascinate the way AJ does.

      I think her choices as a director (thus far) are very revealing. She’s up to very interesting things.

  5. Desirae says:

    “Self-indulgent” is just another way of saying “passion project”.

    I’m kicking myself for missing this while it was in theaters – it was gone way faster than I expected. But maybe it’s the sort of thing to watch at home with a glass of wine, anyway.

  6. Regina Bartkoff says:

    Oh this is so great!!
    It’s weird too because I woke up thinking about By the Sea!!- (‘Oh I guess that movie is just going under, and I’m obsessed by it’)- Then I saw your post!
    I don’t know if you followed Holly Woodlawn’s passing recently, but she has a song where she sings about her love for all the great stars of the past and the old Hollywood glamor, unabashedly. Before imagining I could ever be an actress I watched all these old movies and stars (that you write about here all the time!) And in private in the bathroom mirror (that even my sisters knew nothing about because I would be laughed out of the house) I would put a turban on my head and make believe I was Tallulah Bankhead, or I smoked a cigarette like Bette Davis. When purely by accident I met someone who ran an acting class she asked me if I wanted to join. I just laughed and said no because I thought well, you have to be like all those fabulous creatures, that’s what acting was to me. I joined and learned a lot of other things but, It’s still really all that for me!!! And I didn’t know it but I was already in an acting class! I was learning a lot by watching all these great movies and stars.
    Joli has it, so did Hollywood Lawn. They are method actresses, yet there is something so out there about them and yet very real and down to earth. They don’t lie, ever, yet they are always themselves, always. Like Bette Davis or James Cagney they scoffed at method acting, but that’s what they were doing! Holly Woodlawn in Trash, never over acts as crazy as that movie was!
    But they were big, bigger then life. Like Gloria Swanson said, “I am big it’s the pictures that got small.” hahaha! It still makes me laugh!
    And all these people have this great sense of humor, they know how to make fun of themselves and they all make me laugh with delight.
    How hilarious and stupid Joli looked when she got caught by Pitt at the hole! (and it had tension, I remember feeling, “oh no! don’t get caught!) When they started having dinner by the hole. And deadpanning, “I’m blowing a kiss back!” And more. So damn funny!
    I was watching that clip of Michael Jackson when he first introduced the moonwalk with Billy Jean. You can see the influences, Fred Astaire, Sinatra, Fosse, those white socks and slipper like shoes combined with that fierceness that was so real. I laughed at every move because it is so great! And because he took all these influences, his obsessions, honing it from The Robot, refined it, and made it all his own into something so original and it’s there with all these greats, down for the ages.
    Let’s wait for everyone to catch up with By the Sea!

    • sheila says:


      Bah, there is so much here in your comment! So much to respond to!! I love the connection you made with Holly Woodlawn!

      // I would put a turban on my head //

      hahahaha are we twins??

      // They are method actresses, yet there is something so out there about them and yet very real and down to earth. They don’t lie, ever, yet they are always themselves, always. Like Bette Davis or James Cagney they scoffed at method acting, but that’s what they were doing! //

      This is brilliant.

    • sheila says:

      I was at a party last night, and talking about that moment when she is busted peeking through the hole. Yes! So funny! Crouched over there in the corner, like a broken rag-doll, staring up at her husband as though she’s his daughter about to be in trouble. It was so bizarre – but also so funny. For a second, I thought she would “pull it off” and come up with an excuse for why she was crouching on the floor – something that would “pass” – but of COURSE that character wouldn’t be able to. She’s too frozen, too rigid. She moves away from the hole and then … boom. She freezes.

      I saw it in a packed theatre on opening weekend and everyone burst into laughter. The thing WORKS, I don’t know what else to say.

      And I think that getting ready for dinner/drinks sequence was one of the sexiest sequences of the year. Especially since the lead-up of the rest of the movie coming before it was so … static and sad. There was an explosion of purpose and sexual energy going on there that was beautiful and funny and alive! But also so messed up.

      My friend Larry on FB made a really interesting observation – I’ll find it and put it here – He pulled out a moment that he really loved, and his observations about it (and what it did to him) are really interesting.

      • sheila says:

        Here’s the comment from my friend Larry (who is a newspaper-man down in Florida):

        “I liked Brad Pitt’s character in BY THE SEA. I think he’s putting together a body of work that’s weirdly underrated, when you think of his name recognition and star power. That scene where he says he doesn’t want to be with the other woman, he only wants to be with her. What interested me about that is that I wasn’t sure I really believed him. And I liked that the film is written and presented in such a way that it gave you the space to think about something like that, and decide for yourself how it lines up with how you think and feel about certain things. That’s one of the best things film or art can do. How many movies do you see in a year that make you think for five seconds after you’ve seen them? Precious few. Precious few.”

  7. sheila says:

    Oh, and I have become that person I dislike:

    I get into ARGUMENTS with people about this movie. hahaha I am becoming obnoxious. I was at a party last night at a very chi-chi screening room – and I met a couple of industry people (a director and two actors) and we all hit it off like gangbusters (business cards passed around, emails shared, etc. We had a blast.) They had been going to all the Academy screenings – so they could vote for the upcoming Oscars – so they had seen everything (or almost everything) just like I have seen almost everything. So we talked about everything.

    Then I mentioned my love for By the Sea and they all looked at me as though they no longer liked me. (hahahahahahahahaha) And then we were off to the races. They were saying how much they hated it – I was telling them how much I loved it and how pissed off I was by the unimaginative pre-emptive pans – and one of them conceded ground saying “It LOOKED beautiful” and I was like, “The whole THING was beautiful” – and there was much hilarity (it wasn’t a hostile exchange at all) … and they were pretty much a closed-door about it. I think THAT’S the thing that gets me going – how closed people are – This happens sometimes with some movies. The preconceived notions about it are just too strong.

    and these were people who were open to seemingly everything. They see weird arthouse movies, and bizarre animation films, and obscure documentaries – so they’re used to the “weird.” But this one turned them all OFF.

    Honestly, I never fight about differences of artistic opinion. I state my opinion, but I’m often uninterested in fighting it out on the battleground of Twitter. Like the overwhelming love-fest that greeted “Her”, a movie I thought was terrible. Terrible. I could not understand why people thought it was so deep. So I wrote a post about it here, linked to it, and moved on with my life. People who loved “Her” were very much saying things like, “It is an evocation of the alienation of our modern-day lives …” I thought … John Cassavetes did it better. Fritz Lang did it better. EVERYONE did it better, guys. Or the euphoria that greeted “Birdman.” There were things I liked about Birdman (the performances), but honestly, it made me angry, especially its views on theatre and its audience. And the people who loved it were so “If you don’t like Birdman, you don’t have a soul” about it – that who wants to argue with such people? My reasons for disliking it were well thought out (I really struggled with what I felt was wrong with it) – and I watched it again, just to make sure. I didn’t want to be too hasty or too brutal, without a second look. I disliked it even MORE. So I’m going with it. And I DO have a soul. So there!

    So it’s not like with By the Sea, I think, “If you don’t like it, you don’t have a soul.” I don’t do that, in general. But this one, I’m fighting for. I’m fighting in the streets, over the mountain passes, across the plains!

    • sheila says:

      Oh – and the three people I talked to last night at the party – also despised Birdman. Two of them are working actors who have been in films you’ve heard of, with big parts. The woman was like, “I HATE THAT MOVIE SO MUCH.”

      I felt relieved – because I honestly hadn’t met anyone who didn’t go so over the moon for that movie that I wondered if someone had slipped a hallucinogenic into their Pepsi at the theatre.

      So I guess you can’t win ’em all. Opinions are all over the place, and if people are smart – they can discuss their disagreements in ways that are specific. Which we did do last night with BY THE SEA, although their dislike of it was pretty visceral.

      • I didn’t think much of BIRDMAN either.

      • HelenaG says:

        Birdman was exhausting. This whole idea of making it look like the entire thing was filmed in one shot, I’m not sure what the point of it was: There are no cuts in real life? Or, there are no cuts in theatre? Except there are. In theatre the curtains come down, there are scene changes, you get a break. Just like there are many “cuts” inserted into real life. Although I admire the hard work such a film demanded from all, it was no great pleasure to sit there, feeling like my eyes were propped open, for two hours!

        As for By The Sea, I have no seen it, and will have to wait until it comes out on Netflix or something. But I have been following your posts and all the comments with interest. So, given that I have not seen it, I think that critics who are ready to dismiss the film outright may have a hard time accepting that Angelina Jolie is not only off-the-charts beautiful, but may also be off-the-charts intelligent. How many have tried to engage her purely on intellectual terms? It’s almost like she’s been pigeon-holed as a great beauty, and cannot be expected to have other “great” talents. The beauty seems to get in the way. So, while she’s lounging around in the film looking sad and beautiful, they refuse to see anything but the surface, and see her only in terms of her exceptional beauty and celebrity status, never acknowledging that she may actually be THAT self-aware. Joke’s on them. Men in the industry don’t seem to have that problem. It seems to be a lot easier to accept that a man may be outrageously handsome, but also very, very smart. Ah well.

        Early on, I read this interview that Margy Rochlin of the New York Times had done with Angelina Jolie, which I thought was great, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/08/movies/angelina-jolie-pitt-is-behind-closed-doors-in-by-the-sea.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FJolie%2C%20Angelina&action=click&contentCollection=timestopics&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=4&pgtype=collection. It touches on all sorts of issues: directing and acting with one’s husband, the sexism inherent in the industry, how she never intended to star in the film when she was writing it, and how chill she is about how people/critics perceive her and her marriage. As you mentioned, she needs no one’s protection.

      • sheila says:

        My issue with Birdman:

        It was dumb about actors and it was dumb about theatre.

        That Raymond Carver piece of junk was going to revolutionize Broadway and be a “new kind of theatre”? Does Innaritu know anything about New York theatre? I found it completely contemptuous of the work of theatre, as well as the audiences, as well as the critics. It was theatre for people who don’t know about theatre.

        I went and saw Hamilton the musical in September.

        Now THAT is a game-changing production.

        I found the one-take thing kind of entertaining – although it was done so much better in The Russian Ark – a 90-minute film with 1500 people in it done in one take. (It’s on Youtube. I highly recommend you check it out.) Birdman had a couple of cheats. And when you see The Russian Ark you realize how shoddy and self-congratulatory Birdman really was.

        Also, I found it disgustingly flattering to the delusional middle-aged fantasist man. It cut him SO much slack. It CELEBRATED him. OMG look, he can fly after all!

        Yeah. I hated it for a lot of reasons.

        • HelenaG says:

          It’s kinda silly responding to something you wrote in December (!), but I’ve been offline for a while now, and am feverishly trying to catch up with all your posts for the last 3 months (a daunting but pleasurable task), and I do want to thank you for suggesting Russian Ark. I haven’t had time to see it yet, but I checked out the trailer and read Ebert’s review. Sounds fascinating. And although judging it without seeing it, I would understand, in this context, the importance of not using cuts, and how this would enrich the experience of watching this particular film. I could not understand the purpose of it in Birdman, however, and thought maybe it was a metaphor for theatre vs. the banality of the blockbusters the main character was accused of always being tied to (so much talk about him not being a “real” actor). Maybe there does not necessarily need to be a purpose for not using cuts (or at least pretending that there were no cuts), but still, I was looking for one.

          I understand how watching a film like that about theatre would get under your skin, being an actor yourself and understanding that world very well. Although this is probably not a fair comparison, it kind of reminded me of how incensed I used to get when I would see hospitals portrayed in TV or movies (I work at one), and I used to constantly yell at the screen (THAT WOULD NEVER HAPPEN!), but now I try to remain calm and remind myself that hospitals are usually just plot devices and not be taken so literally.

          For someone who doesn’t know the theatre world at all, I have to say that I did not ever think that Birdman represented an accurate portrayal of NY theatre. I thought all the characters were caricatures and never once took them seriously. I was actually kind of disappointed with the movie, because after seeing the trailer and that scene with Michael Keaton flying behind his walking self, I was expecting some sort of supernatural thriller or something.

          As for Hamilton, I’ve been following all your posts re that production, and my kids (5 and 10) have watched the Miranda Poetry Jam he performed at the White House (which you posted) so many times, that they have most of the lyrics memorized (“The ten-dollar founding father without a father got a lot farther by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter, by being a self-starter” is a favourite), and this has sparked a lot of conversation about the man himself (Hamilton). I’m assuming the show will eventually travel, so if and when it comes to Toronto, I already have people lined up who will see it with me.

    • Patrick says:

      I’m glad someone else disliked “Her” as much as I did. It was so universally praised I wondered if I might have missed something.

      • sheila says:

        I wondered that too. I thought it was really bad. Really shallow. Had nothing to say that hadn’t already been said by someone else and said much better.

        Very weird feeling to be so out of sync with the zeitgeist.

  8. mutecypher says:

    When I was leaving the theater after watching By The Sea I recall thinking how resonant the experience was with watching Eyes Wide Shut 16 years earlier. Both were movies that treated marriage and long relationships as serious things, challenging things – not as farce or comedy or melodrama. All of those things are fine, but not the only things that one can make of marriage in a movie. Both had gorgeous people in beautiful surroundings. And so on.

    My recollection was that the movie was mostly panned at the time, but looking up on Wikipedia, the claim is it was well-received. I recall articles about how awful Kubrick was for monopolizing Cruise and Kidman for 400 days – “think of the movies they could have made instead of this thing” was a reaction I recall. Maybe Wikipedia is right, but I think the history of the reactions to that movie have been re-written and I think something similar will go on with By The Sea. We’ll see.

    • sheila says:

      Yes Eyes Wide Shut! Critics liked it – but its stature has definitely grown since it came out. There was such disgust about the digital fig-leaves the studio forced Kubrick to add to the orgy scene – as well as this prurient thing about watching a man and wife play these parts – but I think it’s one of his best films, actually.

      Cruise is great. Kidman is totally weird and unstable. I love the New York-that-is-clearly-not-New-York look of those street scenes – adding to the unreality. Sidney Pollack’s pool table performance is a masterpiece.

      It really was a very serious examination of marriage and what intimacy means – or at least can look like.

  9. Regina Bartkoff says:


    You know the old turban act, hahaha! You can get a lot of characters out of that, Elizabeth Taylor, The Queen of Sheba, (though that’s probably the same person)

    Oh yes, that moment Joli is caught I remember thinking, wait, can’t she just flop on the bed or something? She had a moment to do that it felt. And you brought that back, right! She is frozen!
    Yes, I agree with Larry about Brad Pitt! And that moment! I remembering thinking, “I believe him, it’s always going to be about her for him, no matter what.” But that space opened for us to think that, yes, great observation!
    This is dumb but, for a split second I read you wrote, “early Mickey Rooney” and that stopped me, I thought, Really? From the woman who loves Elvis? hahaha! But I didn’t know that about Elvis being Streisand’s first choice, now that would have something! (also yes to early Mickey Rourke!)
    But all the stuff you write about, indulging, vanity projects, so spot on!
    And the male gaze, great stuff. “I stick up for the male gaze.” hahaha! “HOWEVER” And both sides of that.
    I do love Eyes Wide Shut. I mean I watched it 50 million times, but I never like Cruise that much, he’s okay, and he is trying. That famous scene where she delivers that devastating monologue is good, but it doesn’t hit as hard for me, or reveals, or takes chances as what Joli and Pitt deliver in By the Sea. The monologue in Eyes Wide Shut is killer writing too. It really gets into the nitty gritty about long term marriages, the secrets, the lies, the hate, but also the deep love.

    • sheila says:

      I’m so glad to hear your thoughts about that monologue in Eyes Wide Shut.

      There was so much weird tabloid press about that marriage at the time – which I found gross – listen, I don’t like how Cruise sticks up for/finances his cult – but he is a major movie star, his career wasn’t hurt at all by jumping on the couch (at least not in terms of box office) – and I love it when he takes risks. Magnolia. Tropic Thunder. And Eyes Wide Shut. That was incredibly risky of him – maybe the most revealing he has ever been (except in that long interview scene in Magnolia which cuts close to the bone).

      To me, Jolie and Pitt have a kind of magic aura to them as a couple – as immature as that sounds – like Woodward and Newman – or Burton and Taylor – so there isn’t that prurient thing going on so much as a fascinating chance to watch them in the same room at the same time. Playing characters who so clearly are not them. Or maybe a little bit? Jolie has joked about how Pitt calms her down when she gets too intense or stressed. He marches her to the bathtub, fills it with water, plops her in it, walks out, and closes the door. hahahahaha

    • sheila says:

      Edge of Tomorrow was a huge risk for him too – the opening scenes, he’s practically parodying himself as he appeared on the Oprah show, or when he called Matt Lauer “glib”- those embarrassing moments from his life – he’s opening tapping into them and it looks totally natural. He’s out-doing Jerry Maguire in his smarmy laughing and nerdy weirdness.

      I didn’t see that film in the theatre when it came out – otherwise it would have been on my Top 10 for that year.

      Really really inventive – and Emily Blunt played the “Cruise part.” Cruise was the baffled newbie, and Blunt was the take-charge commando. Tom Cruise played the part normally given to women. He was funny and desperate and in over his head – it was Groundhog Day meets War of the Worlds. I loved it!

  10. Michael says:

    Sheila, if you haven’t seen this yet, this is a wonderful listen: https://soundcloud.com/thedirectorscut/episode-3-by-the-sea-with-angelina-jolie-pitt-and-marc-levin

    Jolie talking about the film for 20 minutes after a screening that happened before
    By the Sea was released. Goes into both her writing and directing process, and the way she treated the script (I loved how she talked about it as “the one you don’t do,” how it must have been working away, in the back of her mind, on and off, over the years).

  11. John says:

    Sheila,your analysis of this stunning film is absolutely on the nose.The reaction to the film has been both ridiculous and unbalanced.It is a work of art,of pure vision.I have no doubt in my mind after seeing the film that Jolie is a visionary filmmaker.

    “By The Sea” is an astounding film that is incredibly subtle and incredibly ambitious.It is a fiercely original psychosexual drama that explores themes such as love and the nature of it,jealousy,obsession,female sexuality,voyeurism,insecurity,aging and grief.It is quite simply magnificent and Jolie directs herself to the best performance of her career in it also.

    Thank you so much for analysis of the film.It is so well observed and well written and I agree wholeheartedly with you on it.Thank you also to the posters for their well observed opinions on the film.

    P.S. Can somebody corroborate this for me,towards the end of the interview that Michael posted above (at around the 20 minute mark I think) does Mark Levin refer to the film as an “existential erotic thriller”? If so that is a very cool description of it.

    • sheila says:

      // I have no doubt in my mind after seeing the film that Jolie is a visionary filmmaker. //

      I totally agree. And I like what you say about how the film is “ambitious.” It really is. It is trying to do something different. Not just for the sake of being different – but because the style fits what Jolie wrote. There’s not one off-key moment. It’s all of a piece, like a mournful Sonata.

      I am really angry at critics who refuse to engage with this film – these critics who constantly bemoan the state of Hollywood, and the comic-book franchises, and the decline of visual-language. Well, here’s a film that bucks the trends, that is highly personal, with a gorgeous vision and a beautiful style – and they reject it. If it weren’t Angelina Jolie – if this were some tiny-budget movie made by Romanian unknowns, it would be hailed as a masterpiece. And that fact is everything that’s wrong with movies, and how people write about it.

      Yes, stars can be ridiculous. But without stars, who the hell cares about the movies? Stars are important and what they do with their personae is endlessly fascinating. Maybe not to many critics, who are so in love with directors that they think acting is somehow secondary to the collaboration (they’re wrong) – but to the audience? It’s usually the star power that draws them to the movie. That’s a GOOD thing, but a lot of critics seem embarrassed by it, and go out of their way to resist star power. So so silly.

      I think once more and more people are allowed to see this film, it will experience an enormous second wind.

  12. John says:

    I completely agree Sheila.After reading your pieces on the film I have made it my business to come back to the site regularly as I love it so much.Keep up the superb work.

    Here is the link to the video version on Youtube of the interview that Michael posted above.Sorry to be a pain but can somebody verify for me if the interviewer refers to the film as an “existential erotic thriller” towards the end of the interview (around the 20 or minute mark I think)? It sounds like he was calling the film that but I am not entirely sure.It is a very cool description.


    • sheila says:

      John –

      I love that interview so much! And yes: “existential erotic thriller”. I think that’s pretty on the money too.

      She’s so intelligent about what she’s doing and YET – she leaves a vast vast space for the unconscious. That’s what so many film-makers today (and actors) do not do. They are too worried about success and being clear. Jolie knew exactly what she wanted to do, and she went out and did it.

      I highly recommend anyone who loves this film to watch that DGA interview. It’s an “insider” interview – one director to another, with mostly film-makers in the audience. A much better and more intelligent crowd than the critics who sneered at this film for ZERO reason.

      • bainer says:

        I love that she calls it a comedy, that she insisted it was a comedy for a long time. And even when filming when they let themselves go and improvise, it became more comedic. She said it was very tempting to make the comedy. I’d love to see that!

  13. John says:

    Yeah it’s a very insightful interview,the best that I’ve seen relating to the film.

    Sheila I don’t know if you have seen Denis Villeneuve’s “Enemy” but “By The Sea” reminded me of it in terms of content.Both films are existential pieces about sexual mores and are very provocative but whereas Jolie Pitt’s approach,though stylised,is realistic Villeneuve opts for a surrealistic approach.I would love to watch both films back to back.

  14. Reeves Turbyfill says:

    Enj0yed By the Sea very much. It reminded me of the French art house films of the 1950s and 196os which I love.

  15. john says:

    I was thinking about the film again the other day.I am still obsessed with almost two years after its release.And I keep coming back to your too superb pieces about the film Sheila.

    I was reading the Uncas Blythe’s essay about the film on MUBI again the other day which we have discussed.Also a superb piece.One thing I have wondered though is what Blythe is referring to in the following section when referring to the ending…

    “The movie is another romantic celebratory ode to codependency, like so many other love stories. In that limited way it is like Product. But the way it isn’t like Product is that it puts the mechanism of the mirror of power on display. It seems to be a gothic fairytale about the Power of Partnership. But it’s a pro-partnership movie like Losey’s The Servant is for the rights of man. The twist/reveal makes the mask of power essentially and eternally reversible. Power is fiction. Fiction is power. By The Sea also dares to ask why exactly the mirror should ever be gilded this particular way. So let’s see…what are the outstanding films about the frightening moral and sacrificial costs of delivering art—it’s a, uh, macho man field, usually. A brief sample: The Naked Spur, The Death of Maria Malibran, The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, White Hunter, Black Heart, Pialat’s Van Gogh, Dangerous Game, and Saint Laurent. When we pay the right sort of attention, this movie belongs in that company.”

    What twist is Blythe referring to?

    And also this…

    “At the very least, let’s praise how sharp and spiky the very end of the movie is. It’s a seemingly improvised explosive device. If you aren’t thinking ‘what the fuck just happened’ as you leave the theatre, check your pulse. You’re resting much too much. Underestimate this filmmaker at your own risk.”.

    In the “what the fuck just happened” part is Blythe referring to just the ending or the film as a whole?

    • sheila says:

      Honestly, I don’t know the answers to your questions. I’d imagine the “twist” was the revelation about her being “barren.” I haven’t seen the film in a long while though. Would have to re-visit but I’m too busy with other stuff right now.

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