Saturday, August 21, 2010

Peripatetic In Cinematic Prose: Eat Pray Love

An Israeli woman once told a friend of mine that there is no Hebrew term for “alone.” The only equivalent phrase, she explained, translates as “I am with myself."

I have no idea if it’s true, but what a brilliant concept. My friend is plagued by the fear of being lonely. The same could be said of author Elizabeth Gllbert in her 2006 memoir Eat Pray Love, now a film starring Julia Roberts. More in the book than on screen, the lead character has been waging a lifelong battle with personal demons. Anxious to flee a contentious divorce and unsatisfactory affair, she takes off from New York on a journey to find freedom from perpetual torment. Intended as a year of living without sex, her quest begins with the pleasure of great food in Italy, before moving on to spirituality at a guru’s retreat in India and renewal of passion in Indonesia. So much for celibacy.

The literary version of Gilbert has stopped taking her medications, under the assumption that the trip’s adventures would fill up the space usually reserved for misery. After ten days in Rome, the “Pinkerton Detectives” -- how she has anthropomorphized depression and loneliness -- once again track her down. The movie dispenses with such gloomy thoughts of clinical despair. Just as well. Julia Roberts has a cheerful persona, with a boisterous laugh that’s surely one of her most endearing attributes. The cinematic Liz feels guilty about breaking up her marriage to Stephen (Billy Crudup) and sad about her deteriorating relationship with David (James Franco). But that’s only boyfriend baggage, not the gravitas of chemical imbalance or family dysfunction or whatever keeps most depressives in its grip.

The starkest depths of pain in Eat Pray Love are suffered by Richard (Richard Jenkins), a Texan ensconced at the same rural ashram outside Mumbai where Liz spends a few months chanting and meditating. He initially seems to be a fountain of wisdom for her, but eventually confesses that ambition, greed, womanizing, drinking and poor parenting are what turned him into a lost soul in search of salvation. A masterstroke of acting, the scene in which he reveals his agony is itself worth the price of admission.

The rest of the proceedings? Other than enjoyable cinematography that captures stunning vistas (Robert Richardson) and an excellent soundtrack (Neil Young, Eddie Vedder, Antonio Carlos Jobim), the film frequently made me less likely to chant “Ohmmm” than scream “Stop your incessant navel-gazing!” (I had already experienced annoyance with her narcissism in print.)

One irritating subplot concerns Tulsi (Rushita Singh), a 17-year-old Indian girl at the ashram who wants to study psychology and remain unfettered. Instead, she’s being pressured into an arranged marriage with a stranger. Tulsi complains to Liz that it feels as if her life is ending. At the wedding, the footloose American comforts the tradition-bound teenager by indicating that she has visualized the couple’s future as one filled with love and kindness. Easy for you to say, New Age beeyatch. You’re free to bop off to Bali, where a wizened shaman (Hadi Subitanto) presumably will cure your neurosis and a Brazilian hunk (Spaniard Javier Bardem) can attend to your other desires.

The entire sojourn abroad involves folks of various nationalities she meets along the way constantly remarking on or being snarky about Liz’s singleton status, as if all of humanity exists only to comment on her lack of a husband. Despite an outward ebullience that attracts many friends, she is utterly self-absorbed. Grinding slumdog poverty does not merit much attention. Geopolitical issues be damned, other than a fleeting mention that her rent for an idyllic Balinese cottage is a bargain because terrorist bombings in the area have scared away tourists. It turns out to be the perfect spot for the tryst yet to come. Hasn’t this gal ever heard that the problems of however many little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world? When she raises money so an oppressed Indonesian female healer (Christine Hakim) can buy a house, it’s primarily framed as a privileged white lady’s largesse and a Third World lady’s thankfulness. The sequence is a cheap simplification of what actually happened, which was a lot more complicated and ultimately downbeat. That’s forbidden, of course, in a work devoted to happy endings.

Author  Elizabeth Gilbert
Perhaps the most unforgivable sin: The script by director Ryan Murphy (TV’s Glee) and Jennifer Salt (daughter of blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Waldo Salt) never offers more than passing references to Elizabeth Gilbert’s career as a scribe. There’s not even a clue that she’s gotten a big enough advance from a publisher to fund her wanderlust, which will eventually result in a bestselling tome. We do not see her taking notes. Apart from periodic emails back home to describe her eating, praying and loving, there are no philosophical laptop musings like those by the far more superficial Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City fame. At one point, when somebody asks about Liz’s identity, her response is “I’m a writer.” The person then sagely observes, “That’s what you do, not who you are.” Pardon me? As in any art form, writing is inextricable from the very essence of someone immersed in the creative process. I recently read an account of a dying man who chose an epitaph that best summed up his life: “I do words.”

As I mentioned in a Critics at Large post back on April 13, a 1999 panel of 360 scholars, political leaders and artists looking ahead to the new millennium was asked to devise a list of the 100 most influential figures from the previous 1,000 years. Number one: Johannes Gutenberg, whose 1439 invention of movable type revolutionized society and shaped virtually every chapter of history that would follow. He probably adored his wife, but that’s not what made him a millennial marvel. Although the Beatles sang “love is all you need,” Lennon and McCartney needed written language to compose those lyrics -- without which they could not have shared their lasting tribute to individual liaisons and universal truths.

In January 2010 the real Elizabeth Gilbert, often hired by magazines to pen travel pieces, produced a sequel to her earlier memoir titled, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage. Now a New Jersey resident, she’s got a spouse -- the Brazilian guy, who imports trinkets from Southeast Asia to sell at inflated prices. But it’s not clear to me if the intrepid seeker ever really made peace with those “Pinkerton Detectives” and discovered that it’s OK to be with herself.

-- Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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