Steel Magnolias (Special Edition)

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Zen and the Art of Image Maintenance

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The movie of Eat, Pray, Love commences with the kind of moment that, depending on your outlook, leads you to find memoirist Elizabeth Gilbert either deeply appalling or appealing. In a chatty voice-over, Julia Roberts tells us the story of her psychologist friend, Deborah, who’s daunted when asked to counsel a bunch of recently deposited Cambodian boat people.

The boat people, Julia tells us, have suffered “the worst of what humans can inflict on each other—genocide, rape, torture, starvation, the murder of their relatives before their eyes.” How can a privileged American—a mere Philadelphia shrink—possibly relate to their suffering?

But luckily for Deborah, boat people have no interest in discussing their years in refugee camps or having to feed expired fellow travelers to the sharks. Instead, their worries comprise a sort of deposed-dictator, PTSD season of The Bachelorette: “I met this guy when I was living in the refugee camp, and we fell in love. I thought he really loved me, but then we were separated on different boats, and he took up with my cousin. Now he’s married to her…”

At this punchline, the audience at my screening chuckled at the oh-too-truthiness of it all. It’s not surprising Hollywood chose to launch the movie thus. It is a moment pure Gilbertian, exactly the kind of psychic pass those troubled by uniquely unspeakable acts require.

Sure, life is filled with nasty inconveniences like rape and having to pitch a corpse or two overboard when you least expect it! But never fear. At the end of the day, all we all really care about is if that guy is going to call.

For those of us who’ve watched Gilbert transmute from a National Book Award nominee (for The Last American Man) to an author who breathlessly hears God declaim, “YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW STRONG MY LOVE IS!!!!!!!!” (formatting Gilbert’s), watching her cinematic transformation is even more fascinating. Yes, Oprah tended to elide the side of the beloved spiritual rehabber that shipped a set of Gibbon in advance of her journey to Rome. But Hollywood has circumscribed even this Oprah-approved Gilbert entirely, rendering a zippy over-formatter with a direct line to our creator a passive rom-com goddess.

While a real-life Gilbert and Eat, Pray, Love’s protagonist were avowed globe-trotters, when we meet Julia Roberts’ Gilbert, she is entirely landlocked, wandering her sterile suburban home in darkness and leafing through a sheaf of withering maps of places she’d like to go. (How did this chained wife finance said home? The filmmakers punt this headscratcher by referencing callow junkets to Aruba.)

For this Elizabeth, one’s love life lives in lockstep with self-discovery, and each phase of her spiritual and physical journey is simply a means to further her romantic one. To this end, the screenwriters haven’t simply emphasized parts of the memoir. They’ve created entirely new plot points, ones that effectively hold together the movie’s lovesick Gilbert but have little to do with the memoir’s one.

Gilbert of the memoir barely mentions children. But for Hollywood’s Gilbert, the specter of motherhood looms like Alcatraz in the distance, the impetus for setting off on the journey of a lifetime, not a lifer. Now, a crappy Dear John email in the memoir is buffeted by a discourse on a descent into Rome’s Augusteum. The memoir’s uneventful stay in an ashram (what do you want? It’s an ashram) suddenly contains not only a real wedding but a ghostly wedding dance with Gilbert’s  ex on the ashram’s roof. (I cried. Sue me.) There’s even an official meet cute. In the memoir, Felipe and Gilbert simply run into each other at a party. But now, her future husband plows into Gilbert on her bike, running her off the road before he bangs her in real life.

But it’s Gilbert the observer whose absence is most striking. Eat, Pray, Love was studded with sharp buds of cultural critique, including a clever discourse on Italians’ skill at Il bel far niente—the beauty of doing nothing. Hollywood, puppeteer, delivers this recitative entirely through the mouths of others while Gilbert nods and looks on. It’s practically a reprimand. Gilbert the author was a vivid tour guide, showcasing the grapes of Rome with “champagne-colored skins as tight as a showgirl’s leotard.” But Julia Roberts’ Gilbert simply sits and absorbs, dutifully sipping her delightful espresso. This character won’t describe squat to a reader. She is her reader.

But it seems unfair to blame Hollywood for divesting Gilbert of her authority when it’s her author’s ruling shtick is to pretend she has none. (As a writer, Gilbert is a bit like a brainy professor who distracts you from her intellect by asking if her skirt matches her shoes.) She’s left the screenwriters no choice but to put a plot, any plot, in place. For it is the great irony of this soul-baring epic, one whose epigraph reads simply Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth, that the cagey author leaves us entirely in the dark as to how the Gilbert sausage gets made.

Gilbert may make her living talking, like, to God, but you cannot get her to tell us about love or money—well, for love or money. This begins, of course, with the elision of the book’s impetus, which was, of course, not a bolt from God but a book contract. (You know—the thing writers live on.) We have no idea who financed this trip. Was it an advance, or help from her uncle and aunt? (The acknowledgments seem to suggest the latter, but travelers on “Eat, Pray, Love” pilgrimages would probably benefit from a ballpark figure.) On the dissolution of her marriage she remains assiduously mum. Is she legally prevented from talking about what happened? If so, why not be Zen and tell us? (Especially when the edict, whether spiritual or legal, doesn’t prevent her from clarifying the petty ex demanded their house, pied-a-terre, retirement accounts, and a stake in her future earnings.) Eat, Pray, Love closes with her commitment to Felipe, but readers of her follow up, Committed already know how loath Gilbert is to reveal anything about the actual marriage.

But why is Gilbert so tight-lipped about the vicissitudes of her actual reality, and why are readers under the impression she’s anything but? In a recent, much popularized TED talk, Gilbert tells the audience what it’s like to go from an unknown writer who everyone was sure would fail to a mega-bestseller that everyone knows will fail, because she’ll find it impossible to ever have a follow-up as good as Eat, Pray, Love.

Gilbert refuses this responsibility. Nowadays, she argues, artists are driven into suicidal depressions by such expectations. Once, we had a muse we could blame for our failures, and it’s time to bring the muse back. If she never has a book as successful as Eat, Pray, Love, she tells us, so be it. She’s refused to “leak down that dark path.” Her mind is safe because, she puts a “safe distance” between herself and the risks of creativity.”

But one must wonder if it’s the crisis of creativity that’s hounding her, or simply the crisis of actual self-exposure. Gilbert’s ex, Michael Cooper, recently canceled a book deal that was supposed to be his own version of Eat, Pray, Love. He cited as his reason that publisher Hyperion wanted it to be more “racy,” while he wanted to focus instead on his “decades-long commitment to humanitarian relief and human rights work.”

Despite their divorce, this couple still has something in common: a wish to avoid gritty details. (After all, could you give away a book on “humanitarian relief and human rights work”?) But Gilbert, as in her marriage, is a more skilled elider. Eat, Pray, Love’s premise—to journey around the globe and the self—is appealing to the quiet desperado in all of us. Handed a memoir that does the first so engagingly, it’s hard to notice the author hasn’t really done the second.

And while we bicker endlessly on Gilbert’s self-involvement or lack thereof, talent or lack thereof, patronizing white hegemonic superiority or lack thereof, we miss the point. Because Eat, Pray, Love’s author has actually managed to hide everything: her skill in prosody; her depth as a reporter; her talent for research, and—most important—the reason why the book came to be in the first place. She’s her own Cambodian boat person, nattering on about love to avoid whatever wreckage lies in her wake.

We won’t know until Oscar season how well Julia Roberts has fared in the role. (For the record, I was shocked to find her scene crying in the bathroom quite moving—I don’t know if Roberts has evinced such convincing distress since her coma in Steel Magnolias.) But it doesn’t matter. For my money, as guru, writer, and spiritually evolved truth-teller, Elizabeth Gilbert still turns in the best performance of herself.

Bonus Link: File Under: Self-Realization in Women

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