by Travis Vogt
As much as it pains me to admit, there are lots of people In the world other than me. People with all kinds of different interests, belief systems and values. Huge cultural phenomenons spring up all over the place to attract these “non-mes,” often taking much of the world by storm while leaving me in the darkness of my own disinterest. In Discomfort Zones, I’ll be taking peek into some of the major cultural movements that I’ve always tried my best to avoid, but I’ll be doing it as quickly as humanly possible–by watching the tie-in movies they inspired.
For the first installment, I watched Eat Pray Love and I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, films based on two very and gender-specific literary blockbusters from the past ten years.
Eat Pray Love
Elizabeth Gilbert was one of those ridiculously talented and ambitious wunderkind writers whom lazy, rudderless writers like me hate. She marched into Spin Magazine and demanded a job when she was like thirteen years old. Her first published essay, for Esquire, ran under the portentous headline “The Debut of an American Writer.” She was a wildly successful and acclaimed journalist and novelist by her early thirties. Then she published Eat Pray Love in 2006 and it made her a global phenomenon. It sold 9 million copies, to the tune of $135 million.
It also ruined her credibility. Staggering, absurd success can have that effect on respected artists, but I would suggest that some of the derogatory “chick-lit” scoffing might well have been justified. Case in point, the full title of the book is Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia and just looking at that title makes me gag just a little.
As the New York Times put it, the book “made Gilbert the unwitting guru to her predominantly female fans and more or less devoured her literary reputation…
“Despite having spent the first decade of her career writing three critically acclaimed books, critics cast her as a pampered solipsist peddling self-help. ‘Even worse — chick lit, if you really want to get ghetto,’ Gilbert says. ‘What little respect I clawed my way to, I totally erased’.”
Despite the critical backlash, the book clearly meant quite a lot to millions of women who wanted to “have it all” or whatever. Does it peddle hidden truths, or is it indeed just shallow, narcissistic lifestyle porn? I would read the book to find out, but that thing is nearly 400 pages long. Instead of putting myself through that, I watched the little-loved, $200 million-grossing, 2010 Julia Roberts-starring film adaptation. ALL. THE. WAY. THROUGH.
Eat Pray Love—the film—is shallow, narcissistic lifestyle porn. Oh my dear lord did I not like this movie. Roberts’ Gilbert has a beautiful home, an exciting, famous, socialite life, a loving, handsome husband (Billy Crudup), but CAN YOU IMAGINE…her life is missing…something. So, she divorces her (baffled) husband and heads off to places that aren’t America to get it all straightened out.
Let me stop myself right there and impart to you my life philosophy before I go on. I believe that we only live once, so people should live in whatever way makes them the happiest before they die and go into the cold blackness, so long as the way they choose to live does not keep others from doing the same. Technically speaking, Gilbert/Roberts method of finding happiness totally fits into this paradigm. But here’s the rub: a big part of what makes me the happiest before I die is not giving a rat’s ass about tony, upper-class, jet-set malaise.
So this movie has already lost me before Roberts even hops on the plane to Italy. I can have sympathy for rich people under a few circumstances: death of loved ones, illness, wrongful imprisonment, most forms of torture. But rich people feeling some nebulous emptiness as they cradle their glasses of champagne while surrounded by other rich people in a New York loft, wondering if there’s something more out there? The only thing I care about less than that is golf. Not saying wealthy Manhattanites shouldn’t be allowed to better themselves “spiritually,” just saying they shouldn’t ask the rest of us to care. Needless to say, 9 million people felt differently, so I’ll plow on.
Before Gilbert really starts Eating, Praying, etc. in earnest, she has a rebound love affair with a young Buddhist (Hindu? Let’s just say “Spiritual”) actor played by James Franco. Science has well documented that there are two reactions that a person can have to James Franco, and they are “Yay!” and “Eww.” It all depends on the role, the project, the context. As you might imagine, as soon as his little rat face appears in this movie, my immediate reaction was “EWWWW.” It’s icky, sincere Franco. Romantic, spiritual Franco. I hate that guy. You hate that guy. Franco probably hates that guy. Gilbert/Roberts digs his spacey Spiritual vibe, however, and she quickly develops an interest in his Spirituality. Then the relationship goes sour and she flies off to Italy, because, you see, she’s still missing something inside.
Now we can get down to the three big phases of Eat Pray Love, and if you hadn’t quite caught on, they are coincidentally the same words in the title. In Italy, she takes Italian lessons from a Generic Hunky Italian Guy and eats a bunch. Then she goes to some Spirituality compound in India and learns to just really love herself or listen to her heart or you get the idea. Finally, she moves on to Bali, buys a house (!) and begins a thoroughly fulfilling Love affair with a Brazilian dude played by Javier Bardem.
The food is shot with creepy, deep focus slow-mo shots—you know, erotically. The camera lingers over Roberts as she “joyfully” eats plates of spaghetti, bowls of gelato and a thanksgiving turkey (don’t ask). This turns out to be one of the big design flaws of the movie: it’s impossible watch a movie star eat and be convinced that they are truly enjoying it. Eating is inherently destructive to an movie star’s livelihood. You’d have a better chance putting a gun to his head and saying, “look like you’re actually enjoying this!” Julia, talented as she is, can’t suppress that little spark of terror in her eyes as she eats bulging mouthfuls of fattening pasta. It looks like she’s willing the stuff down as her throat constricts in self-defense.
The non-sexual porn continues in India. This time the camera leers fetishistically at the lovely Spiritual garments and ceremonial paraphernalia. Glowing, shimmering, perfectly lit shots of Gilbert praying her discontented ass off. Spiritual porn. She’s learning to love herself and forgive herself and worship herself. I guess that’s what was missing from her perfect life in NYC–this pure, spiritual level of self-absorption. When she arrives in Bali and starts having sex with Bardem (he puts down his book, gets up, stands over her and says “It’s time!”) the real porn begins! Not really. It’s more like relationship porn. Lovely people, perfectly framed, cradling each other on idyllic, curiously empty beaches as the sun sets over the sparkling, tropical sea. It’s a goddamn post card. This whole movie is a 2 ½ hour postcard. On the back, all it says is “Now you do it! Good luck! Love, Elizabeth Gilbert.”
Right before Gilbert takes off for Italy, she packs up all of her belongings and puts them in a storage unit. This becomes the unlikely highlight of the movie. Looking at her possessions, she leans over to the storage unit worker guy (no idea what that position is actually called) and says “My whole life in a box. Wow.” The storage guy replies: “You know how many times I hear that in a day?” and then he drops the mic and walks away. I wish this guy popped up at every interval of this film to call bullshit on our hero’s cosmic platitudes:
Julia: “It’s not that I need easy right now, it’s just that I can’t have so hard.”
Storage Guy: “Hey, you know who really has it hard, lady? People who can’t drop everything to go find themselves by flying to gorgeous locales on a seemingly infinite financial cushion!”
Julia: “God dwells within me. As me.”
Storage Guy: “Hey Julia, did you steal the poster from my kid’s dorm room?”
Julia: “Set out on a truth seeking journey, either externally or internally. Regard everyone you meet on that journey as a teacher. The truth will not be withheld from you.”
Storage Guy: “I guess most of us will have to make that internally, eh? Unless you want to loan me that lavish house in Bali you bought on a freakin’ whim?”
Elizabeth Gilbert doesn’t need to hear any of this from me. She’s heard nothing but this sort of working class, self-righteous clucking for nearly a decade now. Writing Eat, Pray, Love was a miscalculation of tact, but one certainly made without the foreknowledge that her trite little memoir was going to sell 9 million copies. She bought her own inner peace and thought it made a good story. It only blew up in her face when people started to think that she had real answers to give.
Tucker Max is a figure of some controversy. He’s one of the founding members of a “literary” genre known as “Fratire,” which is a hybrid of the words “frat” and “satire” but sounds like a two year-old saying “flat tire.” Wikipedia puts it like this: “The genre is characterized by masculine themes and could be considered the male equivalent of chick lit.” “Masculine Themes.” You know, things like getting drunk, having sport sex, farting and…wait, that’s it. Max began his career by founding tuckermax.com after losing a bet, and he quickly filled the site with supposedly personal stories about drinking, sport sex and farting. So, yeah. He took a slightly different route to the top than Elizabeth Gilbert.
But he did indeed make it to the top. His first book was called The Definitive Book of Pick Up Lines (2001) which was followed by Belligerence and Debauchery: The Tucker Max Stories (2003), neither of which earned him a Pulitzer prize. But this was all just a warm up to I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell (2006), a collection of drinking, sex and farting stories that genuinely took the world by storm. It was a New York Times #1 bestseller. It was on the best-seller list for five consecutive years. It sold over a million copies. That’s more than Infinite Jest. His short stories had titles like “The Blowjob Follies,” “Tucker Fucks a Fat Girl; Hilarity Ensues,” and the dreaded “The Worst Tucker Story Ever.”
Unless I end up getting locked inside a Dave & Buster’s men’s room, I don’t expect to ever read one of Tucker Max’s books, but at first blush it seems like he’s a bit of a misogynist prick. Not so, says Max in an interview with Salon from last year:
“The reality is, more than half my fans are women and women aren’t stupid. If my stuff was misogynist, then millions of women would not buy my books. In fact, the people who call me a misogynist, it’s more guys than girls, usually, and it’s the type of guys who think they can impress the type of women who say everything is misogyny.”
Got it? That’s the reality. Which means that either I totally misunderstood the entirety of the 2008 movie based on his book, or Tucker doesn’t know how words work. Okay, let’s get this over with.
Please read the following passage, and I apologize in advance: “Women are whores and bitches. Whores, whores, whores. Bitches, bitches, bitches. All of those bitch whores need to shut up.”
Did you think that was funny? If so, I’d like to suggest that you watch I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell and then promptly throw yourself off to top of the nearest waterfall. Truthfully, I feel like a sucker calling this movie offensive. That’s what Tucker wants, you know? That’s the whole point of the endeavor. If you’re a cool dude (or chick?) then you know that it’s all good, but if you’re a big smushy pussy, you’re gonna drop your teacup and start peepeeing your diapers over Tucker’s harmless jokes.
I generally don’t even blink at lazy, deliberate provocation like this shit. The thing is pretty much baiting you, even with its cover. “Unrated & Unapologetic” it warns. “Hilarious, shocking and brazenly honest,” blurbs Entertainment Weekly writer Owen Gleiberman, instantly losing any respect that I once had for him. I feel like a rube, but this movie genuinely freaked me out. It’s like the Triumph of the Will of rape culture. It’s three awful men going around threatening women and laughing about it, and the movie keeps nudging you as if to say admit it—these dudes are AWESOME.
Which brings me to the plot, such as it is. The opening title card says “Based on a true story…UNFORTUNATELY.” And let me assure you, this true story is 100% believable. It’s like the most believable story I’ve ever seen put to film. Get a load of this: three guys go to a strip club for a bachelor party and drink too much! They briefly get mad at each other, and then things are fine. That’s it. One millions copies sold. More than Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices.
First we are forced to meet the characters. Tucker is introduced as cops break in on him having sex with a deaf woman. Consensual sex, okay? You prissies? She’s totally digging it. Ladies are always totally digging Tucker in this movie. This is probably because he wrote it, but I’m only guessing. Anyways, the next morning, young Tucker shows up at his college campus shouting hilariously irreverent things at strangers, like “You ever fuck a deaf chick? Of course not.”
Oh my god, this is only two minutes in. Next we meet Tucker’s two best friends: Marriage Guy, who is getting married soon and is therefore losing his balls and Scary Guy, who is filled with genuinely not okay hatred towards women because his girlfriend recently cheated on him. When asked by his fiancé to name a time he has ever chosen her over Tucker, Marriage Guy says “I’m marrying you, aren’t I?” Scary Guy says things to women like “You touch me again and I will gut you and grind you into pig slop.” He needs to be removed from society, as he is clearly a danger to himself and others. Okay, so those are your protagonists! We’re only about 5 minutes in.
In the world of Tucker Max, everyone hates everyone and yet people still assemble in recognizable human groupings as if drawn together by some mysterious force. When Marriage Guy threatens not to come to a legendary strip club with Tucker and Scary Guy on the day before his wedding, Tucker handles it with characteristic tact: “Dude, you’re my boy, so I’m just gonna be honest with you. If you keep acting like a bitch, somebody’s gonna fuck that pussy in your face.”
“He’s right,” Scary Guy adds, helpfully.
So it’s off to the strip club! On the road trip, the three “friends” engage in a rich series of discussions involving abortion jokes, AIDS jokes, rape jokes and some good old-fashioned racism sprinkled on top for the completists. Plot-wise, there’s much more going on here than just three guys going to a strip club. For you see, they go to a bar beforehand to get drunk! And we’re to understand that this is really based on a true story? Uh huh.
At the bar, we get a real vivid taste of the brand that Tucker Max offers his fans. The guys cross paths with a bachelorette party that is shockingly tolerant of their loathsome shenanigans, and Tucker begins laying out his kooky worldview and firing off weird, rhyming toasts. Here’s just one example of a tragic many: “This is for all you bitches, hoes and tricks. We wouldn’t talk to any of you if we didn’t have dicks. Tucker Max!” Yes, he does indeed self-attribute his toasts, out loud. I can honestly say I’ve never seen that before in real life. Then things go slightly sour for our hate-filled friends. You see, one of the women at the bachelorette party is a feminist and she doesn’t like that he says blah blah blah. Actually, she says, accurately, “Everything he says is disgusting and misogynist.”
This is when Tucker does that palms up, squinty-face shrug thing favored by sexist douchebags the world over, suggesting that this lady is CRAZY for thinking the guy who repeatedly calls her a “bitch” and a “slut” is somehow a misogynist. ““Uhh no it isn’t,” he replies, “if I said that women belonged chained to a stove and given just enough slack to reach the bedroom, that would be misogynist… I don’t hate women, I love women! Why else would I put up with all of their shit?” For some reason, this is the last straw and the ladies storm off. Scary guy waves them off with a succinct “bye, whores!”
Then they go to a strip club, and they drink a lot and there are naked ladies. I’ve got lots of notes, but I think you get the idea. After about 65 minutes, I looked up the running time and was horrified to realize that there was still a merciless 40 minutes to go. That’s when I hit “eject.” I feel mildly guilty about not having the stomache to finish my task, but I really don’t think that the movie was going to turn me around in the end. The only way it could’ve won me over is if, in the final act, Tucker and his pals accidentally drove into the Grand Canyon right as it was being hit with a nuclear bomb and an asteroid simultaneously.
If it comes down to a battle between “chick lit” and “fratire,” women win this competition in a landslide. Say what you will about Eat Pray Love—and I certainly did—but at least Elizabeth Gilbert is seeking love and contentment. She may be a shameless, oblivious narcissist, but all she really wants is inner peace. That’s all her acolytes were searching for when they devoured her book en masse. It’s obnoxious but it’s harmless.
Tucker Max, on the other hand, offers rage, abuse and entitlement. His literary empire is just another subsidiary of the excruciatingly large and powerful Angry Man lobby. The same stubborn host of dudes behind Gamergate and the Men’s Rights Movement; sad, confused (mostly white) men who think the world and everything in it—especially women–belongs to them. Attitudes like these are demonstratively not harmless. They make the world a scarier place to be for 51% of the population. These guys all need to take a nice, long, entirely self-financed trip to Italy, India and Bali and look deep inside for some true perspective. That or jump off a waterfall.
Travis Vogt is the editor of the Scarecrow Wire. He also writes for City Arts and Encore Arts Online.