It would be hard to find anyone for whom the title of “Eat Pray Love” doesn’t resonate. The degree of that resonance may differ, but the three words describe activities that support the basic calls to physical, spiritual and psychological wellbeing.
Nonetheless, I have not read Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir, which became a New York Times bestseller a few years ago. I was equally reluctant to see the movie it inspired this year, starring Julia Roberts. My reason wasn’t unique. Everything I read about “Eat Pray Tell” suggested it was a superficially glamorous tale of a rich white woman’s midlife crisis. Gilbert quested for meaning by schlepping dewyy-eyed around Italy, India and Bali.
I broke down and saw the film last night. My reason was pretty singular: I wanted to see how it relates food and spirituality. Food and love are frequently associated in film. (Think “Like Water for Chocolate.”) But nothing in my film-going experience relates food and spirituality. And I have to admit I was intrigued because I’m a foodie who happens to have been on a spiritual path during long periods of my life.
My primary expectation, unfortunately, was fully realized: I’ve seldom cringed as much during a movie. It is an unbearable sequence of clichés in which the exotic “other” is romanticized as wise beyond western knowing. A palm reader in Bali, for example, is revered even though his utterances have as much depth as the Wizard of Oz’s. I imagined him too as Eckhart Tolle without teeth in clown garb.
The movie does make some valid points, mainly by implication. It says nothing directly about a connection between food and spirituality but its inherent message is that there is nothing incompatible about seeking both pleasure and spiritual meaning. We live in a culture that has disputed that ever since our Puritan forbears executed sexually aggressive women as witches.
But “Eat Pray Love” really has very little to say about the actual pleasure or constitution of good dining. In fact, most of the dishes that Roberts devours in Rome, mainly pasta, aren’t especially tempting. And their enjoyment is repeatedly expressed in close-ups of noodles being sucked into Roberts’ mouth. In that, the film does something that drives me nuts about shows I’ve seen in my infrequent viewing of the Food Network.
I’m talking about intentional, exaggerated smacking and talking while eating (often initially accompanied by eyes rolling heavenward). It’s true that I suffer Virginia Woolf’s condition: Since childhood, I have been unable to bear the sounds of people eating. I have no idea where or why this arose and neither has any therapist I’ve ever seen. Then again, it is traditionally considered bad manners to smack your food and talk with your mouth full., so I presume the disgust it can cause is fairly widespread.
This is an inconvenient phobia for a dining critic but most restaurants are too noisy for it to become an issue. Still, even putting my phobic intensity aside, it’s a huge trivialization of the pleasure of taste to reduce it to sounds of pigging out. Perhaps it’s become a statement of a dish’s utterly transcendental taste that it compels the diner, lovingly, to crash the constraints of etiquette. You know – it’s like screaming while fucking your mate when you’re a guest in someone’s home. Your host knows it had to be good.
More to the point, I think the focus on literal orality to indicate pleasure is a failure of the imagination – and that’s what generally characterizes “Eat Pray Love.” (I’m going to spare you a Freudian analysis of orality right now.)
CHANT, PRAY, SHUT UP
The second part of the movie, recounting Gilbert’s stay at an ashram in India, is even more revolting. There’s not much over-enthused dining, just the over-enthused utterance of New Agey clichés. Gilbert traveled to the ashram to check out her post-divorce boyfriend’s guru, who, it turns out wasn’t there. She was visiting her ashram in New York. Doh! Any teaching that Gilbert receives is from an unbearably simplistic fellow pilgrim from Texas. His crotchety manner, including his criticism of Gilbert’s comparatively gluttonous eating, is meant to give his simple-minded advice an edge, I suppose, like one of those lovably profound but assholesque Irish priests in old movies.
Naturally, I recalled my own pilgrimages to see a guru, Mother Meera, during this part of the film. I still recollect those visits with awe, mainly because of the remarkable activation of my imagination during Mother Meera’s silent darshan. (“Eat Pray Love” toys with the virtue of silence but never depicts it as more than silly.) This experience really did assure me that religion is about mythic imagination. It is ruined when it is literalized. In fact it was Mother Meera’s own literalizations of herself that eventually caused me to turn away.
I can’t deny that during this period of my life I fell prey to the same idealization of the exotic other that I now question. But I do think, as Gilbert implicitly argues, there is a value in journeying to the radically other. In that space, we can become outsiders and glimpse ourselves with more clarity. That Gilbert’s guru wasn’t present is a nice metaphor for the way any good teacher instructs us that the quest for meaning is ultimately our own responsibility. The problem with “Eat Pray Love” is that meaning never becomes more articulated than a bromide. You may argue, as the cliché goes, that clichés become clichés because they contain truth, But that assumes the way you express something doesn’t affect or reveal your perception of its meaning. Wrong.
LOVE, GET LAID, GET BORED
The final section of the film is set in Bali and is about love. It relates most strongly to the divorce that initiated Gilbert’s journey. After ending her marriage, she instantly acquires a new boyfriend. When that goes sour too, Gilbert complains to her best friend that she has never spent more than two weeks without a boyfriend. So off she goes to find herself.
Gilbert’s treatment of love is the most baffling of her subjects to me, probably because it relates most strongly to the experience of being a woman. Gilbert spent years trying to be the “perfect wife,” her friend says. I doubt that most women equate being the perfect wife with writing books and travel articles for the New York Times, plus being rich. But let’s put that aside. What does it say that Gilbert’s problems are grounded in her relationship with a man she loves and the resolution of those problems comes in the form of another man?
I have utterly no idea whether Gilbert ended with a better quality of man. It’s certainly not evident from the movie. But it’s the arrival of Prince Charming that provides the happy end of the story. True, she almost rejects him. But another man, the toothless palm reader, tells her to reel him in.
This is a real-life fairy tale that doesn’t address the real agony of spiritual seeking, divorce without expensive distraction or even overeating. There’s a sort of funny section in which Gilbert and a friend buy new pants to accommodate their weight gain from eating in Rome, but we never see any actual weight gain at all.
We don’t see much of anything consequential in the film. What we get is Julia Roberts tearing-up in scene after scene until, literally on the day she is scheduled to return to the States, she decides to “cross over” with Prince Charming. She can love without losing herself, after all! And she went nearly a whole year without hooking up with a dude! And the payoff is….a dude!
“Eat Pray Tell” is enough to make you want to pig out on the durian fruit Roberts squeals about in a Bali market. Unlike this movie, durian — disgusting to some, sublime to others — reeks of real life. This movie reeks of prosaic BS.