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A Review of By the Sea, or, How to Be An Artist and Female, I.e. How to be Unlikable, or, How to (Not) Pander  photo

[originally published on Hobart in 2015.]

First, as women, there is the virgin/whore complex, to which we are subjected, or, to which we subject ourselves or to which we allow ourselves to be subjected, or with which, we must, at the very least, contend, and, if we decide to procreate, the mother/bitch complex, and, if we dare, one day, to call ourselves ‘artists,’ the lover/self-obsessed-monster complex…

That last part sounds so pretentious. When did I become so goddamn pretentious? Stop talking about your writing, butthole.

(Why am I writing this essay?  The part of me reading this essay as spectator, hates the other part of me that is writing this essay. Don’t pander, the former says. Don’t you dare fucking pander.)


For years now I have overheard, and engaged in, conversations about Angelina Jolie-Pitt, debates over which “Angelina” you like best: Billy Bob Angelina, Tomb Raider Angelina, Brother-Kissing Angelina, Husband-Stealer Angelina, Earth Mother Angelina, World Ambassador Angelina. I probably sided with the Billy Bob Angelina, which didn’t have anything to do with Billy Bob, but had everything to do with an Angelina who seemed reckless and liberated and rebellious as fuck. The Angelina who said “fuck you” to the world. And yes, also, there were the vials of blood!


The other night at dinner I overheard my (non-writer) friend Susan tell (my writer friend) Chelsea what a good mother I was, am; what a good ‘aunt’ I was to Susan’s daughter. (We have been friends since my daughter was three and hers nine months old; they are currently 19 and just-turned 17.) “Elizabeth always had toys in her purse, when we went out to eat with my daughter. I didn’t have anything. But Elizabeth would pull out toys she brought expressly for Zoe to play with, to entertain her. She was the most patient mother, the most thoughtful aunt.”

I remember this same friend, Susan, telling me during a year long breakup with my then boyfriend/now husband, “I liked you better when you were with [then boyfriend/now husband.]

The implication was undeniable: Susan didn’t much like me that year my now-husband and I were apart. That year, I must have seemed, to Susan, selfish, self-obsessed, wallowing.

(I wrote more that year than any year before or since.)

I remained, also, in spite of the wallowing and selfishness (and writing), a thoughtful and patient mother.

I was simultaneously, or alternately from hour to hour, selfish and thoughtful, kind and self-indulgent, patient and self-obsessed. (I was prodigious in my writing.)

Depending on who you talked to that year (or any year, probably), depending on in which light you viewed me, I was either a caring, giving person or a complete asshole.


We have become used to photographs of Angelina poised, waving, smiling, with her children or others’ children; more a politician or beauty pageant contestant than the unrestrained, outspoken Angelina we used to know (or think we knew).

You get the sense, watching By the Sea, that despite all of Angelina’s great humanitarian efforts, despite her role as mother to six children, despite her fight with cancer, and the elongated period of mourning for the loss of her own mother, Angelina Jolie-Pitt is still batshit fucking crazy.

And I like her all over again because of it. I like her because she is, for the first time in ten or more years, relatable. To me.

In most of By the Sea, she is flawed, vacant, icy, a bitch. And in that way, by those descriptions, she becomes for me, again, human.


It was four or five weeks ago I went to see By the Sea alone on a Sunday evening, as I was aware the film had received ‘bad’ reviews and would, therefore, probably not be in theaters long. (It was gone the following week.)


A week or so later I sent my (unfinished) poetry collection to a friend who responded by telling me I had too much time on my hands and strongly urging me not to publish it.


A few months before By the Sea was released, there was an email hack in Hollywood. Angelina Jolie-Pitt was the subject of some of the emails made public. In one email a producer referred to Angelina as a “minimally talented spoiled brat” and to her ego as “rampaging.”


My friend, in one of her criticism of my poems, had made a point of referring directly or indirectly - I can’t remember now - to my ego, insinuating it was oversized.


By the Sea, in the most unkind, least thoughtful reviews, was referred to alternately as boring and vapid and self-indulgent.


My friend, in urging me not to publish my poems, asked, rhetorically, if they were ‘good enough’ to warrant the pain they would cause. It was clear she did not think they were.


No, I am not comparing myself to Angelina Jolie-Pitt. Or I guess I am, Unnamed friend, I guess you are right about my ego. Fuck it.


I went to see By the Sea alone because I assumed anyone I could think of to take (other than Chloe and Chloe was several states away) would find it boring or ‘bad’ and I didn’t want to argue about the movie or to defend it. I was interested in the movie for reasons I assumed others would not be. I was interested in the movie because I was interested in Angelina Jolie-Pitt, specifically in her decision to write and direct and star in (and to star her husband in) a movie about two movie stars in an (judging by the trailer) unraveling marriage. (Yes, I was also interested in seeing Brad Pitt speak lines written specifically for him by his wife; to see him directed by his wife.)

But even more specifically I was interested in a long term marriage/relationship being the central theme of a non-comedic film because it almost never is. (The last I can remember is Blue Valentine.)

And I was interested in the film because it was about a marriage as written/directed/depicted by a woman. (No others that fit this criteria come to mind.)

I was interested in a woman depicting some truths about marriage, the ugliness and beauty and aloneness and togetherness and the separations (be they emotional or physical or both) and the coming back together, because I am a woman who has experienced all of those things and I don’t often (almost never) see them depicted honestly and (almost never) by a woman (on screen).


My husband and I have been together, off and on, almost fourteen years. It’s hard to think of anyone, friends or peers, that have been in partnership that long. It’s hard to explain how ugly things can get when you’ve been together that long, to the uninitiated, to those that give up more easily or sooner, I mean.


“Roland and Vanessa have been married for fourteen years, but after spending a few minutes observing them, one could hardly understand how they managed to stick it out for so long.”

- Peter Sobczynski, in a one-star review of By the Sea on Rogerebert.com


If I were not a writer, all these thoughts that end up in poems and stories and in longer works, would remain unedited and unseen in my head. There would be no written evidence of my self-obsessive tendencies or of my obsessive tendencies or of any tendencies that would lead one to view me as a “bad” person or a “selfish” person.

I could decide how I am to be viewed.

I could decide to be viewed exclusively as the patient, thoughtful mother Susan knows me to be, for instance.

Or, if I was another type of writer, even, one who does not write personally, I could deceive my friends and family members in a similar manner.

But I am not another kind. And my husband knew this when he married me. He knew this before he ever sent me that first email introducing himself. Because in that first email he was complimenting a story I had written about a lost love.


In The End of the Story, Lydia Davis seems to be aware of or conscious of being careful not to say too much or not to say something about her past lover, the one she is writing about, that will cause pain to her current lover, the one she is living with while she is writing the novel.  

Vincent sits there in a flowered armchair in our living room and winces at the thought that I might put anything sentimental or romantic in the novel. He says that if the novel is about what I say it’s about, there shouldn’t be any intimate scenes.”

I guess this has long been one the unspoken rules of writing, or of female writing? I can’t see Roth or Mailer or Updike particularly caring or being conscious of their writing hurting someone, in particular, one of their wives.

And now I am left wondering how The End of the Story might have been different, what more we might have found out, had ‘Vincent’ not been a presence in that flowered armchair, had Lydia not been conscious of him invoking rules: there shouldn’t be any intimate scenes (and of his questioning of her honor: if the novel is about what [you] say it’s about!).


“You can absolutely madly love the same person you want to kill,” Angelina Jolie-Pitt, in a video promoting By the Sea.


If Angelina were not an actress or a director, the critics – and I – would not be dissecting a film in which she and her husband star to ascertain what parts of the film do or don’t mirror her marriage to Brad. The critics seemed to be saying, from the reviews I read, that if Brad and Angelina are anything like their film characters, Roland and Vanessa, they are shallow, insufferable, intolerable people. But what I wonder is, of the critics who wrote negative reviews of the movie, how many are married, how many are divorced, and of the ones who are married, what might we discern about their humanity should we have a few nights’ glances into their bedrooms?


Neither of the female writers who urged me not to publish my writing has been with anyone as long as I have been with my husband. It is easy, therefore, to understand why they might be easily repulsed by depictions of times when our relationship was unraveling. Particularly when I did not soften the blow with intermittent depictions also of the color blue, say, or, say, of a cow.


I had the thought while watching By the Sea that though both of the main characters, Vanessa (Angelina) and Roland (Brad), on paper are flawed – she is a retired dancer who pops pills and stares off into distances, he is a floundering writer who drinks more than he writes – and therefore, should be equally ‘unlikable,’ Roland/Brad still comes off okay, someone you wouldn’t mind drinking with at the bar where he is not writing, before he eventually stumbles home to his wife, pushing his mouth that only moments before was filled with vomit, onto hers.

Whereas Vanessa/Angelina, is, of course (I say ‘of course’ because it just seems that women are always less likeable than their male counterparts, even when equally flawed), completely unlikable.

Compare the way in which each was written about by Manohla Dargis in The New York Times. Of Roland it is said he is a “weary, inattentive husband.” Whereas of Vanessa/Angelina, Dargis writes, “Given [her] waterworks, it’s hard not to feel for the guy.” It is clear, as it is was with the friends who urged me not to publish my manuscripts, whose side the reviewer is on.


I was interested in By the Sea because it was written/directed by a woman with enough power and money to be able to make the film she wants, with enough power and money to be ‘boring’ or ‘indulgent,’ with enough power and money to be honest, despite the marketability factor (or lack thereof), despite, perhaps, being unpalatable to mass moviegoers.

I was interested in the artistic view of a financially independent woman, for the sheer fact I knew the view would be her vision only. And fuck those of us who are bored or offended by her possessing enough self-worth to not care whether we find her depiction of a marriage ‘self-indulgent’ or ‘vapid’ or ‘ugly.’ Whether we find (what we assume is) a depiction of herself – Vanessa – as cold, disinterested or uninteresting, unfeeling, materialistic, self-absorbed.


Which is to say, I am interested in my own view, but I am less secure than Angelina, and am too easily talked out of my own interests, too easily made to be fearful of boring other people.


I understand as a writer today, especially as a female writer today, writing, ostensibly, about oneself (though isn’t that what every writer, be it the aforementioned Roth or Updike or Mailer, has done for years?), you must add in a ‘theme,’ to make it seem as though you are not only thinking about yourself. Say, the color blue, as aforementioned. Or, cows, as also mentioned before. The addition of a well-researched theme in one’s writing shows one’s intelligence and one’s intellect and distracts from one’s tendencies (as an ‘artist,’ which requires solitude and self-introspection) toward self-obsession, or makes it seem as though one is not obsessed with oneself. It also makes the pill of ‘personal writing,’ which writing by females is often classified as, easier to swallow. But I refuse to add a theme. For theme’s sake. To make swallowing easier.


Angelina(‘s character Vanessa) spends the first half of the film not saying much. She sits in bed. She lounges on the balcony. She stands. She swallows (literal) pills. She cries. I know this sounds boring to you. Sometimes life is boring. Sometimes we, in our nakedness, devoid of clever themes, are uninteresting. It is a big risk for an artist to depict this boringness. (What did Andy Warhol’s critics say of his Sleep/Eat/Kiss films? I forget. Remind me.)

That said, I was never bored watching By the Sea. I was captivated by Angelina’s eyes, by every small movement they made, everything they saw. I was interested to watch her watching Brad, Roland, the husband, her husband. I was interested to witness every small reaction she had to him.


Of course there is a reason for Vanessa’s coldness. A reason she has withdrawn from her marriage, from Roland, why she recoils at his touch, why she numbs herself with pills…


There is a reason my poems, my writing, might cause someone else pain, because I was in pain when I wrote them…

(Stop talking about your writing, butthole. Stop. Talking.)


In my second-favorite line from the film, Vanessa says, after being asked why she no longer dances (after Roland has told another, younger, honeymooning couple, that Vanessa used to be a very good, very beautiful dancer), “Because I got old.” She says this with a smile but very directly. The younger woman, the one who had asked, seems surprised by this answer. I was surprised by Vanessa/Angelina’s frankness in this scene also. Of course it wouldn’t occur to the younger woman to think that there will come a time when she will have to stop doing something because she will be old. And it is rare for a woman of a certain age, particularly an actress of a certain age, to directly answer a question with “because I got old.”

This - Vanessa’s age, Vanessa’s getting old - is not the aforementioned reason (for Vanessa’s coldness); at least it’s not the whole reason. It’s just something else I liked about the film. 


I have heard similar reactions to my writing in the past. In 2013, another female writer urged me not to publish a novella I had written in a little over a month in 2009, saying it was too raw, I needed more distance from it, to make it art, to create literature, that I’d regret publishing it too soon; so I didn’t. Instead I spent another five years, writing another fifty thousand words in an attempt to justify the original twenty thousand word novella.

(But neither did I rewrite the novella to be less raw/more polished, to distance the writing from 2009; nor did I move on and write about something else, the Myrmarachne spider, say, which feigns being an ant, in order to catch one, by waving its two front legs over its head like antennae, or, Primo Carnera, the World Heavyweight Champion of 1933, who was nicknamed the Ambling Alp, who acted in films, and was probably ‘mob-controlled.’ Okay, maybe I kind of did the latter, but not in any real, serious, researched manner. Like, well, you’ll see. Maybe. Someday.)


There are few writings from inside a marriage. There is writing after a divorce, after a death. It is safer to write about something once it is over, once a person is gone. By the Sea is a film from inside a marriage. Most of my writing is from inside a marriage. The rules are less defined writing from within…everyone is less comfortable, the audience and the creator, myself and my friend.


It is a preference, really. I prefer art or writing or filmmaking that is unpolished, that is ‘raw,’ that is less formulaic, more seemingly personal: Last Tango in Paris, anything by Eileen Myles, By the Sea, anything by Scott McClanahan, anything without an additional “theme.”

I don’t care anymore how much research you’ve done on octopi. If I want to read about cephalopods, I’ll get a book about cephalopods.

But why is it when a woman writes a book or makes a movie that is seemingly more personal, she gets labeled self-indulgent?

I don’t see Scott McClanahan being called self-indulgent or self-obsessed or self-anything.

Maybe I am wrong about that, though.

Maybe I am pandering to women here.

Goddamn it, I said I wasn’t going to pander.


The funny thing about long-term relationships – be they platonic or romantic, familial or spousal – is if you hang in there long enough, if you can endure the ugliness, they usually turn back around. [Spoiler Alert] Which is sort of what happens in By the Sea. Which you know if you didn’t get bored or turned off during the first half of the film and walk out (FYI: there were only two of us in the theater that Sunday night; neither of us walked out). If you hung in there long enough.


My favorite line in By the Sea is spoken by Roland/Brad, near the end, to his wife, Vanessa/Angelina, “You’ve got to stop being such an asshole.”

It’s a playful line. He is smiling. They both laugh. I smiled and laughed. It was a very relatable line (for me). I’m sure my husband has said as much to me numerous times. I’m sure I deserved it. I’m sure I was being an asshole. I’ve got to stop being an asshole.


Because this was Angelina’s film, and not Brad’s, it is right that she/Vanessa, be the less likeable character. In my writing, I only feel comfortable depicting myself as the least likeable person. Perhaps this is what my friends who urged me not to publish were responding to. Perhaps I was, as perhaps Angelina/Vanessa is in By the Sea, too convincing in depicting myself as the least likable person.

I think this is in reaction to reading so many (what I think of as boring and self-indulgent, albeit it in a different type of way) books in which people transform in ways they just don’t transform in real life.

Most of us remain caught in patterns throughout our lives, whether patterns of passivity or patterns of self-destruction. We catch glimpses of ourselves ‘getting better’ only to find ourselves ‘falling back.’ Most of us keep trying, fighting our natures. But you can’t fight it by pretending it doesn’t exist. You can’t erase the parts of yourself you don’t like by not writing about them or talking about them or addressing them. Well, you can, but…despite my friends’ advice, I wouldn’t advise it.


Bret Easton Ellis recently wrote an essay on likeability for The New York Times in which he said: “There are limits to showcasing our most flattering assets because no matter how genuine and authentic we think we are, we’re still just manufacturing a construct, no matter how accurate it may be. What is being erased in the reputation economy are the contradictions inherent in all of us. Those of us who reveal flaws and inconsistencies become terrifying to the world.”


Angelina clearly doesn’t give a fuck about being liked – in this film, I was going to say, but also, just, in life, I think. (Which is what, of course, makes me like her. Again.)


I think maybe I too often err too heavily on the side of unlikablity. After my friend urged me not to publish my poems I showed them to a young female writer I had been mentoring. She responded the next day by saying that “as art, I think they are perfect. I think you are brave, heroic. But on a personal note, they made me worried for your relationship.”


I think what you have to remember about art is, it can only represent a small period of time. By the Sea takes place over the course of a few days or a couple weeks. My poems were written in the span of a couple months. Neither – the film or my poems – are meant to represent a marriage. Only a small time period within one.

The relationship you are viewing on the screen or reading about on the page has already altered again to such an extent as to probably be unrecognizable to you now.


I keep telling myself that just because a young woman in Montreal said in a school newspaper after a reading I did in her city that she couldn’t relate to my poems because they were too ‘middle class American,’ that that doesn’t mean others won’t. Just because two of my friends can’t relate to my writing or find it repugnant or indefensible, doesn’t mean someone else won’t read it and feel comforted that they’re not the only person in the world who has ever acted selfish or mean or in a manner they regret with regard to someone they love.


I tried to go see By the Sea again before it left theaters but I was too late. I sometimes wonder what the man who was in the theater with me that night thought of the film, if he is still thinking about it, if he found it relatable or repugnant or both.


I have been trying lately to remind myself of a quote attributed to Andy Warhol:

“Don’t think about making art. Just get it done. Let everyone else decide whether it’s good or bad. Whether they love it or hate it. While they’re deciding, make even more art.”


“When I was writing [By the Sea], I never assumed we’d actually do it, so I wrote with a certain kind of freedom.” –Angelina Jolie-Pitt


I never write anything with an eye to the day of publication. I write everything for myself. And later worry about the consequences of writing with that absolute freedom.

I said in reply to the young woman I am mentoring, “Writing is easy. Publishing, dealing with the fall out, is hard.”


Stop talking about your writing, butthole!


Angelina made two films that seemingly had nothing to do with her personal life. I didn’t see either one.


I can already hear Bret Easton Ellis saying, no, the reason the critics didn’t like By the Sea isn’t because Angelina is a woman, or because the movie is ‘personal,’ but because the movie is boring and badly acted and nothing happens.

I can hear my friend saying, no, the reason I didn’t like your poems isn’t because they were too honest or too ‘ballsy,’ but because they were boring and self-indulgent and shallow.

And both of them would be right.

Of course they are right also.

Art is subjective.

We can all be ‘right.’


There are different ways to be self-indulgent as an artist, as a writer, of course. Today I finished A Little Life. It was recommended by friends, a highly talked about novel. I read it because I was interested to see if I would weep at the end (as I had been all but promised I would). I read it because I was told it is “the saddest book.” How can you not be curious to read “the saddest book”?

I had a like/hate relationship with it throughout its seven hundred pages. I skimmed through a great portion of the first half, through so much backstory, so many characters. Halfway through I deemed the writing ‘abuse porn.’ It- the abuse - began to feel gratuitous. I began to feel manipulated. I began to hate almost every character in the novel. I began to hate the author of the novel.

I didn’t weep at the end. I fought throwing my book (because it was a Kindle) onto the living room floor (because it was hardwood).

Maybe it’s just me (something I don’t ‘get’ about A Little Life). Maybe it was just my friend (who objected to my poems). Or maybe we are all self-indulgent assholes, just in different ways.


I think it was Eminem who said, “But if one kid out of a hundred million who are going through a struggle feels it and then relates, that’s great.”

If one person relates to my poems, cool.

I didn’t relate to A Little Life, you did, cool.

You might like By the Sea. You might hate it. Fuck if I know.


Also I would say maybe I relate more to artistic ‘failures’ or to art that ‘fails’ more than it ‘succeeds.’ If Last Tango in Paris was a failure. If By the Sea was a failure.


Last night I searched for information about the woman who wrote A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara. I read an interview with her on The Guardian. I found myself more drawn to her, based on the answers she gave about the writing of the book, than I had been to the book. I was fascinated by the photographs and art she had collected over the years, that had inspired the novel. I could relate to that act, of collecting. It sounded like an obsessive tendency.

I related to her talking about the writing of the book as an obsession.

“I understand why writers and artists go back to certain projects time and again. They may be done with it, but the project is not done with them. You have created this thing which you sort of love and resent…Though it was an exhilarating experience it was also an alienating one. In the first part of the book, JB [one of the four friends, an artist] is talking about painting and about how it becomes more real than life itself. That process, which I experienced, is absorbing and dangerous. It is probably one I will never have again, and one I never want again.”


By the Sea is the only film I’ve seen so far this year, I’d want to see again. (I don’t know, maybe that’s not true. Maybe that’s the sort of line you throw in an essay like this. There are probably other films I would see again. I’m sure there are. That one with Amy Schumer for instance.)

I can’t stop thinking about Angelina, about how in the film we are seeing Vanessa during a very specific, painful, solitary moment in her life.

My poems were written during a very specific, painful, solitary moment in my life.

(Stop. Talking. About. Your. Writing. Butthole.)

Neither the character Angelina plays in the film nor the narrator of my poems should be taken as representative of how we are in general, of how we are under ‘normal circumstances.’

(Oops. I did it again.)

Which is to say, we aren’t always assholes. But also, so what if we are?

Which is to say, we like what we relate to, mostly.

I’m an asshole so I relate to assholes.

(See how I didn’t go with ‘I’m a woman, so I relate to women’? see how I didn’t pander?)