Tag Archives: brad pitt

The Venus Flytrap: Vicariously Voyeuristic

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Photographs of actor Jennifer Aniston, looking radiant as she greeted her ex-husband Brad Pitt backstage at the 2020 SAG Awards, capture vividly the micro-reactions within an encounter which video shows lasted barely a few seconds. Thrilled to see each other but moving in different directions, they touched as they pass. The affection shared between them sent ripples of delight across the world. It was a beautiful set of moments, but best understood as self-contained.

In 2010, the performance artist Marina Abramovic held a major show at New York’s MoMA, “The Artist Is Present”, in which she sat silently and essentially “gave darshan”. People who queued for hours to have her briefly look into their eyes reported epiphanic experiences, including cathartic tears. Among them was her former collaborator and ex-partner Ulay. There’s footage of her beginning to cry when she sees him, his own wordless communication, and her finally leaning across the table to take his hands. The crowd applauds. In the context of what Abramovic’s show tapped into – esoteric concepts of human connection, and of seeing and being seen – it was all very poignant. Still, he sued her to the tune of €250,000 a few years later (and won). Then he appeared for another public reunion at another event of hers (performance artists!). Now, they’re rumoured to be working on a book together.

Their true dynamic is between them. Our projections on the same belong to us, and show us insights into ourselves. Aniston and Pitt’s amiable encounter serves the same hunger in us for stories of reconciliation as the Abramovic-Ulay one did.

We do know that the end of their marriage was bitter, and that Aniston has been painted ever since as an icon of personal disappointment. They’ve been divorced for 15 years, during which Pitt created a family with actor Angelina Jolie. That marriage ended with child abuse and substance abuse allegations against him. How revealing of gender politics that he could make light of his chequered life onstage at the awards show, whereas Aniston never stopped being skewered in the press for having been abandoned. In the tabloid-fueled collective imagination, rekindling things with Pitt is supposed to be Aniston’s happily ever after. But would we really wish that on anyone?

The extremely, uncomfortably public lives of two others – and the decision they’ve made to protect themselves – are relevant here. The actor Meghan Markle and the gentleman formerly known as Prince Harry announced this month that they would be formally leaving the British monarchy in the hope of receiving less scrutiny and harassment. Their choice challenges both the institutions of monarchy and of family, which desperately need either dismantling or reconfiguration. Surely that’s more interesting that focusing on the individuals.

The “public eye” is not always so public. It may include neighbours, extended family, friend circles, strangers on social media. All of us are under pressure to conform to a narrative that’s acceptable, even attractive – even while vicious narratives may be imposed on us. It’s cyclic: we can’t tear our eyes away from other people’s lives, either. Since we are all constantly cross-watching, perhaps it’s prudent to ask – what are we being shown?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 23rd 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Her Perfect Equal

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At the beginning of her long affair with Harold Pinter, Antonia Fraser was warned by her brother, “You are a woman and a strong character yet you want your husband to be stronger. Women with strong characters who want to dominate are always fine because there are plenty of weak men around. Also plenty of strong men for weak women. But yours is a special problem.”

It is because of this special problem – this particular affliction of being an alpha female looking for neither her master nor her mutt but her perfect equal – that I reacted with a dismay not usually reserved for celebrity gossip at last week’s more plausible than usual reports that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are separating. The end of this power pairing isn’t yet another Hollywood meltdown; to me, it will be the combustion of the only modern relationship paradigm that I find truly desirable.

In recent years, I’ve found myself drawn to Jolie, an unlikely role model – too famous, too contemporary to truly analyze, and hounded by public obsession and private demons both. I find something very inspiring in the way in which, as a woman of a highly dysfunctional nature, she has turned her life around without ever losing the essence of her idiosyncrasy. In creating her family, she has revitalized the idea of the matriarch, updating the archetype without losing its noble connotations. Her advocacy has helped people around the world, and her artistic body of work shimmers with a certain aptitude. But it is her partnership with Pitt that ties this all together – it is an alliance that subverts the notion that intense, eccentric women cannot be partnered, at least not in any significant non-disastrous fashion. Like Jolie herself, it originated in scandal and evolved into something admirable, intriguing and undeniably powerful.

There is a danger in suggesting this, because it is an admission that mating is important – a very conservative idea for some. But more draconian still is the denial of passion, devotion and basic need – these are human impulses, not just female ones. I am interested in the idea of romantic partnership as collaboration, and have long puzzled over why there are so few examples of successful pairings that involve an unusual, forceful woman.

I read somewhere once, “Who could Madonna possibly date? She’s Madonna. Jesus, maybe.” The punchline, years later, is that she did date a man named Jesus, but the underlying contention remains: a theoretically post-feminist society has come to accept many things, but the virago with a domiciliary instinct is not one of them. This is neither a fault of the movement nor of the establishments it challenges. The notion boggles our minds simply because there is no existing marital script, at least in the archives of the collective psyche, to offer a successful example of such a couple.

Brangelina is the closest we have ever come to it. I want them to stay together not because of any vicarious tabloid satisfaction, but because they represent to me a sort of hope, a trajectory upon which to chart my own path. Can a woman be mother, martyr, magnate, mad – and still have her mate? Like Jolie, I intend to have my cake and eat you too – and hers is the only recipe I know so far.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

After The Affair

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I don’t like to judge relationships because they are not two-way mirrors; you can never tell what really goes on just from looking in from the outside. But in all this buzz about Jennifer Aniston “breaking her silence” on her ex-husband’s relationship with Angelina Jolie, something obvious seems to be lost. I admire both the women for different reasons. Aniston displays such class in a situation that would reduce most of us to pottymouthed puddles of tears. And Jolie is just cool, even when she’s “uncool”.  Brad Pitt doesn’t deserve either of them. If there must be a villain at all, it’s him.