Many people have asked me, Libby, what is art? They usually ask me this after they’ve just seen a critically acclaimed independant film that went on just a little too long and involved a lot of closeups of puddles while it’s raining. Because I’m here to help, I will now, once and for all, define art:
1. Art is something that’s interesting and boring at the same time.
2. Art is about watching attractive people suffer. This is different from Life, which is about watching unattractive people suffer, sometimes in your apartment.
3. Art is what happens when a movie can’t afford special effects.
4. Art is a way for artists to monetize what their parents did to them.
5. Art often demands a lot of lonely piano music on the soundtrack. Lonely piano music has replaced smoking as a way for characters to appear aching and lost.
6. Art is what movie stars do on their days off, to upset their financial advisors.
7. Art gives college-educated people something to argue about in restaurants afterwards, the way they imagine that French people do.
8. Art is like kale, solar power and and fracking, because you know that it’s important, but you don’t really have to worry about it.
I’ve been thinking about art because I just saw The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, a moody examination of adult loss, which means that there won’t be any wisecracking robots. It stars the gorgeous Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy as a couple whose marriage has been tested and possibly destroyed by tragedy, although luckily, they both have rich parents. Jessica’s character comes from Westport and her folks are a college professor and a concert violinist, played by Wiilliam Hurt and Isabelle Huppert. And while they’re both great actors, I began wondering what it would be like, if William Hurt and Isabelle Huppert were actually your parents – I assume that the government would intervene.
Early in the film, Jessica responds to clinical depression in the most constructive way possible, by getting a sensational new short haircut. This allows Jessica to express her wordless grief by tousling her bangs and experimenting with smokey eyeshadow for daytime. But be warned: after an especially traumatic fight with my husband Josh, over whether we could afford to upgrade our kitchen island, I once tried this coping technique, and I ended up looking like Donald Duck playing Sally Bowles in a community theater production of Cabaret. But despair looks great on Jessica, and she spends most of the movie portraying a fathomless heartache, by wearing sheer blouses, hugging the supportive female characters, and curling up on daybeds amid many shawls and pillows.
James mourns the way a man does, by getting into frat-boy fistfights and trying to have a heartfelt conversation with his emotionally unavailable Dad. Jessica and James only get into trouble in the flashbacks, when they have to play wacky kids falling in love, and their antics include skipping out on a meal at a fancy restaurant, which made me feel sorry for the waiter they’d stiffed. The couple is also required to dance ecstatically in the headlight beams of a parked car, and ecstatic dancing is always hard to pull off. The movie never gives us the details of the couple’s loss, as if that would be vulgar, so it’s like watching an old-timey play where they’ve accidentally cut the star’s climactic, tormented monologue which explains everything.
Still, it’s always a treat to watch Jessica as she makes wry remarks which barely mask her agony, and gazes accusingly at other people, as if to say, “You will never know the jagged depths of my personal hell, but a nomination wouldn’t hurt.” As with all art films, I learned something from Eleanor Rigby (Jessica’s parents were big Beatles fans, which explains the title.) I learned that healing is a process, and that the best medicine demands contouring your cheekbones and finishing your dissertation in Paris, if you ask me.