In 2009, I paid $120 to see Daniel Radcliffe’s penis, and it was disappointing. I had hoped at least that the vehicle for his penis, the Broadway revival of Equus, would have been less ridiculous. I had last been to the theater in 2007 to see Wicked, which wasn’t disappointing so much as awful. Surely, I thought, Equus couldn’t be as bad or as overhyped. After all, the play focuses on mental illness and nudity and horses, and I’m into two of those three things, so how bad of an experience could it be?
As smart phones and social media proliferate, the answer to that question becomes more complex. Sitting in my $120 seat waiting for the house lights to dim, I checked my Twitter feed and clicked on a link to New York Magazine’s Equus review. It panned the show, highlighting among other shortfalls “the outmoded therapy techniques on display.” As Radcliffe screamed and shouted his way through Act II, as he played Hide the Wand with a pony named Nugget, I kept thinking, Yeah, these techniques are really dated. No one but film theorists takes psychoanalysis seriously anymore. Are they really doing hypnosis? This is so dated. I want my money back.
I know absolutely nothing about the history of psychology. What little I do know about mental illness and its treatment comes from my friend Sarah, a clinical psychology PhD student. (Sarah is far enough along in her program to know what she’s talking about, but still green enough to enjoy talking about her work.) That is to say, my dislike of Equus was completely uninformed and based solely on one tap on my iPhone. And yet, I’m steadfast in my opinion, baseless as it may be, that the play sucked.
There’s an imperative amongst armchair intellectuals, myself very much included, to reject these sorts of one-dimensional critiques like mine of Equus. When a critique rests solely on extra-textual factors, it clashes with the romantic idea that creative texts exist in vacuums, that the viewer/reader’s personal experiences are beside the point. In other words, these issues of spectatorship and subjectivity are ignorable because they are effectively arbitrary. When we’re discussing Film (not lowly movies), when we’re debating Oscar nominations, there’s the fantasy that we should take each text on its own terms first, and then, only if necessary and appropriate, use different lenses to examine our objects of affection and derision. In other words, textual analysis is best, but cultural theory is acceptable sometimes. To employ personal experiences or opinions as we think critically would be to undermine completely the validity of our critique. The worst of these personal opinions are ad hominem attacks, and while they’re logical fallacies, they’re impossible to resist when actors and writers are allowed to tweet.
Case and point: @britmarling.
Brit Marling became hipster famous when she wrote and starred in Another Earth (2011), a lyrical, sci-fi think piece about discovering a planet identical to ours in every way. It’s a fun movie with an intriguing and novel plot device. She followed that up with Sound of My Voice (2012), an equally intriguing film that she wrote and starred in, this one about a Southern California cult. After playing Susan Sarandon’s idealistic daughter in Arbitrage (2012), an excellent white-collar thriller written and directed by Nicholas Jarecki, Marling now gives us The East. Zal Batmanglij, Marling’s friend from college, directed the film and shares a writing credit with her.
The East stars Marling as an operative for a corporate security firm led by Patricia Clarkson. Clarkson tasks Marling with infiltrating an anarchist terrorist group that targets corporations that prioritize profits over consumer safety and the environment. This group is called The East, and Alexander Skarsgård is its suave leader and financier. Their attacks aim to create culture “jams,” illegal events that encourage society to rethink its consumerism. For example, at a pharmaceutical company’s party, The East spikes champagne with the company’s own drug, one that causes dangerous side effects. As Marling embeds herself deeper, she begins to question her own beliefs and her loyalty to Clarkson, while also struggling with the ethics of The East’s jams.
While the film’s primary purpose is to critique hypercapitalism, it also advocates pansexual polyamory, freeganism, and social grooming. That’s a lot for one movie to handle, and ultimately The East feels a little too broad and much too shallow. For example, when Skarsgård’s group engages in a very adult, very consensual version of spin the bottle, we’re engaged, but we’re also disappointed when Marling and Batmanglij’s script fails to examine the game’s implications for the group’s dynamic.
The performances are good, but no one dazzles except for Clarkson, who is always riveting, especially as a villain. Skarsgård is naked more than once, and that is nice, but overall his character is one dimensional and boring. Ellen Page has a small part as Skarsgård’s second-in-command. The role allows her some poor-little-rich-girl moments and plenty of time to bitch about her daddy issues.
As an actress, Marling might be limited, but she has a perceptive stoner vibe that’s compelling. She has good looks, blonde hair, and strong eyebrows, all qualities that have endeared her to magazine editors and movie fanboys alike. The fact that she’s intelligent (she went to Georgetown and worked at Goldman) adds to her indie street cred and marketability.
But none of this matters once you’ve seen Marling’s Twitter feed. Her tweets belie her indie darling status. They’re so full of platitudes and nonsense that my embarrassment for her overwhelms my ability to take her films seriously. It’s almost like she’s trying to be the Thinking Man’s Amanda Bynes. The five most most cringe-worthy @britmarling tweets:
February 8th: the color of where i want to go and where i stand and how much light and dark is in between
March 4th: The first note of a relationship’s coda is contempt.
April 28th: The equality in a love – sometimes evident only when it becomes clear that both people hold equal power to hurt one another
May 16th: Can’t sleep. Wandering streets of ny in my pajamas. Feeling something extreme but on what side of the spectrum?
May 20th: A sky so full of feeling it cannot bring itself to rain
So yeah. @britmarling is a poet.
As social media thins the lines between filmmaker, actor, and public persona, it becomes difficult to separate filmic texts from their sources. I’m not suggesting that we judge films and other pop culture texts solely by their creators’ tweets, but public persona, including tweets, is an integral ingredient of cultural consumption, and, as such, must be considered when we think about pop culture.
That’s unfortunate for Marling. In her short career, she’s found great success, but with just 140 characters or less, she’s jammed her own creative efforts. As quickly as one iPhone tap can derail one’s enjoyment of Equus, so too can a tweet undermine a politically progressive movie. Which is to say: It’s okay to hate The East because Brit Marling sounds like an assclown on Twitter, even if she’s made some good movies, even if The East has some strengths, and even if its heart is in the right place.
Derek Loh recently graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law. He has an MA in critical studies in film from The University of Southern California and a bachelors in anthropology from Davidson College. He currently lives in New York in the world's smallest one bedroom apartment.