The woman at the end of the bar must have been beautiful when she was younger. Maybe 19. Not just beautiful; almost perfect. She kept herself in the shadows, perhaps conscious of her fading looks, embarrassed by the crows’ feet and wrinkles. Her outfit was pink—and inappropriate for anyone over 25. She stubbed out a cigarette, took a slug of her drink, and lit a new cigarette. She ordered another whiskey, neat, a double. The saddest barfly I’ve ever seen.
Barbie at 64.
The movie, Barbie, has a flatness to it. The acting is affectless. The same traits characterize another new movie, Asteroid City.
What’s going on?
The setting and acting in both films could have been generated by computers, and this is no accident. The movie business is getting us accustomed to AI entertainment. The fear shared by the Writers Guild and Screen Actors Guild of being replaced by technology is not about the future. It’s already here.
Barbie and Asteroid City have escaped negative reviews because they pander to accepted political and social opinion. Their good reviews avoid the contradictions involved in both projects.
Asteroid City offers us a performatively smart family—a portrait not earned. The family has lost its mother. The husband sits his children down and explains why he has not told them about their mother’s death for three weeks. The children’s reaction to such devastating news is as flat as the staging.
It’s not meant to be emotional. It can’t be emotional. Any realistic emotion would undermine the production.
It’s not enough to say, “but that’s the whole point of the movie.” If that’s really the case, then it’s a betrayal of the audience. We think sentimentality is Hallmark-card false goodness. Sentimentality is better understood as unearned emotion. If you make a movie about the Holocaust, it is always in danger of being sentimental because the subject itself presupposes an unearned emotion.
Superheroes are perfect for computerized movies. They throw buses at one another in one scene, followed by a maudlin scene that attempts to humanize them. You don’t have to dig deep. There are no real emotions, just sketches of emotion.
In The Miracle Worker, Helen Keller’s discovery that water is a word is earned emotion. His Girl Friday works because at its core, it’s about a marriage gone bad and the struggle to accommodate work and life with a spouse. True feminism.
Barbie pretends to be a feminist statement; it makes sure to hit all the checkpoints about patriarchy. But in the end, when—like Pinocchio—Barbie becomes real, what defines “real” is not, say, becoming CEO of Mattel or a Supreme Court justice but instead visiting her gynecologist. She has genitals. She is merely a sex object.
We’re in Plato’s cave, watching shadows on screens cast by a reality we ignore.
Photos: Selcuk Acar/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images (left) / Nina Westervelt/Variety via Getty Images (right)