Of course, such a close connection with the core of one's being can be detrimental as well as ephemeral. When you constantly wear your heart on your sleeve, you have it trampled on and troubled more often than normal. Add in a patriarchal social system that, for decades, allowed men to brainwash women into thinking, doing, dressing, the way they said, and the damage arrives in severe, unsympathetic waves. From the role playing pretense of youth, with its sugar and spice and everything nice nonsense, to the married with children swindle for future happiness, girls are hemmed into a austere, constricting paradigm from which they can hardly escape. Naturally, there are only two reactions one can have when confronted with this fraud: face up to the fallacies, bury your pain, and deal with it later; or find an escape and indulge.
Food is such a savoir. While men can build spare tires that look both uncomfortable and unhealthy, or resemble human suet sacks, lard laden and cholesterol clogged, they only face the ridicule of a nation raised on the "jolly fat man" sense of comedy. But with so much of their perceived value tied up in "image", women have battled with, and established a kind of unhealthy truce with eating. They will do it when need be, or if required, but it's really not to sustain life. It's to avoid it, to hide inside themselves for once and feel a sense of comfort and warmth. It allows them to belong, to control. It's rebellion against an outdated and horrible misguided cultural mindset. This is the mental territory minded by director Henry Jaglom in his 1990 film Eating. Subtitled "A Very Serious Comedy About Women and Food", our auteur wants to use the musings of dozens of lovely ladies to make a point about how damaging the demands of society and sustenance can really be. Too bad he, and his point, long overstay their occasionally salient welcome.
But Helene has the most hidden heartbreak. Married to a man who never seems to be at home, and doing her best to care for him as well as his 19 year old daughter, she fears her marriage is dissolving. Hovering around this potential problem is the emotional wreck of Sophie, a supposed friend to all three ladies who spends more time running them down than building them up. She begins to plant rumors regarding Helene's husband and a French filmmaker, Martine, who is staying at their house. The striking, elusive lady is in LA making a documentary about women and food, and she spends the day interviewing the guests, getting their take on life, love and large portions. A phone call, mixed with the already present innuendo, suddenly changes everything.
In 1990, this must have all seemed like a revelation of Biblical proportions. While the past decades had introduced the eating disorder buzzwords like bulimia and anorexia into our everyday vocabulary, few films had the gall to drag the dysfunction out into the open to really examine its elements. Near the end of the 70s, the disco drug culture had turned the concept of being too rich and/or too thin into a fashion focus. The 80s heightened such horrible histrionics, giving beanpole babies like Kate Moss a kind of physical significance that only concentration camp victims could admire. By the time the 90s rolled around, the issues that women had with the fashion industry, the diet business and the overall cultural conceit of looking underfed and fabulous was being rightly and fervently challenged. But the arguments seemed to be coming from sources outside the actual fray. Pundits and advocates were jumping all over the bandwagon, offering up their ivory tower takes. But the actual women affected by the malnutrition maladies they forced upon them had yet to really speak out en masse.
So when Independent filmmaking maverick Henry Jaglom unleashed his filmic id on such a subject, allowing 20+ Los Angeles actresses, writers, professionals and models to share their thinly veiled feelings about food and their figure, the results had to seem groundbreaking. Using a volatile vιritι style, and fluctuating wildly between confessional and improvisational dramedy, Eating tried to crawl into the mind of women, to show how the social stigmas attached to food and weight created irrevocable inner and outer issues. Hearing some of these heart wrenching appeals, as well as seeing how interpersonally destructive the female species can be to each other, must have overwhelmed a 1990's audience. In many ways, Eating is like watching an open wound weep and seep, oozing its nastiness and its knowledge out onto the screen to be viewed and reviled. This does not mean it's entertaining God, no Jaglom cannot be counted on to find a way to keep us amused. He is too wrapped up in the reality of this focus to care if we're comfortable and considered.
Usually grouped in with Orson Welles and John Cassavetes more for his individualistic and idiosyncratic style and persona than for the success of his cinema and praised for his authentic approach to ideas, Jaglom can be a difficult director to decipher. He doesn't hold cards to his vest so much as play them all at once, in a madcap 52 pick-up purging of thoughts. It's our job as an audience to pick through and make sense of the well-meaning mess. He's experimental and obtuse for the sake of such sentiments. He deconstructs the precepts of film in order to make his movie feel like found works of magic realism fact. He appears caught in the experimental phase of moviemaking, the first real independent movement of the late 60s and early 70s that marked his introduction into the industry, and vehemently refuses to play by any rules other than his own. That is why Eating is so much of its time and its creator. That's why Eating plays as painfully dated and didactic now.
There is no denying the power in what Jaglom wants to say and show. Perhaps no one has captured the complexity and confusion of women better than he. Eating is a disorganized dissection, a missive that misses its point more often than it makes it. But when it does discover the truth, it sticks out blatantly and painfully from the rest of the mannered mysteries floating around the edges. The director doesn't help himself with the way he handles the narrative. He allows plot points to peer in like uninvited guests, hinting and suggesting their importance without announcing their need to be featured and followed. His characterization is atrocious, limited to certain archetypes and symbols. He requires his performers to flesh out all the other facets. Therefore, the dimensionality of his drama is tied directly to the ability of the actor. And the lesser thespians can really drag down his designs. While a straightforward story about a group of women discussing their love/hate relationship with food and each other would probably be as dull as such a scenario suggests, Jaglom uses too many tricks and thickheaded techniques to make his many muted points. That's why they appear so peripherally in Eating's exchanges.
This film is really like sitting in on a group therapy session where you have no voice or real opinion. As the storyline opens up, we think we're in for a sex, lies and videotape style declaration, an intimate look at private problems. What we soon find ourselves in, however, is a maelstrom of mad as Hell maidens. Jaglom provides too many characters far too quickly, piling on the personas until we feel dizzy from the introductions. As Helene's house grows larger and larger with guests, we can't imagine that everyone inside will get a chance to channel before the camera. But that's where the director deceives us. He intends to give everyone their say, no matter how long it takes for them to say it. The result is repetition, the constant restatement of the same sentiments over and over again (food is bad, food is love, food is addiction, food is sex...). But if Jaglom thought there would be power in overdone duplication, he's wrong. It doesn't work as insight, or as interest. Like a documentary caught in a loop, we grow weary of never learning anything new, of never gaining a single fresh perspective on the problem.
Besides, the face-to-face exchanges with the camera are way too varied in tone and talent to resonate thoroughly. For every actress/performer perfectly capable of capturing the necessary nuances of personal angst or shame, there are others merely showboating for the sake of screen time. Many of the moments seem forced, as if women without any real issue are being compelled to confession for the sake of the film. This would explain a lot of the loose ends, the stories that go nowhere or the emotions that appear announced. While the leads are all good in their decidedly different roles, the ancillary aspects of Eating which actually take up a good percentage of the running time make this a very confused, chaotic experience.
As Helene, Kate, Sadie and Sophie, Lisa Blake Richards, Mary Crosby, Marlena Giovi and Gwen Welles respectively, do a decent, work-womanlike job of getting to the heart of their heroines. Richard's Helene and Welles' Sophie are probably the most problematic, as they appear to be a collection of tics and psychological scars, not real people living actual lives. Richards in particular seems stuck in breakdown mode, constantly nibbling at food and fiddling with her clothes. Welles, on the other hand, never heard the age old adage "If you can't say something nice..." - she is persistently plugged into a criticism style that is mean spirited and vicious. Giovi seems like a deserter from another movie The Player, perhaps never once dropping the professional schmooze persona, even when her daughter is dying for attention. It is up to Mary Crosby then to save us from this Method madness, and she literally steals every scene she is in. Controlled, calm and always able to express herself with clarity and compassion, she is the antithesis to everything else about Eating. She doesn't seem to be lost in a world of calories and consumption. Instead, she is dealing with the broader issues of love and commitment, and she wears her apprehension well. Especially good in a final confrontation with Welles, Crosby represents everything Eating could have been, had its director decided to play it straight.
But that is not Jaglom's motive or intention. Eating is definitely an abstraction, a loose amalgamation of thoughts esoterically examined by a filmmaker uninterested in flow or formation. The supposed humor is hindered by the depth of the despair explored, and meaning is meshed with propaganda to squelch any sense of delicacy. In Jaglom's world, women are incredibly f*cked up bitchy warriors, battling a society that mandates body type and desirability without a single consideration for how such schematics are achieved. They rend their flesh and fuss with their features for the sake of something humanly impossible to achieve. But, oddly, in Eating they appear to be "about" nothing else. They are not the nurturers or the caretakers of creation. They are not the empathetic beings braving the evil elements of the male-dominated planet. No, in Eating, women are just as backstabbing and belligerent, volatile and venomous as the "pigs" they put down as uncaring and callous. The director may be trying to drop the curtain on the secret life of sisters, but Eating is not that complex. In reality, it's a one-note acknowledgement that, at one time, society shied away from dealing with the pressures it placed on woman (and the effect that had on their psyche). We have since grown up, if only a little, as the years have passed. Sadly, this film is still stuck in its own evasive era.