Bonfire of the Vanities

Bonfire of the Vanities

Graphic By: Rebecca Singleton

A collective breath could be heard through out the United States last week, not because of the carnage in Syria, another mass shooting at a shopping mall, or the latest protests against police brutality. Instead Americans awoke to discover that Brangelina, the pop culture fairy tale of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, was over. In a year that has vomited up Donald Trump, Suicide Squad and terrorist bombs, it is almost fitting that at the tail end of the Year of the Monkey, one of our cherished celebrity delusions has gone down in flames.

But in a deeper, cultural context, the fall of Brangelina is almost a metaphor, or mirror image of the state of the republic itself. It is worth glancing at how Pitt has been at the forefront of defining superficial concepts of masculinity since the early 1990s, and Jolie has been a defining example of the modern movie goddess since at least 1999 (when she won the Oscar for “Girl, Interrupted”).

Like Donald Trump, in a more subdued and saner way, these two screen divas are personifications of everything the American Dream stands for. The acquiring of physical perfection and financial power, mixed with comic, self-contradictory pretentions at charity, defined these two as it defines the U.S. elite and the debt-ridden UCLA students desperate to join the club. I always wondered how Angelina managed to drag Brad to all those shelter-building, orphan-hugging events when he’s a known fan of Ayn Rand, the priestess of cutthroat capitalism (author of the cheerfully titled “The Virtue of Selfishness”).

If television and pop daydreams define much of the American mindset, then it’s no surprise this was a love story that began and even ended within the fantasy world of (bad) movies. The pair famously first knocked boots while shooting “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” which is an action movie about two married spies, the film is a metaphor for the love and war that goes into married life. Last year Jolie wrote and directed what is (hopefully) the last drama featuring the two together, “By the Sea,” about a depressed writer and his wife escaping to a French estate by the sea to mope and watch others having sex.

The second movie would be agonizingly boring if it didn’t now offer a bit of morbid curiosity. If “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” was at least cheerful and entertaining, “By the Sea” is a collection of shots of a depressed Pitt sitting in a bar drinking and a sad Jolie sitting by a window staring. How can we, the minions, not wonder just how autobiographical the film might be, even if the dialogue is laughable crap in the style of “what is that sound?” “It is the sea.” The first movie could be seen as the honeymoon, the second is the crash, pretty much like the Bernie Sanders campaign story for much of 2016.

Brangelina turned out to be just like America, frail, confused, crazy, and now trying to figure out what comes next.

For millions the Jolie-Pitt arrangement was the shining example of the marriage, or at least partnership, we should aspire to. I imagine the male and female specimens I see packing the local gyms, running past me like dehydrated drones on my way to In-N-Out and smiling behind Ray Bans with a shirt three sizes too small, are not simply being health conscious, they want to be perceived like the notion of beauty Brangelina represented. In the era of Tinder you don’t really need to seek a committed relationship, you can momentarily live the fantasy.

But all that glitters is not gold. The fact that Jolie is demanding sole physical custody of the children, using terms like “safety” when partially explaining the reasons for the divorce, and when the FBI investigating Pitt for an alleged incident on the couple’s private plane, it is obvious that beneath the beautiful photos lurked unpleasant, ugly truths. And maybe it is none of our business to know exactly what those truths were, but the cracking of such a Hollywood fantasy is merely a reflection of our general nationa/cultural disappointments which reveal much about ourselves.

The fall of Brangelina fits perfectly with the year 2016. It was the year when Bernie Sanders raised many, progressive hopes for a return to New Deal ideals, but the ugly truth about party politics not only denied him the nomination, it bent him to its will complete with an endorsement for Hillary Clinton. The once mighty Republican Party was shattered by a raving, gold-minted candidate who embodies the worst aspects of American culture (and history). The attractive face of American democracy is producing two decades where Americans have only known the presidential conga line of Bush-Clinton-Bush-Obama-Clinton (maybe).

This was another year where the illusion of a classless society was again shaken by spates of police killings and subsequent protests. But we still want to believe, which is why Kaepernick is getting death threats over refusing to stand for the anthem in protests of a police culture that patrols working class areas like Damascus. He was commenting on the ugliness underneath the romanticism of the stars and stripes.

America wanted to believe it is beautiful like Brangelina, but like Jolie’s makeup in “By The Sea,” the façade smears and drips. Celebrity scandal and broken romances are nothing unique or strange, but it is worth noting the reflection of ourselves in our pop gods, we worship them for a reason. We want to be them, but behind the veil of perfection they are just like us. Brangelina turned out to be just like America, frail, confused, crazy, and now trying to figure out what comes next.