ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

The McGuffin Man
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jennifer.jpg

"The turf is ours by right,
because it's all our turf.
Can you dig it?"
- Cyrus (The Warriors, 1979)


It's a sign of the times that the romantic triangle saga of the day is the battle over Brad Pitt between All-American, dirty blonde/brown haired girl next door Jennifer Anniston and the exotic brunette with the cat green eyes, Angelina Jolie.


 


Anniston, with her unbleached sitcom roots and All American chick flick shtick is well suited to oppose Jolie, whose film debut was the soft-core tale of AIDS-stricken supermodel Gia, and who shortly thereafter grabbed an Oscar from what was essentially supposed to be a Ryder vehicle, Girl, Interrupted. It's the old America Vs. the Other; good girl vs. bad, only played on the turf of Brad. We all know that though Jolie helps foreign kids, and she's desired by all men and not to be trifled with if you're another woman; because this much is clear: while you're busy being The Good Girl, she can coast right up and snatch your Oscar, or your Brad, right out from over you.


Of course there's allegedly something of a male fantasy going on in this war over Brad. Gosh is he a lucky one, or so we're supposed to think. The press assumes that we men want to imagine ourselves as Brad Pitt being torn up in the battle of wills between Anniston and Jolie. But think again, o mighty press! Would you want to be nothing more than a chew toy at the local dog run? Isn't this what Brad is, when all the dust settles at the end of the day?


The photos in the tabloids show Pitt and Jolie always hopping out of a plane at some third world airport, sunglasses on and--hopefully--a cute adopted kid on Brad's meaty shoulder. Anniston meanwhile, is shown in her kitchen back in the good old USA, lying  upon her kitchen counter in a steely, seductive pose, her muscles taut, trying to lure the audience/Brad-by-proxy back to her arms via this portrait of lonely domestic resilience. In the cosmic game, Jolie is the third world do-gooder on a globe-trotting adventure, the Lara Croft with an olive branch instead of a gun; Anniston meanwhile is the stay-at-homestead wife to Iraqi-bound America, the you don't need to go looking for your heart because you never really left it behind scorned woman.


 


I don't mean to suggest that Brad has no real role of importance, or that his real life relationship with these women isn't one of equals and so forth, I am talking purely of the mythic arc being slowly unspooled for us by the press, and in that myth, Brad has no symbolic signifier to himself. He's simply the McGuffin, that thing that sets the plot in motion in Hitchcock movies, but which is, outside of how badly everyone wants it, without any symbolic identity of its own. In Psycho, for example, this was the $40,000. In North by Northwest, the microfilm, in Notorious, the radioactive soil sample wine bottle. In our current tabloid myth, it is Brad Pitt.


No matter how sexist past tabloid romances may have been, the woman has never been the McGuffin in any re-enactment of a myth. Women are always rich with symbolic meaning in and of themselves. Men might try and reduce them to McGuffins, but that just becomes another moist cliché, a whole mythic arc in and of itself.


Even more demeaning is that Brad McGuffin's ultimate value is not determined by cuteness, accountability or acting skills, but by his sperm and his paternal signature; the fact that he wants kids and Jennifer didn't and then he went and co-adopted Angelina's kids, and now Angelina is pregnant. To fly the empty nest coop is to leave a doubly empty nest behind. This devastation wrought on Anniston eclipses all other aspects of the Pitt persona. His own male needs and characteristics recede in the wake of the thermonuclear meltdown that is Woman Scorned.


 

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Was it a matter of not trying hard enough? Was the sex bad? Was it determined by God not to be for some mysterious reason not meant for mortal knowing? Or is Anniston--the point woman for old-fashioned American suburban sitcom values in this little drama--actually infertile?! That would be the big American nightmare come true, and it's what the drama cries out for in the next headline.This is made doubly painful in the light that if Anniston were to adopt, she'd be copy-catting Jolie. Jolie has robbed all the nests, she's got babies coming to her every which-a-way. But Anniston.... poor Anniston.

 

Not to worry (and there is no reason beyond its mythic resonance to suspect it to be true) because Anniston really supposedly doesn't want kids. Anniston that men identify with in this myth, not Pitt. We remember that on Friends, Annniston's popular sitcom of a few years gone, she played opposite another brunette, Courtney Cox, and few male fans did not have a favorite between them. Now she is the only one left waiting at the single's bar (Cox has herself long been married). The sitcom--the steady gig that kept her in America's collective sweetheart box, is long over. We cherish her loneliness-- the lack of husband / baby / sitcom-- far more than we cherish the Brangelina globe trotting fantasy. The appeal of that fantasy exists for the American reader only to offer the comparison to the divine suffering of Anniston. One cannot see one of these globe-trotting pictures of the two with their multi-racial brood in tow, without "seeing" Anniston. Their smiles and contentedness hit us like slaps in the face that we take on behalf of noble Anniston.

 

Thing back again to those Esquire photos of Anniston, sitting tautly above that kitchen sink, showing off her lean, muscled body, as if she's been training to fight a Mr. T-sized dose of anguished loneliness. Is she still lovely? Of course, but is she still desirable?

 

In a sexual sense, no.

 

We identify with a "loser" but we do not become attracted to one.

 

For Anniston, this lack of attraction is what will save her career. Brad's leaving her has pre-empted our own leaving her, the way you might cancel plans to break up with someone when you learn their parents have just died in a car accident. She becomes a friend rather than a sex object, but we keep her, so who cares? She has bypassed the whole 2-3 year laying low period which most sitcom stars need for letting the public forget about them long enough that we don't turn away in embarassment when they come sniffing back around our television screens, looking for leftover crumbs of our past adoration like a dog looks for scraps.

 

By example, let us consider the Sex in the City stars, all still strutting their way through as many perfume and gap ads as they can, riding the last few horsey whiffs of their fabulosi cred as it slowly fades from collective view. Does it not make you nauseous? Are they not like Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? or Norma Desmond at the end of Sunset Bourlevard, or Robin Williams at the 2004 Oscars?  

 

By contrast, Anniston's "scorned woman" persona cleverly sidesteps this obsolescence a priori. Since we can't possibly reject her as badly as she's already been rejected by Brad, why would we? Our praise and love as well as our indifference is heard at the Anniston home only as the faintest of whispers compared with the deafening roar of the über-fertile and more third-world than thou Brangelina juggernaut. Everyone loves to be ignored by the one they love, and in her terrible pain, Anniston becomes the new face of America, scorned by the world yet determined not to shed a single tear. By contrast, Brad becomes merely the character usually played by Herbert Marshall in those old Edmund Goulding-directed Bette Davis tearjerkers, a mere knife with which our heroine cuts herself to lovely ribbons.

--- Erich Kuersten - 2/2/06

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