Angie Transcendent


Directed by Philip Noyce
Starring Angelina Jolie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Liev Schreiber

Salt film poster (2010)

It is regrettable that some people call Angelina Jolie “Angie”. I find this overly-familiar, even from her father (who is only occasionally permitted contact) and her partner, Brad Pitt, who appears to see an all-American normalcy in her that the rest of the world does not. Angie is about as much an Angie as I am a Cressida or Sheherazade. Angelina is “Angelina”, but she is really only “Angelina Jolie”, since “Angelina” is incomplete and also over-familiar, though less intrusive. “Jolie” is too weak, too accessible and too kind to describe this unusual woman. “Angelina” may have to do here though, since her full name is so exhaustingly long. Prolific, even. It is embarrassing, however. I feel like an unhinged gossip columnist.

Is Angelina Jolie the most beautiful woman on earth? She may well be. She is certainly among them. Anyone who sees, for example, the runway sequence in Gia (1998) in which she weaves her way druggedly along in a Botticelli-inspired bridal gown, sees something very much like an angel. The vulgarity of her over-determined features and titanic lips simply makes her beauty universal, over-written enough that it can be perceived by the entire world: Angelina’s beauty plays in Europe, Latin America and India, for example, for different reasons. There is something for everyone in her magnificent face. She looks like one of the great beauties of the 1950s on steroids, like a next-generation take on the human race.

Runway Scene in Gia (1998)

Though one or two tats more and she will be unfilmable. Anyone see the absurdity of a film called Original Sin (2001) set in a 19th century Cuban plantation in which she was tatted up like a gang-banger? The bathtub scene washed away the foundation covering her tattoos, which made her a rather unusual historical damsel who resembled a death-row inmate.

One thing to know about Angelina is that she only occasionally uses stuntmen. For “Salt”, she learned Krav Maga (a crunchy Israeli martial art involving the breaking of a bunch of bones) and Muay Thai. (Krav Maga naturally won out in the achy-breaky fight sequences.) She takes lots of lessons for each film in things like knife-throwing and ball-kicking. Recreationally, she learned how to fly a plane, and her reasons for doing so are fascinating. Little Maddox, her first child, she discovered, enjoyed watching planes take off and land at an airstrip. It wasn’t enough to bring the child and sit next to him in the grass, watching. Angelina had to be the pilot the child observed.  Brad Pitt has since taken lessons as well, which I’m sure brings his family no end of pleasure to contemplate. It would not really surprise me if Angelina eventually dispensed with the plane, and simply just took flight. Angelina is always coming into Being.

I long to hear her dance instructor tell us that she has two left feet. I wish her Aramaic dialect coach would denounce her as a moron with no flair for dead languages. (In Salt, she speaks lovely-sounding Russian.) Her mother was of French ancestry, so she is fluent, and has her tribe enrolled in lessons. She will never fail to acquire James Bond-like skills, and she will never fail to execute them perfectly. She not only does not look like a real woman, she simply is not one, struggling like the rest of us.

Salt was mostly engaging on first watching, but you know as it unspools that a second showing would be unbearable. Salt, starring Angelina Jolie and Who Cares. This is truly offensive to the superb Chiwetel Ejiofor of the great British film about illegal immigration and organ theft, Dirty Pretty Things (2002), whose craft has no purpose here: I did not even recognize him. Once the plot gimmicks are unveiled, one is left with heartless machinery which does not even run particularly smoothly. (Salt is joyless in a way that the first two Mission: Impossible films were positively ecstatic.)

Evelyn Salt, a CIA agent, seeks an analyst’s desk job after torture in a North Korean prison and then a happy marriage to a German arachnologist. In this blissful home, Salt’s husband keeps a variety of exotic spiders in terrariums.

A walk-in defector at the CIA, a man in his 60s with terminal cancer, claims that a program of covert Russian spies (of which Lee Harvey Oswald, reputed assassin of JFK, was the first) called “NS” has been in place since the late 1950s. Now, a spy already living in the US as an American will be activated to kill the Russian President, who is regarded by Russian extremists as insufficiently nationalistic. Conveniently, the Russian president is expected shortly on a goodwill tour to America, where the hit will take place.

(Putin is safe. The character actually seems to have Gorbachev properties, which creates a confusing clash of historical signifiers. The political environment is pure 1990, but the technological gizmos are all today and tomorrow.)

This walk-in, a certain Orlov, is proven by functional MRI testing to be truthful in the disclosure of his story. His next disclosure: that Evelyn Salt, who is debriefing him, is herself the very Russian spy who will kill the Russian President. Her moment of panic, as she leaves the room and calls out for her boss as if for daddy, is probably the only actual moment of acting per se in the film. She, with no understanding of Orlov’s accusation, which is grave enough to cause the CIA to instantly close in on her, goes on the run. And she runs and runs and runs. Salt looks like a CIA agent who is seeking to disguise herself as female version of Paddington Bear, but it is charming nonetheless. She dyes her hair, steals clothes, tases the living hell out of a cop, drives a motorcycle through gridlock, drains a poisonous spider of his poison, and so on. With the exception of the spider part, I think we can say that she does everything that every woman secretly wants to do. She even shoots the Russian President. But there is a catch.

Throughout the chases, American law enforcement and government show touching concern for the safety of the Russian premier.  During the visit of foreign heads of state, the Secret Service is charged with their protection. In reality, what was the most striking feature of the Salahi fiasco at the White House during the Indian State Dinner of November 2009, was the almost complete absence of concern on the part of the commentariat and White House representatives for the safety of the Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy (population: 1.2 billion). Fortunately, PM Manmohan Singh is a man of sang-froid, though one might forgive him a shudder as he later considered the fates of Mahatma Gandhi, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Indira’s son. Happily for all involved, the State Dinner was merely a display of dangerous chauvinism at the highest levels, and there was no rupture of diplomatic relations. Foreign leaders are really rather more on their own than this film would suggest.

Salt-the-poster is magnificent: Angelina is always best as a brunette, dramatic here with black hair. “Salt”. Evelyn Salt. “Evv-elyn Salt”, said the American way, not like “Evelyn Waugh”. Every critic loved her wardrobe, especially the long, slim camel-coloured coat, black trousers, and dark brown cap, which made her look like an escaping Oxbridge student slash terrorist. At one point, Salt took a black backpack out of a box as she evaced from her apartment and went on the run, and ever since then, I have grown unhappy with my fraying grey version and seek something sleek and nylon in the world of black backpacks. I hope I get the chance to flee. Her flight never stops.

I believe that I speak for all women when I say that I am deeply inspired and depressed at the same time by Angelina’s constant explorations of becoming. I am overwhelmed by her accomplishments and I am flattened by her transcendence of the female role. She is a UN Goodwill Ambassador for Refugees, in addition to her day job. I would tell you all about it, but I am too exhausted.

But in reality she has all those damn kids and I, for one, see tell-alls in her future. Will it be Pax Thien or Zahara (a name grandpa Voight cannot pronounce)?* Or perhaps Shiloh Nouvel, the firstborn, whom the gutter press has already labeled a lesbian at age three? (Remember when Angelina booked the Republic of Namibia in order to give birth, like a lioness seeking privacy?) Angelina wasn’t human, and still isn’t, but just as her accomplishments are unusual, so are her martyrdoms. She claims to enjoy her immense family of tiny children and hidden nannies and a battered-looking spouse. I do not believe her, and I smile as I type that. I do believe she will adopt more, but this is the equivalent to a bluffing poker player going all in. I believe that the true story of the Jolie-Pitt household will come someday with the kind of shock associated with the 1970s revelations of JFK’s sex life.

No Kid: 40 reasons not to have children

I am more of a partisan of the French popular philosopher Corinne Maier, whose 2007 book titled in French No Kid shows her fear of being misunderstood, even by the French. (The subtitle is Forty reasons to not have children.) Though she is herself a mother of two (and perhaps, then, a monster), her position is that, at the end of the day, kids aren’t worth it. The inconvenience, the tedium, the pain, the cost, etc. She is impressively thorough on this subject. (Though I do not believe that she covers the stickiness factor which is, for me, the deal-breaker.) The book was a raging best-seller in France. Before you attack, know that she is a writer, psychoanalyst and economist. (Although everyone has a psychoanalytic practice in France. Mechanics, florists, computer programmers. I exaggerate a little, but not much. The same holds true for Italy and the legal profession.)**

I seem to digress, but it is the horror that Ms. Jolie has wrought upon her own life (her many tattoos and her many children) that makes me able to tolerate her special experiment with our planet and its amusements. Acquiring six children in six years (2002-2008) for an ultra-jet set movie star is, I suspect, about as sensible as acquiring six ferrets for a college student. And since she did much of it purposefully—it wasn’t an accident—she must show us her wonderful teeth and defend her choices for the rest of her life.

Many of Angelina’s films bomb (though not Salt), and many are so forgettable that I cannot remember a sampling of her work to cite off the top of my head; I have to consult her C.V., only to discover that I have, in fact, seen many of them. (I first stumble across that horror Tomb Raider, derived from a video game. Yes. A smash hit.) Angelina is an enigma: she is the movie star who kills movies. Critics say she has never made a single good film (though she has given a small number of good performances—-maybe 3-4—-in artistically failed movies). A 1938 ad in the Hollywood Reporter wrongly called Greta Garbo (and the more resilient Marlene Dietrich) “box office poison” after a few flops, which so offended Garbo that she would, in time, be moved to quit acting forever; with Angelina, there would be a kernel of truth in that phrase.

Her bid for serious recognition was A Mighty Heart (2007), a necessarily inert film (that bombed) centering upon the wait for news about Daniel Pearl’s whereabouts after he was kidnapped in Karachi. She played Mariane Pearl, the very pregnant wife who waited in a state of hysteria and tension that would have put most people in an asylum, only to learn that her husband had been beheaded by Islamist fanatics. I was truly impressed by Angelina’s pathos.  Unfortunately, the goodness of Mrs. Pearl does not a good film, or a watchable film, permit. Mariane Pearl is shown arguing, being interviewed, making phone calls, faxing, waiting, analyzing, working on a white board: all in vain, for we know the tragic result. This activity, and the complex thought behind it, could only be conveyed meaningfully and for a deserving historical record in a book, which she wrote in 2003. No matter what the stakes, watching someone do paperwork does not cinema make.

So Angelina is apparently stuck in a body of 35 years making action films. Tomb Raider Part Trois? Salt II (was this not the name of an arms control treaty in the 1970s?) is clearly in the works. Action films cannot end happily, because of Tolstoy’s dictum that all happy families are happy in the same way. They cannot kill the hero just to establish street cred, since it would be too expensive to foreclose the franchise. There is always a sequel in the works. It is possible that Salt II was written before Salt I. And so it goes.


* Granddad Jon Voight stumbles over the names of ultrafast arrivals. This uproarious exchange comes as the old geezer tries to stay hip to Angelina’s program:

• Voight: Maddox just had a birthday. Happy birthday, Maddox! 5 years old—it’s a big one! You’re getting to be a young man, and I send my love to you. And send my love to…uh…Shakira…and…Shahira… [To reporter] Is it Shakira or Shahira? Reporter: Zahara. Voight: Shahara! Shahara!

** (Maier wrote an earlier book called Bonjour Paresse (Hello Laziness) (2004) that is a take-off on the title Bonjour Tristesse (Hello Sadness), a classic work of 1950s literature. Hello Laziness: why hard work doesn’t pay tells us not only how we avoid both work and being fired from a big company, but how this is ultimately the right thing to do from the standpoint of economics and organization theory. And, of course, this is more obviously a position we can all get behind. One of her tips is to carry an empty file folder wherever you go, because it creates the appearance of productivity and purposefulness. This is like when decerebrated actresses put on empty eyeglass frames to play nuclear physicists and Supreme Court judges. Tellingly, they take the glasses off to speak, as if vision and speech were inextricably linked.)

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7 Responses to “Angie Transcendent”

  1. Scott Rose says:

    LOVED your review. Maybe instead of saying Angie we could call Brad Pitty and the two of them, Pitty about Angelina.

  2. Tim Van Huss says:

    Well first of all, I thought your psychoanalysis of her was dead on. Oddly, although you say you liked the movie, your review made me completely uninterested in seeing it. I like the idea of her being a pop culture feminine superhero…but it does not in general make me want to see one of her films.

    The last one I sat all the way through was probably Pushing Tin. Which really wasn’t an Angelina vehicle, she was just supporting cast. I really liked Gia. I hate video games so Tomb Raider is completely lost on me. Although, I think she is beautiful, she looks so unattainable as to be either ethereal, goddess-like, or mythological. Cartoonish even. I have nothing against tattoos, but often it is psychologically a plea to be noticed and I am not sure where she is going with that.

    Oh I know a movie I really, really like of hers was Girl Interrupted. She’s a great actress, but she chooses movies that have a dialog equal to pablum by and large.

    And lastly I am not sure how she reconciles herself with her father. Jon Voight showed up at political rallies for right-wing politicians in Michigan a few months ago…that can’t be great. There could be daddy issues lurking somewhere. I was sorry you did not mention her brother kiss at the Oscars that one year. LOL!

    • Erin O'Brien says:

      Wow, Tim. You said everything that I left out! Kind of uncanny.

      Gia and Girl, Interrupted were works of art. They were terrific, though technically Girl was better. Notice she kind of wasn’t acting: hypersexual, hostile, nutty. I LOVE the hand puppet in group therapy. Genius. Her mother thought of that detail for the film, actually.

      I too can’t figure out if she just has no taste in scripts. There are actors like that. Julian Sands choses crap almost exclusively, and it is just like he cannot distinguish quality. Queen Latifah does way too much crap (although crap movie “Taxi” was loads of fun). Then there are Sharon Stone and Halle Berry, who only have a couple of salvageable movies each.

      The more I read about her, the more a feeling of malaise comes over me. She may be stunning, but she kind of seems like bad news for a Goodwill Ambassador. Strange.

      And I admit, I just don’t get the tattoos, knives, etc. It just repels me.

  3. Kiki says:

    Am in love with your writing style ~ keep in mind I know nothing about putting pen to paper ~ you do it with ease and eloquently flowing words ~ love that ~ not sure if I want to see the movie but know that I fell for your eye’s view of Angelina ~ I don’t watch very many movies but certainly have notice Ms. Jolie ~ she does seem almost too unreal to be real ~ she is old Hollywood (ish) ~ Thank you for waking my senses to her varied and seemingly awesome person ~ we shall see in the future if the “tell alls” tell the truer Angelina ~ Thanks for the read.

  4. Trilby says:

    What I love most about Angelina is her insouciance; she has enough money, fame, beauty, love to allow her to be indifferent to opinions created by paparazzi and tabloids. She is brave enough to appear in films such as Mr. and Mrs. Smith and not be shaken in her confidence of her abilities.

    I totally agree with your assessment of her and of Salt, which I thought was a pretty good time-waster nevertheless (certainly infinitely better than Eat Pray Love, which my friends were watching in the theatre next door whilst I saw Salt alone). And, I completely agree with you about Chiwetel Ejiofor, whom I adored in Kinky Boots and didn’t even recognize in Salt until the credits.

    What a really great review. I loved your distillation of Angelina’s being. You have a beautiful turn of phrase. I can’t wait to read more of your stuff.

  5. mamie b says:

    best line i have heard…
    “simply just took flight.”

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