Here, I don’t have to pretend that what I have to say matters. I get to just say it to say it, because I am compelled to say it. I don’t have to act like my opinions are “good” or “right” or “justified" or “smart.” They’re just my perspective.
The director of “Eternals” is Chloé Zhao. She is a critically acclaimed director who has made a robust early career out of a few celebrated independent films. These indie films have been of a kind. They all feature sharp realism, and they tell organic American stories about a central character’s personal struggles set against the beautiful backdrops of this gorgeous country. She won best director at the 2021 Oscars for her film “Nomadland,” which she also wrote, and which also won best picture.
“Eternals,” then, is a major break away from what Zhao has done before. In every way. A highly digitized comic book story featuring a pantheon of main characters engaged in fantastical and mysterious, rather vague and theatrical super-world-warrior stuff.
When I saw online that “Eternals” was panned and saw who directed it and saw what she’d been making before, I thought, “I wonder if this failure will scare her off back into her comfort zone. Or I wonder if she’ll get a taste for failure and keep pushing.”
And then I thought, “Ugh, what a load-of-crap thing to think.”
I suppose that as an artist myself, I hope to show more expansiveness in my reactions to the art of others. I especially would prefer never to see failure in anything anyone else does — artist or layperson. “Failure” is a made-up human symbol, of course, like all of our words, used to categorize an event we witness in the world around us into an idea that can be easily stored for reference in the brain. "Failure" was how I thoughtlessly chose to name what Zhao had done, thanks in large part to cultural training.
What is failure? Not achieving a purpose, more or less, right? Let’s use the example of a rocket launch to try to get at the heart of failure, because it seems like a pretty straightforward event. The purpose of the event is to launch a rocket into space. If the rocket doesn’t launch into space, this is failure.
Is it? What if a concurrent purpose is to keep the astronauts on the rocket safe, and even though the rocket doesn’t launch, no one gets hurt? Is that still failure? Or what if the launch is meant as just a test? If the launch is a test, failure is impossible, because the point is to explore faults and issues and surprises and get everything sorted out. If the purpose is just to explore and collect information, there is no failure. It’s open-ended. Nothing has to go a certain way.
Back to Zhao and “Eternals.” What kind of assumptions did I make by calling her experience with “Eternals” a failure? I assumed that the purpose of movie-making for her is to receive positive movie reviews from professional critics. That’s all I was observing — that the movie was panned, meaning only and simply that it received a lot of bad reviews from professional critics. And then I was labeling this a failure.
Most likely, Zhao enjoys positive reviews and the appreciation and validation such reviews bestow upon her as a creative. It’s unlikely, however, that this is why she makes movies.
Perhaps she did “Eternals” to push herself as an artist, and unless making this movie was boring and routine and offered no challenges, she certainly succeeded. Maybe she did “Eternals” to embark in new territory, maybe she made “Eternals” because she loves Marvel comics and wanted to be involved, maybe she made “Eternals” to see what it was like to make a blockbuster action movie that plays in the big movie houses rather than a modestly-viewed indie film. Maybe she made “Eternals” because she really wanted to meet Salma Hayek.
Failure for Zhao was impossible if any or all of these options were her goals. Failure was only possible if she was putting her success in the hands of a bunch of strangers with goals of their own — namely, critics.
I guess this is perhaps the most interesting idea. We get to choose how our lives will play out based on what goals we choose, what purposes we pursue. Whether you call it “failure” or not, if you decide your main purpose is always to learn, to grow, to live, to test, to try, you cannot fail. If you ensure that the achievement of your goals is always in your own hands and in no one else’s, you cannot fail. What can you do? You can love, you can push yourself out of your comfort zone, you can do your best, you can experiment, you can live your heartiest life.
It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a lot of money, or you lose some things along the way, or you make mistakes or you’re not the top dog or people think you ain’t much. How can anyone know what you are if they don’t even know what you’re after — why you are?
I’ve often thought that at some point, I got a taste for failure. I’ve tried so many careers, so many jobs, so many loves, so many towns and cities, and I have either given up on all of them or had them torn from me or both. Maybe, I’ve thought, I just like to fall flat on my face.
Or maybe. Maybe I haven’t failed at all, and what I’ve really gotten a taste for is that feeling of taking the first step and not knowing if the ground will be there or not, a taste for adventure, for mystery, a taste for going for broke, for experiencing something new. Maybe somewhere along the way, I got a taste for loving my life, and everything has been about living in that love and nothing else.
Maybe if I can’t even decipher how “failure” has worked its way through my life, I’d be best off abandoning my judgements about how its working in the lives of others.