Monday, February 23, 2015

SW Watches: Fifty Shades of Grey (yes, really)

I hate to miss a bit of good, out-of-control cultural ephemera - especially when it is not aimed at me, and I do not understand it.  And in this manner, I joined forces with longtime pal AmyC, a person of great character whom I've known since 1993.*  Her post will go up soon, but is so different in tone, I thought I'd give y'all some breathing space between my comments and her own.

This post is going to contain some discussion of naughty adult things.  If the discussion of sex, movies, movie sex, awkward movie sex, light bondage and/ or things that I generally withhold from conversation at work, with my parents and/ or their pastor might bother you a bit, come back in a couple of days.  I'm sure we'll be back to talking about Superman again by then.

This discussion will be spoiler laden, which is not my usual SOP, but either you're going to see this movie or you won't, and to really discuss it, we kind of have to talk about it in less than elliptical terms.

At this point, the origin of Fifty Shades of Grey is probably as well known as the book itself.  But it's also relevant to discussion of the movie, because I suspect a faithful adaptation of the material (and faithfulness is the rule of the day with adaptations of popular works of fiction, as the likelihood that this may be the only book the audience read last year, and they damn well remember it, increases quite a bit when you're talking Twilight inspired fan-fiction) was entirely necessary and also explains a lot of what happened.  But I also don't actually know, as I have never read the novels.

My complaints do not end with the second of my biggest problems with the film - and I want to get this out there:  The movie broke the cardinal rule of an erotic adventure at the cinema.  When it wasn't setting off all sorts of alarm bells that had nothing to do with handcuffs or silk ropes, the movie was just boring.

50 Shades is a movie where things keep happening, but nothing really occurs that couldn't have been handled more efficiently or with smarter execution.  At 2 hours, the movie is odd and bloated and runs on with details that don't directly serve the A Plot.

And what is the A Plot?

It is NOT, as the trailer would suggest, the sexual awakening of a young woman under the learned hand of a good looking rich guy who incorporates ropes and paddles into his bedroom play.  It's a whole lot more about a virginal (literally) young woman who naively tries to land and fix a bad-boy by playing along a bit before, I'd argue, trying to change the rules on him.  And these are not mysterious rules.  After all, he put them in a nicely bound contract for her to review (no lie!  This is a major conflict in the movie).

The movie takes something like 45 minutes or so before even showing the sex dungeon.  Until then, we're treated to a weirdly rom-com-like meet-cute (in order to show how goofy and just-like-other-girls she is, she literally trips walking in the door as she meets Grey .  Oh, and she's an English Lit major with lots of cute sweater sets and a dead father but a caring step-father and divorced mom and basically the whole family part was over-written to make sure we'd gotten in every damn cliche possible.  So, put on your fiction-suit, Mary Sues).  We also witness a series of events of dubious value in establishing the characters in what I finally figured out was Vancouver and not Portland because the movie refuses to make sense of geography or international borders.

All of that at least had the benefit of character establishment, as absurd as much of it felt.

Oh!  Far be it from me to NOT mention this movie also makes heavy use of our ability to see onscreen texts between and IM's between the characters.  Frankly, it's all pretty modern if you forget our protagonist is on a flip phone, but it plays about as well as reading someone else's coyly worded texts usually feels, with the added bonus of us getting to see their faces as they read the texts with raised or lowered eyebrows.

I don't have any complaints about our lead actress.  She's intentionally not a pin-up queen, and she is something like 10 times the actor that Kristen Stewart thinks she is.  Which is, to say, it doesn't feel like she resents being on camera.  The fellow playing Christian Grey is - I dunno, maybe not quite the Arrow shirt model I'd have expected, and he doesn't exactly stick the landing on lines that are intended to be steam-pants sexy.  Of course, he's working with some mealy mouthed dialog that probably looks saucy on paper, but in reality, eh...

Because this is a movie based on a book by and for a very specific audience - the movie establishes that our heroine is a perfect virgin as she exits either grad school or college (I wasn't clear on which, but she mentions a "thesis", so...) of no particular religious or ethical inclination who has just not found the right guy.  Hey, tip of the hat in this era of non-Victorian morals.  She has not only not had sex, but the suggestion seems to be that she's perfectly untouched by the brutish hand of man before our 27 year old self-made billionaire orphan with parents (he's both Bruce Wayne AND Twilight's Edward) somehow decides this unremarkable person he spent fifteen minutes with is the girl of his dreams.

Our sex-pot billionaire then goes about the routine we learn from movies is charming and not at all terrifying, of showing up at our heroine's place of work unannounced, breaking into her home to tell her how great she is, pursuing her across the country to separate her from her family,** and kind of kidnapping her a bit here and there, occasionally across international borders.

I kid, but...  Y'all, I straight up find this sort of thing really screwed up.

When we were watching the Twilight movies and I was way into our 2nd or 3rd bottle of red wine, I was still making the crowd stop the movie so I could be sure what I thought was happening was, indeed, happening, and not the author of the book, nor the screenwriter, nor the director nor actors thought any of this was weird and not more or less exactly how people wind up with restraining orders and jail time.

I get that women love a bad boy or whatever, but...  hey, society, figure it out.  Because telling young women that having bullying boyfriends who break into their homes and demand sex and submission is an erotic adventure is sending them some construed messages.  It doesn't matter how cute he is or how many abs he has or dollars in his wallet or cars or whatever, and it really isn't good if he's offering her a lack of freedom in return for material wealth to effectively keep her from being able to leave.  That shit is some dangerous behavior to romanticize.

It is here that I want to pause and consider a single, weird image from the beginning of the movie.  And I FIRMLY believe I'm reading too much into it, but you never know...  When Anastasia heads off to meet-cute Christian Grey, there is a large, black and white painting of a morose looking panda bear on the wall.  The painting, while fitting in with the monochromatic tones of our Christian Grey, feels at odds with the actual design sense of the office.

And that was when I decided it was a sad panda.  And I will never let go of the idea that this was someone's clever idea to insert Sexual Harassment Panda right into the movie.

But you have to keep in mind, this is the same movie that puts a horrendously tacky early 80's wallpaper on the wall of a room to make sure we see the graphic of a caged bird with the door open on the cage.  You know, because symbolism is why we're all here.

Don't get me started on the uneaten sushi.

So, the actual sex.

Look, cards on the table, I'm an open-minded guy.  As long as everyone involved is in agreement and consenting, I am all for whatever people want to get up to.  But, in part due to the extenuating context around our featured sex scenes - which were fewer in number and of less duration than you'd expect for what was being sold - and because everything feels like a foregone conclusion when you wander into the movie, I dunno.  Maybe it was the directing.  Maybe it's the story.  But - and this happens a lot with fights in movies and comics - there's so little at stake in the outcome of what's happening, you just sort of wait it out until they wrap up what they're doing and tune back in when the movie picks up the narrative thread once more.  I don't want to say the sex needs to push the story forward in the manner a song works in a musical, but that is exactly what I'm saying.  And, in a movie that isn't really sure what a narrative is - waiting it out during our steamy scenes makes for a pretty long, drawn out two hours.

Maybe someone could have made this appealing or sexy, but this director and these actors were not the right combo for whatever they thought they were making.

I also want to take on something that bugged the living hell out of me (this is where I talk about my biggest problem with the film), because I was absolutely pulling my jaw off the floor as the movie ended.  This is, in theory, a movie about a young woman learning she likes sex (yay!), and getting tied up and rubbed with peacock feathers (still on board!).  She maybe even learns she likes rough sex (whatever floats your boat!).  If two decades of reading Dan Savage has taught me anything, it's that it takes all kinds, and it takes a long time for people to figure out what they like.  And, so, whatever.  I can support whatever you're into if it's consenting adults and nobody winds up bankrupted or in the ER.


Our young protagonist walks into the sex dungeon around the 45 minute mark, and this place has got everything.  Sure, it has all the fun tie-me-up stuff, and silly hats and whoopee cushions and whatnot, but it also has lots of stuff intended for hitting another person.  I mean, a LOT of it.  Whips, flails, canes, the works.  These items have essentially one function, with the purpose determined by how much your mileage varies when it comes to how much you like being on the receiving end of a cat-o-nine-tails.

And, as a reminder, there was this multi-page document that she was supposed to have read thoroughly that provided details she could have easily Googled if she had questions. There are huge, drawn out scenes about the sexy document, and chaste confusion about what things are and squeeing over seeing stuff that, really, anyone on tumblr sees regularly whether they intend to or not.

So, somehow our hero is completely shocked and surprised and it is the deal breaker that ends the movie when a kind of tacky braided belt is used at the end of the movie on her derrier.  This comes, somehow, as a complete surprise, despite multiple scenes in the sex dungeon, a not too subtle suggestion at about the half-way mark this was what our handsome fellow considered "punishment", and her vocal insistence on finding out what "punishment" really means.

Again, my work in the field is not extensive, but I wasn't sure what I was looking at as the movie suddenly turns on a dime and makes it out that our bad boy, who has all but walked our hero through Power Points as to what is happening, and said "I don't think so" about this, is now somehow in the wrong when the girlfriend is now game.

I am not saying people can't change their minds, or that one does not have ownership of their body in a sexual situation - but I am saying, narratively, it was garbage.   If this were a movie about marathon runners, we'd be in the finale and our hero would be getting upset because they just figured out that this whole 26.2 mile thing is way harder than they thought when they signed up, and they quit and yelled at the coach for being awful.  But it's also one thing to realize one actually is not into this or to understand their limits - it's quite another to have the movie make him into a bad guy.

What I guess I'm saying is that if you start dating someone and on the second date they show you their sex dungeon, don't be surprised if, at some point, somehow it comes up they might want to use the sex dungeon on you.  Getting upset about it a few months in is just bad manners.

I have not read the book, nor the two sequels.  I suspect that this will be some sort of drawn out redemption story for Christian Grey, wherein he is saved by Anastasia and her more vanilla tastes in BDSM and we get a bizarrely domestic situation that waters everything down by the denouement.

We'll see.

Was it better than Twilight?  Well, there was more nudity, both dude and lady.  The non-starter romantic triangle gets relegated to the background, and I felt generally less embarrassed for everyone involved.  On the other side, I felt like the film was far more of a narrative mess, and could have just committed to its source material and gone for the NC-17 rating that might have made it at least feel like it had a point in existing.  And while it was hilarious to see the contractually bound Anna Kendrick slog through all the Twilight films after making her own career path, it's deeply troubling to see Marcia Gay Harden show up as the name actor in this movie.

But neither movie is aimed at me.  So, you know, ask the lady who was checking me in for voting during the last Presidential election who wouldn't put the book down long enough to provide proper instructions if it was working for her.

In a country with no shortage of access to adult, erotic, pornographic or other forms of sexually charged content, I am very much unsure why this particular book and movie became a phenomenon.  Dirty books are nothing new, BDSM material is readily available, and video pornography or erotic adventures are minted seemingly by the minute (hint - those places called "News Stands" are often anything but),   I understand that, unlike much porn, this is aimed at women, and even more remarkably, somehow passed into the popular consciousness enough that it jumped right over the "smut" label and became acceptable for reading in public.

If my voyage to the cinema to see Fifty Shades of Grey was intended to help me unlock the mystery of this cultural explosion, and it was - I can't say I've developed any new hypotheses that didn't stem from applying much the same observation here that I'd seen with Twilight.  The movie - and I'd assume the book - do cast the Mary Sue as the hero, she is a fiction suit anyone can put on - non-descript and familiar enough that even the quirks she displays are from the Pier One catalog of stock fictional protagonists.  Like Twilight, it plays to a certain age in a person's life and spins out a fantasy that may make no sense on the logical level, but is an endless stream of wishes fulfilled from great sex to new cars to financial security when you've just graduated with an English degree, and a perfect guy who can't get over you.  But, like Edward or Bruce Wayne, he's got this one painful secret that made him the bad boy he is.  And somehow, magically, all the boring things that comprise the basis for your self-doubt are what drives him to passion.

None of this is any particularly great insight.  But that's what I've got.  If the male fantasy is James Bond and his ridiculous behavior, vehicles, women, and card playing or Batman - whose defining characteristic in most folks' minds the last two decades is "he can beat anyone he fights while dressed up as a mammal, and he doesn't have to go to work" - it's certainly no less a curious insight into the zeitgeist that doesn't jive with what we say in print versus what we seem to actually be like below the surface.  And you can't tell me that those characters don't have some explaining to do when it comes to how they function in the world.

And, hey, that shit worked for Stephanie Meyer like no one's business, and putting some sex into it has likewise made EL James a fortune.  Good for them.

I wish I had that kind of business savvy.

*Amy lived on my co-ed floor my freshman year at UT Austin.  She was witness to my first jell-o shot/ "this kid is partied out" experience and got me a ride safely home with a gentleman I never saw again.  She then woke me around 10:00 with a Big Gulp cup full of water and a bottle of Tylenol and damned well saved my life.  And for this, I have been eternally grateful.  For good or ill, I still think of Amy every time I load up on water and Tylenol before heading to bed after a particularly good evening.

**hey, Anastasia's mom - when your daughter's boyfriend shows up unexpected on the other side of the continent, tracks you down outside your home and inserts himself into your mother/ daughter brunch, you don't up and leave to let them chat.  That's terrifying.  You put one hand on your daughter and make the guy deal with you and support your daughter, you @#$%ing dummy


J.S. said...

Well, this 50 Shades review definitely signifies some sort of moment for The Signal Watch. I'm not sure what sort of moment, but it signifies... something...

The League said...

Yeah, from now on "the Signal Watch" is a BDSM discussion board. Everyone put on your gimp suit and log on!

AmyC said...

What boggles me still is that I do NOT understand why people are into this. I really want to understand!

AmyC said...

(and by "this" I mean the movie/book, not BDSM. I understand why people are into that.)

The League said...

My ultimate conclusion is that there isn't enough soft-core smut aimed at women, and I'm angry I can't figure out how to capitalize on that fact.