Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

These desires come out in the sort of private moments that movies hesitate to show but that are the essential province of art.

-Richard Brody, “The Accurate Erotics of Fifty Shades of Grey” 

Fifty Shades of Grey is, for everything else it represents, a film. As a film, I was surprised to find it compelling and coherent; certainly the plot isn’t too intricate but the characters are—indeed they are far from the one-dimensional physiques one would expect of erotic fare. Further, while attractive, our leads are no porn-stars. Against it’s critics, Fifty Shades of Grey is not a pornography, a visualization of fantasy. It is, instead, a film about two people exploring their fantasies. This makes a world of difference.

So, first off, the film has a story—not a particularly new or nuanced story but a story nonetheless. It is, for all intents and purposes, a very insular story: a story about the private lives of two white, heterosexual adults in the northwest who have enough money to meet their needs. In other words, it’s a mainstream story, which is of course its claim to fame—it’s a story just like so many other stories but with a really prevalent, naughty secret that has some resemblance to BDSM. I say some because, as authors at The Atlantic and Cracked have pointed out, this film plays fast and loose with the realities of BDSM culture. There are many critiques which could be made along these lines; I think the only valid one is that the power dynamics of Christian and Anastasia are highly personal and private and lack the support and policing of a community which can be vital (especially for a newbie) in enactment of BDSM.

The film has also gotten in hot water for its portrayal of Christian’s dominant preference as a pathology. In the film, he is aroused by Anastasia’s pain—a fact which he carries like a wound. In their relationship, it is easy to see why: Anastasia, while technically consenting, is deeply uncomfortable with “punishment.” She, like—I suspect—many of us, can imagine finding and does find pleasure in small amounts of pain or powerlessness. It is the flip-side which bothers her, i.e. that someone could take pleasure from giving pain or seizing power. In The Atlantic article already referenced, Emma Green notes that “A 2009 study of 470 predominantly heterosexual, college-aged men and women found that both sexes preferred fantasies of being dominated by the opposite sex, rather than dominating others themselves.” I wonder if a deeper logic isn’t at play here, as senses of ingrained preferences for dominance or submissiveness line up with complementarianism—a philosophy no longer in vogue.

Even if BDSM isn’t, as I suspect it is, a means of playing with patriarchy; Fifty Shades of Grey certainly struggles with its patriarchal overtones. The struggle, however, is an important one, for while many of us no longer identify with patriarchy it is harder to shrug off its imprints. Along these lines, I find the film contributing (in however small a way) to an important exploration of sexuality as it relates to fantasy, power, and gender. I am not so worried about the many possible critiques of this film (heteronormative, hyper-sexualized, an accelerated sense of time, weak supporting characters, etc.) because I recognize that is not what the film is about. The film is about, really, only one thing: passion and power in sexuality. As such, the film delivers, especially (as Richard Brody has noted) in it’s balanced and mature portrayal of sex on-screen. To be completely honest, I am shocked that this cut was released in America. A student of Kirby Dick’s expose This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006), I thought I had a handle on the lines between R and NC-17 with regards to sex (pubic hair, close-ups of female pleasure, etc.). Something, however, has changed and Fifty Shades of Grey capitalizes on this change of heart to relentlessly focus on Anastasia and her sexual experience (rather than fall into familiar, sexist tropes that the MPAA is more comfortable with). Even more remarkably, flesh in the film is portrayed relationally, that is, subjectively rather than objectively. In contrast, most films use nudity as a lure, a performance for the audience. In fact, we are so used to this logic that we instinctively define pornography (and indecent exposure) in terms of body parts, not the context or intent with which exposure (of any sort) is present. Fifty Shades of Grey, laudably, pushes back against this fallacy—attempting (not always successfully) to balance male and female nakedness but mostly, carefully, signifying vulnerability with nudity, providing a context for bodies where characters strip for scene and story and not audience. This is, typically, a European technique which I am not accustomed to seeing in American films. Through it, the focus remains on the characters, on their subjectivity and by extension our own. As Brody writes, “desires come out in the sort of private moments that movies hesitate to show but that are the essential province of art.” This is exactly true, and it is when the audience is distanced from the characters that objectification is possible or even assured. Fifty Shades of Grey never gives us that distance and I applaud it for that.

That said, I do worry about the sexual conflations in the film, namely that the core of romance is sexuality, that losing virginity is a rite of passage, and that passion (and therefore orgasm) is at the heart of a desirable relationship. As David Matzko McCarthy has written in his wonderful book Sex and Love in the Home, sexuality is as much about everydayness (physical sharing of space, responsibility, even chores) as it is fleeting ecstasy in the bedroom (or the living room or the laundry room or the “play-room”). This is very true and important: a long-range view of happiness and reward so rare in a culture of instant gratification. There is still lots to be said, however, for the power of sexual desire, and this is what Fifty Shades of Grey manages to speak of where so many other attempts fail. That is, as I see it, all it promises to do and on those terms it delivers. Moreover, this is a story in its infancy, a first chapter out of three (or will it be four?), and it will be interested to see how the films grow along with Christian and Anastasia’s relationship. Their world is certainly a risky one, one without the kind of relational or even familial foundation that is so important in stabilizing a young sexual relationship. Still, as I keep stressing, their story is just one story, a compelling one on many levels, but not one that should be understood as normative or representational. It’s a small story, but I still call it a success.

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Samson & Delilah (2009)

There’s something about the Australian landscape that just feels right. A warm-hued blend of mystery, danger, and possibility, the “bush” is at the heart of myriad Australian films. As Samson & Delilah begins, the desert serves as an eerily picturesque backdrop for a broken-down town. It is natural, yet the natural is boring, the familiar repetitious, and the everyday suffocating—even debilitating. Our first protagonist, Samson, is an aimless teen who meanders the streets in a wheelchair, alone. To cope, he inhales fumes, keeping a can of gasoline or paint by his bed roll. Delilah, conversely, is a caregiver to her aging Nana, who needs medication and, unlike Samson, can’t move without a wheelchair. Nana, however, is a remarkable painter of traditional geometric forms, her income just enough for food and fire but little else. Continue reading

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Force Majeure (2014)

Hear: electric toothbrushes drone—cleaning teeth—barely enough to drown out underpinning fears.

See: loose clothing, bare skin—despite the frigid clime basic needs are met.

Taste: the fluoride paste, eager to be spit.

 

Brushing teeth is a motif in Force Majeure and it is easy to see why. First, the industrial hum evokes a subjective torment cemented in the cinema psyche by the horror genre. Second, the familiarity and comfort of the scene bring to light insulating technologies: heat, light, warm clothes, water. Needing nothing, the family nevertheless appears hollowed in a sense, isolated from one another as well as their surroundings. Third, each character sees his or herself reflected as both one and as a group. Identity is the main concern of this film, particularly the challenge of self-identification in the face of chaos (“force majeure”) and a pastiche of family scripts (patriarchy, feminism, etc.).

More on each of these considerations.

Continue reading

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The Purge (or) How to Throttle “The Noise” Until It Hurts You Pt. I

Today I had to make lunch. Call me whatever you like, but making lunch for me is usually a stressful endeavor. Right in the thick of things, often when I’m busiest, I have to carve out time to not only eat lunch (which could be a nice break) but invent a lunch, which bears far too much resemblance to what I do in the rest of my life (despite my hope that my other efforts are longer-lasting). Sometimes, I plan ahead, but this kind of planning is also required (of course) right when I don’t want to plan any more. So, I generally rely on pre-made components: microwaveable soup, lunchmeat and bread, etc.

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Poesy: A Poem

 

I stare at fog in the valley.

The air is crisp without

but I’m all haze within. Continue reading

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Three-in-one: Marriage, Community, and Pain

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My wife and I celebrated our one year anniversary about a week ago. I started brainstorming ways we could commemorate a month before, mostly in the form of trips. Like Walter Mitty I had an itch for adventure, I think I always have, and it felt like time to visit a historic city or chase thrills at an amusement park. Then again, I would have been just as happy to find some peace in nature on a backpacking trip, similar to the way we chose to celebrate our honeymoon. But my wife had a very different idea: she wanted to commemorate our anniversary symbolically. How could I say no to that? Continue reading

The Plague (Camus, 1947)

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I can say I know the world inside out, as you may see–that each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth, is free from it…What’s natural is the microbe. All the rest–health, integrity, purity (if you like)–is a product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter…it’s a wearying business, being plague-stricken. But it’s still more wearying to refuse to be it. ~Tarrou, Part IV.VI

Albert Camus’ The Plague is an indictment, a curse against the natural world and its overwhelming, incomprehensible malice. The setting is a “happy town,” an Algerian port city, that unexpectedly befalls the ancient plague, bringing hundreds daily into its black embrace. Their ferryman, and the protagonist, is Dr. Rieux, the guardian of futile remedies and uncertain prognoses. Indeed, no one is able to come to grips with what is going on, certainly there is “plague” but no one can find cure or treatment or explanation of how it began or when it will end. The people are, quite naturally, helpless. Continue reading

Dýrafjörður (2014)

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While I obviously love movies (look to the right just a bit…), I don’t post all that many reviews. Well, really, I think the only review I’ve ever done is Stoker, all my others thoughts on films are just that: reflections. Dýrafjörður offers a lot to reflect on, especially for this blog, and so I’m happy to be able to share a few words and then give a plug for my friend Philip Carrel’s wonderful piece. Continue reading

The Rover (2014)

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Imagine you go to your favorite restaurant and discover a new appetizer. You have to try it. You wait, then order, then wait. Unbeknownst to you, the Chef is on vacation and the intern starts a small fire preparing your meal. “It’s nothing,” he says to the waitress as he hands her your plate.  “I’ll have it out in no time.” Meanwhile, you dig into a scrumptious appetizer. It’s not perfect, but it has wet your palate and you can’t wait to round out the experience with an entree (naturally your favorite one). But something has started to smell. By the time you’ve finished your appetizer, the restaurant has burned down.

Such is the experience of watching The Rover.  Continue reading

Noah (2014)

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Let’s deal with this nagging thing right away: This is a very Western imagining of ancient Mesopotamia. We can talk clothes: Noah’s jean and jean-jacket stylings, Ham’s buzz cut and Naameh’s perfect stray curls. Going deeper, we can talk about how patriarchy becomes individualism and how the youth of Noah’s sons allows for familiar heterosexual coupling tropes. These things are a bit grating.

But I am completely missing the point. Continue reading

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