March 18, 2015
What? No one blinked an eye when I watched The Room.
50 Shades is an interesting cultural phenomenon. (How does Twilight fan-fiction end up being directed by a Turner prize winner and go on to make half a billion dollars already? This is a question of culture, not film.) In fact, most of what this review will be about is probably culture, rather than the movie, the specifics of which I barely recall. (The smashed methodology is about taking on impressions and hunting deeper truths, not details. 🙂 )
So. 50 Shades. I read the first paragraph of the first book a few years back and found it atrociously written. After finding out it began life as Twilight fan-fiction, I then ignored the whole thing, and had only a vague sense of BDSM about it as it became a phenomenon.
So. The movie. I found a lot of it funny, in the funny-because-it’s-bad way, in the you’re-shitting-me-that’s-how-you’re-playing-this? way, in the oh-my-god-this-dialogue way. That was maybe for the first hour. It also felt like it went on quite a long time.
The film is competently made and shot well. The content is the weak link. Characters, dialogue, story; all lacking. Very little happens. But this is at heart a fantasy (sexual rather than otherwordly.) As such it is about mood, and the accumulation of small details to make it whole.
So what is this movie? It is a journey into the female subconscious, lit up on the big screen for all to see. Of course, we’ve seen the male subconscious at the movies for a while now. How long has 007 been a thing? And action movies. We get that dudes want to be the coolest most bad-ass mofo in whatever the context is, get the girl, kill the baddies, and save the planet. It is stark, infantile and embarrassing, but we have gotten used to it. We barely blink. It’s just the story we tell. (At a baser level, through mainstream pornography, we get a raw and ugly sense of male sexual fantasy.)
So what is most notable here is the entry into mainstream culture of this feminine subconscious. A different flavour of desire.
Why this cultural moment? Here I wonder about the power of demographics; the realisation that women are a substantial audience, and content tailored to them will sell just as well. Our cultural production houses were framed in a one TV per household era. When the man of the house lost control of the TV remote, he lost control of the household’s attention. Now everyone has a computer of their own, and there are more channels of content than anyone can track. Combine this with a few extra billion people and the result is fracturing appeals. There is lots of money to be made in what were once unviable untargetable niches. And half the population is more than niche.
These changes are still underway; they have been underway for the past 25 years or so in media. They have been accelerating in the internet age as more and more voices and experiences can be heard, because more can speak through the democratisation of access to the means of being heard online.
This is one of the first times the female subconscious has come out to party so lustily. So it is raw. And clumsy. And embarrassing.
So what happens? Girl meets guy. They have Sex. OMG.
Who is this guy? A billionaire. We don’t know why, or how, or what he does. He has a building with his name on it, is very busy and occasionally talks intently into the telephone. He has aspects of class, education and refinement. He dresses well. We are told he is hot. He has crazy wealth and therefore power, and is a total control freak. And, most importantly, he is completely obsessed with this girl he just met, and their relationship is the most important thing in the world of the movie.
Who is this girl? An insecure virginal English lit student. She seems nice. She is the role to be stepped into, so we don’t want too much character intruding.
The lack of characterisation throughout reveals we are dealing with archetypes.
The lack of characterisation succeeds better here than in Twilight. I suspect because 50 Shades is purer fantasy, and somehow less absurd. A surprising sentence to write. (No sparkly vampires FTW!) There is so little context around Anastasia and Grey, whereas Twilight comes burdened with families and school and teenagery and vampires and stupidity. 50 Shades is more naked in every sense. They can just get on with the fucking.
Yes, their relationship as portrayed is pretty fucked. But how can they have a relationship? Neither of them are people, or characters. They are nothing but their roles.
My reading of the film was coloured by watching Beauty and the Beast at the French Film Festival earlier in the day. In essence, they seem the same film, the same archetypes.
The Beast is all powerful (physically, through his bestial nature, and practically, through magic) and controlling, yet cultured and refined (once a noble prince) and desirable, and tragic and messed up in some undefined way (which is the healing he seeks through Belle’s love).
Belle has only her innocence, purity and love; this disarms and redresses the power imbalance as they clash and negotiate. Her power over him grows as his need for her grows, and through love they emerge as equals.
This is a story form we have been telling for a long time. (Beauty and the Beast is a traditional story, going back hundreds of years at least.) And there is wisdom in stories, particularly the ones we tell and retell.
Does the 50 Shades series ultimately follow this arc? Is Grey ultimately healed through the relationship with Anastasia? I haven’t read them, but doubtless someone has.
When you peel away the (gasp) dominant/submissive sex angle, and the kinda fucked relationship they have, is there anything new here that we haven’t known archetypally?
So as a phenomenon this really says more about our cultural moment now, about our need to deal with sex, and the forces it unleashes in us, better, and talk about what we want like a grown up species. The funniest (and possibly most important) scene is the lengthy contract negotiation for consent for various sexual acts.
To that end it is a good thing that this is out there in the mainstream. Because porn. Because rape. Because too often guys and gals can’t talk to each other without being drunk.
That’s about all I have to say, I think.
(One tangent: watching this also makes me aware of how ghettoised we are by our demographics. We buy what is aimed at us, made for us, tailored to our predetermined tastes. We tune out the rest without even considering it. We are well trained. This applies to our consumption of media and stories. Sadly, it distorts us. What the heck is going on elsewhere? How do we know we won’t like something unless we try it? What parts of the conversation are we missing because we don’t even recognise they exist?)
After 50 Shades, we tried watching Enthiran, which turned out to be another fascinating lens to consider 50 Shades through. Enthiran is a Bollywood movie about a robot covered in human flesh a la Terminator, except instead of being a killing machine from the future, he is just the most awesome guy ever now. Another conception of the relationship between the total masculine and the feminine, filtered through another cultural lens. We only got an hour in to this, so not much to add.
Short review: Dudes. Get real drunk and see this movie. Treat it like a bad comedy. The female subconscious is giving you some hints about what it wants here. And it’s about much more than the sex.