Friday, February 13, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey (Sam Taylor-Johnson, 2015)

In order to adopt the freshest possible perspective on Fifty Shades of Grey, I avoided all trailers, reviews, and even the E. L. James blockbuster novel on which the film is based. But I couldn't resist Emma Green's panicky Atlantic article "Consent Isn't Enough: The Troubling Sex of Fifty Shades," an epic that neglects to name one "sex-positive feminist" but quotes Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon. Green argues that the fans as well as "most everyone...on college campuses and eleswhere" don't understand the importance of consent, hence the article's tagline: "Fifty Shades of Grey Gets BDSM Dangerously Wrong." Wrong. The film is not about BDSM per se; rather, it's about drearily wealthy Christian Grey's attempt to engage virgin English major Anastasia Steele in a BDSM relationship. Like most media geared towards women, it concerns the delaying of a relationship, not the consummation or maintenance thereof. Anastasia abrades against Christian's demands at every turn including an itemized contract he's drawn up for her as his potential submissive. Indeed, Green got this wrong in her original post thus occasioning a retraction: "This post originally stated that Ana formally signed a contract with Christian. The characters negotiate line items, and she verbally agrees to many of the stipulations listed in the contract. We regret the error." A rather large error since the negotiations occupy much of the screen time and weaken Green's argument. To be certain, Anastasia has agency throughout and proves to be the character with whom you'd most want to spend an hour. Christian is a corporate James Bond flashing business cards on jismy stock and gliding past a row of sleek, stupid sports cars. But Anastasia reads Hardy, wears a Mint Records (home of the greatest album so far this century) t-shirt, and why isn't she more interested in her hunky coworker at the hardware store anyway? Cuz...
No, the real troubling aspect of the film is the ending which is no such thing at all. Fifty Shades of Grey (both the film and the first book in the series, so I'm told) cuts off with a cliffhanger. Tune year maybe to find out what happens next. So where I walked in excited about one of the precious few Hollywood franchises to cater to women, I left asking the same question Mark Harris does in his terrific Grantland piece mourning the colonization of Hollywood by television aesthetics: "How do you import TV’s essential quality to the big screen without sacrificing the sense of immersive, self-contained completeness that for decades has been a central element of the movie experience?" Of course, Harris means the Hollywood movie experience. Plenty of avant-garde films repel attempts at immersion. And while mammoth films such as Out 1 and Heimat and Berlin Alexanderplatz have embraced the serial form, their episodes don't turn on the resolution of an enigma. Fifty Shades of Grey does and its atomization into three (or four, I bet) films feels exploitative. In short, to borrow Harris' words, it's not a movie; it's a miniseries.  So ultimately, I can't tell you what I thought of it. It's not over yet!