24 hours later and I’m still reeling. Still feeling eviscerated. I’m sure Aronofsky would be proud. This is not a film for the faint of stomach.
In fact, as we contemplated what to watch yesterday, we considered IT. Lots had been recommending it, but it seemed too terrifying to forgo sleep over. Of course, while an Aronofsky film also promises a lingering horror, it is coupled with hours of good conversational fodder. In this case:
The thankless role of motherhood.
The ego of God.
The spilling of innocent blood.
The violence of a blind faith, of fanatic adoration.
We left the cool dark room searching for light and air, we sat down on a bench with glazed looks on our faces. Soon others with the same expression joined us.
“Well, I thought the acting was superb, but I’d like to know what it was all about,” one elderly woman said.
“It’s a sort of amended metaphor for the holy trinity–the Father, the Son, and instead of the Holy Spirit, the Mother.”
The woman’s granddaughter nodded, it dawning on her.
“A number of symbols pop up,” I continued. “The almost immaculate conception?” (Or at least the uncanny intuition that she was with child–a trope often seen and easily written off as some motherly clairvoyance but in deed supernatural).
“His back wound,” David piped up.
“Ed Harris’s?” I ask.
He grins smugly.
“Yes!” I light up. “That’s when Michelle Pfieffer, Eve, comes in. Ugh. That bitch.”
And then, of course, the one that really drove the nail in for me: “The sinners eat the body of Christ–God sacrifices his only son.”
Collective cringe. We know exactly what scene I was referring to. The apex of the grotesque. The ultimate desecration of something everyone–irrespective of creed–holds sacred. Mother pushing through the hordes, in her face the desperation that only someone who is gripping their very last thread can feel. The horrible snap. And then you know that Aronofsky dares do all that a director can do. It’s the screenwriting logic: If X is true, what else is true? How far down can you lead your audience? How much more can they take?
At this point in the movie, David turns to me.
“Do you wanna go?”
I had both my hands clasped around my mouth, not theatrically but primordially. Another primordial gesture: the sick desire to “see it through,” in spite of the revolt in my viscera.
Ask a younger crowd and they just think the house was an extension of either Javier Bardem or Jennifer Lawrence’s character. At most, they’ll concede to a feminist commentary; the Mother-Woman always caregiving, sacrificing, maintaining but never creating, reacting rather than acting. His actions drove the plot forward, while her reactions plunged into our emotional core. It soon becomes all the more telling that these characters went about namelessly; it is a fantasy to name that which fashions you. It is a feeble, pathetic attempt to affix meaning to the unknowable.
The upcoming release of the Fifty Shades of Grey film, in conjunction with my reading of Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Vol. I, (because, naturally, the two go together like the proverbial peanut butter and jelly) got me to thinking. What would Foucault say about the particular power/sexual dynamic of the story? Would he value the mainstream discourse on sex it has promulgated? In all likelihood he would laugh at the very idea, since the story depicts an impressionable young woman swept off her randy feet by none other than a power-crazed, über-masculinized bachelor. In a plot twist that hardly qualifies as one, they go through a brief soul-shattering breakup, followed by equally soul-shattering make-up sex, then get married and have kids. (Oops. Spoiler alert?)
Foucault is probably rolling over in his grave at the very suggestion of entertaining this. Nonetheless (or as my husband would say for shits and giggles, less than none), the book/film has a certain value insofar as it reifies Oscar Wilde’s oft-quoted idea that “Everything in the world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.” I would also humbly add to this the experience of desire. Desire is more powerful than the achievement itself; it is a taunting reminder of what you want. Yet the moments leading up to its fulfillment are often the best. Forgive my lapse into binary thinking, but when it comes to desire, there is always a power imbalance. In the best of circumstances, it is imperceptible. But someone is always in control; it is the standard pursuer and pursued narrative.
Desire has the added misty quality of lying in the future. It is something “to-come,” something to look forward to. We cannot help speaking about it, reading about it, seeing it, experiencing it, yet Foucault adamantly claims we are still repressed. He says, “What is peculiar to modern societies, in fact, is not that they consigned sex to a shadow existence, but that they dedicated themselves to speaking of it ad infinitum, while exploiting it as the secret” (HOS 35).
A seeming paradox, wouldn’t you say? How can you speak on something while keeping it a secret? Maybe we encode and cautiously edit the things we say about sex, or maybe sex manifests symbolically. For all our discourse on sex, supposedly liberated, we are still operating within a prohibitive framework. And anyone who would deny the existence of double-standards is intentionally deluded. The most stark feminist (be it man or woman) often still turns their nose up in silent judgment. And even if you don’t (or don’t intend to), there’s still the sharp divide between subjective perception and objective reality. As illustration, you might perceive yourself as a sexually liberated woman and act accordingly, but if the world calls you a slut and turns its back on you, where does that leave you? Lived reality trumps theory any day.
As Foucault tells us, “To say that sex is not repressed, or rather that the relationship between sex and power is not characterized by repression, is to risk falling into a sterile paradox” (8). This begs the question, who holds the power? The answer should be fairly obvious.
In any case, I’ll update this post once I’ve actually seen the film. That’s right–I will be watching it. Make fun all you want. Call me a product of my repressive social ideology, but I want to see Anastasia getting whipped.
Soft porn without plot or character. Whoever heard of such a thing? Much of the film’s failures can be rightfully attributed to the book, but even then, it misses much of the couple’s fun virtual banter. Bad writing notwithstanding, at least there was a smidgen of individuality–you know, when someone actually fits their character. Sure, Ana would drop a number of expletives befitting an eight year old school girl (what kind of self-respecting English major says “holy cow?”), but she was into the British classics of the Romantic period. Of course. Her lexicon in those pithy email exchanges was underrepresented in the movie, as was her biting sense of humor. I echo a consensus among critics when I say that no amount of good acting (and Dakota Johnson really did give a sensitive performance) can undo bad writing. The screenwriter should have taken more creative license–a lot more. Poor Jamie Dornan finds himself with lines like “what incentivizes them.” Is that even a word? Barf.
When at the end of the film, Ana intones from a soggy pillow, “I’ve fallen in love with you,” you find yourself asking, “How?” There’s no real conversation, there’s no sense of what makes them tick. In real life, the sex to be had from such vacuous characters with virtually no chemistry would have been mediocre, at best.
I defer to my betters:
Anthony Lane form The New Yorker:
“He spends half the time badgering her about a contract that has been drawn up, in which she—“the Submissive”—must consent to his supremacy. Clauses and subsections are haggled over in such detail that one feels bound to ask: How much of a sex film can this be, given that the people most likely to be turned on by it are lawyers?”
A.O. Scott from NY Times:
““Fifty Shades” is both daring and conventional, falling back into traditional gender roles even as it plays with transgressive desires.”
“W.H. Auden once wrote that ‘the proof that pornography has no literary value is that, if one attempts to read it in any other way than as a sexual stimulus, to read it, say, as a psychological case-history of the author’s sexual fantasies, one is bored to tears.’ In defiance of this irrefutable good sense, the ‘Fifty Shades’ phenomenon has spawned innumerable kink-themed think pieces, though the analysis has dwelt less on Ms. James’s psyche than on the fantasies of the tens of millions of women who have bought her books. The writers transform their boredom into mockery and judgment as they circle around a tantalizing, perhaps frustrating question. Why do so many women read these novels, even though they have no literary value?
I’m no expert, but I can venture a guess: for fun. They seem to be the kind of books you can simultaneously have fun with, make fun of, trash and cherish and adapt to the pursuit of your own pleasures. Which brings me back to the laughter at the end of the sneak preview. “Fifty Shades of Grey” might not be a good movie — O.K., it’s a terrible movie — but it might nonetheless be a movie that feels good to see, whether you squirm or giggle or roll your eyes or just sit still and take your punishment.”
I could not have put it better myself. It’s about having a sense of humor; an ability to satirize the trashy. Reminds me of a theory-head from a grad class, who, at the mention of the book, snobbishly exclaimed, “That’s a book for people who don’t really like to read.” I bristled at the sweeping generalization–after all, I was a fellow scholar (with an impeccable GPA I might humbly add), and I did flip through those pages in mocking glee. In what I considered to be an apt response, I turned to a fellow Fifty Shades reader and said, “She needs to lighten up and get laid.”