Thursday, February 26, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey

Grey's Anatomy
"OK, Where the Hell Did You Put the Key to the Handcuffs?"

So, okay, how is it?  

Short answer: surprisingly not bad. Certainly not as bad as I thought it would be. With this sort of material, the result can either be ludicrous or hilarious, evoking contempt or snickers. Fifty Shades of Grey did neither. Nor (boys), did it turn me on, in any way, shape or form.

But, also, it was not what I expected. Fifty Shades of Grey is a variation of the Harlequin Romance (of which I've never been a fan), a soft-core modern version of the Princess fairy tales, albeit with whips and bondage (didn't all those handsome princes live in castles and all of them had dungeons?). The Harlequins have a standard road map that is well-trod: capable but insecure woman finds herself in new surroundings, encounters a male of the species, capable but secure—that is, until he encounters this woman of said species. The two then cross paths in which they meet, engage, disengage, trade doubts, insecurities, and misunderstandings of each other and themselves until circumstances are made understandable and the road to romance is removed of barriers, mental and physical. FSoG follows this pattern, but (evidently) does so over three books, with ever-increasing complications that seem to have come from American soap operas. No doubt, the film-makers will split the third into two movies, padding it out with dwarves and protracted battles involving giant beasts.  

Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), virginal student at Wazzu (Vancouver Branch—you know it's some kind of fairy tale, as there aren't any virgins at Wazzu) does her journalism student room-mate (going to the Edward R. Murrow School of Communications?) a favor by driving to Seattle* to interview young business tycoon Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). It's never made clear what he is a tycoon of, but his office artwork suggests it has something to do with pandas or inkblots. All of his office workers appear to be Hitchcock blondes, right down to the gray suits.
Steele and Grey (notice the names—they're meant to be together) meet cute—she trips and face plants upon first entering his clean minimalist office (we're spared his quipping "Thanks for dropping in...") and the interview begins. She, of course, doesn't have a pen (or a laptop?—she's an English major, for godssake!) He gives her one with no snarky or suggestive comments. 

Grey is intense (you can tell because Dornan keeps his eyes creepily wide and locked like they were super-glued in his skull) and he often derails the interview with persistent questions (he is the one being interviewed) like about Anastasia's major: "What made you an English major—Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy or Charlotte Bronte?" If she were a real English major, she would have replied "What's the difference?" But give Grey points for being comfortable in his own fictional milieu.
He's sensitive (he really, really is) and he'd like to make you MORE sensitive
This is why I liked FSoG (of all the movies I saw this week, despite their pedigree)—it's smart enough to know it's dumb, it knows the genre, knows the tropes, and tosses in some nice visual sub-text to enhance it (that pen, the overabundance of flying scenes, the use of elevators, especially doors, for sexual metaphor). For the visual touches, credit Sam Taylor-Johnson (she made the quite good "Young John Lennon" bio-pic Nowhere Boy) for having fun with the material and lightening up her actors; Johnson is your typical awkward Cinderella, but not enough to evoke derision from the audience, and her character has a significant spine, and Dornan does eventually warm up and finds some casual humor in his scenes with her, but still suffers from disconnect when he has to express any ardor. His is the part of the "unknowable" man of mystery (which is romance-speak for your typically inconsistent male), although what's really unknowable is how he came to be more neurotic than Steele.** That is a bit refreshing, as it upends the traditional fairy tale so that the maiden saves the prince (or I'm giving the writer too much credit), rather than him trapping her in his castle...and, you know, dungeons?
Give the movie points, though, for having some fun with this stuff. For instance, Grey, once he targets Steele as a potential "partner" draws up a non-disclosure agreement ("no talking" and presumably—like most NDA's—she can't get in a relationship with anyone for a year after they break up) and a Terms and Conditions contract in which limits are set before entering into any sort of agreement. This sets up a mock-serious "Business Meeting" that is hilarious in its dialogue, before getting down to brass tacks (no, those aren't used) and the movie turns serious-serious with misunderstandings and mixed signals.
But, one wonders how all of this started.*** Is bondage "play" that popular, or is it just a thrill to read about it, like vampire novels and zombie shows. Does anyone buy into the pain-for-pleasure garbage (which is a given in "The Story of O" and "Emmanuelle" movies) which sounds like just a defense tactic for NFL abuse charges. Violence against women turns my stomach, especially if it's done "for love." This causes the movie to fall apart in the last twenty minutes or so, over a misunderstanding over the T's and C's, and the reality of just what they entail.
I can't be too delicate about the details: Steele and Grey agree to a spanking session with a belt. She says "yes." He re-iterates the "safe" words when she wants to stop—"yellow" for when things get too rough and "red" when she wants to stop. They begin, her counting off the blows (there are 13). It is, of course, traumatic and they stop. Grey tries to comfort her and she turns on him: "Don't you touch me!" The "relationship" breaks up over this.  
For him, it's a case of confusion—she had the "safe" words and didn't use them. For her, it's not confusing at all—yes, she had the "safe" words and (yes) she agreed to it, acquiesced to it (for whatever reason) but expected him to stop of his own volition, empathy, or conscience. He would have stopped (presumably) if she used the "safe" word, but she expects him to read her mind, her mood, her tears, and "be the man," and do the right thing. At least, the thing that would require him to man up and think beyond himself. Perhaps too much for her to expect given his proclivities, but you see where this is going. She's trying to "save" him from his indulgences, maiden to prince, and bring him to a normalcy. But, the first round is a big "fail," and she exits through those shuttering elevator doors, a clear visual "no" as the movies can present. The situation is unseemly, but I like that the character makes that choice, however too-optimistic her expectations may be. You find positive messages in all sorts of weird places.
And (if I may be indulged) can I venture to critique Grey's technique (beyond the kinky stuff)? There's no finesse, no foreplay, no interaction, it's just too direct and ham-fisted. His spanking (with hands) has no snap to it. Nothing has any "snap" to it. Verdict: the movie Christian Grey is no fun in bed. If I were her, I'd throw his own (borrowed) line back at him.

"Laters, baby."
* Well, it's Seattle in the aerial shots—you can tell because it's gray and traffic-jammed—the rest of it was filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Seattle's cheaper stand-in, as downtown Seattle doesn't have any curved streets, but is on a strict, though slightly cattywampus grid, and because Anastasia is able to find actual parking on the street.

** Apparently, given the next two books in the series, it's because he is less than neurotic or vengefully insane than everybody else in the world.

*** It started as "Twilight" fan-fiction, evidently, that was posted to a site for such things (until author Stephanie Meyer asked for it to be removed), then, after characters and situations altered in a comprehensive re-write, made it's way to e-books and self-publishing before become a phenom'.

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