Monday, 22 June 2009

The Girlfriend Experience - Edinburgh International Film Festival review

In 1966 Jean Luc Godard made Two or Three Things I Know About Her, a film about a Parisian housewife who prostituted herself in order to enjoy the fruits of consumer capitalism. Appearing on television to promote the film and further explain its message, that capitalism = prostitution, Godard would be accompanied by an actual prostitute.

I mention this by way of introduction not because of some desire to show off my knowledge of cinema – Two or Three Things is a hardly obscure – but because I think it provides something of a model for The Girlfriend Experience, as another film about capitalism and exploitation in its diegesis and in terms of the relationship between its two major players.

The first is director Steven Soderbergh, who has managed to accomplish in the 1990s and 2000s to do what Francis Ford Coppola had hoped he and his movie brat colleagues would in the 1970s, namely alternate between mainstream and personal projects.

The problem with more personal projects is, of course, precisely that: how to find an audience for a more experimental project, lacking big name stars, when you don’t have the resources of the Hollywood machine at your disposal.

This is where the second player, self-styled existential porn star cum performance artist Sasha Grey / Marina Ann Hantzis comes into the equation.

For she gives Soderbergh the necessary hook to hang The Girlfriend Experience upon, whilst in turn benefitting from the exposure it gives her as she aspires to move outside the porn demi-monde as into more legitimate realms.

Both, that is, are symbiotically exploiting one another. Both are also exploiting the audience. But this is to be expected – what film doesn’t, at some level, exploit our desires?

A problem, for me, the way in which The Girlfriend Experience fails as art, is that it is too calculated. Grey plays not a housewife like Marina Vlady in Two or Three Things but a high-class Manhattan call girl, Chelsea/Christine, whose clientele are Wall Street brokers, with the whole thing being set over an indeterminate, but brief, period around the run up to the US treasury bailout and the presidential elections last year. The issue is that in US cinema hookers are invariably crack whores or career women. As Samuel Goldwyn said, “we need some new clich├ęs”.

Another, as Godard’s film also shows, is that it’s all been done before, and far better. There’s nothing particularly radical about what Soderbergh is doing here. Besides Godard, we can consider movie brat Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill and Body Double, the former featuring Nancy Allen as a similar call girl, and the latter originally casting porn performer Annette Haven in the role eventually filled by Melanie Griffiths.

Nor am I convinced by the radicalism of what Grey does in her ‘own’ porn films. Note the bracketing of ‘own’. The producers of Anal Cavity Search 3 or Grand Theft Anal 11, and the vast majority of their consumers, do not care about Grey’s philosophy, they just want to make money off her and jerk-off to her respectively.

Basically, it’s hard to talk philosophy when you’re deep-throating someone. And while Grey can be applauded for her willingness to do so-called ‘interracial’ porn, these selfsame films surely reinforce racist stereotypes, fantasies and fetishisation rather than challenge them. This is also something which can be said of her appearances in so-called ‘lesbian’ porn, invariably addressed as it is to the male heterosexual spectator.

Then there is the issue of residual payments, something which porn performers, as workers for hire (like most of us under capitalism), do not receive. Though Grey has mentioned these – and that she is will get them from The Girlfriend Experience – there is little doubt in my mind that if she were to push the question with the porn producers and insist upon them she would quickly be persona non grata.

Porn producers are certainly happy to see someone move into the mainstream for the legitimation it helps provide their industry but not if that person then begins to question the legitimacy of their own business practices. (Not, of course, that Hollywood is unfamiliar with being adept as screwing its own talent over; yes, I do have an essentially sadomasochistic view of the universe whereby you are either one of those doing the fucking or one of those being fucked.)

The issue may be that Soderbergh’s film does not entirely provide the showcase Grey wants. Though she demonstrates that she has some acting ability, Soderbergh remains more interested in technique and technology, much of it alienating. There are almost no medium close-up or two-shots in which Grey and another performer are there actually acting and reacting to one another. Instead, we tend to get shot-reverse shot patterns – albeit as likely to focusing on the one who is listening than speaking – sides of mobile phone conversations; voice-off monologues, and figures either in shadow, behind objects or in soft focus. The actors, that is, are as often as not reduced to figural elements as those around which the film revolves, while much of the ‘experience’ looks to have been constructed in the editing and post-production.

The key thing which needs to be emphasised is that the film is not sexually explicit. There are a few seconds of naturalistic nudity but there is no actual sexual activity seen, with the result a safe R rating .

Having someone used to performing sexually on camera, I wish Soderbergh had taken the chance to bring the porn film out of its ghetto, to complete the work begun by Radley Metzger in the 1970s but left uncompleted with the rise of home video in the 1980s and of gonzo porn in the 1990s. (Tellingly, Metzger’s The Opening of Misty Beethoven, an imaginative retelling of Pygmalion, is the only porn film referenced within The Girlfriend Experience, via a modern-day Al Goldstein’s savage critique of Chelsea’s non-performance for him.)

In my ideal version, everything that is in there already would be retained, but would have been punctuated by alienating, deliberately non-eroticised scenes of Chelsea involved in actual sex work. He would have then fought a campaign against the MPAA and their undoubted refusal to certificate the film, won, and would then have released the film on DVD without any chapter stops or ability for the consumer only interested in porn to go straight to the action. He might then have directed a porn film with Grey whose soundtrack consisted of Grey – who asserts to be a fan of Godard, Breillat and other high-brow art cinema figures – reading excerpts from Histoire(s) du cinema or expounding her own personal philosophy, again without the opportunity for the consumer to fast forward or – if it were possible – turn the sound down.

Somehow, however, I don’t think such hybridisations it’s going to happen. There are too many vested interests for it to be otherwise, in both porn and mainstream cinemas.

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