Saturday, May 30, 2009

Exhibitions of Modesty: The Girlfriend Experience

Before he played Hawkeye in Last Of The Mohicans, Daniel Day-Lewis reportedly spent several months living in the wilderness. Before he portrayed Gerry Conlon for In The Name Of The Father, Day-Lewis endured solitary confinement. Before he played Danny Flynn in The Boxer, Day-Lewis laced up the gloves and trained in the ring for 18 months. And before he starred in There Will Be Blood, Day-Lewis spent a year consuming nothing but milkshakes. Okay, so the last one isn’t true. But would it surprise you to learn that it was? Day-Lewis’ experiments in Method acting are both legendary and notorious, the kind of stuff that makes one want to applaud uproariously and then recommend that the actor spend some time in a padded cell. Yet if you’ve ever found Day-Lewis’ Method methods a bit extreme, just wait until you hear about Sasha Grey. All she did to prepare to play a high-end prostitute in The Girlfriend Experience was star in more than 150 porn films.

Okay, so that’s not quite true either. I mean, yes, Grey has “gone all the way” on camera – in fact, from what I can tell, she’s gone all the way in multiple ways simultaneously. But Grey’s porn career launched her mainstream Hollywood career, not the other way around. Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh cast Grey for this picture precisely because of her sex industry background, not in spite of it. And if that makes you suspect that The Girlfriend Experience is full of nudity, (simulated) sex and flirting with the pool/pizza/cable guy, you’re on the wrong track. Sorry boys and girls: Grey gets naked only once in Soderbergh’s film, and it’s brief and dimly lit. If you’re looking for tits and ass on the big screen, find a recent Marisa Tomei movie. If you’re obsessed with genitalia, rent something by Judd Apatow. Grey isn’t in this picture because she’s comfortable with her body. She’s in this picture because she’s comfortable with her body of work.

If you believe in the Method process even a little, Grey’s casting is inspired. It only makes sense that the 21-year-old would have an intimate knowledge of what it would mean to be Chelsea, the escort at the center of Soderbergh’s film, who provides “girlfriend experiences” for her johns – going on dates, listening to their babble, laughing at their jokes and, yeah, sometimes having sex – for quite a bit of money. It only makes sense that Grey would understand what it’s like to be both worshiped and ignored, and what it takes to fake it and how protective walls can become prisons. If Day-Lewis’ stunts inform his performances, then certainly Grey’s professional background makes her an apt choice for this role. Regardless, it works. Grey’s Chelsea exudes confidence in the call of duty, where she is in control, and wariness elsewhere. She is effortlessly enticing, with a sharp Keira Knightley jaw, bold angular eyebrows that suggest constant curiosity and supple undulating lips that could teach Mona Lisa a thing or two about ambiguous expressions. To look at Chelsea is to see someone quite comfortable with who she is – just like a restaurant hostess, carpenter or doctor would be – even if her lifestyle is incomprehensible to most of us.

Also, there’s the fact that Grey is a porn star. Knowledge of that detail allows the experience of Soderbergh’s film to transcend its actual drama. As we watch Chelsea, trying to determine which moments are professional fabrications and which ones reveal the personality of the real woman within, Soderbergh hypnotically tempts us to ask the same questions about Grey. If Grey’s pedigree suggests that she has to do little more than show up and play herself in order to portray Chelsea, the illusion is that some of the real Grey is shining through here. If so, that makes this glimpse of an adult film star arguably more intimate than any pornographic one. In any case, it’s certainly more interesting to ponder whether Grey is speaking from the heart when Chelsea says, “If they wanted you to be yourself, they wouldn’t pay you,” than it is to watch a porn film and speculate about how often (if ever) an orgasmic actress is truly moaning from the genitals.

Why does all this meta deliberating add to The Girlfriend Experience rather than distracting from it? Because the film itself is about our efforts to create reality from perception. Chelsea creates illusions of nondiscriminatory companionship and high-class elegance. Her boyfriend (Chris Santos), a personal trainer who refuses to wear his gym’s uniform, creates an illusion of non-conforming hipness. A slimy prostitution critic (played by film critic Glenn Kenny) creates an illusion that his evaluations are as trustworthy as Consumer Reports. Meanwhile, in a film set in 2008, Barack Obama and John McCain create the illusion that they know best how to bring about positive change in America. In turn, the American citizen, as exemplified by Chelsea’s johns, struggles to create the illusion that he/she is somehow special – special to Chelsea, or special enough to know which candidate will save us, or special enough to know how to navigate the economic crisis.

These themes aren’t in boldface. Nothing in The Girlfriend Experience is. This movie, like Bubble before it, is a minimalist Soderbergh experiment sent straight to DVD and subscription TV in time with its theatrical release. Cuts and camera movements are few. Lighting is natural – or suggestive of it. And theatrics are nowhere to be found. Cinema often serves up stories about ordinary people thrust into extraordinary situations, but this isn’t one of them. None of these characters experiences anything resembling a defining moment, at least not in the short-term view. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting. Soderbergh’s film begins ominously, with about 10 minutes of clumsily-staged scenes, yet thereafter it continually draws us in toward its modest but legitimate emotional core. To call this film, or Grey’s performance within it, mostly inert wouldn’t be entirely unfair, but there is vigor to be found in the stillness. Other than during the repeatedly obnoxious scenes set on a private jet, which feature a group of overgrown frat boys captured by a hand-held camera in jiggling closeups awash in ambient light, I never wanted this film to “get on with it,” which is more than I can say for the energetic films in which Grey usually appears.

I know what you’re thinking: out-doing a porn film is hardly high praise for an Oscar-winning director. No argument there. Indeed, just like it’s impossible to forget Grey’s pedigree, it’s difficult to ignore Soderbergh’s. To recall a line from Dangerous Liaisons, one doesn’t applaud the tenor for clearing his throat. That said, for all its reserve, The Girlfriend Experience makes a more profound emotional impact at 78 minutes than Soderbergh’s 257-minute, two-part Che epic, which features heart-pounding cinematography (the camera is always in the right place) but only a faint emotional pulse. Is that still merely a backhanded compliment? Maybe. But to spend too much time analyzing this movie against Soderbergh’s capabilities is to overlook the movie itself. Yes, like Day-Lewis in the wilderness, Soderbergh seems to be testing himself, playing with his craft. In this case, at least we get to watch, even if it’s from a distance.


Fox said...

I don't want to keep sounding redundant, but this a great review. (I especially found your line about Marisa Tomei movies to be humorous...).

You seemed to have gotten more out of this film than I did, but I'm glad you did because your take on it is an interesing one. I felt that Soderbergh held Grey back in her performance, but I think you make a good argument for its style.

Also. On Glenn Kenny. I wonder how he feels about doing that part. It's funny in it's self-mockery, but I wonder if it's also too much painting himself as an asshole. Personally, I never knew what the guy looked like before seeing this film, so my first association with his physical apperance was that of an jerk. I know it's just a character, but it's a rather unflattering way to take the mask off.

Jason Bellamy said...

Fox, by all means, be redundant!

Seriously, thanks for the kind words.

TGE is hardly a great movie, but I did find it compelling. I think Soderbergh does hold Grey back, but with purpose, so that we'll be like that investigative journalist, trying to find a way around her defenses. On that level, I think it works.

As for Kenny, if you want to know how he feels, just page back a bit in his blog, which includes a gross picture of him holding a Q-tip (you have to see the movie to know why that's gross). For a few weeks, he couldn't shut up about the film, and at one point he responds to the charge that he's being used by Soderbergh and that the joke is on him.

Thing is, from what I can tell, Kenny -- how shall I put this -- seems to enjoy being a dick. Yep, that's how I should put it. I don't think he'd disagree. He's hardly above getting into pissing matches with bloggers, and while one of the things I respect about him is his willingness to admit error as appropriate, I find it tiring that it takes going 12 rounds with the guy to get a mea culpa out of him. Timid souls get gobbled up by his bold self-assurance, and folks who don't stay until the end of the brawl never reach the part where Kenny says, essentially, "Never mind."

All of that isn't to say that Kenny is playing himself in TGE. Not at all. But I think he enjoyed the hell out of it. Just my take.

Richard Bellamy said...

Even before reading your wonderful review, I wanted to see this movie. Entertainment Weekly gave it an A. Other reviews were negative. I was intrigued by the story and the widely mixed reviews. Now your review makes me determined to see it. Unfortunately, it's not playing on old Cape Cod. I may have to seek it out on DVD.

Craig said...

I've been wanting to see this movie, partly b/c it's Soderbergh and partly out of curiosity about Glenn, whose line from the preview was the only one that made me laugh. I have mixed feelings about him as a film critic, particularly regarding the way he picks fights with other critics (Armond, Dana Stevens, Edelstein) and bloggers (regular punching bag Lauren Wissot), all of whom at times deserve it. But it comes across as sop for his readership (for somebody who routinely mocks the Paulettes, Kenny has his share of ass-kissers too), only to essentially admonish them for accepting the cheap kicks he's offering by expressing pangs of remorse for causing hurty feelings.

Still, he seems to have no shortage of drinking buddies (and both Edelstein and Stevens praised him in their reviews), so what do I know? Maybe he's a good guy in real life. And sometimes his critical eye, when he deigns to show it, surprises me, like his recent focus on a lonely wire hanger during a scene in "The Friends of Eddie Coyle." He has also written some touching pieces on his friend, the late David Foster Wallace.

Jason Bellamy said...

Hokahey: It's not worth a drive to Cambridge -- literally or metaphorically -- but it's worth seeing.

Craig: I think we see Kenny the same way. I jumped into one of his takedowns of Wissot quite a while back and expressed disappointment with the manner of his criticisms and not the substance of them. That was one of the times when, by the end, he softened his position. Of course, he'd beaten Wissot to a pulp by then, so I'm not sure it mattered.

When Kenny gets into takedown mode, I often feel about him the way I feel about a Michael Moore or a Keith Olbermann: I wish you weren't fighting for "my side." I actually find him less offensive when I disagree with him.

Richard Bellamy said...

I just realized I could probably get The Girlfriend Experience on Comcast On-Demand, and so I saw it!

Some random observations:

I liked the casual, reality-show tone of it. It kind of reminded me of The Hills (guilty pleasure revealed): the rich people; dinners in nice restaurants; the workout gym; the conceited what’s-in-it-for-me character of Chris; the weekend to Las Vegas; the inn on the Hudson; the constant talk about relationships.

I noticed the ubiquitous indie-movie twang of the electric guitar as part of the score.

As for a film critic playing the hooker critic – that is sort of along the lines of the many references in the film to filmmaking. One client is a screenwriter. With the first client, they are talking about the movie they saw. Later, we find out the movie is Man on Wire (almost like product placement). Another client is an actor who is washing out. Soderbergh seems to keep bringing us back to the whole filmmaking process as he shows us his minimalist art film.

Some questions:

Why do the business guys want Chris to go to Vegas with them?

How does the whole historical setting function? The theme of planning for a new future? Frankly, I got tired of the men talking about how the economy sucked.

Did you stay till after the credits? There’s another scene after that.

I loved it. I liked the character of Chelsea a lot. She’s not beautiful but she provides a service that most men want: she listens, she understands, she soothes. I like how the camera catches her guarded expression when she’s not putting on her cheerful, cool façade. We see her boredom and skepticism. Also, along with the shots of her acting suave and sophisticated, there are plenty of shots that capture her youthful innocence, that make her look no older than a high school student.

I also liked it for the same reasons I love Van Sant’s Elephant: the cinema vérité
look to it; the casual, chatty, almost amateurish acting; the little artsy shots here and there.

I liked the non-linear plotline. We get bits and pieces out of chronology. It establishes an impression of her lifestyle: so many meeting with people that they blur in her memory. So many different sorts of conversations: with her clients; about her web site; about her business prospects; about herself. The private jet dialogue didn’t bother me much. It was just another shallow, self-centered dialogue going nowhere. (There was probably too much of that scene, though.)

It’s a sad movie. It doesn’t romanticize her life – as we see in the final scene with the jeweler.

If there’s anything lustful about it, it’s not about sex. It’s about lusting for what most people would like: an attentive ear; genuine sympathy; a tender touch.

In regards to your review, this sentence of yours is inspired –

She is effortlessly enticing, with a sharp Keira Knightley jaw, bold angular eyebrows that suggest constant curiosity and supple undulating lips that could teach Mona Lisa a thing or two about ambiguous expressions.

This explains the historical setting, I guess –

Meanwhile, in a film set in 2008, Barack Obama and John McCain create the illusion that they know best how to bring about positive change in America.

Yes, the film makes a profound emotional impact. I feel Chelsea does reach a defining point in her life. However, whether or not she will do anything to change her future is a mystery in the same way Chelsea is a mystery. Yes, we wonder when we might be getting brief glimpses of the real Chelsea/Christine (who is a real porn star). I think we do. When we do, we see a young, vulnerable, scared little girl. As for Sasha Grey, the porn star, playing a high-class escort, yes, Grey can tap her experiences in order to bring some sincerity to the character of Chelsea, but Grey was never a high-class escort. Grey needs to act that out, to speculate and present her best impersonation of what that would be like, and what comes out of that is a touching, commendable performance.

Jason Bellamy said...

And the Most Valuable Commenter of the post award goes to ... Hokahey! Wow!

Thanks for all the in-depth thoughts. A few replies ...

* I missed the scene after the credits. Damn!

* I think Chris goes to Vegas because one of the "business guys" is his client, who I presume asks him along so he can look like a big shot, and perhaps be nice in the process. (That's what big shots do.)

* Per the context: I do think it's a film about illusions: the illusion of campaigns, the illusion of financial security, etc. I'm not sure it goes much deeper than that. But I do think it will be interesting to see if the context seems more or less poignant 15 years from now. (I could see it going either way.)

As for your comments on Christine's beauty: It seems to me that she's just beautiful enough to show off the high-priced clothes and make a guy feel like a big shot for having her on his arm, and yet she's plain enough to disappear into the background or seem ... approachable. Smart casting, for sure.

And smart analysis of the film. Thanks again!

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks for the Award! I rarely win them!

Yes, the "high-priced clothes." I meant to mention the high-fashion clothes as another aspect that reminded me of The Hills.

Anyway, it shows her shopping and cutting pictures out of fashion magazines and she includes what she wore in her bland descriptions of her dates with clients. Her appearance is important. She wants to appear sophisticated; that's why she also pretends to be interested in art. It seems to suggest that she was (or is) a very simple, unsophisticated person. I like this subtle revelation about her enigmatic character.

Jake said...

I'm always wary of commenting on an old piece, but after reading your conversations with Ed from Only the Cinema for months I finally visited this blog (I am what you might call "easily distracted" or "an idiot") and I'm always glad to see a positive (not to mention well-written) review of this film.

The only thing I didn't quite like about it was Chelsea's boyfriend, who I thought was a bit annoying, but I liked what he stood for: him being the embodiment of the average Joe courting the idea of capitalism (Chelsea), accepting of the fact that it/her is routinely used by the rich and powerful. I also found a certain level of dark comedy in the idea of the businessmen who brought our financial system to its knees running into the arms of the representative of the world's oldest profession for comfort.

I tend to get bored at some point in Soderbergh's films, vital as I find his contributions to contemporary American cinema (well, except those Ocean's sequels), but TGE, the one singled out as "boring" and "aimless," held my interest the whole time

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comment, Jake. If you've managed to get through one or a few of those Conversations pieces I do with Ed then you can't be too easily distracted.

My feelings for the film are similar to yours. TGE hasn't lingered with me all these months later, but I was wholly invested in it when I saw it and would gladly see it again.

Thanks for the comment. Hope it's not the last one.

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