On “50 Shades of Grey” and Alan Moore’s “Lost Girls”

There are good parts of 50 Shades but it feels like a luxury “lifestyle”* commercial, written and executed by people with no experience of actual rich people imagining what rich people might be like. It also feels like a bondage story by people with no experience of actual BDSM imagining what BDSM people might be like. Reality is of course often not the primary purpose in a given movie but reality can be bent in an intelligent way to make a significant point or in an unintelligent way that detracts from the point.

fifty-shades-of-grey_poster50 Shades of Dull” gets it right: boredom is the movie’s real enemy, and the movie is unwilling to go “all the way,” with “all the way” defined broadly. The male lead is like a walking piece of injection-molded plastic. The woman is better but both have an essentially impossible acting test. On the way out of the theater I mentioned that he seems more like a serial killer than lover, and someone else said that he’d actually played a serial killer before. Makes sense.

The real fairy tale or fantasy aspect is that a guy like Christian Grey would pick out and obsess over a girl with nothing special about her. This is an interesting reversal of many movies and TV shows, in which a pretty girl improbably picks the quirky, initially low-status guy (“Don’t follow Hollywood movie examples if you want to get laid” analyzes this well, though I don’t endorse everything in the post or indeed much of the site). Anastasia is annoying and generically pretty, without any personality, and yet this very high status guy chases her around—and in ways that, if he were low status, would elicit a restraining order. “Creepy” is a term most often used to describe someone sexually interested in someone who does not reciprocate that interest. Both of us agree that the roommate and brother seem like they’re having a better time and are much more fun than the protagonists.

Still, the lighting was astoundingly good, particularly compared to the movie’s likely relevant comparison pieces. An unrated DVD edition may be a better movie. Much analysis focuses on the audience / societal signals the movie’s popularity emits, rather than the qualities of the movie itself, because the latter are so weak and the former much richer and more interesting. Something is being said, but by the consumers much more than the producers.

Auden said 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.” By this standard 50 Shades is porn but another book, commonly described as porn, is not: Lost Girls.

lost_girls_mooreLost Girls describes the way entire societies decided they hated each other much more than they loved themselves. The really horrific, shocking acts in the book are not threatened rape or young girls or incest; they’re wholescale industrialized death. Next to the latter the former may be serious and vile on an individual level but death is so final, and the delusions around war are even more powerful than the delusions around erotic life. Lost Girls is much weirder, scarier, and truer than 50 Shades and for that reason it will never be as popular, at least in its own time. But 50 years from now, I suspect people will still pick up Lost Girls and the rest of the Moore oeuvre. Like American Sniper, Lost Girls is vehemently anti-war, but it comes to an anti-war place from a much different direction and cannot be reliably read as a pro-war movie, as many have read American Sniper.

Lost Girls is also a novel or set of novels that bend reality in interesting ways that convey the characters’s psychological states, fears, desires, and lives. In this sense too it is not pornography. Sexuality is not automatically pornographic, and though this point is often made I don’t think most people act or interpret as if it’s been accepted.

Lost Girls is art and 50 Shades is commerce. Neither is really porn. Readers of either or watchers of 50 Shades should read Geoffrey Miller’s book Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior, in which Miller points out that most women judge men much less on their material possessions and much more on their health, bodies, and minds. Men tend to do the same. For most people most of the time it’s not about the money, though the money is nice. Men who say women only want money are usually covering for their own deficiencies (this embarrassing post may be relevant).

As usual, books can go deeper and have fewer restrictions on them than movies. Even today there is a freedom-to-depict in books that doesn’t extend into movies and TV, at least in the U.S. It’s also possible to turn a book that’s not very good on the level of the sentence into a movie (or TV show) that’s better.

50 Shades’s great antecedent is the Marquis de Sade; like de Sade, the movie is actually funny when read properly. But the movie is unlikely to be read properly (Tyler Cowen’s post “Two misunderstood movies, two Rorschach tests” is relevant here. Camille Paglia’s chapter on de Sade is excellent.

Despite the above I didn’t regret seeing 50 Shades and you probably won’t either. It’s a very popular movie but not a stupid one, unlike, say, Transformers, or many action movies. I wonder if (following link NSFW) X-Art.com is doing unusual business this weekend.


Here is the NYT on the movie’s director. Here is a characteristically elegant evisceration, from The New Yorker. The London Review of Books is also good: “When it comes to erotic writing, the more explicit it gets – the more heaving, the more panting – the more I want to laugh.” There was much laughter in my theater.

* The term “lifestyle” is so vague and yet so popular among marketers. If you hear a real person use it, be wary. She’s probably been  corrupted by marketers and marketing language. Despite saying this I feel like participating in modern life makes everyone who pays attention a connoisseur of marketing talk.

Thoughts on “Mozart in the Jungle”

* Mozart in the Jungle is charming if sadly devoid of the sexposition that HBO and Showtime have become famous for. Most writers take a too-holy-for-nudes attitude. Bullshit. The show also provides many, many opportunities for double entendres and obvious metaphors.

Related perhaps to the above, charm is hard to define but easy to feel.

*mozart-in-the-jungle-poster Why aren’t there any classical venues that let listeners stand up and drink beer and buy t-shirts with clever slogans on them? Or do such venues exist and I’m unaware of them? I’m interested in listening—see this, from 2008, for example—but the symphonic experience I find stultifying.

* The show admittedly chose many clichéd pieces. Hardcore classical music people—all nine of you—may dislike it for that reason, or may dislike it for the same reason cops dislike cop shows and doctors dislike hospital shows.

* The unions are reasonably vilified. So are police over-responses. Though this hasn’t arisen much yet in the show, “You can’t protect yourself from the market” could be one Cowenian economic takeaway.

* Arts and artists are inevitably more glamorous in TV shows and in movies than in real life.

* Here is the New York Times on Mozart. I haven’t seen many intelligent pieces on it. Like Entourage before it, Mozart may be too light and charming to attract essayists. Why write an essay when the first asterisk in this post encapsulates the show?

Thoughts on the movie “Birdman”

* The first three quarters are excellent. The last quarter is too long but still good; audiences don’t need to be hit over the head with symbolism. We laughed, though not always at the parts that the rest of the theater laughed at. A few times I was the only person laughing.

* Birdman is among other things functional review of the Transformers series; Birdman is not merely conceptual art, as Transformers 4 may be.

birdman-poster* I didn’t feel stupid watching it.

* What might the camera work signify? To most it will be brilliant or hateful, but it is at least distinctive, and distinctive in a “that must have been very hard to do” way.

* Theater folk are fucked up, but we already know that, don’t we? From the works of Michael Tolkin, among others.

* This is the kind of movie about which movie people like to say, “It’s the kind of movie that doesn’t get made anymore.” See also point #3, above. Good movies are harder to find but still get made.

* Birdman is different than Gone Girl and yet both are absorbing.

* The rants are winners.

Thoughts on the movie “Gone Girl” by David Fincher

Some minor spoilers are below.

Gone Girl is great and you should see it, albeit not on a first or even second date. The spirit and structure of the book are there, and the pivotal murder scene didn’t “feel” as much to me in the book but sure did in the movie. The casting is perfect. The theater was full and there were lines both to buy tickets and to snag a decent seat; I haven’t noticed lines for movies in years.

* The movie is by, for, and about adults, and it’s about adults in an intelligent but well-plotted way. Few modern movies even attempt to hit all those buttons; TV has primarily assumed that role. Attitudes towards and depiction of sexuality are fundamentally adult, not in a pornographic sense but rather in a post-adolescence sense that one finds more often in novels than movies.

* We are often interested, in art and life, in the concept of being “likable,” but that concept is often both poorly defined and easily manipulated. Yet it persists, and Gone Girl effectively criticizes it and criticizes the media more generally by extension the people who create the media—which is to say, “us.”

* Both movie and book work for many reasons, one being that they take existing tensions and faults in many relationships and magnify them by an order of magnitude. A lot of people will walk out of Gone Girl and into discussions about character and compromise. One does not see that in movies about saving the world, in which the good guys are obviously good and the bad guys bad for all the usual reasons.

* Though I’m usually loath to use this term, Desi is the ultimate beta male. Arguably there is no alpha male in the book or movie, with the possible exception of Tanner Bolt, and one could read book or movie as critiquing the “alpha male” ideal.

* David Fincher made Gone Girl and The Social Network, both of which are among the best movies in recent memory.

Thoughts on the movie “Blue is the Warmest Color”

* Domestic life is presented as boring and stultifying and contrasts strongly with erotic life, but is that really an uncommon message in most movies or novels? That being said Blue is the Warmest Color is very good at juxtapositions. It’s also the kind of movie that I should find horribly boring yet didn’t, and not primarily for the obvious reasons.

* “Traveling opens your mind,” a character says at the end, but does he mean “legs” as many people do when they speak to the virtues of travel? French art, based on my unrepresentative sample, depicts boredom well. Also, isn’t France supposed to be the land of tolerance? The New York Times depicts it that way.

Blue is the warmest color* The gawkiness of adolescence is depicted effectively; this is both a positive and negative at once. So too does the movie catch the faux knowingness and unwillingness to admit ignorance.

* Peak experiences count for a lot and yet how many people explicitly structure their lives around such experiences?

* Relatively few girls seem willing to embrace who they are in a sexual context; that is one reason the Duke porn freshman is interesting: she isn’t following the shame script. “Seem” may be key here.

* There are many more and longer soulful looks than there would be in an American movie but they tend to work. How much of attraction happens at the nonverbal level?

* This is hardly a novel idea but many social attacks on others are really projections of our own insecurities.

* Emma understands that there is no law in the arena. Adèle does not. She should read less Sartre and more Paglia.

* As a kid you’re judge but what you hope to do or accomplish, but at some point that flips and you’re judged by what you have accomplished. That transition is rarely announced either.

Movies as Modern Visual Art: Paglia, Stephenson, Cowen

In Glittering Images Camilla Paglia writes of George Lucas’s work:

Lucas says, “My films are basically the graphics”: “Everything is visual.” He views dialogue as merely “a sound effect, a rhythm, a vocal chorus in the overall soundtrack.” In structure, Star Wars unfolds as dynamic action sequences alternating with grand panoramic tableaux, including breathtaking cityscapes stacked with traffic skylanes. Lucas declares, “I’m not really interested in plots.” And elsewhere: “To me, the script is just a sketchbook, just a list of notes.”

Tyler Cowen notes that Transformers 4 may be best seen as an art movie. To accuse a movie like Transformers of being plotless or absurd is pointless because plot is not its point. The utter lack of anything resembling a coherent plot may explain why I thought the first one so stupid; it may also be that I failed to go into it with the proper frame of mind. Expecting something novelistic and getting something like a painting or dance is likely to disappoint. Among novels I tend to prefer ones with plots over ones that are about “consciousness” or similar highbrow topics.

Glittering_ImagesI am not necessarily opposed to movies as dance / art—Gravity (discussed by me at the link) has some Lucasian qualities but is also a plea for us to get off this planet—but there may be other implications.

Neal Stephenson, for example, has noticed the trend in movies towards either the visual (to use a positive term) or incoherence (to use my own feelings): in “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out” he writes of how the changes in the Star Wars movies from 1977 to today also track changes in American culture, away from writing and dialogue and towards the visual. In the decade since he wrote his piece, it is hard not to see the general trends he describes as accelerating. His novel Anathem could be described in many ways, and one is a commentary on what mind happen if current trends regarding the divergence of the technical / literary / intellectual class (which is a class not defined by income) from everyone else. Paglia has not addressed this directly in a contemporary context as far as I can tell. She has a great deal of deserved scorn for what she calls word-obsessed, French theory laden academics, but in the overall scheme of American culture they’re a very small part of the picture.

Still, even in universities that are supposed to conserve knowledge and promote reading the movie temperament has made headway. In universities English professors are eager to show movies in class and have students write about movies instead of books; while that’s okay, I’m reminded of the phrase, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”* There is always an impedance mismatch between writing and the subject of writing that does not exist in writing about other writing; the latter two inform each other in a way that writing about other subjects, including art, does not.

I’m not opposed to watching movies, or movie criticism, or courses about movie criticism or movie making, but the extent to which the people who are supposed to be teaching writing are using movies is another example of the trends Stephenson describes.

When I was a first-year grad student at the University of Arizona I was part of a small teaching group with other first years and one faculty facilitator. A girl and I got into a discussion about why I didn’t show movies in class, and I told her some of the above; watching movies in basic English classes is a waste of time. Reading is an essential part of writing, and people who don’t read can’t be good writers. Period. Most students have plenty of screen time but very little reading time. She said she thought I was wrong about the coevolution of reading and writing, so I sent her some studies demonstrating what is already obvious to every writer. She said didn’t care and was going to keep showing movies anyway. The exchange is symptomatic of deeper issues in academia itself. As Paglia might say, the culture has corrupted it, in ways that it shouldn’t be corrupted, rather than in ways it should be corrupted (which is a subject for another post).


* If so, the criticisms about modern action or blockbuster movies have incoherent plots or dialogue are no more meaningful than saying that dance or architecture have incoherent plots or dialogue. People like me, who like movies that make sense, don’t realize that we’re criticizing the wrong genre.

Thoughts on the movie “Nymphomaniac”

* Unlike the movie I’m going to put the moneyshot at the beginning and say it’s boring; we left maybe halfway through “Vol. 1″.

Nymphomaniac* That being said the movie is mostly a comedy. Perhaps this is a function of living in New York, but I’d guess that at least a third of the audience was laughing at parts probably not intended to be funny, like the primal scream from a famous actress directed at her cheating husband. She also got the best line, asking that the children be allowed to see “the whoring bed.”

* The allegedly nymphomaniacal protagonist, Joe, doesn’t seem to have much fun doing what she’s doing, so why bother?

* The movie is consistent with the idea that women are the chief guardians of each other’s sexuality (see further, e.g. Leora Tanenbaum’s book subtitled Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation).

* The lighting is often amateurish, deliberately at first I thought, but less so as the movie went on. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by Hollywood. Jittery camerawork has a more obvious artistic purpose in that it mirrors Joe’s internal turmoil about her actions.

* Despite point one in this post, Nymphomaniac still asks, “Do most people lead dull lives?”

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