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.

Links: Movies, critics, Franco Moretti, love and sex, peak oil, and other affairs of the mind and soul

* Why do so many movies feel formulaic? Because they’re using a formula: “Save the Movie! The 2005 screenwriting book that’s taken over Hollywood—and made every movie feel the same.

* The case for professional critics.

* On Franco Moretti: “Adventures of a Man of Science,” which is about the effort to apply statistical methods to literature.

* “Role Reversal: How the US Became the USSR.”

* “Love, Actually: Adelle Waldman’s Brilliant Debut;” though I feel like I have read the book after reading the review.

* Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery is both interesting and painful; it brings to mind Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960 – 2010, much like the movie Rust and Bone. In the backstory to Lost Girls, there are many moments like this, when Megan, one of the eventual victims, “found out she was pregnant. The father was a DJ, thirty-two, with one child already in New Hampshire. Megan met him at a club in Portland—a bathroom hookup, nothing more. ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do,’ she said softly” {Kolker “Girls”@53}.

If you’re going to get pregnant from a stranger, a random DJ seems like a bad choice, but it’s the sort of choice that millions of women appear to be making (which may explain why millions of men are responding by learning game, so they can be more like the DJ and less like the guys playing Xbox and watching porn at home.)

* “Has peak oil been vindicated or debunked?” A little of both, but mostly vindicated.

* “Difficult Women: How ‘Sex and the City’ lost its good name.” I especially like this:

So why is the show so often portrayed as a set of empty, static cartoons, an embarrassment to womankind? It’s a classic misunderstanding, I think, stemming from an unexamined hierarchy: the assumption that anything stylized (or formulaic, or pleasurable, or funny, or feminine, or explicit about sex rather than about violence, or made collaboratively) must be inferior.

* Wealth taxes: A future battleground.

* “Let’s shake up the social sciences;” the humanities could also use a strong shaking as long as we’re at it.

The Lost Girls interview, war, and its relationship to sex

In the Lost Girls interview I linked to recently, one thing that Alan Moore says stands out as resolutely wrong:

War, I still believe, is a complete and utter failure of the imagination. It’s when everything else has been abandoned or hasn’t worked. It’s what destroys the imagination. It set back the progress of the human imagination.

It’s true that war “set[s] back the progress of the human imagination,” but war is actually about resource control, with “resources” defined broadly. Resources may be primarily geographic (one thinks of the recent U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan) or they may be about commodities (one thinks of Japan capturing oil fields in World War II) or they may be people themselves (one thinks of innumerable pre-modern religious wars). They are also often sexual, or have a sexual tinge, which Moore and Gebbie do get right in Lost Girls and foreground, since sexual behaviors and motives tend to be glossed or ignored in most histories.

There are exceptions, however; consider, for example, this passage from Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II:

The number of sexual relationships that took place between European women and Germans during the war is quite staggering. In Norway as many as 10 per cent of women aged between fifteen and thirty had German boyfriends during the war. If the statistics on the number of children born to German soldiers are anything to go by, this was by no means unusual: the numbers of women who slept with German men across western Europe can easily be numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

Resistance movements in occupied countries came up with all kinds of excuses for the behaviour of their women and girls. They characterized women who slept with Germans as ignorant, poor, even mentally defective. They claimed that women were raped, or that they slept with Germans out of economic necessity. While this was undoubtedly the case for some, recent surveys show that women who slept with German soldiers came from all classes and all walks of life. On the whole European women slept with Germans not because they were forced to, or because their own men were absent, or because they needed money or food – but simply because they found the strong, ‘knightly’ image of German soldiers intensely attractive, especially compared to the weakened impression they had of their own menfolk. In Denmark, for example, wartime pollsters were shocked to discover that 51 per cent of Danish women openly admitted to finding German men more attractive than their own compatriots. (164–166)

That wartime behavior became a topic of community discussion and cathartic release and punishment after the war. Still, this passage and other, similar ones from Savage Continent demonstrate that a lot of men treat women like resources in the context of war. Saying that war “is a complete and utter failure of the imagination” implies a level of goodwill that often doesn’t exist. To continue with the World War II example, it’s evident that Hitler had a phenomenal imagination, to the point that most of his adversaries and victims couldn’t believe the staggering, cruel audacity of what he was attempting. In a more recent example, in the first Gulf War it was apparent that Saddam Hussein imagined himself taking over Kuwait and perhaps Saudi Arabia, although he didn’t presumably imagine that he’d provoke a world-wide counter-reaction.

Nonetheless, the rest of the Moore and Gebbie interview is excellent and unexpectedly moving, and Lost Girls itself is, from what I know, still a singular, highly unusual, and highly recommended book.

Links: Denmark, Lost Girls, Human Rights, Houston Adventures, Austin, Biking, and more!

* Divorce, Custody, Child Support, and Alimony in Denmark, which arguably has better outcomes than the U.S.

* Usually I don’t care for graphic novels, but Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls is an exception; this interview with the authors is also excellent and new to me.

* A Cruel and Unusual Record: The United States is abandoning its role as the global champion of human rights. (Endorsed.)

* Robert Nagle: “‘That Fish has been fried’–definition and explanation;” I would add that many disagreements end or should end not with agreement, but when both sides have run out of facts, evidence, or ideas.

* Strictly textual but possibly NSFW: “Houston Adventures.”

* Can Austin stay weird as it grows?

* Worse than Manhattan? Bike expert rattled by ride through Seattle.

* “Why the U.S. is being humiliated by the hunt for Snowden,” emphasis added, as the “why” has been largely neglected.

* Stop Attacking Male Writers for Being Sexist: Protagonists don’t have to be likable to be great.

* “Voyager 1 Discovers Bizarre and Baffling Region at Edge of Solar System.”

Watchmen — Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

I fell for the hype surrounding the movie version of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, a mostly indifferent graphic novel: many if not all of its characters seemed flat, especially Dr. Manhattan and Rorschach, whose fearful misogyny might be typical of equally fearful teenage boys and some highly right-wing politicians, but in the story he came off more as a case of amateur psychoanalysis combined with arrested development masquerading as personality. (For some reason I’m reminded of the New Found Glory song “Something I Call Personality.” This bodes ill for Watchmen.) Others are better, maybe, but still have trouble with platitudes and leaving the realm of the silly—and this in a work with no sense of humor.

To be sure, Watchmen has many intriguing and unusual aspects, chief among them that most of the “superheroes” don’t seem to actually have special powers from an unusual source, as happens in Spiderman or the X-Men; rather, they decide to don costumes and kick ass and learn on the job, rather like 40-year-old office workers who decide to become Olympic-caliber swimmers. Instant skill acquisition is (arguably) less realistic than most superhero stories, as a single person is, more likely than not, going to get his ass kicked by four guys no matter how skillful he is. But realism has never been the genre’s strong point, and I like the postmodern tweaking involved. Still, I also wish that someone had read On Faerie Stories.

Another unusual tactic: the panels in Watchmen are temporally intermixed and sometimes the scenes jump around, so following the action can resemble assembling a Faulkner-esque jigsaw puzzle more than walking the traditional storyline. It’s noirish in places, especially when Rorschach is speaking; Watchmen opens with him thinking that “The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over all the vermin will die.” The next panel says, “The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout ‘save us!’ ” Er, well, maybe, or maybe these notes read like a teenager’s angry musing after being jilted by the girl he wants.

Dr. Atomic suffers from a similar brand of flatness: he’s a blue character of seemingly infinite power whose presence wrecks whatever semblance of balance the book might otherwise have. In The Lord of the Rings, one is ceaselessly aware of limitations on power, and a persistent weakness of many fantasy novels is the tendency for a character to become God-like, at which point conflict disappears—and so does plot. Having one built-in from the beginning, and particularly one who likes to spout low-grade philosophy, seems more a weakness than strength. Likewise some of the awkward history lessons, as when the only female character, Laurie, interacts with virtually anyone. She’s explained away as a ditz, while Rorschach’s darkness gets a movie-of-the-week treatment regarding his past, which includes his mother’s prostitution. The novel’s view of women is not quite so retrograde as it appears at first glance, but nor is it particularly palatable, even by the end.

There’s a bit too much imagining aloud—page 20 of chapter 8 demonstrates it well, with conversations designed chiefly to impart information to the reader, rather than other characters. Watchmen reinforces rather than obviates the somewhat pervasive sense that graphic or graphic novels are lesser forms of art than text novels. This is unfair, of course—one need only look at one of Moore’s later works, like Lost Girls, to see the genre’s potential fulfilled—but a certain snobbishness sneaks up nonetheless. The failure of utopian dreams and the triumph of pragmatism over ideology are promising developments in the story and for the genre, but the expression of those fundamental ideas isn’t sufficiently deep to make the ideas transcend their circumstances, just as the characters never stop being characters and start being people. No matter its technical virtuosity or innovation, a work of narrative that fails that test can’t be truly great.

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