Friday, February 20, 2015

Well, color me 50 Shades of Disappointed...

Let me state up front that I have not read the 50 Shades of Grey novels. That does not mean, however, that I have no interest in the type of film 50 Shades of Grey was supposed to be--a disturbing, overwrought, erotic melodrama based on a novel that was based on a piece of Twilight fan fiction. The problem with the 50 Shades of Grey movie is NOT 50 Shades of Grey. No, the problem with the 50 Shades of Grey movie is that the director--and the producers--neither understood nor respected their audience.

50 Shades of Grey has been dismissively referred to as "Mommy Porn" by the mainstream media. What they mean by that is 50 Shades of Grey is a piece of erotica written by a woman, for women. And, actually, 50 Shades is part of long tradition of this kind of literature, the modern origins of which more or less date back to the 1970s and the women who circulated erotic stories about Kirk and Spock. What sets 50 Shades of Grey apart is that it went mainstream, gaining an audience of (mostly) female readers outside of the smallish fan fiction community.

The point of a novel like 50 Shades isn't plotting or character development. The point is titillation.

All of which means that the movie should have been made for the following audience: fans of 50 Shades (i.e. WOMEN<), fans of this type melodramatic, titillating fan fictiony-type story (i.e. WOMEN), and curious non-fans drawn in by the melodrama and the idea of a film based around an attractive man in various states of undress (i.e. your Lifetime movie audience, gay men and women).

Unfortunately, the makers of 50 Shades did not get the memo.

Instead of titillation or even Lifetime movie camp, what was served up to us was a dull, self-serious film that mixed stilted dialogue delivered with all the passion of an episode of Law & Order with uncomfortable simulated sex scenes in which the focus of the camera was on the face and body Dakota Johnson ("Anna") instead of what 99.9% of the audience was there to see: the body of Jamie Dornan ("Christian Grey").

Where was the tragic backstory? Why did Marcia Gay Harden and Jennifer Ehle show up and the have nothing to do? Where was gratuitous male nudity? WHERE WAS THE SEXUAL CHEMISTRY?!

I went to see 50 Shades with the same friend I saw the first Twilight film with back in 2008 and as we were leaving the theater last night she turned to me and said, "Well, if 50 Shades of Grey did one thing it convinced me that Kristen Stewart is a genius at acting."

And that's just it… the Twilight movies, at least all of them except the tone-deaf one directed by David Slade (Eclipse), knew what their audience wanted and delivered it with aplomb: Sexual chemistry. Gratuitous male nudity. Melodrama. Wealth-fulfillment, Cinderella fantasy. A non-braindead heroine.

Even though, as I stated at the beginning, I never read the 50 Shades books, I could see enough of the skeleton of the underlying story to see how much better the film could have been if the filmmakers had respected the material and the audience.

Anastasia "Anna" Steele (a woefully miscast Dakota Johnson) is a co-ed studying English literature in a non-Seattle city in the Pacific Northwest. Important to any understanding of the film is that Anna appears to be about 30 years old, which makes her not just a very old undergraduate but means that she does not get a pass for being young and naive. As the film begins, her roommate, a journalism major, is ill and needs Anna to go and conduct an important interview with Corporate Titan Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan, in full-in The Fall-mode) in her place. For some inexplicable reason Christian Grey is intrigued by the vapid Anna and begins stalking her.

After some boring, prolonged cat-and-mouse games and a helicopter ride from not-Seattle to Seattle, Christian Grey reveals his predilection for bondage and sadism and Anna reveals that not only did she have to repeat a few grades but she is also… a virgin!!!!!! Christian swiftly remedies the latter, although, alas, there is no remedy for Anna's stupidity.

What follows is a lot of boring sex scenes, boring Anna POV non-drama, and some severely misguided attempts to depict BDSM.

Leaving aside, for the moment, the fact that ALL OF THE SEX is filmed from a male-gaze perspective that dwells on Dakota Johnson's body--a body that 99.9% of the audience, including me, had zero interest in.

Leaving aside, for the moment, the fact that fans of the book were not happy with the choice of #notmyChristian Jamie Dornan.

Leaving aside, for the moment, the fact that the way BDSM was treated in the film was extremely irresponsible.

Leaving aside, for the moment, the crappy, tone-deaf soundtrack.

Leaving all that aside, there were two huge problems with the 50 Shades film. One was Dakota Johnson as Anna. Above and beyond all else, she was too "mature" looking to play a young, naive college student. When you have to film around your heroine's crows feet, she is too old to play a naif. From what I could tell, the appeal of the Christian-Anna pairing is that the sexually-experienced Christian has found that he desires complete control over his partners because Mommy abandonment issues, while the virgin Anna has resisted giving herself into passion because she's seen the mess it's made of her own sexually promiscuous mother's life. So, the virgin discovers the pleasure of giving oneself over to pleasure while Christian… enjoys the giving of pleasure, especially to somebody to whom it's all new. HOWEVER, what the dead-eyed Dakota projected was not naivety but incuriosity. Here is a woman who has no personality, no hobbies other than a vague one in "literature", and no goals or desires to motivate her. As played by Dakota, Anna is nothing more than a walking, talking Real Doll who existed in some suspended state for 30 years before meeting Christian Grey.

I mean, say what you want about Bella Swan--and Kristen Stewart as Bella Swan--but Bella (and Kristen) had motivation. They had goals. Sure, that motivation was to get in Edward's pants but she worked hard at it, god damn it. Bella Swan is a go-getter! Anna Steele, in the movies, at least, is a lay-there-and-take-it-er!

But even if Anna Steele was being played by anybody more appropriate than Dakota Johnson (a Chloe Grace Moritz type maybe?) the other major problem with 50 Shades is that there was no sense of "fantasy." The film should have been made with the heightened, melodramatic tone of a Lifetime Movie, appropriate to the style of the source material. Instead, we were treated to a sober and "grounded" film. "Authentic," one might say. Now, it's possible director Sam Taylor-Johnson thought she was treating the material with "respect" by not making it soapy and Lifetime Movie-ish but even if that's the case, it just reveals the plodding literalness taken for "realness" in Hollywood right now. The celebration of the mundane.

This also leads back to irresponsible treatment of BDSM. IF the film had been made in the more appropriate heightened style of a Lifetime movie, then Christian's fetish for stalking women, tying them up, and then whipping them would have been safely kept in the realm of erotic-fantasy, kept as an erotic-metaphor for his issues. But with the film "grounded in reality" like it was, it makes it seem like Christian's fetishes should also be taken as "grounded in reality." And they very much should not be. His continual disrespect for Anna's personal boundaries. The way he continues to pressure her into playing his submissive when she has expressed discomfort with the idea. These are not things a good dominant would do and to present them as "realistic" and even ROMANTIC is extremely irresponsible on the part of the filmmakers.

What I was left with at the end of the film was a) relief when the ending credits finally rolled and b) disgust at how Hollywood treats stories aimed at women.

The 50 Shades movie sucks because the 50 Shades movie ignores the desires of the audience in favor of some arbitrary standard of "quality filmmaking". Sex scenes that objectify the female form at best and HUMILIATE the character at worst. The fact that an actor most of the fans of the novels found unattractive was cast as #notmy Christian Grey. The fact that film ends with the hero fully clothed and the heroine naked, bound, bent over a table, crying with pain. The women (and gay men) who came to see 50 Shades did not come to see 50 Shades for this.

There is a good movie to be made from these novels. Sadly, this was not it.

1 comment:

eliza bennet said...

50 Shades novels are truly bad. I have not watched the film but whatever they did is bound to be an improvement on the literature side of things. They are just that brain dead belive me. I have read them all, the third at a hostel with the morbid curiosity to see just how bad it was going to get and it got very bad.

Jamie Dornan is actually the second approved actor for Christian Grey. The first choice was Charlie Hunnam and the fans' opposition was so high that the producers changed him (to Dornan) pretty soon after the announcement.

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