Friday, March 13, 2015

Unexpected Lessons From ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’

[Insightful. Reflective. Interesting.]

FEB. 26, 2015


“A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man.” So wrote Robert Warshow, almost exactly 60 years ago, setting down what would become an unofficial motto for the profession. The idea that movies and other forms of popular culture could be subjected to serious critical scrutiny was a new and controversial notion in American intellectual circles at the time, and Warshow wanted to make clear that any such criticism would have to take account of its origins in everyday experience. Wherever your thoughts and judgments might take you, you always start out as a consumer, a member of the audience, a fan.

By now, the idea that criticism starts with what Warshow called “the immediate experience” seems inarguable, at least in principle. Sometimes, though, a critic may watch a movie and wonder, “Man, what am I doing here?” The blithe sexism of Warshow’s formulation is very much to the point here. In our own era, the universalism implicit for Warshow in the words “movies” and “man” can no longer be taken for granted. The entertainment industry does business through careful demographic sorting, dividing its potential public by age, gender, region and race, and hoping to hit as many of those disparate targets as possible. At the same time, members of the public are accustomed to looking at themselves and one another through various lenses of identity, and to spotting the biases and blind spots in what they read.

So a critic may still be — speaking strictly for myself — a man watching a movie, but he doesn’t want to be that guy, the one who either sets himself above the common experience or remains clueless about the different impressions a movie can make. Let me put it another way: I’m still kind of hung up on “Fifty Shades of Grey,” a movie that stirred up all kinds of curious feelings and that continues to exercise a strange power over my innocent mind.

Sorry to get all confessional. The “Fifty Shades” phenomenon has inspired a widespread loosening of inhibitions. Long before the film opened on Feb. 13, E. L. James’s trilogy of novels about the romance between a naïve college student named Anastasia Steele and a handsome billionaire named Christian Grey was a topic of discussion in book clubs, online forums, and (a bit later) among opinion writers and literary critics. The global popularity of the books — 100 million copies is the number most frequently bandied around — has seemed to open a window into an often hidden zone of the collective psyche, adding a voyeuristic thrill to the dreary work of deadline-driven cultural analysis.

And also providing an irresistible opportunity to moralize on the subject of women’s sexuality. There were objections to the way Christian and Anastasia’s affair seemed to blur the line between consensual B.D.S.M. and abuse, and debates about whether the popularity of the books represented an advance for feminism, the durability of traditional gender roles, the terminal decadence of Western civilization or a boon for the sex-toy industry.

The film’s release, and its domination of the Valentine’s Day box office, revived these questions and raised some new ones, including about the differences between what happens on the page and on the screen. The books go as far as Ms. James’s and her readers’ imaginations can take them, detailing the things Christian likes to do with Anastasia and Anastasia’s sometimes confused, sometimes ecstatic responses to them. (“Orgasm! Another one!”) Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film version, constrained by the decorum of the multiplex-friendly R rating, takes a softer-core, more indirect approach. And while this discrepancy is hardly surprising, it brings up an especially vexed issue in this era of promiscuous cross-franchising. How much fidelity do readers require from film adaptations of their beloved books? How much deviation will they tolerate?

Tracking the changes wrought upon works of literature by the movies has, in the past, been a rather specialized pursuit, confined mainly to pedants. The migration of a story from text to moving images has always been understood to involve a degree of distortion. Some filmmakers strive to minimize the changes, while others try to exercise maximum freedom. The critical and public response varies, and the number of viewers has generally been so much larger than the number of readers that objections are likely to be drowned out.

But that began to change with Harry Potter. J. K. Rowling’s seven-part series was barely half-finished when the movie adaptations began to appear, and her most loyal readers represented an especially literal-minded and demanding subset of the public. Ms. Rowling, Warner Bros. and Chris Columbus, the director of the first two films, wisely intuited that the average 10-year-old Potterphile wanted to see a movie that matched, as closely as possible, what he or she had read.

If you ask a film critic to name the best Harry Potter movie, the answer will almost always be “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.” Directed by Alfonso Cuarón (in between “Y Tu Mamá También” and “Children of Men”), it is the most interestingly cinematic episode in the series, the one in which the personality of the filmmaker — his visual energy, his humor, his offbeat narrative rhythms — most palpably suffuses the material. But for this very reason, if you ask someone who grew up with the books to name the worst Harry Potter movie, the answer is likely to be “Prisoner of Azkaban.”

In my own opinion, “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a better movie than a book. By that, I mean simply that Ms. Taylor-Johnson has a better command of filmmaking craft than Ms. James has of English prose. But the aesthetic superiority of the movie actually works to its disadvantage. Ms. James’s blunt writing and awkward plotting help to demystify and democratize the wild and esoteric sex, while Ms. Taylor-Johnson’s silky imagery tries to restore an aura of mystery. On the page, “Fifty Shades” is bad art and effective pornography. On screen, it’s the reverse.

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This may be one of the reasons that in spite of the movie’s triumph at the box office, Ms. James has moved to reassert control over two planned sequels. Ms. Taylor-Johnson and the screenwriter, Kelly Marcel, probably will not be involved in the next chapter, according to reports. Whether this means more explicit sex — or worse dialogue — remains to be seen, but it is clear enough that the instructions of the writer, and presumably the inferred desires of her readers, will need to be obeyed.

Fans and critics don’t always want the same thing. This is not a complaint or self-flagellation: It’s a fact of life. Book reviewers were generally pleased with “Harry Potter” — sometimes extravagantly so — and almost universally dismissive of “Fifty Shades.” Similarly, they praised the artistry of Suzanne Collins’s “The Hunger Games” trilogy and disparaged the prose of Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” novels. None of which made much of a difference to the legions who devoured all of those books. Nor have mixed reviews for the film versions dented the enthusiasm of moviegoers.

Does this mean that critics are hopelessly out of touch, or that our judgments don’t matter? Well, no, of course not. (What did you expect me to say?) But that’s not because we possess superior wisdom or better taste. It’s because our job description is neither to affirm nor to oppose popular opinion, but to plot a tangent away from it.

A man goes to the movies. A few years ago, I went to see “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse,” the third of the five films made from Ms. Meyer’s four novels. It was a sneak preview at a large multiplex in Chicago, and the room was packed with tween and teenage girls and their mothers, all of whom gave unabashed voice to their delight. When Jacob peeled off his T-shirt after Bella cut her head falling off the motorcycle, the theater shook with shrieks and giggles, registering both the hotness of the scene and its unapologetic silliness. And there was something infectious about the response. It wasn’t that the movie was made for 13-year-old girls, but that it had the power to turn anyone watching it, a middle-aged man very much included, into a 13-year-old girl. This is less a matter of sublime cinematic achievement than of raw communal feeling. And that’s one of the reasons we go to the movies: to lose ourselves.

Which is where criticism begins. It’s the reassertion of control over that experience, the disciplining of an intense and frequently chaotic set of responses and emotions. It is therefore not only, and certainly not primarily, the exclusive province of professional critics. The person going to the movies must acknowledge that she is also, fundamentally, a critic.

Which brings me back to “Fifty Shades” (a project that, not coincidentally, began life as “Twilight-” inspired fan fiction). The courtship of Christian and Anastasia is many things, not all of them palatable or plausible. But it works rather nicely as an allegory of the relationship between criticism and fandom, archetypal impulses that coexist within each of us but that are embodied by the two lovers.

On one side is a creature with “very particular tastes,” who is meticulously, even morbidly attentive to detail. That would be Christian, who when he orders a gin and tonic specifies two different brands of gin (in case one is unavailable), each of which demands its own garnish (cucumber with Hendrick’s, lime with Bombay Sapphire). This is both impressive and ridiculous, as is his carefully organized collection of toys. He takes pleasure so seriously that he threatens not to be much fun at all.

On the other side is Anastasia, unworldly, impulsive and confused about her own pleasures and desires. She’s not sure what she wants, what she likes or what she’s supposed to like, but she is nonetheless prone to passionate, intense feeling. (Orgasm! Another one!) She is passive but also stubborn, somehow at once adamant and indecisive. She’s alternately drawn to Christian and repelled by him, much as his own ardor for her is subject to curious fluctuations in temperature.

He wants to control her. She wants to make him normal. They can’t seem to live without each other, and yet they spend a great deal of time negotiating the terms of their connection, trying to determine which one of them is really in charge. Sound familiar?

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