21 May 2009

At the movies: The Girlfriend Experience.

Literally, ‘The Girlfriend Experience’ (the concept, not the film) is a service offered by certain sex workers that introduces a layer of intimacy beyond the usual entanglements. This could include everything from a night out at the movies, a walk down the street while holding hands, or contemplative conversation to an in-depth discussion of a recent book. It’s an extended illusion of the kind of intimacy that comes with time, and it fills a vital need, as our girl Christine seems to be doing well for herself.

But Steven Soderbergh’s Girlfriend Experience is about something a bit more extensive than that. Personal trainers get paid to spend time with their clients and reshape their bodies. Sex workers get paid to spend time with their clients and fill some physical, emotional, or social need. Investment bankers get paid to take people’s money and protect it, finding new ways to increase it. Factory workers get paid to lift things so the person who signs their paycheck doesn’t have to. Our entire culture, it seems, is built on finding something that you’re good at and getting paid to do it so that someone else doesn’t have to. ‘Prostitution’ brings to mind an inherently sexual connotation, but it’s pretty much what we all do.

There are days when the only thing keeping your nose to the grindstone is the paycheck. Or worse, the fear of losing it. Or worst of all, in hopes of making a name for yourself and getting some attention so that you might someday get that paycheck. When you look at it, internships really are more insidious than prostitution.

And then there’s me. I’m writing this review to keep a viable media presence. I do it in hopes that someday I will magically find a gig where all I have to do is write about film, which would be a dream come true. I’m doing it because I couldn’t find anyone to pay me for it, which even the greenest of street hooker would tell you is a bad business plan. The world will always need sex workers and bankers (I’m not so sure about the personal trainer, though), but the panic evinced by the money men in this film is simply part of the daily slog for me. And probably for you. The imagined you who might take the time to wade through this solipsism and Level IV logorrhea.

So I responded to this film. It’s got a Godardian sense of play to it, and its characters are intriguing. There’s a bit of Bret Easton Ellis, some Pretty Woman for flavor (though all involved parties recognize that they’re dealing in delusion, unlike that paramount of late-80s/early-90s culture), and even a bit of Bartelian social sketching afoot. Setting the film just before the 2008 election was a nice touch, as the pervasive uncertainty of that time allows us to easily understand why security is such a seductive (and elusive) goal. And in its star, Soderbergh has found the perfect canvas for his social theory: Sasha Grey is a famous porn star who desperately wants to be deconstructed. She may even be the first “porn star” (though some would say that Grace Quek holds that particular title) to build an entire iconography out of irony and subtext.

And though Grey doesn’t quite have the chops to break out into mainstream acting just yet (though she’s young, and her instincts would indicate that she could very well become a great actress), she has several moments in the film that are remarkably effective, and I can’t help but wonder if her performance in The Girlfriend Experience is meant as a comment on/conversation with her adult film work (see also Rocco Siffredi in Catherine Breillat’s savagely underrated Anatomy of Hell). Grey’s (some would say excessive) need to be a people pleaser, to embody all fantasies, to fulfill all desires, to be whatever is required for whomever is watching- this is ideal for modern cinema. She prowls the cinemascope frame as lover/businesswoman/whore/little girl lost/romantic/fashionista/clinician/porn star gone legit/postmodern presence/diva/new face/old news that you can’t even begin to analyze where she’s coming from. She’s a mystery, and that lends that mystery to the film as well.

Sometimes words can’t adequately encompass the meaning or presence of a thing. It’s a frustrating place to be (moreso if that happens to be your job). But all my uncertainties about the why of The Girlfriend Experience fall by the wayside in its final shot. A moment of peace and stasis with a beautiful body; a time where sexual desire and basic human decency mesh, and everybody gets what they came for. We do not see Christine’s final embrace end, and thus, in a cinematic context, it goes on forever. Which is a gift. A blessing.

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