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.

08 May 2009

At the movies/extensive digression: Star Trek.

If this were a Summer Movie Preview, it would go something like this: When a spacetime incident launches a vengeance-seeking Romulan miner (for more on that story, see the prequel comic books, because the film barely devotes twenty seconds to its specifics) on a collision course with those who will one day be the crew of the Starship Enterprise, the ‘future’ as we have known it is in serious danger. But this isn’t a normal summer movie, really.

Here it is, the gathering of the first and most beloved Star Trek crew, but under different circumstances and in a fashion meant to restart a film series that had been led down the path of studio interference and disheartening developments (can anyone say Remans? It just made me want to buy a bottle of champagne for Diane Duane). And on that front, this new film, from the most objective place possible, is better than 7/8 of the Next Generation movies and all of Enterprise.

That people are even talking this much about Star Trek is a good thing. It’s a great thing, even, because that’s what Star Trek has always been about- dialogue, democracy, and grassroots movements. It started out as a little show on a big network with little budgets and big ideas, and the united force of its fanbase kept it alive, even during the decade after its cancellation, before 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Before the Internet, through letters and meetings and gatherings and the building blocks of friendships, Star Trek remained a vital and vibrant thing

To this date, Star Trek: The Next Generation remains the only television show ever to accept unsolicited scripts, and that little historical footnote is a beacon to those of us who grew up caring about the continued goings-on of the United Federation of Planets. Star Trek thrives on disparate voices coming together and settling their issues, expanding the universe and our own mental horizons as well.

Star Wars has always been George Lucas’ baby, and look where it got you. The Alien films had a righteous champion both in actress/producer/auteur Sigourney Weaver and in the character of Ellen Ripley, though the shameless opportunists behind Brandywine (its production company) let Fox run roughshod over them to create their heinous Alien vs Predator abortions. But Star Trek was kept alive by its fans, and the disdain that even otherwise respectful reviews of the new film have vented at the truly hardcore Trekkies is sorely misplaced. Someone that you know and love is a Trekkie.

Me? I knew my geek card was being called during the Kobayashi Maru sequence when I was intrigued that the Klingons were using the D-7 model ship. So yeah, I’m like that.

SciFi fans are an interesting bunch of people because not only do they have vivid imaginations, they also stay informed about issues; that combination makes a lot of people nervous. In the way that St. Patrick’s Day is amateur night for alcoholics and October is the month when people who’d never otherwise watch scary movies like to dabble in horror, people who enjoy SciFi year-round are viewed with suspicion.

But look at the landscape of contemporary television today… SciFi, Fantasy, and Horror are the influences behind the programming leading the charge against the Xerox proliferation of reality shows, and those genres (and Twin Peaks) help power Lost, Heroes, Pushing Daisies, and any other of a number of programs that understand the power of a good story.

Which makes it intriguing, because Lost co-creator/Mission: Impossible III director J.J. Abrams isn’t playing anything safe. Alienating hardcore Trek fans with the possibility of erasing forty-three years of fandom is arrogant and impetuous and radical, so the film makes a point of firmly describing itself as an alternate reality created by a spacetime incident. While aspects of these much-loved characters are the same, so much in this film’s universe is different or skewed that it becomes “Star Trek,” rather than Star Trek. So there’s still a currency-based system on Earth, Cardassian drinks are widely-known, and there are Orion women in Starfleet.

If none of those statements mean anything to you, you can skip the rest of this piece. Stuff blows up and there are lots of attractive people making a difference with special effects; check it out.

Nonfans have been ecstatic about this new film and what all it entails, the faithful a bit more skeptical (I, for one, feel there was no need for a Beastie Boys song, and while I love the idea of Tyler Perry’s cameo, its execution seems a tad jarring). I know people who won’t acknowledge anything that didn’t have Gene Roddenberry’s approval as ‘real’ Star Trek. I have a dear friend who refuses to see this new film because he claims it unmakes forty-three years worth of time and love. And there are people who feel betrayed by what’s been done to Star Trek across the board since the film series began. And I respect all of those perspectives for two main reasons:

1) I was raised to believe that when you listen to what other people have to say, you learn things.
2) I was taught at a very early age by Star Trek that diversity and openness was the key to progressing.

So there’s a remarkable span of opinion on the subject. It’s such a wide range of people and ideas and expectations that it could be nearly impossible to speak to all of them. But like our old buddy V’Ger, I want to hear what all is said, and I want to know all that I can know. Kubrick’s monolith could never be a symbol of Trek’s perspective on human social and spiritual evolution, because nothing about Trek is monolithic.

Getting the facility for social themes and goofy hand-to-hand combat of the original series exactly right, Abrams and his writers have created an entertaining and fast-paced summer SciFi/Action entertainment. It’s a fascinating work, and it may well help to launch further interest in the whole of Trek. At least, I hope it will. The cast is game (high marks to Karl Urban, whose Leonard McCoy is simply a sterling performance; think McKellen in the Lord of the Rings films- that good), and as a divergent timeline with different historical markers, this Star Trek illustrates a nimble spirit and a firm sense of finding infinite diversities in infinite combinations. It is my sincerest hope that the people driving this franchise avoid the pitfalls of the Rick Berman regime, but even more than that, I want them to tackle some big ideas and get a bit more intellectual.

Nicholas Meyer’s 1982 The Wrath of Khan is always held up as the ‘perfect’ Trek film, and following that example has led us to many different variations on the ‘revenge-seeking X impacts upon a member/members of the crew and the galaxy trembles’ approach (a theme that dominates this new version as well). But Wrath of Khan also deals with the fallout from an “out of sight, out of mind” policy on megalomaniacal warlords as well as questions the value of a device which can generate life from lifelessness (or just as easily wipe out life in the same process). It’s about the conflicts between scientific research and military application. It’s about letting anger burn away at humanity. And this new Trek does a little of that. But its main goal is getting asses in seats, and it’ll do that. I just want some more of what I love about Trek in the next one. And some Deltans.

There are three moments in this new film that are simply breathtaking. The first deals with our immersion into the architecture of Vulcan; the hanging buildings of ShiKahr are simply gorgeous- imaginative and possessed of a truly nonhuman aesthetic. Going further (and building on a great moment in the fourth film), we see the Vulcan educational process, and it’s overwhelming.

The second moment that will reach out and grab you involves a death. I never thought anything could top the horror and shock of the first film’s transporter malfunction, but I would call what happens in this film the single most devastating transporter moment in all of Trek. The first film’s visceral horror, and the absolute Cronenbergian violation of it all, in that transporter malfunction remains unequalled. But there’s a moment in this new film that changes the gears of an entire life. This ‘transporter moment’ is metonymic for what happens around it, on a much grander scale, but there’s a period of about an entire minute where I couldn’t even focus on what was going on because I was trying to keep my shit together from what had just happened.

The third moment just involves the Enterprise rising from the dust of Saturn’s rings, and it makes the heart swell. It’s the grandeur of the shuttle approach from the first film, but only about twenty seconds long. And if the idea of the Starship Enterprise has ever meant anything to you in your life, you can’t help but feel it during that moment. Potential, and decency, and intelligence and justice all working together in a system that spanned worlds and galaxies- that never goes away. So to this new cast of the old Enterprise, I say “Welcome, friends. You’ve got an interesting road ahead of us.”

On a side note: when my Saturday morning press screening was over, some friends and I, leaving the mall, came across two Canadian Geese and three of their goslings, single-file marching from out of the parking lot toward the Mall entrance right by the theatre. Of course, people started gathering around them, taking cell-phone pictures and such, with intrigued children and befuddled shoppers hamstrung by such an incongruous pairing of elements.

This not being Memphis, and this mall not being the Peabody, there was no established protocol.

But, following the lead of the geese, a group of a few folk decided to try and help shepherd the birds back through the parking lot and over to the river several hundred feet away. A diverse group of people with differing goals and no commonalities (other than where they were at the time and an inherent sense for providing help when needed regardless of the fact that they couldn’t communicate verbally with the afflicted) banded together to keep those geese safe. It was like a cosmic message, a Roman omen, adorable with a side of danger, and it made me feel like an idealist for the first time in a while. Trek principles stay with you for life.