Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Girlfriend Experience

A few months after releasing Che, his four-and-a-half hour Che Guevera biopic, Steven Soderbergh returns with The Girlfriend Experience, a 77-minute long take on five days in the life of Chelsea (porn star Sasha Grey), a high-end Manhattan escort. The director is fond of mixing it up; his resume includes big-budget blockbusters (the Ocean's series), Oscar-baiting star vehicles (Erin Brockovich) and indie fare (The Limey, Full Frontal, Bubble). 

 

As Soderbergh said at a Tribeca Film Festival panel following his latest, "movies need to have either absolute perspective or none at all." He called The Girlfriend Experience "a myopic movie" about a very narrow breed of New Yorkers doing very specific things in October of 2008. And while The Girlfriend Experience represents a downsizing of budget, scope and star power for the director, his ambition is undiminished.  

 

The movie's pinpoint topicality comes not only from its protagonist's resemblance to a certain governor-toppling working girl, but from its production coinciding with last fall's Wall Street meltdown. Pillow talk between Chelsea and her clients revolves around crumbling portfolios, bailouts and cautious investment strategies.

 

But fiscal panic hasn't hurt her client's willingness to shell out. Dates occur in swank downtown lounges and hotels, the camera lingering on their facades in establishing shots. Chelsea name drops designers and upscale restaurants, Patrick Bateman-style. "I met with Philip on October 5th and 6th. I wore a Michael Kors dress and shoes with La Perla lingerie underneath and diamond stud earrings."

 

Grey's deadpan delivery is coolly appealing. "During lunch he talked about the financial crisis. And when we got back to the room, he immediately got on the phone and ordered some Macallan 25. I put on a Kiki de Montparnasse corset, panties and gloves. After he got off the phone, we made out for awhile," Chelsea's voiceover narration tells us as she commits a tryst to paper. (A businessman suggests she write a memoir: "There's a huge market out there for that these days.") 

 

Soderbergh called The Girlfriend Experience "a movie about transactions," with the film's Great Recession backdrop exposing their fragility. Chelsea sleeps with "the hobbyist", an escort connoisseur, in hopes of a favorable, profit-boosting review on his website. Her real boyfriend, Chris (Chris Santos), is a personal trainer often seen haggling with clients looking for their own form of physical wish-fulfillment.  Everything and everyone is for sale. "If they wanted you to be yourself, they wouldn't be paying you," Chelsea explains to a journalist (in a whole different sort of transaction).

The hobbyist criticizes Chelsea for her "flat affect." But Grey's dry monotone and vacant stare only strengthen the actor's performance; they bring the character's odd girlish giggle and flash of life behind the eyes into sharp relief. Soderbergh praised Grey for the "Zen" she brought to Chelsea. (He knew a porn star "in command of sexual situations" would fit the part.) But it's the almost-reluctant emotions that manage to break through Chelsea's cool fa├žade (all of them outside of the bedroom) that keep you watching.

 

Domestic scenes between Chelsea and Chris are bathed in warm amber hues, but offer no more emotional warmth than the many hotel flings, here tinted a clinical blue. The pair's selfish indifference to one another suggests that the emotional toll of "the real thing" is just as taxing as paid simulations and truncated "experiences."

 

Character anomie aside, The Girlfriend Experience is too funny to be cynical and too broad an indictment of consumer culture to be a didactic slam on the world's oldest profession. For Soderbergh, prostitution is no different than investment banking, which is no different than filmmaking. (Moderator Caryn James asked Soderbergh if he felt he'd prostituted himself with the Ocean's movies; he diffused the awkwardness by saying all of his movies required him to sell his time and ideas to executives.)

 

The Girlfriend Experience might not rake it in like Soderbergh's mainstream efforts. But the hordes who queued up for the three Tribeca screenings indicate a collective interest in the gilded underbelly of Wall Street's good old days, when, as the director said "money became a national fetish."

 

Porn is another national pastime (Soderbergh noted that Utah has the highest porn traffic rate in America) and Grey's stature in that industry will likely draw many one-handed keyboard tappers to the arthouse.

 

Will they be disappointed with the lack of onscreen sex in the movie? "I excel at undercutting expectations," Soderbergh shrugged. He hoped that people desensitized by Grey's graphic pornography would be jolted by the inverse, saying that "fantasy is what you can't have."

 

With money dried up and the elicit thrill of sex dimmed by accessibility, the confluence of the two in The Girlfriend Experience make it the ultimate post-crash fantasy.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Blank City

As downtown New York seems to teeter on the brink of a fresh set of “bad old days,” Celine Danhier’s compelling documentary, Blank City, reminds audiences that they might stand to gain as much from fiscal ruin as they do to lose.


Blank City played at a Tribeca Film Festival screening in the now-trendified East Village. But the young, French Danhier’s examination of New York’s No Wave cinema movement of the ‘70s and ‘80s conjures the neighborhood in burned-out tatters. Rents for floor-through lofts peaked at $300. Neighborhood streets were so desolate that movie shoots took place in broad daylight without permits or distracting passersby. Such alienation and constant fear (“Walking home at night felt like going to war,” is a constant refrain) produced a frenetic creative hotbed that prospered in since-shuttered outposts like Max’s Kansas City, CBGB’s and the New Cinema on St. Mark’s.


No Wave filmmakers defied mainstream categorization (director Lydia Lunch: “I’m fine with the No Wave label, because the word ‘no’ is in it”). But they strived to elevate cheap 8mm and 16mm film stock above the esoteric film school ghetto to which those grainy formats had been confined. These were no-budget art films, but traditional narrative was key. Influences included Godard, Fellini, Antonioni and Cassavettes, brilliant filmmakers who, while outside the Hollywood mainstream, attracted the New Yorker raves and subsequent uptown crowds that the No Wave misfits ostensibly shunned.


Blank City showcases a dizzying array of avant-garde filmmakers. And while it’s gratifying to see so many underground artists gain exposure, the movie’s purview is almost too encyclopedic. The impression is of a splinter group of artists who lived in the East Village in the late ‘70s, all made edgy movies and all hated each other. There are petty squabbles and romantic soap operas (“I respect his talent, his art and his intelligence, but he didn’t even have to say anything for people to despise him” Lunch says of former flame Nick Zedd) but scant camaraderie. And the film’s segue from late-‘70s/early-‘80s No Wave (highlighting Amos Poe, Jim Jarmusch, Charlie Ahearn, Beth and Scott B, Eric Mitchell and others) to the shock-heavy Cinema of Transgression (Zedd, Richard Kern, Casandra Stark) of the Reagan years is flimsy.


Outward misanthropy be damned (Steve Buscemi, something of a No Wave muse, remembers his giddiness whenever he witnessed a reluctant half-smile from Zedd), many subjects (including, yes, Zedd) emphasized that humor was key to the subgenre. No Wave was born of the desperation that living in a bombed out East Village (“It looked like postwar Dresden!”) inspired. But it also rebelled against the self-important high art scene that was about to explode onto already-sanitized SoHo galleries and, God forbid, Park Avenue living rooms—at least until growing recognition inevitably diluted the genre’s scrappy charm.


It’s possible that No Wave was a victim of its own success. Jean-Michel Basquiat, an emblem of the ‘80s New York art scene is eviscerated by his peers for, as Poe says “making money cool. I still hate him for that.” And Buschemi recounts his ambivalence about attending one friend’s film premiere uptown in Chelsea, “outside the art ghetto.”


Parties weren’t made to last, of course, and Blank City attributes the death of scrappy No Wave cinema to all the usual external suspects: drugs, AIDS, gentrification, Reaganism and the recently deceased money culture it inspired.


But Blank City is no elegy. Several interviews were shot after the economic meltdown, and Poe for one is optimistic about the “power of ideas” finally fighting back against the “lying, murdering thugs” selling wars in the desert from Washington and intangible derivatives from Wall Street. Jarmusch echoes that thought with the documentary’s closing line: “Forget about the past; bring on the future!”