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SPANKS A LOT: On Fifty Shades of Grey, Sight Unseen

The movie Fifty Shades of Grey premiered to a whopping $85 million Valentine’s Day weekend box office gross ($94 million counting the Monday holiday). My first thought upon reading that headline was, Good for you, S&M—you’ve finally gone mainstream in a most legitimate way, making a profitable leap from the darkened basements of sex fetishists and the sticky pages of lurid bestsellers to the giant silver screens and cushioned, beverage-cup-holding pews of multiplex movie temples.

My limited knowledge of Fifty Shades of Grey is as follows: I became aware of the bestseller, part one of a trilogy written by a woman, and how its torrid descriptions of anatomy, intercourse and sadomasochism appealed to the bored soccer mom contingent. There was an instance last year when some family members discovered an abandoned boxed set of the Fifty Shades books in their new apartment closet, and we all agreed the volumes were probably left there in shame by the previous tenants, and that pious aunt so-and-so would definitely prefer for us to burn all three.

I have not read the trilogy, but I’ve heard enough of writer E L James’ filthy and juvenile turn-of-phrase to discount it as mere pulp erotic fiction and I figure I’m not depriving myself of high literature by skipping it.

The announcement of the inevitable movie adaptation did little to pique my interest—nobody involved, including the British director Sam Taylor-Johnson, seems to have done anything I’m kicking myself for missing—but a casting shakeup just before filming was scheduled to begin made me take note. It was strange that nobody could quite explain why vanilla TV and movie actor Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy, Pacific Rim) dropped out at the last minute as Christian Grey and was replaced by equally vanilla and lesser-known TV and movie actor Jamie Dornan.

Scheduling with other projects versus commitments to a potential trio of movies usually factor into casting shuffles on a deal like this, but I wonder if the true reason had anything to do with the so-called blasphemous source material, or the amount of skin the performers would be expected to expose in the movie? Or was it because author and co-producer E L James was proving to be a control freak who butted egos with the director and screenwriter at every turn? Or, perhaps, was it because Charlie Hunnam had finally read enough of the book Fifty Shades of Grey to realize he was simply seeking a more elevated starring role opportunity?
Viewing the Fifty Shades trailer, I tittered at the fake tone of austerity the director seemed to be striving for: the shy and trembling flower being interviewed by a powerful and confident Master of the Universe; their tension-fraught chit-chat dripping with innuendo; the flashy montage of Mister Grey’s billionaire thrill-seeker lifestyle, with fleeting peeks at his impeccable washboard abs and handsomely lit fetish gear—all of this a teasing prelude to the big naughty reveal that Mister Grey likes bondage, and the even bigger and naughtier reveal that the girl Anastasia Steele…is into it! With Beyoncé moaning through a slow-grind remix of “Crazy In Love” on the soundtrack, all of this is clearly intended to be profoundly provocative and juicily titillating, and you’d assume from the overwrought histrionics and all the lip-biting that the sheer notion of S&M combined with the female character’s willful exploration of it is a plot device so shameful in its depravity and seismic in its social and sexual impact that the movie threatens to shake viewers’ fundamental religious convictions to their very core.

Cue the church-based protests, but more on that later.

There have been other movies from respected filmmakers that have broached the topic of S&M before, but the marketing department would have us believe that no other previous motion picture has ever dared to venture this deep into the dungeon.

You’d think none of us had ever seen Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke have consensual sex with food and whips in 9½ Weeks, or recall how Maggie Gyllenhaal’s subjugated turn in Secretary is concurrently an empowering exhibition of female confidence and dominance over James Spader.

Further, the ’80s and ’90s produced an entire subgenre of psycho-sexual thrillers of widely ranging quality and various levels of ludicrousness that have oft dabbled with kink and, simultaneously, given the MPAA ratings board agita.

At the top of the heap is Paul Verhoeven’s sleek Basic Instinct with Sharon Stone and her scarves and ice picks. At the bottom of the barrel is the risible knockoff Body of Evidence with Madonna and her dribbled candle wax and unkempt merkin.

In-between are Garry Marshall’s unfunny sex comedy Exit to Eden with Dana Delany, Rosie O’Donnell, Dan Aykroyd and a wardrobe full of studded leather gear; William Friedkin’s seamy detective thriller Cruising with Al Pacino and barflies dressed in butt-less chaps; and Ken Russell’s just-plain-batshit-crazy Crimes of Passion, with Kathleen Turner administering an unlubricated police baton to a John.

Toss in the Gimp from Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction along with the freakish young leather-clad villain of the Kick-Ass films, and you’d be hard-pressed to find any self-respecting moviegoer who’d truly be shocked by the notion of S&M.

I was force-fed the sultry Fifty Shades of Grey teaser trailer while waiting for another feature presentation to begin, and upon first glance, the naughty film adaptation of E L James’ trashy bit of housewife porn looks to be little more than a junior-grade Wolf of Wall Street, but with a bit more emphasis on dominance and submission and, perhaps, whole lot more T&A.

Comparisons to the infinitely superior The Wolf of Wall Street are admittedly unfair, because the sprawling sagas of Martin Scorsese tend to encompass in one individual breathlessly paced sequence the entire scope of most other lesser films (my estimation is Fifty Shades will feel like a protracted version of one of Jordan Belfort’s wild sex parties, particularly the one with the mistress and the candle).

Granted, any moviemaker would be challenged to make a film that could put a blush on Scorsese’s cheeks—his raucous and racy Wolf of Wall Street has set what I believe to be a new record for frontal nudity and explicit sexual debauchery in a big studio “hard-R”-rated movie—and from what I’ve read and heard about Fifty Shades, the reportedly tame and “soft-R” movie is apparently not the film to do it.

I also detected in the preview clips of Fifty Shades a campy Cruel Intentions vibe that this would be another handsome but unintentionally hilarious drama with a sexy young cast playing dress-up while attempting to give gravity to complex and nuanced adult roles and themes generations beyond their feeble grasp.

For Cruel Intentions, the kiddies get gussied up and perform a modern Manhattan twist on Dangerous Liaisons; for Fifty Shades, “dress-up” involves fetish gear, the roles are delineated as master/servant, and the themes tend towards sadomasochism, bondage and discipline. I’m not saying the authors of the source material are comparable, but in the cases of the movie adaptations, the young’uns seem quite out of their league.

From what I’ve so far seen of Fifty Shades, the movie will likely be a similar embarrassment of riches, populated by rich kids exploring mature themes that might seem more appropriate—and plausible—for characters twice their age and body weight.

Much of the record-setting opening weekend haul for Fifty Shades was undoubtedly the result of loyal fans of the hugely popular and trashy book converging on cinemas in force hoping for a similar tingle of hot taboo between their thighs.

The books have been all the rage for a few years now, and this movie adaptation has been a media and social-network event from the moment the Hollywood suits struck up a deal. Controversial projects like this thrive on such cultural and marketing tsunamis, whether they are good, bad or merely mediocre, and it’s no surprise the movie opened spectacularly.

I’d like to think such a resoundingly successful opening weekend is also due, in part, to a strong push-back against protesters representing the religious side who cried foul that the film degrades women, and that the MPAA’s definition for its rated-R classification—including “some unusual behavior”—is not nearly specific enough.

Whenever a movie or book comes along that dares to push a hot-button, you can reasonably predict there will be some overblown right-wing protest of said film or book and that the vociferous zealots will invariably not have seen the film or read the book they’re reflexively objecting to.
Here, the proof of their obliviousness is in the source material: Anastasia Steele apparently willingly consents to the shocking S&M—this is a distinction that makes all the difference, thus the argument that the film celebrates sexual violence towards women doesn’t hold much water. Still, it makes for angry controversy, which generates sensational publicity, which results in heightened curiosity among potential viewers, and ultimately ensures a more lucrative box office gross.

This is exactly the opposite of what the protestors want, and this is precisely why I celebrate the eighty-five million dollar opening of a mediocre movie I am completely disinterested in and have absolutely no intention of ever seeing.

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