When Fifty Shades of Grey made the transition from best-selling novel to box office smash movie – on Valentine’s Day, no less – we were given another opportunity to watch the border between the mainstream movie industry and its pornographic cousin evaporate into further irrelevance.
For anyone living in blissful isolation for the last couple of years, Fifty Shades began life as the first part of a trilogy written by E.L. James, the pen name of Erika Mitchell, a former television executive. The literary merits of the novel don’t bear examining – even its defenders admit that it hasn’t many – but it’s worth noting that it began life as a piece of fan fiction written for a Twilight web forum, and was self-published as an e-book before being bought by Vintage Books and making its way to the bestseller charts.
Similarly, the movie version has been a box office hit, earning US$131 million by its second weekend, even after being pummelled by reviewers. The Toronto Star described it as an “exercise in banality,” Rolling Stone called it “dull, decorous… about as erotic as an ad for Pottery Barn,” while the New York Times called it “terrible” and New York magazine wondered that “my God, this thing goes on.” Despite the best efforts of our arbiters of taste, James’ story somehow demanded to be seen.
At the heart of it all is a very simple story, complicated mostly by details, not by character or motivation. Anastasia is a college student who meets Christian Grey, a rich and notable young executive whose personal life is a mystery. They begin an affair of sorts that alternates between hot dates and contract negotiations when she learns that Christian has a taste for what used to be called bondage, but which now, in our anagram-crazed world, is referred to as BDSM.
It mostly takes place in Christian’s vast, sepulchral apartment, and while there isn’t a physical obstacle that can’t be overcome by his driver, fleet of cars or helicopter, Ana is constantly striving to bring some romance, affection and normalcy to their relationship, to which Christian maintains that he “doesn’t do that.”
There’s a meme circulating online that Fifty Shades of Grey is a romance because Christian is rich, whereas if he were poor and living in a trailer, it would be an episode of Criminal Minds. While I would love to look at E.L. James’ story through the prism of class, it demands to be looked at because of the explicit sex scenes that are probably the only thing really notable about the film.
Sex in the movies is a long story, but it has to be understood that Hollywood and the porn movie industry have been neighbours for as long as the movie industry headquartered itself under the warm California sun, and have a long history of sharing money, financiers, talent, and technicians. While the two retained a strictly patrolled DMZ between each other for decades, the barrier became far more porous in – big surprise – the ‘60s.
It’s hard to point out just when the walls came down. It might have been when a 20th Century Fox, a major studio, hired a pornographer – Russ Meyer – to direct what was supposed to be a sequel to their movie version of The Valley of the Dolls. It might have been when movie stars like Marlon Brando began appearing in explicit European films, though the art house had always been a place where the more ambitious vanguard of porn met the less mainstream products of the studios.
Since then there have been milestones aplenty in the pornification of movies, as movie stars have agreed to explicit scenes in movies like Basic Instinct, Wild at Heart, Mulholland Drive, In The Cut, and many others, while young starlets are increasingly asked to get naked as a rite of passage on their way to the cover of Vanity Fair’s annual Hollywood issue. A few years ago critics’ favorite Steven Soderbergh cast hardcore porn actress Sasha Grey in his film The Girlfriend Experience, and Grey went on to a regular role (as herself) in HBO’s bros-in-L.A. series Entourage. Finally, Hollywood has increasingly turned to the porn industry for stories, in films like Boogie Nights and a recent biopic of porn movie actress Linda Lovelace.
With Fifty Shades, Hollywood has put big money, talent, and the promise of sequels into a story where the sex goes far further into the realm of kink than the usual choreographed wrestling under wind-blown sheets with body doubles. And while the trajectory of James’ trilogy of books takes Ana and Christian out of the bedroom through an outlandish thriller on their way to domesticating young Mr. Grey and delivering home, hearth, and family by the finale, Christian’s well-accessorized “red room of pain” is now a spot on Hollywood’s backdrop next to Charles Foster Kane’s warehouse and Rhett and Scarlett’s staircase.
What hasn’t been discussed, though, is the simple fact that no one watches porn for the story while no one really watches a movie for the sex. With Fifty Shades, we have a film that, production values aside, is as dreary and rote as the most pretentious ventures in plot-heavy ‘70s eurosleaze like The Story of O – a film that Fifty Shades resembles in no small part.
As anyone who made films under the heavy hand of the Production Code from the ‘30s to the ‘60s will tell you, it takes a lot more skill not to show something onscreen – a fact that’s made both sex and horror onscreen less compelling as it’s become ever more explicit.
And finally, while it might be desirable – perhaps even easy – to avoid the increasingly explicit products of Hollywood today, on-screen sex can be imported into any format and distributed at the click of a mouse, and for anyone concerned with the embattled status of life at birth today, it’s worth wondering how the cheapened and debased status of that life is a condition of the way we’ve come to look at the act that necessarily precedes it.