Category Archives: Movies

50 Shades of Grey helps me understand why I never trusted the movie adaptation of Secretary

I first became aware of Mary Gaitskill in the mid-late 90s (I believe my professor, T.C. Boyle, made it assigned reading), and I fell in love with her fiction immediately; in particular, I loved the story “Secretary” from Bad Behavior. It’s a grim a-morality play which shows us, almost as if overhead, from a place of horror, the degradation of a little lost girl whose creepy lawyer boss sees in her someone he can manipulate, degrade, and engage in a form of “consensual” dominance/submission that her depression and self-loathing perhaps give her no other choice but to endure.

The following week, when I made a typing mistake, he didn’t spank me. Instead, he told me to bend over his desk, look at the typing mistake and repeat “I am stupid” for several minutes.

It’s a far cry from the movie Secretary, the adaptation of the story that came out in 2002 starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader, which is a helluva lot sunnier. In it, Gyllenhaal plays the little lost girl, and Spader as her boss somehow uses S&M to make her blossom as a person.

As a perv, I do like that Secretary was a great PR piece for my people. It helped to normalize kink for the squares, even going so far as to endorse it as a potentially healthy avenue for sexual release, one that most of us in at least subtle ways already participate in through our daily lives (I see Mad Men as also being very kink-positive about dominance games, too, though I think many critics miss that point).

And I am soundly in the James Whale’s Frankenstein camp, (no pun intended), and hold similar opinions about movie adaptations of books as I do about cover versions of great songs–you’ll never be able to capture the same magic in a new format, so please, do change things from the book! Give us an excuse to love those characters all over again in new contexts and with even new tones and lessons than the original piece may have intended. This is why I don’t mind Stanley Kubrick not including Anthony Burgess’ last chapter in his adaptation of A Clockwork Orange: Burgess ended his novel with a lesson on the power of maturity and old age to cure the savagery of youth, but while that’s an inspiring idea, doesn’t the ever-maddening Alex of Kubrick’s version ring equally plausible?

But though I love movies that rework fiction, something seemed a little false, a little too naive, about Secretary. It seemed to be missing some important point. And I don’t think I realized what that nugget of truth was until reading Charlie Latan’s essay about 50 Shades of Grey in Flaunt.

No one seems to be talking about Secretary when reviewing the recent film version of 50 Shades of Grey (just kidding, the smart people are), though clearly Secretary was an influence not only on the film, but likely also to the book that it’s based on. There are so many similarities that Buzzfeed made a list, and Hollywood Reporter tried to top that with a trailer mashup. I haven’t seen the film, but according to Latan, 50 Shades of Grey stops just short of actually giving its characters the believable back stories, emotions, or chemistry of Secretary, but at its base is the same idea: a young, impressionable girl meets a richer, more established boss, and soon an inappropriate S&M relationship blooms in which the controller/”sadist” is the rich successful dude, and the submissive/”masochist” is the poor little lost girl.

And therein lies the rub.

If you have ever been in a good ol’ jolly S&M experience, or full-on master/slave relationship, the fun part is that it’s all play, and that its core, no one is emotionally abusive or truly forcing themselves on another. Whether you engage in S&M with a life partner, a third-party, or even pay for it at a dungeon, at the end of the day everyone is meeting on more or less equal footing.

wonder woman

You can spank your wife all you want in the bedroom, but only because she wants it too (or enthusiastically wants you to do something to her she “doesn’t want” which is still enthusiastic consent); and afterwards, you still have to take out the trash and be a good husband.

And yeah, sometimes there seems to be a gender component, e.g. I as a male seem to get “roped” into being the one who does most of the tying up and spanking in my relationships. But even that is not me truly dominating–I might actually prefer to be the one on the receiving end of this stuff, but I play the role my partner wants me to, at least half of the time. Maybe we’re acting out gender roles in the bedroom almost as a way to exorcise them fully from real life, or maybe I’m just better at tying knots because I was an Eagle Scout. But whatever the case, it’s always me and another person who I care about and who cares about me and who is truly free to leave whenever she/he wants.

(AN ASIDE: Yes, this isn’t always so cheerful. I was even once in a relationship where my partner wanted me to punch her, choke her, say horrible shit to her, and “rape” her as part of sexual intimacy. These are not my preferences, and at times, her predilection was the farthest thing from a turn on I have ever experienced (I actually cried over it once). And yet, for psychological reasons driven by cruelties committed upon her in her past, this dark sex play seemed to really help her to work this shit out in the bedroom. She needed it, and it was not her fault that she needed it. And so on occasion,  I would oblige. But this was not my being abusive–this was me trying to help my girlfriend cope, and to get off sexually. The rape was never really rape, because she enthusiastically consented to it, and the “abuse” never went past what she could take, or what I could take. And it started and ended in that space of play, and did not bleed into our “real” lives, or my treatment of her when it came time to figure out what Thai food restaurant to go to or whose friend’s party we’d attend. We were equals. I had no true power over her except our affection, and even that was shared.)

Secretary might have been about a shared affection, but its main characters were not equals: one was a successful boss, one an emotionally battered secretary. Though the bazillionaire dom in 50 Shades of Grey may be almost a Tony Stark cartoon compared to Spader’s lawyer, there is a reason that sexual harassment laws exist. And it’s no different in a law firm than with a high-powered CEO: the relationship between employer and employee is never equal.

Writ large, the relationship between our upper class and those who are financially struggling, those in the dwindling, ever more desperate middle class, is not equal. This is why I struggle with my views on prostitution: on the one hand, I think a person should be able to do whatever they want with their sexuality, including selling it, or offering money to someone who will help them get more experience with it. Yet I worry that women who are not “forced” into prostitution as literal slaves are often doing so because there is a dire economic need that is not their fault. It is their last resort, not their enthusiastic choice.

And as sugary as a fairy tale princess story might seem, are they much different? All damsels are helpless to stop the forces that shape their lives, be they witches, evil step-sisters, or… the heroic princes themselves, whose love is mandatory if the princess is to survive. Sound like Pretty Woman much? This is not the consent of equals. And any story that cranks up a boss/employee power relationship into one of love and consent is masking, rather than revealing, the dark nature of economic sadism that our society’s 0.1% power players commit upon us on an ever-increasing basis, a sadism that is making the middle class vanish. Charlie Latan gets it just right:

Anastasia Steele is the perfect stand in for such a vanishing class … As anyone working a salaried jobs knows, options are scarce. Bend over, and forego your identity to the cruel calculations and staggering organizations of an interested corporation. They’ll whip you, and buy you a nice lunch, fly you across the country for a meeting. Sounds strangely familiar to Ana’s tutelage with Grey. In the process, one develops a social identity that is left behind if one leaves the arrangement (sexual or professional). Essentially, if you take a hike, you are like the fictional Ana, you cease to move the narrative forward.

While I applaud Secretary for being a fun film that attempts to speak well of kink, by placing its relationship in the context of employer and employee, it misses this more important point, one that Gaitskill’s original “Secretary” doesn’t. If in Orwell’s 1984, the future is “a boot stamping on a human face—for ever,” our present is one in which our bosses make us lick their boots, and then trick us into thinking a few dirty coins make this a good thing. We shouldn’t be using James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhall to make this relationship of power inequality look, even in a minor way, like that’s something that can be reworked into a positive. No wonder Gaitskill called the film adaptation of her work “the Pretty Woman version, heavy on the charm (and a little too nice).”

-D. M Collins

P.S. You may have noticed that I didn’t bother mentioning the names of the directors of 50 Shades of Grey or Secretary, nor the author of 50 Shades of Grey. I probably should have, but A) personalizing this might dilute my thesis into ad hominem attacks, and B) it was hard enough spelling “Gyllenhall” half a dozen times, and I want to quit naming people while I’m ahead.

wake up to breakup – Obi Best in my living room

So, last night I found myself rushing downtown to a gig that I ended up not even playing (a story for another time–let’s just say “fuck the Down and Out” and leave it at that). I was in my Scion xB going south on the 110, and for some inexplicable reason when I turned on the stereo, KCRW popped on instead of a CD, and this song from half a decade ago was playing. And suddenly I was transported through time and space to another point in my life, very different from where I am now, yet not much different at all.

There was a time during the second half of the George W. Bush administration where I went through the second most painful breakup of my life: the girl I was living with left me and almost immediately took up with a far handsomer, younger, and incredibly richer guy. The life we’d just started together in a fancy-schmantzy loft in Santee Court downtown went belly up. And yet wouldn’t you know it? Somehow my ex sublet another apartment in the same building, which meant she moved out but didn’t really move out. I had to get out of there and find better accommodations before I wound up torturing myself over whether I did or didn’t see her car in her parking space every night.

In hindsight, I might have landed on my feet even better than she did. I had just conned my way into a lucrative tech job, and then I immediately earned a bunch of money in a weird stock sale thing. Theoretically, I was a single man, young, okay-enough looking and with a bunch of money in my pockets.

But I was depressed as only a 20-something in love can be. I ended up frittering away a lot of that money on boozin’ and random purchases and partying and bad car choices. And then one afternoon, I jumped over a friend’s fence on a goof and broke my right foot, which meant expensive cab rides all the damn time, even to work in the morning. Downtown L.A. to Pasadena every morning in a cab costs something like a million bucks.

But there was one feather in my cap that I never failed to appreciate, and that was the loft apartment I moved into on Santa Fe and 7th. This was the best home I have ever had. It wasn’t a mere loft apartment with tall ceilings–it was a warehouse, made out of bricks, with a real bathroom and hardwood floors and couches and nice partitioned rooms, but also the scuffiness that comes with converting something industrial into something homey. It was a ground floor space that was as convenient for functional warehouse behavior as it was for living; my roommate frequently brought his car in to work on, which you could do easily, since there was a huge metal garage door on one wall. This had once been the kind of place where train cars pulled up and unloaded cargo, where men got to work and punched a card to prove they’d been there. And now it was a haven for a would-be artist trying to quit smoking, a blisteringly precise drummer who bartended the Standard at night, and me.

My room, semi-partitioned off from the meat and potatoes of the loft, was over 1000 square feet, a huge cavern all to itself. There was no doorway to it, just an entrance so big I had to commission a seamstress friend to make giant curtains to provide a little privacy. Cleaning was a snap: just push stuff over to one wall and run a broom through things. Over the bed area in that room were two giant black metal beams that came to a point above my bed, like something straight out of Metropolis, or maybe a Ronnie James Dio video. For the girls who came over and ended up having sex with me, climbing into my bed must have been like climbing into some cushiony corner of the Blade Runner set, with a bit of the live-action He-Man movie and Larry Clark’s Kids thrown in (me being a mix between Tully and, I dunno, Chloe Sevigny, but when she’s all drugged and talking to gross cabbies).

That was an era when, by my meager standards, I had incredible success getting women to sleep with me. Bear in mind, I was a complete wreck, with a weird page boy haircut and a bunch of goofy hats and no sense of style—and due to the broken foot, I was on crutches a good portion of the time. Clearly it wasn’t my own charms that seduced these ladies: it must have been the apartment.

I mean, even the exterior of our building was cool! There were fake double-doors in front, since it had been the exterior of Rolling Stone Magazine in the movie Almost Famous!

Actually, our neck of the woods was kind of like Exterior City. This being the Toy District, we were near a lot of industrial looking facades, including our own building, and the L.A. River was basically our backyard. Every other week we’d have bulletins on our doors letting us know that they’d be shooting an episode of 24 or an action movie, and to expect “helicopters and gunfire.”

But it took us until one of our roommates moved out to find out how badly people wanted to film inside of our warehouse. One of the first responses we had to our Craigslist post for a new roommate was a music video director: “I don’t want to live there, I want to film there!” One Russian pop group video later, a lucrative side business was born. Another, then another, then another music video was shot at our warehouse on Santa Fe Ave, each one leaving tons of free craft services and a bunch of gouges in the floor.

And so it came to pass that one morning I found myself lying in bed, me and my current amour unable to keep sleeping, because this song was playing over and over again just outside my bedroom. Even compared to all the bands that had been there before, this video shoot was loud. FUCKING loud, like louder than a metal gig, loud enough that I was afraid the cops might come, even though it wasn’t even a live recording; the band (think they were called Colorforms at the time) were just lip-synching to their own loud song and hitting drums over it.

Given what I know about myself at that age, there was a strong chance that I’d drank a lot and partied a lot and had probably been up until the wee hours the night before, doing god knows what with the angel next to me. I was NOT pleased with this volume situation, not at fucking all. And worse, the band  kept playing the beginning part of the song over and over again, the part where her voice starts up at the top of her range and twists its way down, like a sing-song, Regina Spector nursery rhyme: “IIII think that we make a pretty good team/don’t think we should break up, nooooooo...”

It was a fucking terrible experience to snuggle your way through, groggily, from the other side of a flimsy wall. And as you can see in the video, the singer kept changing outfits, and each new outfit change meant a run through the song about ten more times. In my memory, the shoot only lasted until mid-day, but they must have kept recording for a while to get all that footage in all the permutations.

Eventually we got up and wandered around the borders of the house, just off-screen of the giant white background they brought (or was it a green screen?), bemused with how many people it took to make this video that didn’t have a lot of things going on in it, and yet how few people and little money it seemed to be requiring.

You know, suddenly it didn’t seem so terrible that this was going on. What fun to see people baring their souls to a camera in your own house! It was clear that the singer really wanted this to work: there was confidence in her eyes, but I also detected something like desperation, that this shoot had better work because she had invested so much time and probably so much money, and that all the people around her might very well disappear if this video didn’t lead to even bigger and better things. The other guys in the band—well, they looked like serious nerds to me, which in my utter exhaustion, I found both hilarious and humbling. I wasn’t a nerd at all! And yet no one wanted me to be in their videos (well, not yet, but that’s another story).

Years later, I can listen to this song with much different ears. I can hear the craft in it, and the bouncy bass lines care of the long-haired “nerd” I now realize was Bram Inscore, who went on to play with Beck and Coco Kixx and a ton of others, including my personal fave, Electrocute. And of course, there’s Alex Lilly’s wonderful voice. Yes, only now after hearing the song and looking her up do I realize that it is this Alex Lilly who is in the Living Sisters, where her melodious voice blends with some of my other favorites of the modern era). It looks like she and Bram have a new incarnation, Touché, and I’m excited to hear more from them.

It’s a wonder what seven years and a good, non-hungover night’s sleep can do to improve your sense of enjoyment. Now when I hear this song (and I’ve been playing it all day) it makes me smile. It makes me remember being in a bed, the noonday sun coming in around those metal beams, a lovely young woman with me to curse the loud music and yet laugh at how fun life is, how ridiculous it can be, in a world where people would pay money to put a screen in someone else’s house because it was kind of like a warehouse, on the ground floor, near the L.A. River.

And now we don’t live there anymore, and it’s a real warehouse, and the company that operates out of our old place smashed out that bedroom wall. Even if somehow I could kick out the guy whose desk now sits below my metal beams and get the keys for myself, there’s no wall anymore to put the green screen on one side of, with sleepy hungover lovers on the other side to grimace and grouch and grin. The way I’m headed, I might never be woken up by a band recording a video again.

But I doubt it.

-D. M. Collins

A Rrose in a Prose is tomorrow!

The good news is, we’ve added Drew Denny to the bill! You may remember Drew from such media as print, film, and the fine art world–she’s exhibited ecology-minded art environments in multiple continents, has been an editor and frequent contributor to L.A. RECORD, and has recently been going around promoting her very amazing independent film, The Most Fun I Ever Had With My Pants On, which she wrote, directed, and starred in. Oh, and somehow she’s also in the band Bon Bon.

The bad news is, due to health concerns, Allison Anders will not be joining us. We should compose an Exquisite Corpse poem for her to help her feel better! As long as things go well, and they seem to be doing so, she’ll likely be on her feet for next month, or in the months to come. Luckily, we do have a representative from her camp, as Flannery Lunsford, the star of her film Strutter, will be reading with us.

It’s at the Hedgehog in Echo Park, 2201 W. Sunset Blvd, at 3 p.m. See you there!

P.S. More info at the Facebook invite HERE.

Elvis is still the King!

I know, I know, the Beatles were better at the music, the Beach Boys were better at major sevenths, Chuck Berry was better at the lyrics, and Little Richard was better at falsetto.  Carl Perkins was better at being down-home, Billy Lee Riley was better at crazed-cat rockabilly, Buddy Holly was better at bringing pop into his rock, and Bo Diddley had a better beat.  Even among the Sun Records cats, Johnny Cash did more drugs, and Jerry Lee Lewis was more dangerous.

But Elvis was an amazing performer–the biggest shining personality of the fifties–with all the moves, lots of style, great looks, and a wild personality.  The fact that he had bad management, mental problems, and an addiction to food and drugs shouldn’t tarnish that amongst modern myth-makers who tend to prefer the Bolans and Joneses to this man.

I mean, fuck, Elvis sang better than Frank Sinatra.  Last night, to celebrate Elvis’ 74th birthday, my gal TiVo’d Fun in Acapulco.  Goddam, could that boy sing!  Listen to this shit!

Fuck all contenders!  This man is the KING!  F U C K !!!

The Haunted House of Horror

This is one of those films that you know kind of sucks but you still have to see.  I usually hate spoilers, but I just have to say it: Frankie Avalon gets stabbed through his dick in this movie!  There is a crotch stabbing, and the Big Kahuna gets it!  And you also get to hear him talk about doing drugs with Mark Wynter of “Venus in Blue Jeans” fame, and get to see Carnaby Street in the late sixties, and get to see more go-go boots and false eyelashes than you’ve probably ever seen in a horror film!

The Pretty Things contributed at least one song to this soundtrack, “She Says Good Morning” from S.F. Sorrow no less, and it sounds to my ears like a differently mixed version than the one on the album.  There’s also enough great incidental music by god-knows-who to groove on and make a whole soundtrack disc of.  And while we’re talking about the great rock tie-ins that were, let’s not forget the tie-ins that could have been: both a young David Bowie, as well as Scott Walker, had been cast at one time or another for this feature, as well as Boris Karloff, who got too sick to play the detective (maybe it was the convoluted script).

Anyway, it was a great distraction to watch this and not think about the misery that is another work day tomorrow morning.

Beverly Garland RIP

Beverly Garland died this week.  The press remembers her mostly for her television work, and as a Roger Corman B-movie actress.

I remember her as both!  Who can forget Swamp Diamonds on Mystery Science Theater 3000?

And let’s not be hasty and forget Gunslinger!

Milk and Sylvester and Neil Young!

I just saw Gus Van Sant’s Milk last night.  Of course it was great and moving and sad and informative.  And of course Sean Penn wowed us with his performance, even though we already knew it was going to be good.

But amidst all the drama and sadness and history, I got a little nugget of sweetness when they had a scene recreating a Harvey Milk birthday party, including Sylvester singing him “You Make Me Feel!”  God, I love that song, and I thought the drag performer Flava (er, real name is apparently Mark Martinez) carried the outlandish role of Sylvester pretty well. 

One purchase I really want to get in the near future is Sylvester’s first album, Sylvester and the Hot Band.  After his stint with the Cockettes, he initially moved in kind of a funk-rock direction, including a cover of Neil Young’s “Southern Man” that I still have not heard, though the reviews are incredible!  Here’s one of the few tastes of this album I’ve gotten, and it’s a goodie:

Sarah Palin and the Fabulous Stains

I watched McCain’s concession speech last night, which was actually a fantastic and warm speech.  Say what you will about the ugly campaign McCain ran, and his warmongering attitudes toward foreign nations, his lust over offshore drilling, and his crummy voting record.  I think this dude is still the man he was eight years ago in his heart, a moderate and somewhat rational leader in a house of nutso.  He would have been a better president than any Bush ever was if we’d had the misfortune to see him get elected.

However, I couldn’t help but notice as I looked through the crowd at his acceptance speech…

…there are a scores of women in the audience un-ironically dressing up in bangs and glasses just like Sarah Palin!  Watch the footage with an eye towards the crowd, and tell me you don’t see some serious mimickry.  And this ain’t no Tina Fey rendition–this is an honest-to-god appropriation of Palin’s style in lieu of her substance, or lack thereof.  It reminded me way too much of this scene in the Fabulous Stains:

RuPaul stole my idea!

Every good idea deserves the disappointing crush of learning you weren’t the first to think it.  And I got that sudden jolt tonight after watching an old Project Runway with RuPaul on it and doing a little research into his/her film career.  I’d always thought my drag queen name would be “Rachael Tension.”  But it looks like fucking RuPaul already used that name, notably in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar.   Or at least, she kinda did, as “Rachel Tensions.” 

Oh well.  I guess I’ll have to go as “Ineda Fixx” or something like that.

P.S. Fuck!

P.P.S. This post has no relation to this gal from Montana.

Paul Newman RIP

One of the best actors in filmic history died today.  Paul Newman, the other guy from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the guy whose star shone so brightly that even Tom Cruise looked like Oscar material when standing beside him, finally lost a battle with cancer. 

 You’ve got to give credit to Paul Newman not just for his good-natured humanitarianism and his un-Hollywood-like work ethic, but also just for his sheer acting ability.  This man, who couldn’t help but be pretty damned good-looking even into his later life, rarely played the smartest guy or the dumbest, the best or the most evil, but generally excelled at roles where the character’s brains, emotions, sensitivity and needs all duke it out for which will have mastery over that character’s soul.

And let’s not forget his ability to bring levity to tragedy, and stoicism to comedy.  Newman’s best role of all time, in my opinion, has to be the comedy that out slaps, out swears, and outlaughs all other blue collar comedies–Slapshot!   

If you haven’t seen this film, do yourself a favor and just rent it and put it on.  From frame one, this is a classic.  My Uncle Buddy, my great-uncle and the quintessential black sheep of the family, gave this to me on video when I was about 12 and told me he saw this movie at a time in his life “when I just needed a good laugh.”  The dialogue, which seems so rough-and-tumble and quintessentially masculine, was actually written by one Nancy Dowd, a criminally under-utilized writer who also went on to do Ladies and Gentlemen… the Fabulous Stains!

But I digress.  Even at 83, Paul Newman made me in a way proud to be an American, and the world misses him.  My girlfriend and I bought our doggy a can of Newman’s Own organic dog food in his honor.

P.S. Yes, I know Newman’s Own isn’t vegan, but I haven’t yet worked that out with the dog and the missus.  At least the money goes to pet charities.  And Fido won’t contract Mad Cow Disease.

P.P.S. I wonder if Paul, in his dying breath, thought to himself “What a Way to Go!”