Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Capitalism With A Human Face

The Girlfriend Experience (2009) directed by Steven Soderbergh

Though Soviet propaganda commonly evokes it's mythic symbol of Russian communism as that of workers rebelling against their masters, we all know that nowadays a more apt representation for that time and place, would be a faceless man dying quietly of exhaustion in a Gulag. The same goes for American capitalism, where a rags to riches, pulled up by his own boot straps, self made man of fortune(the little Slumdog Millionare in all of us) is the public hero, while the true face of capitalism is actually closer that of a young ambitious prostitute of "flat affect" like Sasha Grey. Steven Soderbergs finest film, is a non-linear exploration of a material girl, navigating the mine field of high tension, sexual exploitation-domination, and emotional integrity. The girlfriend experience as a title is has a double meaning, it's the name for the type of escort service she provides for her Johns; going out to dinner and a movie, snuggling and chatting on the couch, and breakfast the next mourning. More girlfriend than one night stand. Grey is meticulous in attempting to create the perfect match for each of her clients, listing on which date, what clothes she wears(down to the underwear and lingerie changes), what topics of discussion come up in conversation, what sexual acts are done(or more often than not aren't done). The second meaning comes from the fact that she herself is a girlfriend, an escort, but one in a commited relationship. Her and her boyfriend who works at gym, have lived together over a year. He is comfortable with her career, but he still has his rules.
Rule 1. is that she can't take trips with clients. It's one thing to have 9 to 5, it's another to start going home with your work. Grey wants to take on a new client, who according to her "Personology" charts which guide her life (sort of like Astrology with birthday's), will be a good match. The two argue and her boyfriend decides to take a trip to Las Vegas, with some of his wealthy clients from the gym. The irony may be lost to him, but is not to the audience, that he is as much a surrogate for these older men's desire to recapture their youth, and more importantly avoid the financial stress of modern life as Grey might have been. The irony is also not lost, that leaving his escort girlfriend, he tries to break out of his box, and ends up in a hotel surrounded by more escorts or young women hoping to bag them a rich man.
The trip the boyfriend takes, which is shown as it would have looked on a home video camera recording is shown throughout the course of the film. Our trip into Sasha's life is paralleled by her boyfriend's trip to Vegas. We are given simultaneously the good life as we imagine it(the trip), and life as it is, Grey's wheeling and dealings, with disgusting fat guys who run message boards and promise her a career boost for a freebie("This Dubai trip, I know it sounds like a white slavery ring...but it's totally not..."), to intellectual Journalist johns who want to get to know the real her; "If they wanted the real you, they wouldn't be paying.".
The real topic of this film is not sex, but economics. The words "Obama" and "Economics" get used over a dozen times in the first half hour. All of Grey's clients are wealthy, and they spend much of their dates, giving financial advice, and voicing their complaints, worries, and fears about the future of their financial security, in a recession which only seems to be deepening. Her clients may not be able to afford the lives they were accustomed to; meaning among other things, visits with her. This also underlines her desperation with the message board guy and the John with the weekend promise. Her boyfriend begins hard balling his boss for more money and responsibility too. He gets neither, and his wounded manhood, is only exacerbated by her weekend with the John. By going on the trip, he crosses a certain class threshold, where he no longer needs to earn the affections of a women like Grey, he's with men who can afford to buy them.
Grey acting is naturalistic and real throughout, this is after all what the porn-star/escort/Internet mogul/and now actress does for a living. Actually her flat and cold demeanor, like so many of the wealthy sterile homes she visits, makes for plenty of emotional blind sidings once the drama unfolds. For the first time watching a movie about prostitution didn't feel like a cautionary tale of victimization, or a naive hooker with a heart of gold story, but an emotionally and intellectually well rounded story a job, like any other. At times enjoyable, at times humiliating, at times life changing, but a job, something done to make money. Grey's attention to clothes is as much to please her client, as to give the impression that she is "high class", and worth the extra cash. There is only illusion to be found here, those of her clients, her boyfriends(whether that illusion is " you CAN turn a ho into a housewife" or "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas", is left up in the air), and her own illusions; what happens to her if she hasn't made enough to retire by the time she starts to noticeably age? I assumed the final scene would be the boyfriend paying an escort, and felling as if his quest for a "boys night out" was a horrible moebius strip. But Soderberg surprised me with a fairly sensitive scene, that suggested just how emotionally crippling financial stress can be. And acted as great closing link between the financial meltdown of the country, the stress induced mental breakdowns of the Johns, and the break-up of her own relationship.
In the final scene a man, who tells her to be sure to vote Mccain, because he plans to defend Israel, takes off his pants as Grey strips and the two chit chat. Then they hug, and the man starts trembling close to tears, "Thanks for listening. Nobody listens to me." And they stand there half dressed hugging each other. $2,500 an hour just to be hugged and listened to by a pretty half naked young girl. Now not all of her dates are probably this easy(the message board guy sure ain't), but in this specific case, which ends the film, who is exploiting who, or is business just business? The Girlfriend Experience is capitalism with a human face, and two decades into his career, Soderberg's finest film.

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