Noted screenwriter/director Paul Schrader wrote a very interesting piece in the Guardian the other day in which he suggests that viewers are suffering from narrative exhaustion. He speculates that the average thirty-year-old has already watched 35,000 hours of audio-visual narratives. Given the limited number of possible storylines, today’s media-makers have resorted to other strategies to make their work seem fresh and less predictable. This has given rise to the popularity of such forms as reality television, documentaries, videogames, short-format pieces created specifically for cellphones, and what Schrader calls “anecdotal narrative.” In discussing this last term, he explains: “The attraction of films such as Slacker and its mumblecore progeny is the enjoyment of watching behaviour unencumbered by the artifice of plot. It is not ‘fake,’ not ‘contrived’ (although of course it is).”
Like a number of Gus Van Sant’s recent films or Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control, Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience represents a similar attempt by a major American filmmaker to create an alternative to conventional narrative by eschewing a fully-realized screenplay in favor of a brief (six- to seven-page) outline, the use of mostly non-professional actors and structured improvisation. Shot quickly with a small crew and a high-definition Red camera over several weeks, Soderbergh’s film is a portrait of a high-priced escort. Chelsea, played by porn star Sasha Grey, is a different breed of prostitute. While trafficking in sex, what she really offers is the simulation of a personal love experience.
Set during the heat of the presidential election and the financial meltdown last fall, The Girlfriend Experience documents the excess of wealth that fuels the GFE phenomenon – extravagant lifestyles involving art, high fashion, chic restaurants, and weekend junkets to Las Vegas on private jets. The film suggests that, as the discrepancy between rich and poor widens, sexuality for the super rich has become another commodity. Indeed, Chelsea narrates her various appointments in terms of designer outfits and other status markers, while also noting client’s financial anxieties involving friends, business, and an economy suddenly in free fall. Sessions often begin with questions about spouses and children, who are addressed on a first-name basis, providing the veneer of intimacy.
Chelsea is also involved in a relationship with a live-in boyfriend named Chris (Chris Santos). He’s a personal trainer at an upscale gym – another service industry for people with too much cash to burn. We watch Chris at work as he uses his charm to con his clients into signing up for additional sessions by developing his own ersatz relationship with them. Chris is also on the make – he also attempts to peddle a new line of clothes and angles for a cut of his gym’s business.
If the film examines the contradictions of paid escorts as intimate personal relationships, it also delves into similar conundrums involved in living with a prostitute. For both parties, it necessitates compartmentalizing their lives. When one of his clients suggests that Chris join a group of business guys for a weekend in Vegas, he initially declines out of deference to Chelsea. She’s into “personology” books – an irrational system Chelsea relies on to make decisions about clients and to cope with the dangers implicit in her line of work. It leads Chelsea to decide to spend a weekend with a new client on a whim, but this violates the “rules”of her relationship with Chris. When she breaks the news to him, Chris lashes out at her in very frank terms that belie the mutual deception at the heart of their arrangement.
Throughout her interactions, Chelsea projects an image of a woman in control of her emotions, or someone who shows very little affect. Her blankness is part of her allure to these men, allowing them to project their own fantasies onto her. Yet fissures eventually develop in her armor. Despite her belief that she’s the best at what she does, Chelsea nevertheless gets jealous when she sees a client with a new competitor. She also gets victimized by a sleazy operator (played by film critic Glenn Kenny) of an online Web site, entitled The Erotic Connoisseur. Under the guise of raising her profile to even greater heights within the profession, he hustles her into giving him a freebie in exchange for promotion. His review of her performance is a brutal and devastating putdown. After Chelsea breaks up with Chris because of feelings for a new client, a screenwriter named David, her intuition turns out to be misguided. As Chris has predicted, the client dumps her in order to return home to his wife and two young daughters, which leaves Chelsea stranded and in tears.
Although The Girlfriend Experience was apparently shot chronologically, Soderbergh scrambles time in order to create greater narrative complexity. We move back and forth between Chelsea and Chris. We observe Chelsea’s various interactions – with numerous clients, the operator of the erotic Web site, a business manager, and a magazine journalist who asks her probing personal questions about her line of work. Soderbergh confounds the story by having an adult sex star play a Manhattan call girl and by casting nonprofessional actors to play characters who bear some resemblance to themselves in real life. In a sense, the performers become the characters. The collapse between actor and role and the use of controlled improvisation lends a degree of authenticity to the film.
Soderbergh shoots mostly with available light, resulting in scenes that have either warm orange-red or cool blue tones. At times he plays with focus to give the image a greater sense of abstraction. Andy Warhol rather than Cassavetes proves to be the stronger influence here. Soderbergh told Filmmaker that he has become more interested in “this fusion of real people and real stories with a fictional story.” He elaborates: “I guess it’s something that grows out of my frustration with the norms of cinema narrative storytelling and the fact that I’m convinced that the gains that can be achieved through presenting something that seems like it is really happening in front of you are more significant than the gains you get from something that doesn’t seem real but is better constructed.”
In sex, lies, and videotape (1989), Soderbergh managed to capture the Zeitgeist of the time – people’s fear of sex in an age of AIDS – by exploring issues about intimacy and pornography. It’s hardly surprising that he would use a porn star to explore issues of intimacy in his new film. Even though the outline for The Girlfriend Experience was written by David Levian and Brian Koppelman in 2006, Soderbergh has managed to create an snapshot of a period in which America appears to be on the verge of change and late capitalism feels as if it is finally unraveling. This timeliness turns out to be one of the major advantages of Soderbergh’s more open and flexible method of making a film.
It is ironic that Columbia Pictures has placed Soderbergh’s $50 million film Moneyball in limited turnaround, a mere four days before it was scheduled to begin production, even though the film has actor Brad Pitt attached. What’s interesting is that Columbia head Amy Pascal was unhappy with Soderbergh’s re-working of the script. According to Variety: “The move came after Pascal read a rewrite that Soderbergh did to Steven Zaillian’s script and found it very different from the earlier scripts she championed. Pascal was uncomfortable enough with how the vision had changed that she applied the brakes.” The article goes on to say: “Even though it was approved by Major League Baseball, the script doesn’t follow the traditional narrative structure of most sports yarns.”
In the same Filmmmaker interview from which I quoted earlier, Soderbergh indicates that Moneyball was going to be his “most extreme attempt” at combining reality and fiction. Based on this recent development at Columbia, it would appear that Soderbergh’s current artistic interests do not necessarily coincide with those of Hollywood, especially regarding the primacy of the script. Is anyone surprised?