The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo


The Journal of Screenwriting

I recently returned from the Re-thinking the Screenplay Conference (September 9–12) in Helsinki, Finland. Masterfully organized by Kirsi Rinne of the University of Art and Design, the international conference brought together over a hundred scholars from five continents, and provided a unique opportunity to discuss various aspects of the screenplay and screenwriting in general. I gave a paper on the collaboration between Kelly Reichardt and writer Jon Raymond in Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008), and chaired a session of excellent presentations by Paul Wells, Jill Nelmes, Erik Knudsen, and Claus Tieber from Vienna. There were many terrific papers and panels, as well as a spirited keynote address by Ian Macdonald, who assessed the pressing research issues within the field at this time.

An added bonus of the conference was the debut of the inaugural issue of The Journal of Screenwriting, a new peer-reviewed academic journal devoted entirely to screenwriting. The first issue was co-edited by editor Jill Nelmes and Ian Macdonald, who organized the first Re-thinking the Screenplay Conference last year in Leeds, England. In order to publicize the journal, its publisher Intellect has put the first issue free online, so you have an opportunity to read the various articles, including my piece on alternative approaches to the written screenplay, entitled “No Room for the fun stuff: the question of the screenplay in American indie cinema.” In it, I discuss such filmmakers as Maya Deren, John Cassavetes, Jonas Mekas, Ron Rice, Kent Mackenzie, Andy Warhol, William Greaves, Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch, Gus Van Sant, Chris Smith, Lance Hammer, Aaron Katz, and Ronnie Bronstein.

You can read the entire issue of The Journal of Screenwriting, including a PDF of my article (which begins on page 175) here:,id=1717/

There is also a call for new articles for the next issue of the journal:

I will be in NYC on Saturday, September 26 for a special screening of the films of Madeleine Gekiere at Anthology Film Archives. I’ve been invited to have a public conversation with her afterwards. I’m very much looking forward to seeing her wildly imaginative, playful, and now somewhat forgotten avant-garde films from the 1970s and 1980s at 8 PM. Thanks to Andy Lampert for arranging this special and important event. Here’s a link:

Posted 20 September, 2009

Goodbye Solo

The location of Ramin Bahrani’s third feature Goodbye Solo (2009) has shifted from New York City – the setting for his first two films Man Push Cart (2005) and Chop Shop (2008) – to his home town of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. While the film clearly references Abbas Kiarostami’s A Taste of Cherry (1997), it actually reminds me of Robinson Devor’s Police Beat (2005), which was set in Seattle and co-written with the African writer Charles Mudede. In a similar vein, Goodbye Solo is about a clash of cultures, as a very outgoing Senegalese cab driver named Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane) – like Z, the Senegalese bicycle cop in Devor’s film – attempts to navigate unfamiliar personal terrain in trying to adapt to the mores of a new country.

In making a distinctly regional film, Bahrani shows us not only the downtown dominated by César Pelli’s famous skyscraper (which looks gorgeous at night), but Winston-Salem’s more seamy underside. In other words, we see the city from the perspective of an immigrant, which was also true of Man Push Cart. Shot in a continuous take, the opening scene of Goodbye Solo provides the film’s setup. One’s of Solo’s passengers, a cranky old white Southerner named William (Red West), wants Solo to drop him off on Blowing Mountain two hours away on a specific date. For his trouble, William offers to pay him a thousand dollars – no questions asked. But Solo is inquisitive by nature. As he tries to joke with William, the man’s true intentions suddenly dawn on him.

Buried underneath the story of these two contrasting characters, lies a kind of film noir mystery with a ticking clock, in which Solo gets thrust into the role of an unlikely detective. Solo tries to befriend the hard-nosed William. He badgers William with myriad questions and invades his privacy in ways that only a naïve outsider might be bold enough to attempt. Solo invites William home after a night of drinking, and later turns up to crash at his motel room. The cab driver gets information about him through a bartender friend, checks William’s medication at the pharmacy, and rummages through his belongings in an attempt to unravel the secret that lurks behind the man’s desperate action.

Whereas Solo is warm, open and buoyantly optimistic despite every reason not to be, William is cold, closed, and an utter pessimist. He continually demands that Solo stay out of his life, even as the two develop some type of relationship or accommodation. Just as Z in Police Beat can’t understand the behavior of Rachel, the woman with whom he’s infatuated, Solo is likewise baffled by William’s actions. Z also cannot understand why the prostitute, Mary, would give up her kid to social services rather than to family. Solo criticizes the fact that families don’t stay together in America. Solo explains to William that in Senegal your family will always provide for you. Even if you don’t have teeth, he tells him, people will feed you the food. William replies coldly, “Why aren’t you there now?”

Solo learns that William at one time drove a Harley, has a tattoo, and has returned to town after thirty years. Solo also knows that he loves movies, which is where he takes him on the night when William proposes the deal. Solo’s preoccupation with William becomes an obsessive fixation, especially as the date draws nearer. Solo’s concerns about William overshadow those in his own life, which appears to be falling apart. Solo separates from his Mexican wife Quiera (Carmen Leyva) and stepdaughter Alex (Diana Franco Galindo), even though Quiera’s due to have his baby. He also dreams of being a flight attendant, which is part of the conflict with Quiera, along with the fact that he hangs out with friends and hasn’t fixed up the taxi that sits idly outside their house.

For Solo, William represents the mystery of American culture, where family roots have been severed and individualism has replaced a sense of community. Indeed, Solo’s relentless pursuit of William becomes a form of projection – a way to avoid his own problems by trying to solve those of someone else. For all his talk about family values, Solo seems less troubled by the fact that his own family is actually splitting apart. Solo’s multicultural marriage represents a mini-drama within the larger one he’s facing in being an African immigrant trying to assimilate into a southern American city.

At William’s motel, Solo confesses to William that he misses his wife and Alex. Solo manages to keep in touch with Alex once she gets a cell phone. He marvels when she takes his picture in front of a hot dog place and later sends it to him via his cell phone. Neither Solo nor William can fathom how such a thing is possible. The screenplay, co-written by Bahrani and Bahareh Azimi (who also co-wrote Chop Shop), is extremely subtle and deceptively complex. It is only very late in the film that we come to understand the parallels between these two men, and why Solo cares so deeply about what happens to William.

Bahrani’s direction in Goodbye Solo is remarkably self-assured. He’s attuned to the faces of performers – basically nonprofessionals and a character actor (West) thrust into a major role. Red West’s owl-like features – mussed hair, overly baggy inset eyes, and wrinkled countenance – serve as a roadmap of his past life. Bahrani’s camera holds on the expression of his actors just long enough to convey the depth of their emotions. In a climactic scene, Bahrani uses a series of reaction shots between William and Solo who simply stare at each other – he smartly understands that words would be extraneous here. Many directors have made impressive debut features, only to begin a downward slide in subsequent works, but the 34-year-old Bahrani appears to be getting better and better with each film.

In Goodbye Solo, Bahrani’s visual style seems almost effortless. On Blowing Mountain, the sound of wind intensifies to a roar. Along with Solo, we too feel as if we’re standing on a mountain top, overlooking a breathtaking landscape shrouded in mist, which gave me a sense of vertigo. The image conjures up the famous German Romantic painting by Caspar David Friedrich, “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog.” Bahrani’s allusion is richly evocative – personally, politically, philosophically, and metaphorically – as Solo ponders the events that have transpired, as well as his own fate, within the broader context of the natural world.

Posted 5 August, 2009

River of Grass

Since collaborating with writer Jon Raymond, Kelly Reichardt has hit her stride with two remarkable features, Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008) – the latter which I consider the top indie film of last year (click here for the top-ten list). Given Reichardt’s new-found prominence, I recently took another look at her earlier and less well-known River of Grass (1995). Set in the rundown area between Miami and the Everglades, Reichardt’s regionally inflected debut feature is a feminist riff on a number of genres – the crime film, the road movie, and the love story – which she seems to subvert at nearly every turn.

River of Grass begins with a postcard of a hospital and family photos. In voiceover, the protagonist, Cozy (Lisa Bowman), describes biographical details about herself, including the fact that her mother deserted the family when she was ten and that her father (who named her after the musician Cozy Cole) claims the mother ran away and joined the circus. Cozy comments, “I like to think of her there in a sequin cape, flying through the air without a single net to catch her fall.” She informs us she married a guy named Bobby who wrote her poems in high school – someone Cozy hoped she would come to love.

Cozy describes how the couple bought a house where “the previous owner had murdered her husband and buried him inside the shower wall.” Over an image of a bloodied woman holding a clever, Cozy continues, “I’ve often thought about this woman and wondered what made her act so violently. I guess it wasn’t any one big thing, but a lot of little things that just grew deeper and deeper under her skin.” As Cozy speaks, we see an image of her, from the waist up, lying naked in the bath tub, with her hair submerged, giving her the appearance of a mannequin.

Reichardt uses parallel editing to establish her three main characters. Now married with young kids, with whom she feels little attachment, the thirtyish Cozy is a bored and dissatisfied housewife. She wonders whether anyone else could be as lonely as her. Such a person, it turns out, happens to be living in the next county – a deadbeat loser named Lee Ray Harold (Larry Fessenden), who, even though he’s twenty-nine, still lives at home with his mother and grandmother until he gets booted out. Lee’s friend, Doug, finds a gun on the road and gives it to him to sell. By coincidence, the pistol turns out to belong to Cozy’s father, Jimmy Ryder (Dick Russell), a veteran crime scene detective, who gets suspended temporarily for losing it. He’s also an avid jazz drummer, who gave up playing professionally once his wife became pregnant with Cozy.

Through camera movement and the sounds of Ryder’s extended drumming, Reichardt connects his playing drums to Lee getting a tattoo, Cozy taking a shower, family photos of her, crime books strewn on the floor, a woman Ryder has picked up in a bar, Lee driving with his gun, and Cozy slipping out of the house while her child lies fast asleep on the couch. A shot of Ryder hitting the symbols cuts to a closeup of Lee firing the pistol out the window of his moving car, creating a sound bridge. As Cozy hops across the road after getting something in her shoe, she nearly gets run over by a Lee’s blue Chevy Malibu. At the local tavern, he offers to buy her a drink once Lee realizes she’s the same woman he nearly hit with his vehicle.

The two spend the night drinking and flirting at the bar, bathed in red-filtered light. When Cozy asks Lee where he’s from, he tells her, “I’m kind of in limbo right now.” She responds, “Limbo. That sounds nice.” Cozy eventually starts to leave to head home, but Lee sweet-talks her into going swimming at a “friend’s” pool. The two climb over a wooden backyard fence and Cozy dives into the pool with her clothes on. As Cozy climbs out of the water and positions herself between Lee’s legs, we expect him to kiss her as he leans forward, but, in a sexually-loaded gesture, Lee thrusts the pistol into her hands. It accidentally fires when the owner surprises them with a flashlight. Believing they’ve killed a man, Lee convinces Cozy they need to hit the road.

Being on the lam gives new meaning to Cozy’s life, but the expectant romance with Lee never develops. Instead, they lie fully clothed on a bed in a cheap motel room. When Cozy screams at seeing a palmetto bug (large roach) in the bathroom, Lee shoots it, damaging the tiles and bringing the motel owner, who demands the rent. Lee and Cozy later break into his mom’s house. As Cozy dances to a 33 rpm record, Lee steals his mother’s record collection, some roast turkey, and a pair of her shoes. As Reichardt’s camera tracks through neighborhoods, Cozy explains in a voiceover: “Lee and I had crossed that straight line that Dad called the law, and I could feel the butterflies in my stomach as I tumbled deeper into a life of crime. After all, murder was thicker than marriage, and Lee and I were now bound by the life we took.” Lee, however, returns to the crime scene and finds that the owner is very much alive, but he chooses not to tell Cozy.

Failing to sell the records, Lee attempts to go on a crime spree, but he merely takes someone’s clean clothes from a Laundromat, and gets punched in the face while stealing groceries at a convenience store. Meanwhile, Ryder’s fellow detective connects the bullet fired at the swimming pool with the missing gun. Back at the motel, the two get stoned, as the initial excitement gives way to boredom. In voiceover, Cozy comments on the circularity of her life, “It’s funny how a person could leave everything she knew behind, but still wind up in the same place.”

Without money to pay for the motel room, Lee and Cozy set out on a road journey, but it comes to an abrupt halt when they don’t have a quarter to pay the highway toll. While waiting for the trooper to run a check on them, they physically struggle over the whereabouts of the gun, forcing Lee to confess to Cozy that they haven’t killed anyone. Lee’s revelation hits Cozy hard, causing her to question her sense of reality and personal identity. She comments: “Suddenly I wasn’t sure of anything. I wasn’t on the lam after all. I wasn’t laying low or ducking cops, and if I was no one cared. We hadn’t killed anybody. I couldn’t even be sure we had really killed the palmetto bug back at the motel room. So, if we weren’t killers, we weren’t anything.”

In River of Grass, grim fate turns out to be at the heart of Reichardt’s characterization. Perhaps because the film plays with genre expectations, its three main characters represent certain recognizable types: the bored housewife (Cozy), the redneck loser (Lee), and the frustrated detective (Ryder). Cozy’s voiceover narration is essentially an expository device. Through her narration, we learn certain aspects of her character. Her father’s profession, for instance, explains her fascination with the gory details of the woman who murdered her husband in the house that she and her husband, Bobby, bought at auction. Cozy’s commentary about the woman, of course, foreshadows her own actions later on.

Bobby works all the time, while Cozy remains stuck at home. We see her doing cartwheels in her house and spinning around in the yard like a child. That she leaves her kid asleep on the couch to go to a bar provides a telling comment about her character. All of these traits – broken home, a loveless marriage, boredom and loneliness – serve to explain why she might run off with Lee. Cozy views her life as predestined. She speculates: “They say that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I found this puzzling and couldn’t stop wondering: Are our lives all mapped out for us? Would my daughter grow up only to wear my shoes? Did my mother’s life create my destiny? Or does one thing just trigger another?” Fate, along with the coincidence of events, serves to replace agency as the motivation for her behavior.

Our first introduction to Lee is a pan to him sleeping naked in front of a large American flag, while his grandmother awakens him. He ridicules his friend Doug for working at a dead-end job, which is why he spends his time driving around, getting stoned, and drinking. Lee scares his grandmother by pointing the gun at her and threatening to shoot her, causing his mother and grandmother to change the locks. At the swimming pool, the anticipated romance between them quickly gets short-circuited. As they hide out in a hotel room afterward, we expect that the crime will create an erotic spark between them, but it has the opposite effect. The two never touch, never kiss, never make love or display any affection for each other. If the gun’s misfire at the swimming pool turns out to be the equivalent of a premature ejaculation, it seems to destroy any hopes of intimacy between the couple.

We know less about Lee than Cozy. In their initial meeting at the bar, he tries to impress Cozy with the new tattoo on his shoulder that says “Mom,” but she points to a photograph of his mother he’s placed on the counter and tells him, “Mom? But we already have Mom here.” During Ryder’s questioning of Lee’s mother and grandmother, an unexpected clue surfaces when his mother reveals that he stole her high heels – something we’ve witnessed ourselves. In the motel room, where Cozy and Lee get stoned by passing around a joint they hold between their toes, Lee talks about his past. He reveals that his mother collects husbands. His real father, who married her twice, committed suicide on their second honeymoon by walking into the ocean. His mother married the mortician who buried him. Lee adds that it was “very creepy living with that guy!”

Cozy’s father, Jimmy Ryder, provides the plot connection between Cozy and Lee. If he hadn’t lost his gun, there would be no story. If Doug didn’t find it on the road and give it to Lee to sell, none of this would have happened either. As a crime detective, Ryder adds an important genre element, as he tracks down leads related to Cozy and Lee and the missing gun, but he never solves the crime he has set in motion. On a personal level, he comes to represent the person who has sacrificed his dreams for marriage, only to be abandoned by his wife along with Cozy. A hard-boiled detective, he drinks in bars, picks up women, and plays drums in his spare time. Even when Lee strides into the Blue Note record shop in an attempt to sell his mother’s records and their paths cross, Ryder fails to make the connection.

All of Reichardt’s characters are defined by the desolate sun-drenched landscape they inhabit. She uses frontal, postcard-like compositions, as well as tracking shots of depressed areas of South Florida – a vast wasteland of Laundromats, bars, record shops, convenience stores, strip malls, single-story dwellings, desolate palm trees, flat terrain, and intersecting highways. Reichardt mixes significant narrative incidents with mundane ones. Cops tell jokes or stories that have no relevance to the plot. Shots of passing freight trains and a jet flying overhead create a striking contrast to the inertia of the aimless main characters, whose life on the run remains largely confined to a motel room.

Ryder’s drum playing provides musical interludes and creates a series of numbered chapters that merely mark the passage of time. And the lone jukebox in the bar he frequents becomes a recurrent motif – a sad image of Americana that we associate with the photographs of Robert Frank in The Americans. River of Grass provides a feminist twist on what essentially are male film genres by deflating the romance associated with crime, violence, the open road, and heterosexual love. As Reichardt remarked in an interview with Todd Haynes – for Cozy, it’s not Lee, but the gun that represents her “real object of desire.”

Posted 22 July, 2009

Momma’s Man

Azazel Jacobs’s low-budget second feature Momma’s Man (2008) serves as yet another example of an independent film that deliberately blurs the line between non-fiction and fiction as an alternative narrative strategy (see previous post). The thirty-something protagonist is roughly the writer/director’s age. Jacobs sets the film in the lower-Manhattan loft in which he grew up, casts his own parents – noted avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs and painter Flo Jacobs – in the role of parents, and his best friend from high school as, well, his best friend. And a flashback to childhood depicts footage of the film’s director rather than lead actor. It’s difficult not to get lost in the autobiographical hall of mirrors Jacobs creates. That Momma’s Man, as Voice critic J. Hoberman suggests, at times slips into something that feels like a psychodrama turns out to be part of the power and fascination of the film

Momma’s Man tells the story of Mikey (Matt Boren), who on a business trip to New York City during which he visits his folks, finds himself unable to leave. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, but Mikey has a job and a wife and infant back in Los Angeles. Mikey’s flight gets overbooked and he has to take another one the next day – but the situation rapidly transforms into something more vexing. Jacobs never makes it clear what is going on with Mikey. Is it nostalgia for his happy childhood? Has Mikey made a double mistake in marrying and having a child? Does he regret relocating to the West Coast? Does it suddenly dawn on him that his parents are growing old? Is his wife having an affair? Is Mikey having a nervous breakdown? For some critics and viewers, Jacobs’s use of buried motivation poses a problem. They want Mikey to be explained, but Jacobs wisely opts for ambiguity.

Rather than being goal-driven, as manual writers would insist, Mikey is a passive protagonist. His conflict is internal. Part of the pleasure of Momma’s Man is watching Mikey’s behavior for clues or hints about what might be going on inside him, and Jacobs provides just enough of them to keep us guessing. Mikey’s parents are perplexed. His father seems caring, but aloof. His mother dotes on him in a very smothering way. Her desire to offer him something to eat or drink becomes an irritating mantra (it’s no wonder he’s overweight). Most people would run for their lives – I’m speaking of myself here – but Mikey regresses. He hangs around the loft in his longjohns and watches a movie on television, while lying in bed with his parents. He rummages through old scrapbooks and love letters. He plays the guitar and sings lyrics he’s written in high school so loudly that his father has to tell him to turn the music down.

Mikey begins to embellish his situation. He’s not being malicious, so much as irresponsible. He lies to his wife Laura (Dana Varon) and even to his parents when he implies that Laura might be having an affair. We do see her visited by a neighbor named Tom (Richard Edson from Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise), but there’s no clear evidence that anything is going on. The film begins with a closeup on the clasped hands of Mikey and his mom. He asks, “You sure everything is okay?” She answers, “Of course.” Her initial note to him alludes to a doctor’s appointment. Mikey later tells his co-worker his mother’s been in the hospital as an excuse for missing work. Is she, in fact, ill? There’s no further indication of this either.

As the film progresses, Mikey develops agoraphobia – he’s unable to walk down the hallway stairs of the loft. There’s a sense that Manhattan has receded or disappeared, only to be replaced by his family’s claustrophobic loft – chock full of stuff – made dark and more womb-like by Tobias Datum’s cinematography. When his parents indicate they’re going for dinner in Chinatown, Mikey’s immobility prevents him from joining them. As he attempts to shave, he covers his entire face with lather and stares into the mirror. In an effort to get beyond the threshold of the loft, he gets drunk and crawls on all fours. During the night, he literally hurls himself down the stairs, which succeeds in breaking the spell.

Mikey seeks out an ex-girlfriend named Bridget (Eleanor Hutchins) after finding an angry letter from when they were in high school. Does he have lingering romantic feelings? When they meet at a coffee shop, Bridget brings along her young child in a stroller. It’s an awkward get-together. She asks, “So, what’s up?” Mikey refers to the letter and apologizes. Bridget appears bewildered. She’s obviously forgotten whatever pain he caused her. When Bridget asks about him, Mikey shows her photos of his wife and daughter, Anna. After she returns them, he stares pensively at the one of Anna. If Bridget is no longer the same person, Mikey’s friend Dante (Piero Arcilesi) – obsessed with boxing tapes and the Indigo Girls – also seems to have morphed into someone else. After Dante has a drug relapse, Mikey observes him with bemused detachment as his old pal manically works out and sings “Closer to Fine” off-key.

The fact that things change seems to be at the root of Mikey’s problem. He wants to stop time, or go backwards. He clings to the past – to earlier memories. Matt Boren plays Mikey with a quizzical look that fits his character perfectly. There’s a scene toward the end where his mother gets him to sit on her lap like an overgrown baby, dwarfing her in size. The image serves as an apt metaphor. He’s not a momma’s boy, but a grown man – stuck in a state of arrested development. As he snuggles and cries and his mother comforts him, she recalls a sweet image of her actual son, Azazel, as a child – fast asleep on a plate of spaghetti. In the old home-movie footage (from Ken Jacobs’s epic Star Spangled to Death), she lovingly lifts up Azazel and places him in bed. The next morning, Mikey listens to his phone messages and calls Laura.

Very little happens in Momma’s Man. Jacobs avoids the causality of classical narration. Much of what occurs within the family dynamic involves subtext – the things that remain largely unspoken. At one point his father demonstrates a mechanical windup toy – a headless crawling baby. The parents do try to intervene. In a family conference, his father confronts him, but Mikey becomes defensive and snaps, “Are you asking me to leave?” His mother inquires about Laura, “Is there someone else?” As Mikey begins to cry, his father presses him, but his mother insists, “It’s all right. You can stay here as long as you want.” His father later overhears a despondent message from Laura on the answering machine and watches Mikey erase it. Later, as Mikey starts to discuss Laura seeing someone, his father responds, “Can you recall us once lying to you?”

In Momma’s Man, Jacobs employs an episodic structure in which the dramatic and character arcs have been flattened. Just as mysteriously as Mikey falls into a personal crisis, his funk lifts by the film’s end (though I’m sure there will be consequences once he gets back to Los Angeles). I suspect some female viewers will find Mikey’s self-absorption to be a problem – for obvious reasons. But it’s Jacobs’s willingness to explore these issues so honestly that makes Momma’s Man such an absorbing and distinctive character study.

Momma’s Man played at the Wisconsin Film Festival back in April. It’s now available on DVD from Kino Video.

Posted 5 July, 2009

The Girlfriend Experience

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?

Posted 23 June, 2009

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