Thoughts On: 50 Shades Of Grey
Anastasia Steele, stuff happens, Christian Grey, weird sex stuff that turns out to be not that intense and meh…
Ok, yeah, we’ve all seen or heard about it by now, so, why, oh, why, oh, why, oh, why? I honestly don’t know. I was prepping to do an essay on one of my favourite films of all time and… I just got this horrible guttural feeling. I just wanted to dip into something grimy, nasty, decayed and…
I don’t know if I could conjure a better visual representation for this film. Not only is it ew, but, the ew is imbued with an ew of its own. Damn, Jimmy Fallon… Anyway, scroll down so the GIF stops distracting you and let’s get into this. I don’t need to rant on why this is a shit film. You don’t need my commentary, and I’ve just not got the imagination to make it worth while. So, instead, I want talk about what makes this an ok, slightly bearable film. If I’m honest, I’ve seen this a few times now and, yeah, it sucks, but in the same way I’m sure many people feel these films do:
You’ll notice that these are films I’ve all covered. You’ll also notice that you probably like some of these movies – I know I do. No film is invincible. No film is perfect.
Boring. Stupid. Dated. Immoral. Artsy-fartsy. Pretentious. Bullshit lies.
Do I believe all of that? No. But there are some people who do, who absolutely hate these films. Not all people do. But, I bet there’s at least one, two, some, up there that you don’t much like, or, can at the very least, see why people wouldn’t like them. None of this matters though. A film is a film, and you can always get something out of them. It’s having said that, that I feel we’re in an ok position to proceed with 50 Shades Of Grey…
This is a film all about you. The opening song makes this clear: I Put A Spell On You. (A link the original by the way). This film is all about the fantasy of cinema. You can see it in the cinematography and composition. Everything about it is rigid, controlled, bland. But, not in a David Fincher-esque manner. Fincher uses control to tell precise and complex stories. Here, the filmmaker is trying to assert Christian’s dominance, but is really putting us is a weird world in which it’s ok to like this film. In short, watching this film, we are Anastasia. The film lures us in and exploits us. A key way it does this, and we’re still om the opening here, is captured by the cover of the opening song. It’s by Annie Lennox. What’s significant about this is that she’s a woman. It’s with this cover that we are given the pitch for this movie: IT’S EMPOWERING!!! I’m not going to shit on the women who says this because… fine, if that’s how you feel, I’m happy for you. I’m utterly fine with anyone finding a raunchy, kind of kinky story about female sexuality being told. I mean, how does that effect me? I know there are people who disagree as it promotes violence toward women, but, eh, what can you do? Can’t please everyone. So, my point with the song here is that it juxtaposes female power with male power: a woman saying she is in control (putting a spell on us) whilst a man controls the scene – the direction of the film as a whole. This is the crux of the film (and I assume the book) as it runs a very thin line between male and female dominance, playing a very passive/aggressive (to some, exciting) game.
It’s from here that we can get straight at the truth of this film. How can I sit through it? How can anyone enjoy it? For me, Anastasia, Dakota Johnson, she’s sexy. Simple as. And, for others, I’m sure Christian and Jamie Dornan does the trick. What this teaches us is a fundamental idea of cinema in terms of fantasy – you have to appeal to the senses. You can do this in the form of a riveting action packed movie, a drama drenched in emotion, a romance sopping wet with allure, mystery, appeal, a thriller constricted by tension, a horror doused in darkness, atmosphere, jump scares… or… you can make a porno with a fair bit of tit, a big dick and a fancy cum shot. What all good films do is bring together many of these elements and have you forget they are using you, that you are being played. This is why there’s such hatred for CGI and jump scares. Firstly, jump scares, they’re easy to do, and everyone knows you’re going to jump – and you just can’t control that. Seems unfair, too basic. Secondly, CGI, it’s not what most are used to and so their eye can pick it up easily – it’s obvious. The pitfall here comes with the concept of fantasy. To understand this, let’s look at this film quickly. This is what you get when you want to have every device sucked away and hidden, essentially taking the fantasy out of cinema:
Empire. Go ahead, click the picture, I dare you to watch the whole thing. Come back in 8 hours and tell me how it went. What Empire is, is a statement of reality – just like Warhol’s other films such as Blow Job and Sleep. These aren’t great films, they are philosophical pieces that are hard to take to heart. Warhol is quoted as saying: “I never liked the idea of picking out certain scenes and pieces of time and putting them together, because… it’s not like life… What I liked was chunks of time all together, every real moment.” I disagree with the thinking of this statement, but let’s not delve too deep into that, and instead consider 50 Shades Of Grey the extreme opposite. Warhol’s films seem to dismiss cinema as entertainment, seeing the form as something that should portray reality, whereas 50 Shades only wants to entertain, appealing to personal fantasy. It’s hyperbolising is, however, and quite obviously, too much sometimes. And that can be best seen in the dialogue to this film. It’s just so bland, so over the top, matter of fact, try-too-hard. This isn’t a particularly significant thing with this film though. There’s a plethora of bad films out there that fall into the trap of over-writing to the point of ridiculousness, to the point of losing all ties to reality so that the work becomes laughable. The reason why we’re getting in to this though, and using 50 Shades Of Grey to do it, is because this narrative flaw of control is imbued in it’s actual narrative message. It’s like, I don’t know…
… it’s like Memento. 50 Shades Of Grey is the Memento of sucky (no pun) films. Everything about its craft translates to its story. It practices what it preaches. It’s kind of spectacular actually. 50 Shades is, in short, all about control and pretense.
All right… deep breath… this really hurts to say, but… there’s quite an interesting philosophical debate at the centre of this film. It deals with a crucial issue concerning social exchange. Social exchange is a psychological theory that explains how and why all relationships work. It’s actually a pretty simple, just-a-definition-of-a-common-idea kind of theory. That means what I’m about to explain is kind of a no-brainer. Nonetheless, social exchange is giving and taking emotional rewards from a relationship whilst putting up with costs. The core conflict of exchange in this film for Anastasia is: he’s so hot, but he wants to beat me up and control me. Reward: fucking a hot, rich guy and attention in excess. Cost: pain, emotional torment and personal belittlement. This is the source of the majority of the political and wider social debate of the film. Is it anti-feminist? Anti-woman? If it is, well, I think the people this films is marketed toward can handle it. But, the true question here should be: is it anti-romantic? This, especially in terms of cinema and books, is a much more poignant debate as it’s a tangible and observable phenomena. Whereas an anti-feminist agenda in this book may give women a mixed message of control in a relationship, you can’t monitor or observe if this changes the way they see the world, you can’t objectively measure the effect of this book on society as a whole. What you can do is look at the movie and book market. If this is a film that has mass influence, that really effects its audience, then we should see the romance genre change. In other words we should see men given more explicit control as a staple of romance. I personally don’t see this, but tell me what you think in the comments if you want. I don’t see this because 50 Shades polarises the mechanics of love, and this is where social exchange comes back into the picture. Love is possession. Love whether it’s romantic, sexual, parental or platonic, is about establishing bonds, the idea that, socially, you are connected to someone. Social exchange and the intricacies of one’s own needs and wants will dictate who has more love-based-power. What this means is that there is, in concept, a finite amount of love between people. Let’s give the value an arbitrary 100. Some relationships need and 50/50 split because both sides are similar, they need to give and take in the same capacity. With Christian and Anastasia there is a (I’m pulling this number out of my ass) 90/10 split in Christian’s favour – he wants 90% of the love and control. The reason this is critiqued is because the people who are closer to the 50/50 split in their relationships or like to have more power, control, love, rewards, don’t see truth in what’s depicted by the film, and so are offended by this polarised relationship.
It’s thus through 50 Shades Of Grey that you get quite a good marriage counselling session. 50 Shades makes clear this idea of social exchange, and when we apply that to our own lives (not just marriages, but all relationships) we can consider what we give to and what we take in from a person. You then need to ask yourself: to what degree are you absorbent, do you like to be given time and attention, and to what degree does the other person? If the answer seems like 50/50, well, it’s pretty obvious that give and take should be equal and you should work on that. If not, then you need to find the balance. If you don’t find balance, according to social exchange theory and its applications (famous examples being of Thibaut and Kelley) relationships will break down. What on Earth has this got to do with film? What on Earth has this got to do with Memento? What on Earth has this got to do with you? Well, the answer is simple, and is all to do with the fact that a film and an audience engage in a relationship. It sounds a little weird in saying that, but its completely true. All you have to do is ask yourself about your favourite films, books and characters. You feel connected to them, like they’re your friend, like you relate, like you understand them and they understand you better than anyone else. It’s thus through this that we can firstly learn why we love the books and films that we do, but also how to write and create better films/novels. Firstly, you love (insert film or book) because it gives you that perfect, just right split between reward and cost. I’ll give you a rough example for me. I love the Lord Of The Rings trilogy. If I were to rate our relationship (sounds weird, I know) I’d give it a 70/30. This means that the trilogy gives me 70% in terms of excitement, character, epicness, adventure, fun, but I give 30% in the time I have to invest, the emotions I have to track, the plot holes I have to overlook. If we take another example of Eraserhead. This is about a 30/70. This film gives me 30% in terms of atmosphere, mood, creativity, absurdity, but I have to give it 70% in terms of thought, time invested, more thought, analysis, head scratching, what-the-fucking and so on. Now, I really like Eraserhead, but I’d take Lord Of The Rings over it any day. This implies I like to take more than I do give when it comes to film. That may even indicate something a little deeper about myself overall, but let’s not delve into that – things will get weird then, I’m sure.
So, let’s bring it back to 50 Shades. I think it’s easy to say that this is an 80/20. To those who enjoy it, it’s dumb and fun, though a little rigid. To those who don’t like it, that 20% that they have to give is much more than they care to. Moreover, they have to take that 80% entertainment factor when they don’t want to. Translate this to a relationship between audience and movie and we set up something a little like what there is between Anastasia and Christian, but flipped. This is where the stats and so on get a little convoluted, but stick with me. The relationship between Christian and Anastasia is, like I said, something like a 90/10. When you’re watching a film however you are, in short, looking at the Mona Lisa:
Look at her eyes. Ok, now move away from the screen, left or right, as far as you can… her eyes follow you, right? Creepy, huh. Well, it’s not really. As is obvious, we aren’t looking at her. We’re looking at Leonardo Da Vinci’s perspective, his view of her. She looks dead into Da Vanci’s eyes. We can’t change that no matter how far you lean. You can still be creeped out though. With 50 Shades, there’s the inherent 90/10 relationship within, a perspective we can’t change. However, you can be creeped out. Hence, on top of this you have the 80/20. Between us and the movie, there’s entertainment, it wants to give us that 80%. Between the movie and the character’s there’s the 90/10 with Christian being the domineering figure, Anastasia having to give away 90% of control and so on. It’s this conflict, the film wanting to entertain (80%) whist being a romance and depicting a 90/10 give-and-take relationship that really bugs an audience out. To understand this, let’s look at one of the greatest and most successful romances, Titanic.
This film has a high entertainment factor, something like a 90/10. The audience just has to sit back and consume, only feeling the long run time a little. At the same time, the romantic relationship between Jack and Rose is also something like a 80/20 or 90/10. Rose, who we identify with, who is our protagonist (like Anastasia is in 50 Shades) is given Jack’s unconditional love on a whim. I mean, he even dies for her. I think it’s fair to say he gives up a lot, just like the movie does for us. This means the audience gets what they want and what they expect.
50 Shades in respect to this theory of mine is an anomaly if you go into it as a person who likes entertaining films and have an idea of romance that is balanced out of your favour. In other words, the submissive/dominant relationship of Christian and Anastasia must appeal to you – all because Anastasia is our protagonist. This is the simple answer and end to a rather convoluted explanation. Why did I tell it to you?
This was an incredibly successful picture. Why, if the internal mechanics of a relationship (that is so crucial in a romance) is off, is this possible? Well, there’s a two-part answer in my opinion. The first part is because of a little Jedi mind trick, and the second is of fantasy in cinema. Before we go into that though, there are of course a myriad of other factors, I acknowledge that. But, these are the main answers that are connected to our theme of romance, relationships and technical film craft. So, to the first point concerning the Jedi mind trick, we need to return to the idea that this is the Memento of sucky films as it practices what it preaches so well. To understand this, all we have to do is look at the numerous ways in which the film tries to give itself Christian’s attributes again. The sound design is way too up front. When it needs to show emotion it does, the piano starts up, and the violins begin. It’s so clearly trying to manipulate us (like Christian). The editing is incredibly clunky. It’s almost always simple, rigid back and forth exchanges. The timing is also off. This is actually incredibly annoying when you pay attention to it. There is a horrible sense of rhythm between the cuts which makes them very hard and very obvious (like Christian and his moods). The blame on this can’t really go completely on the editor however. The blame needs to go onto the actors. Many reviewers said that Dakota Johnson is the best thing about this movie. Um, yeah… but, that’s a gross exaggeration. Her acting is pretty shitty throughout this. It’s incredibly upfront, and embellishes the writing way too much. This is all probably attributable to direction though. It’s the director that probably insisted that the lip licking and biting had to be focused on and the writer that had it happen time and time and time again in the script (it probably happens in the book too) who are at fault. The worst of the acting is caught by Christian himself though who encapsulates the three main things that are all go wrong here, which we’ve touched on already. The acting, direction and writing is over the top, it is too much, it exaggerates Christian’s control way to an unnecessary extent, making sure that 90/10 split in how he engages Anastasia incredibly obvious. It’s through these technical details that the film in craft has this stiff sense of control, and characterises itself as Christian, as the dominant. This is your Jedi mind trick as it makes it easier for an audience to sink into the film – as is made obvious with the opener which we went over way back when. The segue into my next point is control.
The tagline of this movie is its core philosophy. It wants the audience, like Anastasia, to be complacent, to submit to the form and characters so it can entertain. And this is all linked to the idea of sexual fantasy as captured by cinema. 50 Shades hyperbolises the aspect sexuality that wants to be spanked, that wants to nibble, bite, scratch, grope, control. The culmination of both craft and narrative is the audience understanding that they are watching a film in the same way a gamer knows they aren’t really stabbing a prostitute in GTA…
All of this means that an audience can kind of let go of control when watching this film, can sit back and just consume the smutty shit. I know if I try not to analyse the film I can.
The endgame here is that whether or not you get this film, despite it being bad, it dares to walk a thin line between losing its audience and keeping it. Whether it does or doesn’t is up to you. And overall, marriage or script counsellor, I think this film has things you can learn and grow from. So, ask yourself: how bad is it now?
The Matrix – Is It All Really That Bad?
50 Shades Of Grey – Can It Be Fixed?
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