Anyone But Soderbergh Might Make This Work

08/09/2009 at 4:26 pm Leave a comment

A few months back after watching The Girlfriend Experience at the Sydney Film Festival, I commented that if an unknown Australian director had submitted it, it probably wouldn’t be screened.  And if it was, it would probably get booed.
That’s not to suggest it’s a bad film.  Quite the opposite really, it’s an intriguing, layered and thought provoking look at the sex industry.  Just that Australian attitudes towards self examination aren’t exactly open-armed.  I couldn’t help but wonder if we’d represented an Australian call-girl as singularly selfish, naïve and lonely as this – we’d get howled out of town.
This faux-doc styled piece of cinema generated a lot of interest due to the performance of the main actor Sasha Grey in collaboration with acclaimed director Steven Soderbergh.  Grey of course famous for a body of porno and Soderbergh feted by Hollywood for balancing commercial success with a range of pseudo-arthouse-intellectual

A few months back after watching The Girlfriend Experience at the Sydney Film Festival, I commented that if an unknown Australian director had submitted it, it probably wouldn’t be screened.  And if it was, it would probably get booed.

That’s not to suggest it’s a bad film.  Quite the opposite really, it’s an intriguing, layered and thought provoking look at the sex industry. It’s just that Australian attitudes towards self examination aren’t exactly open-armed.  I couldn’t help but wonder if one represented an Australian call-girl as singularly selfish, naïve and lonely as this – one might get howled out of town.

This faux-doc styled piece of cinema generated a lot of interest due to the performance of the main actor Sasha Grey in collaboration with acclaimed director Steven Soderbergh.  Grey of course famous for a body of porno and Soderbergh feted by Hollywood for balancing commercial success with a range of pseudo-arthouse-intellectual type films.  Ocean’s Thirteen one day, remaking Tarkovsy’s Solaris the next, he’s certainly the modern Merlin of American Cinema.

So there’s a certain fascination that comes when you hear he’s collaborated with a real-life porn star who’s a wunderkind in her own right (with all of three years in the industry – is that a lot?).  In any case, she’s re-branding herself as “performance artist”; a title which might raise a few eyebrows as to what the hell she means. Having never seen her work I’ll admit a curiosity, what could this project entail?

And there’s the real problem for me – watching it becomes an experience about watching a Soderbergh film. About watching a porn star acting as a call-girl. Everything is so self aware, there’s no room to find empathy for her because the style is a hyperconstruct of itself. While the performances are as good as you would want, Grey gives a vulnerable distance to Chelsea which is vital to the story, this very criticism is levelled at her within the narrative! So we’re kept at arms length from getting involved.  Which is probably the point, as her defining characteristic is an ability to stay aloof from the men in her life.

It’s worth noting that this vortex of self-referential cinematic constructs has also been reflected in the critical responses to the film.  I have yet to read a review that doesn’t refer to Sasha Grey the porn icon (including my own); a sub-editor at the Sydney Morning Herald amusingly commented that ‘Grey has a lifetime of experience for this experimental role’ (yes, she’s 21 with 3 years in the porn industry – hardly a lifetime).  It is generally not done to look at an actors work outside of the frame they occupy, somehow this project allows it.  We must view this knowing she fucks for a living. It informs our understanding of her performance. As outsiders to that world we can then nod our heads in cognisance of the narrative. But it’s contradictory to our appreciation of a skilled performer to see it in context of prior work.  We’re supposed to suspend our disbelief and engage with the characters.  To an extent I did, but always at a distance.
No doubt Soderbergh is aware of all these contradictions and is probably just messing with our heads. But to go back to my original point, if it were an unknown actor and director making the same film in Australia – we’d be forced to deal only with the content – all other superfluities would not matter.  I reckon ‘Chelsea’ would get a far harsher examination and her journey looked at under suspicion of a slightly misogynistic take on the weaknesses in a false sense of independence.
But it is Soderbergh, and it is Sasha Grey, and if that’s the core message, we’re far too dazzled by star power to notice.  And that’s marketing.

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Entry filed under: Film REVIEW, Marketing. Tags: , , , , , , .

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VICTOR SANCZ vassanc [AT] gmail.com

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