May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
September 24, 2009
Even though I like Steven Soderbergh, I don’t understand him. The way he ranges from the linear density of sex, lies and videotape to the off-kilter drama of Kafka and Schizopolis to crime thrillers, period pieces, possible Oscar bait, and science fiction retakes makes it difficult to talk about him as an auteur. If he tends towards specific themes or ideas about the world, they are moving targets, and become hard to catalog as they appear scattered across so many genres and filmmaking styles.
But then there are a few things that make Soderbergh stand out as an auteur: the way he tries to harness the energy of mainstream fare by means of controlled art house editing gadgetry, his crisp and acrobatic camerawork, a knack for enlivening older genres with bolder palettes of color and sound. But there is also a modest social conscience that permeates much of his work in such a way that it strikes the viewer as a welcome afterthought – an additional layer of story beneath his polished scripts that never comes across as ham-fisted or over determined. It is simply there as a natural by-product of his character’s predicaments.
This conscience is overt, and perhaps too broadly drawn at times, in Che, Traffic, and Erin Brokovich. But is also more quietly present in The Limey, King of the Hill, and Kafka. Soderbergh is sensitive to the mechanisms of culture and commerce that lie outside our control even though we are controlled by them in varying degrees of awareness.
Even with all this in mind, The Girlfriend Experience came as a surprise. Its ethical conscience is very pointed, provocative, and turns the viewer towards more sweeping thoughts about commerce and its disciples than most of his films permit. It is also very intimate for a film about a high class escort in Manhattan played by a real world adult film star that brings a notable woodenness to the role (named Chelsea or Christine? We are never really sure.). Is this because it was simply how she decided to play the character, or is her natural theatrical range exhausted very quickly? It is hard to tell which is the case, but I found myself drawn into the increasingly depressing plight of this call girl even though the film offers no reason for us to actually sympathize with her.
The Girlfriend Experience is broken up into sometimes non-sequential glossy bits that taken together describe the daily routine of an escort that sells a “girlfriend experience” to wealthy New Yorkers feeling the first tectonic shifts of the economy in the fall of 2008. In a little notebook, she writes down what she was wearing with each client, what their children’s names are, what they talked about. Her clients opine on cash, the market, the state of Israel – as if the daily rush of commerce has invaded the definition of intimacy and left its marketable prints all over the way we relate to people even at the most hallowed and personal levels. The classic “girlfriend experience” is recast as the rental of another figure that will gesture and murmur with approval at our assessment of how current events affect our most cherished investments. (At which point I began wondering whether Soderbergh was also talking about cinema as another “girlfriend experience.” He wouldn’t go that far, would he? The gloss, the high-def, the slick interior of his craft – the idea that these are actually tools of inquiry is intriguing.)
I once heard it quipped that people talk about their sex lives more readily than the details of their finances – this is Soderbergh’s reversal of intimacy. As we, modern American citizens that we are, become increasingly defined by the role we play as middlepersons between production and commerce, figures like Chelsea/Christine become iconic. They are pure product, the apex of virtuality. They are a celebration of a system in which all things are buyable, and could use a little polish on their PR. The film begins to track Chelsea’s realization that she is mere waypoint on the continuum of consumption, and one wonders if this is all done with the strident self-awareness we expect from adult film stars. If so, The Girlfriend Experience would play very well as a subplot of last year’s similarly confounding Heartbeat Detector.