Sunday, 1 March 2015

The world needs Christian Grey.

As I booked my ticket to see Fifty Shades of Grey, I was very much looking forward to my date with Christian Grey.  I had been left disappointed by our first encounter and was eager to find out if our second meeting would be an improvement.  I had reason to believe this would be the case.    

I was late to the Fifty Shades party, having bought the book and its two sequels long enough after they had become a sensation to expect a cracker of a read. Finding the idea interesting, I was eager to immerse myself in a story that I expected to be emotionally charged, erotic and pretty gripping.  In my head, I was already conjuring the developing relationship between the troubled man and the sexually naive young woman and looked forward to how it would play out in word form. Unfortunately, the books disappointed.  So much so, that I gave up part way through the second novel.   For me, a good book will put flesh on the bones of the characters I am imagining, helping me develop the story in my head.  Sometimes a story will follow a familiar path, but when it doesn't, it can be even more exciting.  I tried really hard with Fifty Shades, I wanted to finish the story completely and find out what happened.  I wanted their love for each other to overcome their difficulties but I was prepared to reach the climax of their journey and for that not to happen.  I was interested, I bought into their story.   I just couldn't connect with the way the characters were written.  

So I was delighted to hear about Fifty Shades, the movie.  This would give me another chance to see Christian and Anastasia's relationship unfold.  This time, hopefully, in a way that I could connect with. I love movies.  I love visual art.   When they announced the director, I was very excited.    

In 2004, I travelled to London, specifically to visit the National Portrait Gallery to see a brand new installation by one of the bright young Brit Artists - Sam Taylor Wood. Her commission was to produce a portrait of David Beckham, her work was a stroke of artistic genius.

How do you produce an interesting portrait of the most photographed man in the world? What could she show us that we haven't already seen?  

Taylor Wood explains:

"Making a portrait of a much-photographed man like David Beckham was a challenge. I wanted to create a direct, closely observed study. Filming while he was asleep produces a different view from the many familiar, public images".

What she produced was a 1 hour 7 minute long continuous loop of David Beckham asleep in an hotel room, after a football training session.  Her idea wasn't new. In 1963, the innovative, avant-garde artist, Andy Warhol,  had filmed his then lover, John Giorno,  in a 5 hour long film called Sleep.  I haven't seen Warhol's Sleep, so it would be unfair to comment.  However, David Beckham asleep is compelling, intimate, simple and quite beautiful.  What Taylor Wood did was show us an image of Beckham that we had never seen.  She celebrated his beauty and gave us access to, what felt like, Beckham in private.  Have a peek here

I was pretty sure that Sam Taylor Wood's Christian Grey would also be compelling and visually stunning.  But I wondered how she would handle the extremely sensitive nature of the portrayal of the relationship between dominant and submissive sexual partners.  And would she extend her intimate, simple and beautiful eye to the erotic - sprinkling it with her artistic fairy dust?

I think Taylor Wood did an admirable job.  The movie and the characters felt awkward at first and I wondered if that was by accident or by design.  So much was riding on this onscreen portrayal.  The world was watching - figuratively and literally.

What I saw on screen was two people falling in love and the constant struggle between them to understand what they both needed.  They are fully aware of their differences and the difficulties that continuing with their relationship would ensue, but they are incapable of leaving each other alone.  Christian is used to getting his own way and yet, with Anastasia, he makes what, for him, are monumental compromises.  He is a dominant sexual partner and has very definite ideas about what sex means.  But on learning she is a virgin, he makes sure her first full sexual experience is passionate, tender and gentle.  Like all women dream it will be.   I found this scene tasteful and rather moving.  Without doubt, his world of bondage, domination and sado-masochism is shocking to Anastasia but he guides her by the hand, little by little and, in his business like fashion, makes sure she is protected by contract and never has to do anything she hasn't first agreed to.   

Ofcourse, everyone was waiting with baited breath on the BDSM scenes.  As I had hoped, I thought they looked simple and beautiful, but much less shocking than I remember from the book.   What happened at this point made me sit up in my seat.  The audience, 99% women, reacted with huge peals of laughter. That wasn't what I expected.  All at once, the whole cinema seemed to be filled with an air of discomfort.  It reminded me of the way my daughter laughed when she was was in a situation where she didn't know what to do.  Nervous laughter.   

Perhaps we've expected too much from Fifty Shades.   

Sometimes books and movies not only tell stories, but champion causes.  They can give those involved a platform to express the political, social and cultural views they believe to be important.  Sometimes they can even be a force for good.   Sometimes.   However, I believe it doesn't have to be the job of the movie industry to challenge. Principally, their job is to entertain and Fifty Shades has certainly entertained me.   

Perhaps we've also been quick to judge. There are those who believe this story has glamorised exploitative, controlling relationships.  I believe abusive, controlling relationships are unhealthy and wouldn't want anyone I cared for to be part of one.  However,  two people in love, trying to come to terms with the challenges of being part of a different world and taking tentative, consenting, scary steps into the unknown - some of that unknown being sexual practices we may find distasteful - is a whole world away from abuse and control.  I think what's actually going on in Fifty Shades has perhaps been hijacked by those who seek to paint the relationship between Christian and Anastasia as abusive, simply because it's highly charged, challenging and teeters on the edge of what the majority find acceptable.  If you're not sure what I mean, check out the final scene in the movie and then tell me who is in charge. 

Perhaps those uncomfortable, giggling women in the cinema are the most interesting of all.  Enjoying erotica in the comfort of your own bedroom is one thing.  It would appear that enjoying erotica in public is quite something else.   Christian Grey was ready for us, but were we ready for him?  I think society in general and women in particular have a way to go before there is a collective understanding that having consensual sex, however you choose to have it, is surely OK.

Of course, relationships, sex and consent are much more complicated than one character in a movie, but we need Christian Grey.  We need characters who get under our skin, who challenge our notions of what we believe to be acceptable and who give us the motivation to think about stuff.    
Christian Grey could never have satisfied everyone.  Surely his only job was to satisfy the woman he loved.   And, from where I was sitting, he certainly tried hard to do just that. 

Now I'll have to read to the end, to find out what happens.