Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Girlfriend Experience (2009) A Film by Steven Soderbergh

For a director who pays fastidious attention to the politics, social trends, industries, and technologies of his milieus, it's no small achievement that Steven Soderbergh's films so often come across as powerfully generational. Few modern filmmakers risk the kind of ephemeral, insignificant subjects that Soderbergh repeatedly zeroes in on in his films, and even fewer can attest to continually locating something (sometimes just one thing) fascinating and timeless in the kinds of obsessive portraits of modern life that he deals in. The Girlfriend Experience, for instance, incorporates a fleet of very "2008-2009" artifacts: the notably self-aware and sophisticated porn star Sasha Grey, who had her moment in the form of a 2009 Rolling Stone interview and has since flirted with obsolescence; the Wall Street collapse, which seems like an ancient phenomenon by now; the presidential election that put Obama in the White House; the once-regarded online media blogger Harry Knowles, who gets an indirect onscreen surrogate in the form of first-time actor and wickedly sharp film critic Glenn Kenny. All of this would suggest that The Girlfriend Experience is a film of its time and not much more, but it succeeds most when its drifting emotional undercurrents and lackadaisical mood indicates something slightly broader and more intangible about life in a 21st century late capitalist society.

Grey plays Chelsea, a high-priced call girl in NYC whose vocation echoes one line Grey uttered in said Rolling Stone article: "I am determined and ready to be a commodity that fulfills everyone's fantasies." The mantra sounds all-inclusive, and it is; Chelsea not only sleeps with the men who hire her, but she also engages them in conversation, shares romantic dinners with them, sits down for aimless relaxation time, and listens intently to countless inconsequential personal issues. She provides them "the girlfriend experience," and like a real girlfriend, sometimes she doesn't even sleep with them. Essentially, these men are putting a massive price tag on human companionship, an opportunity that ought to be staring them right in the face for free on a daily basis. The premise alone reveals the degree to which Americans have commodified anything and everything, constantly searching for new ways to spend money on items, attitudes, and ways of life that should otherwise be priceless.

Where Soderbergh's film gets tricky, however, is in its refusal to simplistically frame this contemporary ethos as strictly dehumanizing and demoralizing. No, the primary intent of The Girlfriend Experience - and of Soderbergh's sneaky, probing, sometimes meandering camera - is to unearth the value and meaning still erected in this consumer-saturated landscape. Early in the film, Chelsea's gym-assistant boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos) is tossing medicine balls back and forth to a customer looking to improve his physique. Their workout is exclusively designed for personal gain, yet the conversation that follows is casual and mutually curious, leading to an offer for Chris to go to Vegas on an undefined business trip. In another scene at the gym, Chris is trying to talk another male customer into buying a more expensive, comprehensive plan at the gym on the grounds that he believes they have a good working relationship and he'd like to keep it going. The assumption here is that the two men cannot go on being friends if commerce does not enter the equation, yet one can sense the desire on both sides to continue the relationship regardless. Despite the fundamentally business-oriented nature of the discussions between these men, there is a sense of ease and comfort in the dialogue that is entirely missing from the scenes that take place later between Chris and Chelsea in their own apartment.

Most of the film occurs as such; transactions, in the form of casual interrogations, interviews over coffee, and phone inquiries about Chelsea's service, dominate the content of the narrative. Rarely is there a scene when people are just talking back and forth, engaging equally, interested in both hearing and being heard. Even when Chelsea cracks her routinely impersonal, all-ears facade to open up to a client about her miserable experience at the hands of a rude slob, the man shifts his role in the meeting, suddenly acting as a therapist hired to ease a woman's personal troubles rather than a human hoping to understand and sympathize. In this urban environment, there is always a speaker and a listener, a teacher and a student, a professional and a client, a producer and a consumer. The one instance where a true conversation occurs is a running scene with Chris and his colleagues chatting in the luxury suite on their flight to Vegas, and appropriately it radically disrupts the film's otherwise contained aesthetic, replacing high-end digital gloss with cheap prosumer video. One of the guys makes a remark about never wanting a woman that he'd have to pay for, and suddenly the film's agenda is brought into clear focus: The Girlfriend Experience reflects a landscape in which humans resist the absurdities of their capitalist system, yet the system fights back, insisting on its own right to distort and to confuse.

Soderbergh again acts as his own Director of Photography in the film, and he sticks mostly to crisply framed shots of hygienic Manhattan high-rises and restaurants, emphasizing vertical lines and seeking angles where the architecture causes a separation between individuals in the frame. Fragmented in asynchronous chunks of long, largely static takes broken up by impressionistic shots of blurry city-scapes peered from a car window, the film is one of Soderbergh's most free-form and exploratory, its cold, angular perspectives hinting at a machine-like observer behind the camera but never fully extinguishing the sense of the director's presence, searching hesitantly for instances that make each shot worth the wait. And perhaps unsurprisingly, this has the effect of assigning a democracy across the film's images, a notion of visual equality that renders it acceptable to only briefly mention Grey's appearance in a work that is ostensibly all about her. The Girlfriend Experience, by embodying this mechanical object and still seeking the human within, continues this implicit battle with capitalism. Human interaction has been standardized, compartmentalized, and monetized, but not necessarily defeated, and it is in this that Soderbergh locates the flicker of warmth that justifies his film.

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