Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Special Movie Edition: We Watched It

Meh. Not that bad.

OK so here’s the deal: 

The movie isn’t that bad. If, some crazy how, this blog hasn’t, on its own, provided you with a detailed-enough account of this mess, and you're like, "Ugh I still want to learn more tho," please please please just watch the movie and don't read the book. Please don't. Please.

Of course, this introduces a bit of a conundrum: is it possible that all my enjoyment of the movie is directly related to the misery that the book has caused me? Probably! So it's very possible that someone who hasn't dissected the book(s) in the pointless way I have would totally hate the movie and be like, "Ugh why'd you make me watch this, Alden?" And I'd like to respond to that in two ways:
  1. I didn't make you.
  2. At least you didn't read the book. 
Here's the main thing the movie has going for it:

Aside from the fact that it's only a couple of hours long, instead of a lifetime like the books, the movie does away with Ana's narration. It's still her movie--she's in pretty close to every single shot. But having a talented actor play Ana / not hearing EL James' embarrassing inner monologue all the time does something surprising: it makes Ana likable. 

Weird, right? When I read this book, I'm probably harder on Ana sometimes than I am on Christian. And that's because I decided early on that CG was just an irredeemable asshole and not worth thinking about too much. Ana I always have a certain amount of hope for. Meaning that Ana is capable of letting me down and (Editor's note: And does!) CG is not. 

But srsly: I liked Ana in this movie. Dakota Johnson, particularly early in the movie, is charmingly skeptical about the whole enterprise. She straight-up laughs at Christian pretty often, and it's great every time. Does a lot to improve bearability for me. Makes her feel much more like a real person, compared to her book version.

And, I laugh when she laughs. So I think I did laugh at the movie quite a few times, and failed to laugh at several bits that were supposed to be jokes, I'm pretty sure I was usually laughing when Ana was laughing. 

Johnson makes Ana skeptical, and playful, which is a tone that EL just never gets right, imo. The movie works best when we see Ana simultaneously mocking CG's games and playing right along with them. She rolls her eyes at his BDSM fantasies, participates on a lark, and is actually kinda into it, tho never so much that she doesn't maintain a certain amount of ironic distance. To me, this is the tone that the book always needed but never managed. Really makes it seem like Ana is not just along for the ride, but an active participant in her own life. Something that I never think when I'm reading the book.

Some Improvements!

The other thing is that the movie smoothes out some of the book's dumbest plot problems / anachronisms. Sometimes explicitly. Sometimes just by omitting little annoying details.

So here's one: Ana's computer. 

In the book, of course, Ana doesn't have a computer or even a mutterflushing email address because she's part of a special program at her university where cave persons are unthawed and offered scholarships. 

CG still buys her a fancy computer and a dude still sets it up for her, but the scene is super quick. And instead of telling us she doesn't have a computer, Ana says to CG, "I told you my computer was down." Or something like that. Now, I don't really think that computers being "down" is a thing anymore. Right? Not really, no. At least not a thing for one's own, personal computer. So it's still kinda dumb in the movie, but it improves upon the source material so utterly that you kinda can't help but give it a pass. At least, that's my excuse.

Ana and Kate's apartment.

Ana and Kate move into a ridiculously expensive apartment in downtown Seattle. Literally in "the Pike Place Market neighborhood" which isn't really a thing, but let's pretend it is. Anyway, in the book? They still have a super expensive apartment and no jobs to speak of. But because the movie doesn't dwell on this fact, doesn't really bring up anyone's finances but CG's, it's an easy bit to basically ignore and not worry about too much. Granted, their college-kid apartment is also ridiculous. I told my friends that it looked like an Anthropologie catalog. Response: "Oh, I saw some Ikea stuff in there." Fair enough! Still. It's too nice, but I mean, it's a movie? So everything is too nice and all the people are pretty etc. etc. etc. so whatever. Really not worth worrying about. That's how movies are.

Ana's flight to Georgia.

Ana's trip to Georgia doesn't seem nearly as crazy in the movie as it does in the book. It still seems a little wacky, and it was definitely on short notice. But we don't see her decide to go the day before, and then buy her ticket the day of the flight. And there's a little throw-away line about how her mom's got lotsa miles to burn. I thought that the last-minute cross-country trip was one of the most ridiculous things in the whole novel, but here, the trip still seems pointless but but we're given less reason to question the mechanics. So dumb? But better.

Problems Remain

I kinda feel like the team that made this movie worked really hard to make the best movie they could about this college grad who falls in with a cold, BDSM-billionaire and they probably would've succeeded had it not been for the author of the source material always butting in and trying to shoehorn in book elements. 

The only truly cringe-inducing moments are when a line or a moment is lifted directly from the book without alterations. It never serves any purpose other than to poke the viewer and say, "See? We did read the book! We swear! See?"

So for instance, there are, I think, quite a few funny moments in this movie, particularly in the early goings. But what never work are the direct lifts from the book. So for instance, in one of the more terrifying moments of either version, Ana wakes up in CG's hotel room after drinking too much the previous night. She finally gets around to the obvious question. Here's the book version:

“We didn’t,” I whisper, my mouth drying in mortified horror as I can’t complete the question. I stare at my hands. 
“Anastasia, you were comatose. Necrophilia is not my thing. I like my women sentient and receptive,” he says dryly. 
Fun, right? He basically says, "I didn't rape you because I don't think that would've been fun for me." What a gentleman.

But the movie disposes with the rest of the line, and CG only says "Necrophilia is not my thing." It wasn't a good line ever but somehow, just paring it down tot hat necrophilia part makes the moment just weird. Makes it feel like EL stepped in and interrupted the production, and was like, "Hey my fans are really fans of that line and they're going to be so angry if they don't hear it."

And I really groaned toward the end, when CG got around to saying, "I'm fifty shades of fucked up." There's just no way to make that line feel natural. Jamie Dornan might be great at acting--can't tell from this movie I'm afraid--but not even a great actor could figure out a reading of that that wouldn't make him just sound like an absolute doofus. 

There are quite a few other little details maintained from the book without much explanation that I guess are basically innocuous but still annoying. So for instance, after Ana's graduation ceremony, our heroes drink champagne out of teacups because all of Ana's glasses are packed up for her move or some shit. They still drink out of teacups but no one bothers to explain it. I guess somebody just decided that some 50 Shades purist would be pissed if they didn't drink out of those mutterflushing teacups, so, there you go. Champagne in teacups. 

And, there are long stretches that feel every bit as pointless in the movie as they did in the book, because they are pointless and nothing anyone can do could grant them any extra meaning. 

Ana's graduation is particularly lacking in relevance. And basically none of our heroes' hushed conversations are doing anything but wasting our time. Lucky that there are, at least, far fewer of such conversations here than there are in the book, but all the conversations that are basically Ana asking CG to explain himself are a huge drag because he never does. Dinner at CG's parents' house is a total snooze, too.

Pretty much what the movie does right is offer Ana considerably more spark than she ever exhibits in any of the books. So whenever Ana is pushing things along, the movie is pretty entertaining. Whenever she's just waiting for the next thing to happen, which is fairly often, the movie is a total drag. 

The Sex Parts

Speaking of waiting for the next thing to happen, we do have to talk about sex. Because there is some sex in this movie.

Ok so there is a lot of sex. And honestly? I think only the last scene is terrible. The rest of them aren't that bad!

Last scene first: the final time CG and Ana have sex, it's in the playroom, and CG is so horny that he has to use not one, not two, but four ropes! That's pretty horny. But before that he's, I don't know? Flogging her? With floggers? Basically he's just brushing her with different things and it's not sexy. One of the brave souls who watched with me asked why he was mopping her. Because it really did look like that's what he was doing. He uses a peacock feather at one point, and other stuff that I forget, and a thing that totally looks like a mop. And the obvious question is why? Not sure!

But, the sex did make me think about the whole phenomenon in a different way. True fact!

Pretty much? When I read about these two having sex? I'm just bored. I just find it boring. There's this emphasis on how Ana is supposed to not move or whatever, and then when Ana has orgasms EL's language is just so over the top and silly that I can't stand it. Really can't. The sex scenes are the scenes that I'm most likely to skim because they just don't do anything for me.

But translating some of these scenes to film, I don't feel that differently, but I can imagine feeling differently.

Let me explain. When I read the sex scenes in the book, I can't even really imagine being intrigued by them. The things that I enjoy most when I'm reading a book are jokes and surprises and there are basically none of either in 50 Shades. So when they start to have sex, I'm kind of half paying attention just in case something weird happens but if nothing super weird happens, I'm just like, let's see what's next.

So the movie sex isn't surprising. And maybe I'm being optimistic here? But it does seem kind of different from the way I'm used to seeing sex happen in a movie.

Usually, when a lady gets all nekkid in a movie? She's the prize. And that's the end of it--she takes her clothes off, and that's a signal to me, the viewer, that whatever man is most important has won! Yay! He's totally getting laid, and I'm so happy for him. And often as not, the ladies who end up taking off their shirts on film are not even major characters. They're just going to get billed as like, "Topless lady at carwash" or something and we see them, and then it's implied that they have sex with the hero, and then the movie moves along.

Meaning, a naked woman in a major motion picture is typically there as proof of a dude's sexual prowess. She's not a character. She's sexy background, and she'll be gone again soon, and we can proceed with the man's story.

But seeing this movie, and actually appreciating Ana as a character for the first time, and then seeing her naked, and actually experiencing pleasure and not just existing as proof of how great a man is--it's different. I think it is, anyway. And maybe that's something that the fans of this book get that I don't. Maybe they read the same sex scenes--as terrible as the writing is--and they're not thinking about all the clichés or how terrifying CG is or whatever. They're thinking about a woman actually enjoying sex and not just appearing as a sign of sex. As a prop representing a man's sexuality.

In the books, I mostly only notice CG bossing Ana around while sex is happening. But in the movie, CG is so stoic, so boring, that the sex scenes aren't really about him. Ana is often bound by a necktie or blindfolded by her own shirt, but you know? Johnson sells it. And because she sells it, it works.

You've probably seen all sorts of stories about how Johnson and Dornan have no chemistry and it's true. They have no chemistry. Here's a thing I said multiple times while watching this movie: "They're so bored!" Because they frequently seem so, so bored. And the sex scenes don't do much to change that, particularly when it looks like CG is mopping Ana. With a mop.

But besides that last one? Even tho Ana's body is on display, I really did feel like these scenes were for Ana, and not for Christian. That's not something that I can say about the book, but at least now, I can imagine other readers reading these same scenes and saying, "This is for Ana, not for Christian." I'll never feel that way, but at least I think I understand the appeal better than I did.

And don't get me wrong: CG is super gross in the movie. So gross. When he buys all his murder supplies at Ana's hardware store, movie Ana literally calls him a "complete serial killer" and he's terrifying throughout.

In some ways, the movie actually makes him seem worse. He doesn't call his poor deceased mother "the crack whore" like he does in the book, so that's good. But one key moment in both book and film is when CG "saves" Ana from an unwanted advance courtesy of José. And yeah. José is pretty shitty in the movie, and Ana is clearly not into it. And I don't want to make light of a man ignoring a woman who makes it clear that she's not interested. But between the two versions, I found José more threatening in the book than in the film, which makes CG's reaction in the film seem even more exaggerated. Honestly, in that whole drunken-Ana sequence, CG just seems bonkers. He acts like she's the first human person to ever drunk-dial, and it's just no good.

I'm probably rambling now. But to summarize: the movie gives us a much better Ana, but basically the same Christian. So imagine that all of my complaints about this story pretty much hold true. But movie-Ana is so, so much better than book-Ana that she not only makes the movie watchable. She makes me feel like understand actual 50 Shades fans better than I did before seeing the movie.

But just so we're absolutely clear: the book is terrible and I hate it, and I literally am not sure that I'm going to get through the last one because it's just an absolute shitcano. But hey. If this is the kind of thing you're into, then I guess you found your thing.

I have lots of other thoughts that don't really fit in. Like how movie Eliot is played by a young Kid Rock, which is weird. And how funny it is that when Ana and CG fly in a helicopter from Portland to Seattle it looks for a while like they're just going to follow I5. I'd love to discuss more but I thought I might be generous this week and actually talk about some things I kinda liked. I know right? I'm surprised too. But jump into the comments section for once. I mean if you want to. 

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