Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Performance, identity, and the selling of fantasy in The Girlfriend Experience and The Wrestler



In The Girlfriend Experience, we can analyze Chelsea (Sasha Grey) as a self-conscious commercial product in a world full of people obliged to sell themselves one way or another, but I was also intrigued by the Johns in the movie. One guy trembles as he impotently places his arms around her. Several guys mostly complain about the state of the economy as she looks on. Another man wears a diaper. In one scene, she confesses to being tortured by another guy with a Q-tip. For much of the movie, we watch men degrade themselves and her for the chance to spend $2000 an hour for a mock "girlfriend." That may be Soderbergh's point--how much men are willing to pay for a simulated girlfriend experience instead of gaining a real one. And of course, Soderbergh also knows that men may want to see a movie about the same experience, thereby making a simulation about a simulation. Thus, The Girlfriend Experience ironically enacts a version of a transaction even as it analyzes it.


Chelsea does have a handsome boyfriend who works as a trainer, but he doesn't stay with her very long either, and is reduced to yelling at her before they break up. It is as if it didn't occur to him that he might be bothered by her escort job. In another scene, a friend of the trainer tells him over a drink that "Women have all of the power, and they know it." The Girlfriend Experience complicates this sense of an imbalance of power between the sexes by also pointing out the exploitation she suffers in turn. Still, it's funny how, by submerging her identity by playing a role, Chelsea still comes off as the most content, serene character, but that may be just the impression left from her masked self. Certainly, she's the most self-aware in this game of imaginary relationships, but she has to trade herself for money. Instead of the customer being king, no one seems to win out in this form of commerce, even as Soderbergh piles on all of the poshlust luxury New York boutiques and hotel rooms.


One could compare Chelsea to Randy "the Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke) in The Wrestler. He, like Chelsea, makes his living by pandering to the increasingly degraded fantasies of his audience, only he sells himself as a warrior instead. The Wrestler reminded me a lot of Darren Aronofsky's earlier movie Requiem for a Dream in the way both films unrelentingly explore the negative effects of trying to live the American dream. The Ram likes to play the hero in his wrestling matches, but the reality is that after awhile he's reduced to working in a deli section of a grocery store. He's obliged to "serve the servants" (to use a Kurt Cobain phrase), and the role is so inherently demeaning to him, he eventually jams his thumb in the slicing machine, and, covering his face in blood, storms out of the store. The film proves again and again that there's no position for a warrior (even a slightly silly fraudulent wrestler-warrior who works out his moves in advance with his opponents) in modern society. He's either a self-sacrificing cartoon designed to appeal to his fans' need for hyperviolence, or he's a minimum wage serf . The central poignance of the movie is that, as much as he tries, the Ram has no way to fit in modern life at all.


As Cassidy the stripper, Marisa Tomei's character has similar problems in that, as far as work is concerned, she's a sex object or nothing. When she decides to help Randy find clothes for his daughter, she ends up betraying the emotional disconnect that takes place for a stripper when she attempts to befriend a customer. She lives by the rule that you never have moments of genuine intimacy with a customer, and its genuinely creepy to see Tomei switch her smile on and off as she alters her body language around Rourke. When he abruptly kisses her during a tender moment one afternoon in a bar, her mask snaps shut, she hurriedly drinks her beer, and she leaves. I've heard that strippers think of their male customers as "meat with wallets." It's easier for them to dehumanize the men in their minds to perform for them, and Tomei does an excellent job of showing the viewer glimpses of her genuine self underneath the act.

As the Ram, Rourke does manage to find some dignity for his character, especially when one can recognize the residue of his former glory as an actor and a leading man through all of distortions of his disfigured face. In all three cases, with Chelsea, Cassidy, and Randy, you can only see occasional flickers of humanity, mostly in their eyes, as they continue to trade in the performance of fantasy roles designed for the pleasure of others. Thus do these movies oblige us, the viewers, to consider the human toll of entertainment, even as we are enjoying it. They both ask the same question--what kind of monsters are we becoming in our constant need for entertainment?

7 comments:

Rick Olson said...

Women have all of the power, and they know it. ...

Interesting. Does Soderbergh believe this, I wonder, or just his characters?

FilmDr said...

Rick,

I doubt it. Neither Chelsea's boyfriend or his friend come off as all that bright, but I do think that Soderbergh tries to explore the power games between men and women especially as they market themselves for various services. For instance, we can compare Chelsea's boyfriend Chris' self-promotion as a trainer with her self-promotion as an escort, and she definitely dominates their relationship.

Rick Olson said...

I would say that women dominate in certain spheres, but I was just curious if it was a blanket statement or not. I think it is patently untrue in general.

FilmDr said...

I agree. It's the kind of thing guys like to think.

Hokahey said...

Rick and FilmDr - The scene you're referring to kind of provides a jolt. Chris's barroom buddy calls women "evil." But it certainly doesn't seem to be a statement coming from the director. I think it's almost a parody of typical guy-talk-in-bars. This film definitely evokes a sympathy for Chelsea.

Jason Bellamy said...

I figure that part of the reason Chelsea is so casual about telling Chris that she's met someone and is going out on a date is that Chris, to her, is her boyfriend experience. I think she sees their relationship as a mutual service in which each of them can be honest with one another, rather than playing roles, as we see them doing otherwise.

As for The Wrestler: I watched that again the other night and Tomei really is terrific in it.

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Hokahey and Jason,

Perhaps it was unfair of me to set up the comparison between Tomei and Grey, because Tomei is astonishingly good. I was intellectually intrigued by The Girlfriend Experience while The Wrestler, the antiRocky, just blew me away (much as Requiem for a Dream did). Aronofsky excels at raising our expectations of a character's redemption and then crushing them.