Thursday, August 28, 2014

Secretary (Steven Shainberg, 2002)


Posting this 2004 article partly because I refer to it in an upcoming piece about a Now-on-DVD erotic film, and because well erotic films need no excuse, really.

Different strokes

Steven Shainberg's Secretary, an adaptation of a short story by Mary Gaitskill, turns on a nice little premise: Lee Holloway, a neurotic young woman fresh out of the mental hospital (Maggie Gyllenhaal), comes home to her alcoholic, physically abusive father and battered mother. When things get rough, when Lee's mother gets knocked around a little or Lee feels especially depressed or frustrated, she hides in her bedroom where she has squirreled away (like a stash of dope) a sewing kit full of sharp instruments, one of her favorites being the lovely ceramic figure of a ballerina whose toes are sharpened to a point; with the smoothness that comes from long practice, she draws a bright line down her well-scarred upper thigh.

Later she lands the position of secretary to E. Edward Grey (James Spader), a control-freak lawyer seated in a vast office. Grey likes perfect spelling in all his correspondence and perfect professionalism in all his staff (mostly Lee, and a paralegal who seems to pop in once in a blue moon); he likes to vigorously redline Lee's typing mistakes with a thick marker and, at one point--when the mistake seemed particularly minor--likes to order Lee to bend over his desk reading her faulty letter while he smacks her buttocks with an open palm. Masochistic employee meets sadistic employer in isolated office environment: ingredients, apparently, for the perfect relationship.

It's a fantasy, of course; nowadays American businesses don't call their staff "secretaries," they call them "assistants;" "assistants" don't use manual typewriters and liquid paper (except maybe in public libraries, and even there it's a dying art) they use word processors and spell-check programs. Shainberg presents a fairly strange world--a Dario Argento torture chamber as conceived by Disney's production designers--presumably in the hope that the soft-focus would make this (mildly) twisted version of a romantic comedy easier to take.

That's basically my problem with the picture--that it's a tale of perverse love told wholesomely. The action isn't hardcore; it's barely softcore, just brief sessions of spanking, a few uncomfortable postures, maybe one or two glimpses of hardware. There's even this suggestion that what they're doing is therapeutic and ultimately helpful to Lee's self-image and sense of worth--as if S&M needed an uplifting message to make it more acceptable, a lifestyle choice like colonic irrigation or the Atkins diet. Lee's character is at rock-bottom, what with her history of mental instability and her troubled family--being tied down can only be a step up; Grey is so thoroughly entombed in his King Tutankhamen suite that punishing Lee is a breath of fresh air, a chance at cardio exercise. It's so laughable a sell--kinky sex for squares--that you end up believing none of it.

If anything saves the picture it's the performances. Spader in White Palace and sex, lies and videotape and  even Wolf (as rival to Jack Nicholson's semi-human monster) has always projected an intriguing presence, a yuppie yumminess with just a hint of corruption; his smoothly confident lawyer has a genuine relish for inflicting pain and (beyond that) just the faintest suggestion of guilt at relishing such pain. Gyllenhaal, all saucer-eyes and naughty-girl smile, is even more crucial--on her slender shoulders stands the picture's credibility, and she sells it better than it deserves. She conveys her earlier loneliness with directness and simplicity; when she discovers the pleasures of corporal punishment her wide-eyed sense of discovery is genuinely arousing, preventing you from laughing at all the awkward positions (in a picture that requires such delicate balance a chuckle is appropriate, a guffaw devastating).

Shainberg employs the kind of glossiness required for conventional erotic fantasy; he even has a visual and rhythmic crispness that suggests wit. Secretary is enjoyable for what it is: a fairly fresh twist on a tired genre, so tired even something halfway decent looks special.

When it comes to authentic S&M, though--well, there's American porn, preferably classic '70s (Japanese "pinku" is even better); there's Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ which, much as I loathe it artistically, does show an obsessive spirit. There's Jang Sun-Woo's Lies, which sketches a convincing portrait of an S&M relationship in the process of self-destructing (especially like the oddball humor--the lovers, for instance, scrounging through junk for pieces of wood to beat each other's behinds with).

Even us supposedly staid, sexually repressed Filipinos have done better work: Laurice Guillen and Raquel Villavicencio's Init sa Magdamag (Midnight Passion, 1983) is about a woman who changes persona with each man she beds, most memorably a semipsychotic sadist (I'd go so far as say it's my favorite of a limited and disreputable genre).

So: Passion for the hardcore crowd; Lies for the truthseekers; Init for the artistically imaginative. Secretary I'd say is strictly for the beginning masochist, something soft and tender and ultimately bland. Different strokes, folks. Different strokes.

First published in Businessworld, 9/24/04

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