Virginity, maidenhood, purity — whatever you label “innocence” — are non-factors in the movie version of the bestselling novel 50 Shades of Grey. Its story of American telecommunications billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), initiating young college literature major Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) into his netherworld of privileged sadomasochistic sex, dismisses old-fashioned ideas of corruption, despoliation, or even adulthood. Dirty-minded yet banal, this film of the pseudonymous E. L. James potboiler adapts bodice-ripper fantasy to commonplace decadence.
In the Bill Clinton–Monica Lewinsky era that obviously spawned the 50 Shades plot, this movie might have been a salvo in the culture wars; today it’s just a commercial bonanza. Shot over a year ago, the blockbuster release has been strategized, timed, and promoted by Universal Studios, and its auxiliary NBC Television Network, to look like a cultural event.
But in 2015, a franchise this enormous cannot be trusted; it’s too big to succeed artistically. Even the dumbed-down screening audience was befuddled at the cliffhanger ending. Forgetting Hollywood’s ways, they expected more filth.
Culture-war issues are subsumed within 50 Shade’s idiotic plot, which fatuously evokes Bronte, Austen, Hardy. No more “literary” than having floridly named protagonists, it’s just sexed-up young-adult fiction. And consider: Catherine Hardwicke directing the first film in the tween favorite Twilight vampire series had more romantic conviction than this naughty Harry Potter in the Boudoir knock-off.
Strangely, it doesn’t help that 50 Shades was directed by a woman, Sam Taylor-Johnson — a devious, faux-feminist strategy. Starting with Annie Lennox’s phony R&B emoting (a cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s “I Put a Spell on You“), Taylor-Johnson seems unable to apply sensitivity. She acquiesces to franchise rom-com formula, forsaking her proven skill in portrait photography (the film is as non-sensual as the muted red walls of Grey’s S&M playroom) in order to match the naïveté of her wimpy, incurious heroine and cold, wounded hero. The only thing “pure” about this Bronte-Austen-Hardy mash-up is its Hollywood cynicism.
By reducing a love story to the shallowness of Skinimax soft-core pornography — might as well call a financial juggernaut what it is — 50 Shades titillates ideas about male (dominant) and female (submissive) roles while pretending to advance sexual and emotional enlightenment. Anastasia’s oft-divorced mother advises: “I wish I could tell you it gets better. You just get to know yourself better.”
Unexpectedly, Taylor-Johnson and James hit on something (oops!) truly contemporary with Anastasia’s clueless, virginal fog: the foreignness of intimacy. Recent pop culture has discouraged consumers from realizing their emotional, spiritual needs by emphasizing material and carnal gratification and nihilism. The revolution of the digital, secular millennia rejects old shibboleths, producing new dramas that punish morality — usually casting “Christians” as villains. (A chorale played during Anastasia’s Crucifix-position sex torture provides mild blasphemy.) That’s the hypocrisy behind Anastasia’s shock at Grey’s fetishism (“You’re a sadist!”), yet she remains inane, compliant, and apparently ignorant about her own body — never mind her soul.
When the couple haggle over a “non-disclosure agreement” to legally protect Grey’s sexual transgression, the language of courtship (what C. S. Lewis defined in The Allegory of Love) is out of joint just as it was in the flagrantly commercial Gone Girl. The Eighties Los Angeles rock group X decried this publishing-Hollywood hoax when they lamented “Adult books / I don’t understand / Jackie Susann / She meant it that way.”
Enterprises such as 50 Shades of Grey and Gone Girl, designed to exploit modern moral confusion, also mean to rationalize political disorientation. Anastasia and Grey’s sadomasochistic love/hate symbolizes contemporary bewilderment regarding capitalist politics. Rich, empowered men like Grey are shown to lead and seduce us, while a new consumerist myth (replacing rugged individualism) suggests that our naïve affection — the opposite of buyer’s remorse — can redeem them, just as Bill Clinton has been redeemed and sanctioned by the mainstream media. Anna’s only sentient moment — even her sexual “crisis” is placid — occurs when she learns of Grey’s past and rants “She’s a child abuser!” It’s weird in a movie that for almost two hours pushes the R-rated boundaries of kinky decadence.
This is not serious eroticism like Bertolucci’s masterpiece, Last Tango in Paris, where sexuality was tied to emotion, spirituality, and the history of cinematic romance. 50 Shades of Grey merely normalizes ignorant debauchery. Decades after Tango, are we still shockable, or do movies as bad as this just leave us bored and politically naïve?
Spike Lee is also too big to succeed. Hubris ruins his new film Da Sweet Blood of Jesus. Impertinent Lee squeezes two classic films about African-American life in his Afro-hipster vise: He rebukes the Southern gospel of Spencer Williams’s 1941 The Blood of Jesus and travesties Bill Gunn’s 1973 quasi-occult art film Ganja and Hess. Both movies, made for specialized audiences, explored spiritual aspiration within the struggle against racism. Lee reworks those personal, little-known films to show off his celebrated rascality.
The dialect in the pun of Lee’s title pokes fun at old-fashioned Christian religiosity, rejecting Williams’s consecrated folklore and distorting Gunn’s bitterness. The personal struggle of African ethnographer Dr. Hess Greene (Stephen Tyrone Williams) as he explores bloodlust and ancient rituals with the materialistic Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams) misconstrues Gunn’s complicated post–Civil Rights concept of vampirism. (Effete, sophisticated Gunn combined primitive desire with revenge and self-loathing fantasies — no one who saw Ganja and Hess ever forgets the beckoning image of Mabel King as a feather-crowned African priestess or Sam Waymon’s phallic display.) Simplistic Lee bowdlerizes both the vampire genre and religious folly.
Mixing killing and blood-sucking with dance and musical sequences recalls Lee’s usual hodgepodge and hectoring (“The USA is the most violent nation in the world!” one character says). Da Sweet Blood overlooks how the devout Williams and the skeptic Gunn shared the need for spiritual sustenance. Lee loses the rich ambivalence he might have gained from respecting their contradictory yet emotionally consonant insights into American racial and religious experience.
A noisy church service scene recalls Lee’s Red Hook Summer (a horror film for all the wrong reasons – it impugned the black ministry). Valerie Simpson and Raphael Saadiq wail a new Negro nonspiritual: “You got to learn to let it go when it’s all over.” That secular bromide doesn’t come close to the emotional frenzy of the “cannon fodder” speech about the fate of black boys that Gunn himself delivered early in Ganja and Hess. Lee replaces Gunn’s anger with typically fashionable cynicism.
Disconnected from Williams and Gunn’s struggle with faith, Lee’s privileged position deprives him of their passion. Da Sweet Blood’s deluxe Martha’s Vineyard setting should have satirized the deracinated black bourgeoisie advancing socially without a moral core. In the only amusing scene, an undead ghetto female curses Hess: “mutha****a, you killeded me!” (Class differences must frighten Lee more than vampires.) Even Eddie Murphy’s 1995 comedy Vampire in Brooklyn risked expressing black achievers’ disillusionment. Lee doesn’t dare self-revelation as Murphy, Spencer Williams, and Bill Gunn did. He only risks his Kickstarter funders’ pennies and the patience of his unfortunate viewers.
— Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review Online and received the American Book Award’s Anti-Censorship prize. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.