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  • Noel Vera
    Different strokes Noel Vera Stephen Shainberg s Secretary, a film adaptation of a short story by Mary Gaitskill, turns on a nice little premise: Lee
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 1, 2004
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      Different strokes

      Noel Vera

      Stephen Shainberg's "Secretary," a film 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 away in her bedroom where she has squirreled
      away (like a hidden stash of dope) a sewing kit stuffed full of
      sharp instruments, one of her favorites being the lovely ceramic
      figure of a ballerina whose toes have been sharpened to a point; she
      takes this little ballerina out and, with the smoothness that comes
      from long practice, draws a line of blood on her well-scarred upper

      Later she looks for a job, and lands the position of secretary to E.
      Edward Grey (James Spader), a control-freak lawyer sitting in the
      middle of a vast office. Grey likes perfect spelling in all his
      correspondence and perfect professionalism in all of 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, he likes to order Lee to bend over his desk reading her
      faulty letter while he stands behind, smacking her buttocks with an
      open palm. Masochistic employee meets sadistic employer in isolated
      office environment: ingredients, apparently, for the perfect

      It's a fantasy, of course; nowadays American businesses don't call
      their office staff "secretaries," they call
      them "assistants;" "assistants" don't use manual typewriters and
      liquid paper anymore (except maybe in public libraries, and even
      there it's changing), they use word processors and spell-check
      programs. Shainberg presents a stylized world--James Spader's office
      might have been something the Disney Studio's production designers
      threw together for a Dario Argento horror film--presumably in the
      hope that the soft-focus would make this 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, in terms meant to make it all easier
      to take. The action isn't hard-core; in fact, it's barely soft-core,
      just some brief sessions of spanking, a few uncomfortable postures,
      maybe one or two frustratingly brief glimpses of hardware. There's
      even this suggestion that what they're going through 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 up and spanked can
      only be a step up; Grey is so thoroughly entombed in his King
      Tutankhamen suite that providing Lee her spanking can only be a
      breath of fresh air, a chance at a little exercise. It's so
      laughably fraudulent a sell--kinky sex for squares--that you end up
      in danger of not believing in any of it, no matter how comfortingly
      stylized the sets or situations may be.

      If anything saves the movie from the preciousness of its concept,
      it's the lead performances. Spader, from films like "White Palace"
      and "sex, lies and videotape" to even his small role in "Wolf" as
      rival to Jack Nicholson's semi-human monster, has always managed an
      intriguing presence onscreen, the picture of yuppie prettiness with
      just a hint of something darker, more corrupt, about him; here he
      plays successful lawyer with a chilly confidence that, behind it,
      suggests ruthless relish, and, behind that, terror and guilt at his
      own ruthlessness. Gyllenhaal, with her huge eyes and naughty-girl
      smile, is even more crucial--on her slender shoulders the
      credibility of the whole thing stands; as it is, she sells it
      remarkably better than it deserves. She conveys her earlier distress
      and loneliness with a directness and simplicity that wins your
      trust; later, when she discovers the sensual possibilities of
      corporal punishment, her wide-eyed sense of discovery is genuinely
      arousing, and prevents you from laughing at her awkward positions
      (in a film as delicately balanced as this, a chuckle is appropriate;
      a guffaw would kill the picture outright).

      Shainberg goes for the kind of glossiness that's practically a
      convention for erotic fantasy (but why should erotic fantasy be so
      glossy, or so conventional?); at times he even displays a visual
      crispness that suggests wit. "Secretary" isn't really bad; it's
      enjoyable for what it is, a fairly fresh twist on the tired genre of
      romantic comedies (a genre so played out that even something halfway
      different and decently made can easily stand out).

      When it comes to authentic S & M, though--well, there's American
      porn (though I think Japanese "pinku" porn is much better). Mel
      Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," much as I loathe it, does feel
      more like the real thing, though done with very little artistry (it
      beats you over the head with its violence again and again, so often
      and so monotonously, that the net effect feels like genuine penance
      (ironically, "Secretary" has more love and tenderness on display
      than Gibson's shrill religious porno)). Jang Sun-Woo's "Lies," which
      I didn't much like as a whole either, does give a more honest
      portrayal of what an S & M relationship can be like, or is in danger
      of becoming (and it's not like "Lies" has no sense of humor--look at
      the scene where the lovers look around for increasingly large pieces
      of wood to beat each other's behinds with and tell me that's not

      Even us supposedly staid and sexually repressed Filipinos have done
      better work--Laurice Guillen and Racquel Villavicencio's "Init sa
      Magdamag" (Midnight Passion, 1983), a dark erotic drama about a
      woman who changes personality with each man she's involved with,
      including a semi-psychotic sadist, has a far stronger sexual charge
      and keener psychological insight (I'd go as far as saying it's the
      best of a limited and disreputable genre).

      So--"Passion" for the hardcore porn crowd; "Lies" for those who like
      raw honesty; "Init sa Magdamag" for those who respond to artistic
      imagination; and "Secretary" for the tender young beginner.
      Different strokes for different folks.

      (First published in Businessworld, 9/24/04)

      (Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)
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