'The Girlfriend Experience': Is Steven Soderbergh taking a swipe at critics?

Girlfriendexperience_lIn The Girlfriend Experience, Steven Soderbergh's fascinating shot-on-the-fly snapshot of a high-end New York escort, the money culture that may now be vanishing, and (most resonantly) the interaction between the two, there’s one character that just about every critic who has written about the film has made a special point of mentioning. He’s a hulking, creepy-sinister, ironically over-literate sleazebucket named Glenn, who operates a Website called the Erotic Connoisseur, on which he rates and reviews the hookers who pay to advertise there. The character is a highly entertaining drooler parasite, but apart from that, the reason that such pointed attention has been paid to him is that he’s played by Glenn Kenny, a lively and erudite New York-based film blogger who just about every one of those critics (including me) happens to be friendly with.

Most of the actors in The Girlfriend Experience are non-professional, but Soderbergh showed a special shrewdness in casting Kenny; he bounces off the blogger’s real-life persona in subtly crafty ways. If you spend any time on Kenny’s website, Some Came Running, you’ll see that he’s an addictively insightful and — yes –  obsessive movie buff, and The Girlfriend Experience makes an inside joke of transferring his consuming level of cinema fixation to the sex industry. The Glenn we see in the movie is a kind of oily, neurotic highbrow of sleaze — not just an Internet opportunist in the business of flesh-peddling but a self-knowing, self-mocking, self-cultivated “connoisseur.” He operates his website out of the back of his daddy’s furniture store, and when Chelsea, the escort heroine played with ambiguous teasing blankness by adult-video star Sasha Grey, shows up to have a meeting with him, the “interview” consists of Glenn delivering a monologue that is basically a casting-couch offer from hell.

At which point things get really twisted. Chelsea refuses tosleep with him, and later on, she receives her payback: We hear Glenn,in voice-over, reading his posted “review” of her services, and it isnot kind. It is outrageously ugly, vengeful, scalding, and — worsethan that — a lie. But then comes the sole moment in the movie thatstrikes me as Soderbergh taking his own form of vengeance. For a minuteor two, we see and hear a pair of boho-ragamuffin sidewalk folk singersperforming a litte ditty, the taunting refrain of which goes,“Everyone’s a critic!” It’s an oddly gratuitous moment — and not justbecause it may remind you of how much you dislike boho-ragamuffinsidewalk folk singers. I can’t help but ask if Soderbergh is using theGlenn character’s nasty smear of Chelsea as a kind of drive-by metaphorfor what he really thinks of…well, movie critics. Who are now, afterall, fighting for their relevance in an age when, thanks to theInternet, everyone really is a critic.

Okay, okay, I know: I’m hardly an unbiased messenger for thisparticular interpretation. And Soderbergh, already queried on thepoint, has denied that he’s taking any kind of slap at critics. ButI’ve seen The Girlfriend Experience twice (and loved it bothtimes), and I have to say: I can’t agree. Whatever the director’sdenials, the critic-bashing potshot is right up there on screen.

It’s reasonable to ask why. In the 20 years since he broke through with sex, lies, and videotape,Steven Soderbergh has had movie critics in his corner a lot more thanhe hasn’t. We’ve been there, collectively, for the revolution of sex, lies and for the comeback of Out of Sight, for Traffic and Erin Brockovich. A segment of us have been there for the Ocean’sfilms — or, at least, for the first one (to me, a riff on thetrickiness of male camaraderie worthy of Howard Hawks) and the third.But I’ve met enough filmmakers in my time to know that they guard theirunsuccessful cinematic “children” as zealously as they do theirhigh-profile overachievers. More to the point, they don’t distinguishbetween the two — and they shouldn’t. That’s the way artists think.

The trouble is, they naturally end up expecting, or at leastwanting, critics to think in the same way. I imagine that when adirector as acclaimed as Steven Soderbergh invests his blood, sweat,and tears in a project like last year’s heady, provocative, ambitious,and ultimately opaque two-part biopic Che, he must find itbaffling, if not perverse, when critics turn on him. He may think thatit’s arbitrary, and even a bit of a caprice, on our part — that we’vebuilt him up just enough so that it’s now time to knock him down. Hemay think that it’s a show of power, a choice.

But really, it’s not that at all. It really isn’t. Sometimes, dude, a movie just isn’t very good.But I swear to Soderbergh that I will always watch his films with openeyes, even if he persists in thinking of critics as petty hustlersthreatening to slime him from the back of the store.

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  • rj472

    I don’t think he was taking a swipe at movie critics with this character in the film. I think he was just wanting to show an “Adult Entertainer Enthusiast” critic at work here. There are many websites and blogs out there that specialize in reviewing and rating adult service providers.

  • Tim W

    I think you might be reading too much into the GK casting. You write: “self-knowing, self-mocking, self-cultivated ‘connoisseur'” who turns his overly erudite energies to viciousness. Sounds like the seamier side of the blogoverse to me. SS’s twist is to add a real-life personal dimension to it. Most bloggers would never say to someone’s face what they write. Maybe this is a picture of the price paid by both parties if they DID speak the way they wrote, and took as much pleasure in inflicting personal pain. I’m not saying you’re not right — artists are the last people to trust when speaking about their own work. Just that I think the movie makes more sense when seen more literally. The writers want to hide behind the screen as they spew scalding vitriol really are inflicting pain, and are sucking out their own souls in the process. Not that they’d agree with me, and not that many would care. Being mean is a rush for them, and they’d trade their souls for it in a heartbeat.

  • chip

    it sounds a little more like it’s just a play on this guy: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/17/us/17erotic.html

  • THE_TRUTH

    No decent person should support this movie. Steven Soderburgh has given a major leading role in this movie to Sasha Grey, who is a young porn worker whose tragic story of sex abuse and exploitation was spotlighted on the Tyra show over a year ago, when she appeared with her pimp, and it is a much-watched interview on Youtube. By giving this poor girl such a role in a mainstream movie by a top director, it helps the pimps who tell these girls that porn is an entryway to the legitimate Hollywood stardom and fame that they seek. And Soderburgh knew this when he cast her in the movie, and he heard all the protest from anti-exploitation groups. There were plenty of real actresses that could have played that role. But it was more important to him to bring attention to his new movie and make more money. And I find that to be shameful and disgusting. I was a big fan of his all the way from his first movie, but I will never support anything he does again. Don’t give him your money. Peace.

  • THE_TRUTH

    Wow, Soderbergh is even worse than I though. I took a minute to look up media reports of his casting of Sasha Grey and in the Los Angeles Times, he totally admitted his intentions>> Soderbergh gave Grey the lead role in the film (which opens Friday) fully intending to milk her X-rated fame for all it is worth. “I was very much counting on the fact that the interest in her would be greater than the interest in the movie,” Soderbergh said. << http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/la-et-sasha-grey21-2009may21,0,7751766.story?track=rss This makes me even more disgusted. Take a look at Sasha Grey’s intervew from the Tyra show and tell me that your heart doesn’t break at her self-delusion caused by her pimp that is in the audience. Good people have to become active and speak out against this kind of blatant explotation of women! As a man, i am angry.

  • Steve

    To “The Truth” (heh): sorry. I just supported the movie by seeing it. And it’s quite wonderful; a stylish, immensely provocative rumination on intimacy and commodification. But I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to you or anyone else with a simplistic (pro- or anti-) bias about sex work, because Soderbergh isn’t really interested in either challenging or enabling either side. He’s on about something much more complex than you’re gonna see on something like the Tyra Banks show. And, as I see it, the simple fact is that his casting of Ms. Grey served his movie beautifully. If that conflicts with your political agenda, tough.

  • Steve

    Oh, and as to the actual topic of this article, I think he’s teasing critics more than taking a swipe at them. And Kenny (who is a fine critic) is a hoot!

  • John

    to THE_TRUTH: People cast actors in their movies all the time to amp up the interest. It’s like 60% of Hollywood casting.

  • Eric

    Owen, when are you going to release a book collection of your reviews and essays? Your fans are looking forward to it.

  • Nathiest

    I saw it the other night with some friends and we all thought that it was great and that Sasha Grey was wonderful.

  • Fatima

    To THE_TRUTH – I really suggest you read the profile on Sasha Grey in Rolling Stone. She’s incredibly smart and very much aware of what she’s doing and comfortable about her beliefs within sexuality that she knows are not in line with the mainstream society’s (including mine to an extent). All girls in porn deal with being taken advantage of, but Grey isn’t nearly as naive as you think she is. She doesn’t want you to feel sorry for her…she feels sorry for you. And I honestly believe she thinks that.

  • Stanley Sigafoos

    Good God, Gleiberman, get over yourself. Not everything is about YOU.

  • THE_TRUTH

    I challenge anyone to actually WATCH on Youtube the much-watched Sasha Grey interview from the Tyra show that exposed just how exploited and degraded she has been by her pimp, who also appeared on the show. Watch her sad attempt at explaining it all away as some kind of “artistic endeavor”. Watch her self-delusion and most of all watch the PAIN in her eyes and then tell me how “wonderful” this whole sick situation is. If you aren’t willing to see that interview, then that shows how much of a coward you are. She should never have been cast in this movie. This will do nothing but lure more young girls into porn by legitimizing it, and Soderberbergh knew that. Inform yourself by watching that interview before you comment. Thank you.

  • To the Truth

    If you are that concerned about the girl’s well-being, shouldn’t you be supporting her move into legitimate movies? Maybe she’ll get more mainstream movie roles from this.

  • Kevin

    There is one bit of truth in this article…and that’s the fact that movie critics are “petty hustlers”.

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