Friday, April 27, 2012

SECRETARY: Ten Years of Hard Work and Rough Play

Tonight, BMFI will screen Steven Shainberg's Secretary as part of "The Late Show" film series. Our Programming Intern, Dan Santelli, takes a look at this indie hit, its roots in classical Hollywood, and the film's treatment of sadomasochism.

Secretary: Ten Years of Hard Work and Rough Play
By Dan Santelli, BMFI Programming Intern

In 2002, director Steven Shainberg’s Secretary, which will be screened tonight as part of BMFI’s "The Late Show" series, served up a steamy romance between actors James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal in the form of an office relationship propelled by sadomasochism. What begins simply as routine spanking sessions for Miss Gyllenhaal’s typing errors becomes complicated when romantic attraction affects both of them.

While some audiences may understandably perceive such material as crass, Secretary’s approach is much livelier and, dare I say, funnier than one would likely expect. With a narrative structure resembling the classic Hollywood romances of the 50s and 60s, Secretary is more traditional than most of the indie features that were on the market at the time. The injection of sadomasochism is perhaps the only subject matter that would potentially turn off anyone over the age of 18 from seeing this surprisingly delightful romp.

If anything, screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson, who adapted Mary Gaitskill’s short story, and director Steven Shainberg deserve nods and acclaims for their successful attempt to rework old material and present in a manner making it appear fresh. Furthermore, their courage to take a subversive risk at a time when the American film industry played it safe due to post-9/11 anxieties is brave and daring.

Maggie Gyllenhaal's character, Lee Holloway, performs her daily morning routine in Secretary.
Secretary was certainly not the first feature film to dabble in the realm of BDSM. One would have to go back to the pictures of glamour actresses Louise Brookes and Marlene Dietrich to view the first screen representations. In films such as Josef Von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel and G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, Miss Dietrich and Miss Brooks infused a heightened level of sexual suggestiveness and female dominance. With the help of costumes and signature poses, both actresses gained notoriety for their vampish performances, which paved the road for future filmmakers and talent to explore the depths of perverse sexuality.

Louise Brooks, playing her infamous Lulu character, breaks taboos with her vampish performance in Pandora's Box.
Secretary is notable for being one of the very few pictures that presents sadomasochism in a positive light to reach mass audiences. The two central characters, Mr. Grey (Spader) and Lee Holloway (Gyllenhaal), do have their personal problems, but these don’t overshadow the pleasure and delight the two receive from their sessions, which is the movie’s central focus from the second act onward. Even highly tauted classics such as David Lynch’s surreal 1986 film Blue Velvet can be interpreted as portraying the sadomasochistic love triangle between Kyle Maclachlan, Dennis Hopper, and Isabella Rossellini in a less-than-positive light. In addition, forgotten gems like William Friedkin’s criminally neglected 1980 film Cruising, a mystery-thriller with Al Pacino’s rookie cop going undercover as a gay man in heavy leather bars and searching for a psychopathic killer targeting the gay men, has a vision of sadomasochistic behavior that some may find problematic and others will find flat-out offensive.

Dennis Hopper and Isabella Rossellini (top) in  Blue Velvet and Al Pacino (bottom) in Cruising, two films featuring transgressive depictions of onscreen S&M.

Even more surprising is the genuinely warm critical and commercial reception Secretary received upon its release. Film critic Manohla Dargis lovingly emphasized Secretary’s light-hearted nature: “For all the dolorous trim, Secretary is a genial romance that maintains a surprisingly buoyant tone throughout, notwithstanding some of the writers' sporadic dips into pop Freudianism.” Movieline film critic Stephanie Zacharek confirms the film’s positive depiction of sadomasochism with this laudatory praise:
“Mr. Shainberg has a wry and wicked sense of humor, but he takes the emotional pain of these characters seriously. This isn't a movie about the dark side of S&M; it's about sexual compassion, a way of recognizing that one person's minor kink may be another person's lifeline.”
Even in 2012, the Hollywood studio system’s refusal to produce projects dealing with controversial and “taboo” sexual subject matter remains problematic. Sure, there have been breakthroughs for the homosexual community with Ang Lee’s Oscar favorite Brokeback Mountain and the Wachowski Brothers’ overlooked Bound (still their best and most enjoyable feature to date). In terms of perverse sexual behavior, Hollywood is more inclined to suggest and subvert the topic than to deal with it overtly. In an age where the studios, more often than not, continue to play it safe, Secretary holds up surprisingly well after ten years and signifies itself as one of the defining independent statements of the 2000s. More importantly, it’s a bold statement, preferring to be honest and open about its subject matter while never forgetting to be unabashedly romantic.

Mr. Grey (James Spader) and Lee meet with a potential client in Secretary.
Secretary will be playing at Bryn Mawr Film Institute tonight at 11:30pm. Please note: the film is rated R by the MPAA for "strong sexuality, some nudity, depiction of behavioral disorders, and language".

Dan Santelli is a senior at Temple University pursuing a Bachelor's degree in Film and Media Arts. A lifelong cineaste, his favorite films (in no particular order) include Leon: the Professional, The Night of the Hunter, Touch of Evil, Blue Velvet, Brazil, Apocalypse Now, Dressed To Kill (1980), Halloween, and Les Yeux Sans Visage.

1 comment:

  1. The film also has brilliant performances by James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal. This film could have ended up easily being garbage, but their excellent performances delivered with a touch of humor, and a sure hand by director Steven Shainberg created a wonderful film.