The story: A dominant, uptight lawyer (James Spader) employs a self-harming, subservient secretary (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Unconventional true love blooms.
Does it make me wanna incorporate anything into my sex life? Lots of sexual relationships originate at work. It’s probably the number one place where people hook up. Most working days (those mundane, hateful eight hours or so that you spend in the proximity of colleagues with which you often have fuck all in common) are probably given over to a fair amount of sexual fantasizing. After all, how else are you supposed to get through such a quiet hell?
As for me, I once worked with a nonentity by the name of Lisa. She was nominally my immediate boss and I couldn’t stand anything about her, especially her lank, center-parted, straight hair; her nasal voice and predictable, work-based conversation; her lack of curves; her fondness for wearing a denim jacket in some sort of misguided attempt at a casual look; and her bovine, humorless personality. She was dull as ditchwater and the sight of her five days a week made me want to smash a fist into the wall.
And boy, did I wanna fuck her. Not in a nice way, either.
Given that scenario, there are a couple of bits in Secretary that tap into such icky frustration. Gyllenhaal has pissed off Spader again (with her sniffing, minor incompetence and all-round hair-twirling gawkiness) so he tells her to bend over with both elbows planted on his desk. He then repeatedly wallops her behind, so hard he leaves bruises. Later he tells her to pull up her skirt before dropping a load over her buttocks. “Get these forms filled out,” he breathlessly tells her afterward, “and then you can take your lunch break.” And every time I watch such fantastic scenes, among the most memorable in twenty-first century cinema, that’s me and Lisa finally getting down to business. I’m retired now but, oh boy, I’d go back to work in a flash if I could do that to her.
What did I learn about the ladies? In Nine and a Half Weeks Kim Basinger vehemently objected to being made to crawl around on her hands and knees. In Secretary it’s Gyllenhaal’s idea of heaven. No wonder I’m confused by women, and I’ve not even been sent a dead worm in the post by any of them.
Most unbelievable bit: True love’s one thing but proving it by sitting at a desk for three days straight, a fanatically committed non-move that attracts media attention, is a (wee) bit much. Then again, maybe Gyllenhaal really wants his money.
How bad is it? Actually, it’s pretty damn good. The perfunctory, Schrader-like title sure doesn’t promise a lot, but it shows how good writing can make the most mundane shit (a woman getting a typing job) interesting. I like the way it captures workplace frustrations, arousal, secret longings, mind games, pretenses, self-disgust, hesitation and uncertainties in a burgeoning sexual relationship. Both leads are tremendous. Spader, of course, has long been au fait with playing furtive oddball perverts (see below). Here he’s particularly uncomfortable in his own skin, in turns stern and pathetic. Gyllenhaal, with her weird/pretty face and expressive eyes, initially embodies a mousey dowdiness as she tries to grasp the ‘intimate tendril’ sprouting from one of Spader’s ‘darker areas’. In these dismal days of modern cinema, where women frequently slug it out toe to toe with men and win, it’s refreshing to see an actress take on such a superficially humiliating role. Indeed, Gyllenhaal’s whole-hearted portrayal of a sexual doormat (and disinterest in any sexual harassment bullshit) enables her to turn it into a Strong Female Role. That’s weirdly contradictory when you think about it. Anyhow, Gyllenhaal and Spader generate terrific chemistry as we watch two warped misfits painfully grope their way toward each other.
Secretary makes two minor mistakes, though. Firstly, it does that irritating Carlito’s Way thing by starting with how things pan out, thus taking a sledgehammer to suspense. Secondly (and I can’t believe I’m going to say this) but it’s needlessly graphic. Secretary creates a genuinely erotic mood (just listen to the rustle of a skirt being pulled up) so there’s no reason to show all of Gyllenhaal’s front bits, especially as they’re wheeled out when the flick’s almost finished. In the days of free internet porn, less is most definitely more. However, it’s still a terrific depiction of a woman embracing her sexual nature and a man doing his damndest to deny his.
The story: Car crash survivors James Spader, Holly Hunter and Rosanna Arquette regularly gather to talk sexy nonsense about dicks, sodomy, wrecked bumpers and blood-spattered speed dials. One man even lives in a huge car that’s like a ‘bed on wheels’. Shame it smells of semen. Oh, hang on, that’s a good thing. Chilly, po-faced coupling abounds.
Does it make me wanna incorporate anything into my sex life? Well, as I’ve never had a serious car crash, I don’t really know. If I do ever end up in traction or a wheelchair, I’ll report back on my level of horniness. All I can say is that I’ve fallen off my bicycle once or twice in the last five years and that hasn’t made me frisky at all. Guess some grazed knees don’t quite cut it.
What did I learn about the ladies? They don’t mind too much if you kill their husband in a head-on crash. Of course, they’ll initially be irked, but five minutes later you’ll get an enthusiastic shag.
Most unbelievable bit: Well, you can take your pick, and the final taboo-shredding scene is as eye-rollingly daft as anything in A Serbian Film. However, I was quite fond of the bunch of sad sacks that like to feebly restage famous fatalities, such as the 1955 demise of James Dean in a Porsche (which also put his passenger in hospital for a year). It’s pretty damn hard to swallow such a group exists in the first place and even dafter that something transcendental or meaningful can be generated from watching one car badly dent another. The MC promises the ‘ultimate in authenticity’ but after the underwhelming, politely applauded spectacle plays out all three participants walk away. Huh? Mind you, by this point director David Cronenberg is already up to his neck in absurdity.
Part of Secretary’s success is that it helps you understand a bit about BDSM, but I was none the wiser about what motivates Crash’s bunch of freaks. At one point a dude says he’s involved in the ‘reshaping of the human body by modern technology.’ And no, I have no idea what that means. Perhaps the movie is trying to suggest people have become so jaded that they need extreme experiences to help them connect and feel alive. I don’t think so. Now while I imagine trauma can significantly alter your perspective on life and how you engage with people, I doubt it bends your head to this perverted degree. It’s simply not plausible that a distorted body and debilitating pain (not to mention the mental anguish) are capable of reinvigorating your sex life. Everything is far too outlandish to allow you to walk in the characters’ shoes. For fuck’s sake the acquisition of leg braces does not turn you into a bisexual shag monster.
How bad is it? Crash, er, crashes from its opening scene during which a frisky woman in a hangar rubs a naked tit against a plane in apparent ecstasy. The dialogue is hilarious (“Can you imagine what his anus looks like? Would you like to thrust your penis right up his anus?”) Worse, it’s all delivered in a breathy or half-whispered voice, as if the speaker is trying to convey profundity. I mean, listen to Spader’s wife: “They bury the dead so quickly. They should leave them lying around for months.” No, they shouldn’t, you daft cow.
Crash is a mountain of plotless, pretentious horseshit, desperately reaching for a truth that isn’t there. Some idiots tried to ban it on the basis it might inspire copycat crimes, but somehow we didn’t end up with a slew of people having sex along the freeway in the smoldering wreckage of their cars. I think Crash is supposed to be some sort of commentary on an upside-down form of beauty. Scars and mangled limbs are sexy while metal, glass and plastic are as sensual as flesh. Don’t think so. I mean, I once had the chance to shag a post-car crash one-legged woman and I passed, timidly sleeping on her couch instead. Plus, I never once thought about rubbing my cock against her car. Every character in this clumsy, contrived flick deserves a punch in the face from Graham Chapman. It might fit squarely into Cronenberg’s acclaimed body-horror work, but John Carpenter’s Christine is ten times more believable.
Indecent Proposal (1993)
The story: Demi Moore succumbs to prostitution in the nicest way possible.
Does it make me wanna incorporate anything into my sex life? Yes, I wish I had a missus that I could sell for a million bucks. I’d even cheer her on while she was being banged. Back in the day Proposal’s central idea was a real water cooler question: If someone offered a fabulous sum of cash for one night with your wife, would you accept? Moore and Woody Harrelson get to grapple with this dilemma when billionaire Robert Redford enters the fray. Frankly, for that kind of payout, I’d thrust my tongue up the Pope’s warty arse until the old boy had to be peeled off the ceiling (although I’d draw the line at doing something as undignified as going to Mass or taking Communion).
What did I learn about the ladies? Talk is cheap. Or as a pre-fuck Moore states: “Some things aren’t for sale.” Yes, sweetie, integrity is a lovely concept, but eminently flimsy in the real world, especially when you’re on the bare bones of your arse.
Most unbelievable bit: A fed-up, guilt-ridden Moore saying she doesn’t want the money. Yeah, right. Worse is to come, though, when the quietly arrogant corruptor Redford gets cunt-struck. His initially intriguing character disintegrates into head-shaking soppiness.
How bad is it? Like all of Lyne’s films it’s put together with loving professionalism, but despite a watchable first hour, it becomes dreary and drawn-out. Once the off-screen deed is done, there’s little place to go. The unnecessary voiceovers, grainy flashbacks and anguish-filled aftermath balloon the runtime while I could’ve done without the facile insights (e.g. ‘A life without risk is like no life at all’ and ‘You make a deal with the devil, eventually you pay the price.’) I would have also appreciated a few more surprises, like Redford (Key line: “I bought you because you said you couldn’t be bought”) being a ferocious chutney ferret or a tiny-dicked, ninety-second sexual failure. Ultimately, given how favorably Proposal positions Moore (just count the number of compliments she receives), it feels like another vanity project, except this time round she’s announcing to the world that having a brief vacation in her pussy is worth a million smackeroos.
Dave Franklin’s movie book Go Fuck an Iceberg! is available from Amazon and other outlets.