Once upon a time, I didn’t feel like doing schoolwork, so I read Fifty Shades of Grey instead. My girlfriend’s roommate had a copy which I borrowed, and I finished the book in an evening. This was not a terribly difficult enterprise, as you can imagine: E.L. James is not going to become James Joyce any time soon and for good reason. There’s been a good deal of criticism of the book’s prose, which ranges from teasing (“inner goddess wut”) to scathing (Salman Rushdie’s characterization of the book as the worst written published novel that he’s come across). The strength of the book, other than its straightforward treatment of BDSM sex and the notoriety which the BDSM bought for the novel, is in the plot. This isn’t to say that we’re talking about a brilliant (or even a good) plot, but it’s engaging. It’s a classic page-turner. Fifty Shades of Grey is not terribly different from The Da Vinci Code in that way: the prose is drivel, the characters are flat, and the plot is titillating, but no one’s going to confuse it with Absalom, Absalom!. The book was interesting because it appeared to have been barely edited; it had the feel of a literary tour de force without having any of the brilliance which characterizes those works.
This could be a much longer and much more interesting article dealing with the public/media reaction to this level of BDSM frankness, but unfortunately, I’m not Foucault. This could also be a much more interesting article if it were a feminist critique of Fifty Shades, but unfortunately, I’m not Kate Millett either. No, I’m writing because there’s been a release date for a Fifty Shades of Grey movie (dir. Sam Taylor-Wood), which places the film to hit theaters on August 1, 2014.
Fifty Shades of Grey became the fastest-selling novel of all time, beating out franchises like Harry Potter and Twilight, because it has a plot which entrances and actions to which attention must be paid. Make no mistake, the best thing this movie has going for it is the name recognition. The second best thing is probably Sam Taylor-Wood (or Taylor-Johnson, depending on your source). Scott Mendelson at Forbes hypothesizes that hiring the largely inexperienced Taylor-Wood (whose directorial experience is Nowhere Boy) might lead to an increase in female directors being named to major fillms. Whether or not Mendelson’s prediction comes up roses remains to be seen, but I think the immediate impact will be found on the film itself. Remember when Tom Ford directed A Single Man, and Colin Firth was brilliant and Ford created one of the most beautiful-looking films in recent memory? Taylor-Wood is not known for being a director, but came to prominence as a visual artist. I don’t expect Taylor-Wood to have stylish direction as Ford did, but it seems likely that she’ll bring an interesting vision of her own which would be missing if they hired someone like, I dunno, the people who directed the Harry Potter movies. There hasn’t been anyone cast so far as I know, despite months of speculation as to just who will play Christian Grey and Ana Steele. (Please, God, let it be Fabio.) In short, despite the presence of a director and a screenplay, just what this film will be is a question which is very much up in the air. One of the questions which has already been answered, really, is that the film will be rated R. That is a massive disappointment.
It’s a cliche now to say something like this: “the MPAA reflects American Puritanism concerning sex but is curiously apathetic about violence.” Of course it’s true, insofar as a statement like that can avoid falling into the trap of Foucault’s repressive hypothesis (hey, he did make it!), but everyone already knows that and to cry about it further is dull. Here’s a list of the top-grossing NC-17 films of all time, and here are the top-grossing R-rated films. The top ten NC-17 films are a fascinating mixture. On top of them all is Showgirls, which is widely regarded as a pretty awful movie which has little to suggest it other than the sex. Most of the rest of them, though, are auteurist works with major actors. Almodovar is on that list twice, but joining him are Bertolucci, Cronenberg, Ang Lee, and Steve McQueen. Bad Education is understood to be one of Almodovar’s finest; Lust, Caution won the Golden Lion at Venice for Lee, and Shame is probably the best movie I’ve ever seen in theaters. As for the actors, that list of NC-17 films boast some major players, including Antonio Banderas (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!), Harvey Keitel (Bad Lieutenant), Gael Garcia Bernal (Bad Education), and Michael Fassbender (Shame). What ties all of those films together is sexual deviancy. Whether it’s the lush vision of Showgirls, Bohemian lust in Henry & June, or sex addiction in Shame, they’re NC-17 because of the largely unfiltered sex. On the other hand, there’s not one simple reason why the films on the other list are rated-R, though it can usually be broken up into violence (The Passion of the Christ, Saving Private Ryan, 300) or vulgarity (The Hangover, Ted, Wedding Crashers).
You’ve doubtless come to the same conclusion that I have. Fifty Shades of Grey is a bankable quantity for Focus/Universal; Fifty Shades of Grey is popularly defined not by the relationship between Steele and Grey but the sex they have, and that will influence who comes; Fifty Shades of Grey is a movie that, if it is fairly faithful to the novel, will feature gratuitous sex; works that feature gratuitous sex get NC-17 ratings; rating a film NC-17 is a death sentence for any film that actually wants to make money; many films that are rated NC-17 can be edited down to R by removing just a few minutes of running time; Fifty Shades of Grey will be an R-rated movie despite having content deemed NC-17.
The movie is scheduled for an August 1 release. In the past ten years, summer blockbuster season basically ends in mid-July; some recent notable August movies include The 40-Year Old Virgin, Talladega Nights, Snakes on a Plane (!), Superbad, Pineapple Express, District 9, Inglourious Basterds, and The Expendables, which is a pretty good characterization of the height of August films. They tend not to be the massive blockbusters (Pirates of the Caribbean ran out in July, as did the eighth Harry Potter movie, for example), but movies which, at their best, are funny rather than explosive. I think that gives us a fair hint of what’s being expected: a $75 million domestic gross is probably at the low end of expectations for a film like this, though the target is probably an even $100 million; in other words, even though I’m not adjusting for inflation, that’s five times as much as the highest-grossing NC-17 film made.
It’s too bad, because if there’s an NC-17 film that has a shot at changing the way we handle ratings in the United States, it’s an NC-17 Fifty Shades. And that’s why all of us should hope for three and a half things: first, that Fifty Shades of Grey is rated NC-17 by the MPAA; first and a half, that the NC-17 cut basically stays intact enough for it to be released at NC-17; second, that it handsomely breaks the record for highest-grossing NC-17 film; and third, that it’s good.
If we can learn something from that list of top-grossing NC-17 films, it’s that not every NC-17 film is a porno that makes it into theaters. Far from it, in fact: as I’ve beaten to death already, there are some major film figures who have done NC-17 films of some quality in the past twenty-five years. I don’t expect American culture to change so thoroughly that we start censoring sex and violence identically, but an NC-17 rating shouldn’t be a death sentence for a film. I honestly think that a successful NC-17 Fifty Shades of Grey would put us on a path to changing it. It’s baby steps, because Fifty Shades of Grey can become money in a way that Shame never could, but it’s a step in the right direction. I also don’t pretend that Fifty Shades of Grey is going to be a good movie; there’s simply not enough there, unless Taylor-Wood manages to do something special with her direction, to take something this mediocre and raise it up. But just as sports movies aren’t good because of the scenes with sports, any chance that a Fifty Shades movie can be good will come because of the focus: if this movie has quality, it’ll be because it’s about Ana’s insecurity and not about the BDSM. A good NC-17 movie with this much press might change some minds about what an NC-17 film can be. Maybe I’m being wildly optimistic, but I believe that some bravery from Focus/Universal and Taylor-Wood can yield strong cultural and economic returns.