Found Footage: “Fifty Shades of Grey”

fifty shades of grey

You have already looked at the subject of this piece, and I assume that you are scratching your head. This is not a film, you remind me, and I reply: I run this column, I DO WHAT I WANT. However, I do think that the cultural-lightning-rod status of Fifty Shades of Grey lends itself to a film discussion, because this has done what so many books and movies are failing to do these days: catch the public’s attention while also turning a profit. The interesting thing about most things that the internet talks about is that the public at large doesn’t share the same fascination with them. Take Community, for example. The show handily won Hulu’s Favorite TV Show contest, and comments on Community message boards regularly threaten to break the website. The internet was built for this sort of obsessive fandom, and that kind of devotion rarely translates into the real world.

However, with the profitability of Twilight and The Hunger Games, with their fanbases centered on obsessive, female-driven cults, we are starting to see the proliferation of this sort of cultural consumption, even if the ascension to lightning-rod status is increasingly rare. On top of those titles, Juno, The Da Vinci Code, Avatar, The Avengers and The Dark Knight stand as some of the few examples where the internet and the public aligned to create a media perfect storm. Some discourses, like Juno, were dominated by the backlash against the film, something we are seeing now with Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom. Almost every story about these cultural artifacts is negative, and the only reason you watch it is to say how much you hated it—similar to hordes of folks flocking to the disaster that was this year’s John Carter.

In the same way, Fifty Shades of Grey represents an interesting case study in the backlash discourse. Although some backlashes destroy the work at hand, making it almost impossible to view without seeing the controversy surrounding it (Crash, anyone?) sometimes negative press actually helps. Fifty Shades is a prime example of that; it’s a book you don’t have to read because it’s good or worth your time, because in technical terms, it isn’t. You have to read it to have read it, as if America were passing around a book in a giant book club, and the same thing happened with the aforementioned Hunger Games and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Possibly the most infamous cases of the “Book of the Moment” were Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (which got an even more virulent public bashing than Fifty Shades) and Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem, Howl—a poem whose obscenity trials largely prefaced the cultural outrage we’ve had over seeing BDSM porn in our mothers’ bedrooms.

The difference between Howl and 50 Shades, though, is that one is a classic piece of literature, a poem that changed the way we talk about sex in America, a brilliant, sprawling piece of art that helped define a generation and a work so personally meaningful to me that I had part of it tattooed on my body. The other is the worst book I have ever read.  The interesting thing here, though, is that while Fifty Shades of Grey may fail in almost every possible way a book can fail—the writing is sloppy and repetitive, the book has no plot and the characters are unbelievable—it offers a unique car crash fixation. Like the character of Christian Grey himself, there’s something both repulsive and magnetic about the book; you are horrified by E.L. James’ writing, her bludgeoning of even the most simple sentences and the fact that she “sexes” most of the basics of good storytelling with a chainsaw, but you can’t stop reading the thing while laughing inappropriately. It’s like crack made out of pure romance cheese.

What makes Fifty Shades unique is that it’s not just terrible writing: it’s once-in-a-lifetime God-awful, the sort of so-bad-it’s-delicious entertainment that devotees of films like The Room and Troll 2 pray for. As a fan of the good/bad subset of films, I think works of the category often tell us more about filmmaking than movies that are traditionally good and are sometimes more enjoyable. Although there’s a wide cult following for many movies of this type (see: Showgirls), it’s truly rare for a book to become popular only because it features awful writing. Writers like Amanda McKittrick Ros (C.S. Lewis’ favorite bad writer) and Edward Bulwer-Lytton have strong cult followings due to their unique ineptitude, and the latter’s famous phrase (“it was a dark and stormy night”) has become a common cliché of bad English writing, but neither has the wide mainstream recognition that E.L. James is getting.  We largely just don’t consume books like that, because they take more of a time investment than watching Glitter while drunk with your friends. Why read something terrible when you can read something you don’t have to hide on the train? (Note: This doesn’t count for Nicholas Sparks, as old women on my morning route are under the mistaken impression that he is good.)

And that’s where Fifty Shades of Grey is something of a game changer in bringing the good/bad experience to literature. The E-Reader has given us something of an experience of anonymity in our public consumption of literature, so old women who want to delight in the atrocities of BDSM romance can do so on the bus without scorn. In a way, making books faceless and ourselves less accountable to our guilty pleasures has somewhat liberated us from the easy classifications of taste; we won’t have to hide our copies of Fifty Shades in something self-consciously important, like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, the last Serious Book of the Moment. In addition, the constant access to the internet has altered the way we discourse about our mommy porn, and we can instantly converse with a message board full of strangers about what we are reading—ones who can’t judge us in the same ways that our book clubs can. In the same way that the main character of the series, Anastasia Steele, is liberated from her own sexual prudishness, so are we.

Although I have a lot of problems with the gendered representations of the novel—specifically depicting those engaging in BDSM as psychologically damaged—I look forward to E.L. James bringing great trash into the mainstream and can only hope that the movie version doesn’t take the same route that the Twilight films have, bludgeoning the campiness into faux-arty self-seriousness. The producers of the last Twilight film, Breaking Dawn, desperately sought out an “Oscar-winning” filmmaker at the helm, and then delivered the worst film in the series by far. It sucked all the life out of a series that was already bloodless to begin with, and the film missed the tongue-in-cheek flavor that previous director David Slade brought to the mix. Slade understood what the films were and didn’t try to turn trash into art. Bret Easton Ellis, who brought us the thinking man’s camp of American Psycho and Glamorama, has expressed his interest in writing the screenplays for the Fifty Shades films, and I have a hunch he’ll be perfect at adapting the book’s mixture of icy banality and corniness. Let’s just hope that he doesn’t try to make BDSM mommy porn into Jonathan Franzen. Let it stay trash.