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the girlfriend experience: “this number is the nadir of passion”

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tgeconvo

I really liked The Girlfriend Experience, but this is perhaps attributable to the fact that I am ultra-invested in something that I am from now on going to call the infra-interesting. The infra-interesting, on the surface, looks a hell of a lot like the boring – and it can be very tricky indeed to make a distinction between the two or to develop an argument that relies on anything more than inference and intuition about why something is the former and not the latter.

I learned about the infra-interesting by reading novels. Flaubert is the once and ever champion of the form, spreading the banalities of an upside-down world so thick that the world itself turns right-side up, as if automagically…. or maybe it’s the other way around. But this particular quality has a long literary history. Some, like Lukacs at certain moments, seem to argue that the novel is nothing but a materialization of the infra-int… Or at least that’s what great novels do. And it’s a continuing story. Apparently, according to Claire Messud’s recent review in the NYRB (mostly behind paywall, sorry) suggests that Colm Toibin’s new Brooklyn belongs under this rubric too… I’ll let you know when my wife’s done with our copy and I can have a looksee.

The difference between infra-interesting and just plain boring pivots on an often-very-complex deployment of irony, which can turn a dessicated film, for instance, that deploys lots and lots of cliched speech, whose characters never quite achieve the exit-velocity of intriguing interiority, whose dramatic events aren’t quite dramatic enough and whose scenarios are rote, and whose settings are unostentatious, banal, and so on, from a boring one to a sublimely infra-interesting production. The problem, of course, is to describe the lever, the hitch, the catch that makes the boring into something else. How can we be sure, except inferentially, that Eyes Wide Shut isn’t simply an incredibly stupid film rather than a meta-reflexive work of perfectly adulterated satiric genius? And how can we be sure, when we listen to the delirious banalities spoken by the characters in Soderbergh’s new film, whether we’re listening to something conceived in the spirt of the pseudo-realist pander or the hardcore-realist bonfire of the vanities?

Meta-ness, of course, is one way to frame a film preemptively as infra- rather than uninteresting. And TGE is stocked to the ceiling with meta-ness. The frame gets broken several times, you know the story about the leading lady, and there’s lots of winking discourse all the way through to clue the audience in to what’s going on. Of course, this is the sort of thing that Flaubert did (along with lots of other cutting edge stylistic technology, to be sure). One of the better moments in this line, perhaps, comes when Chelsea is “reviewed” (that is to say fucked and then written about) by someone called “the Erotic Connoisseur,” the proprietor of a site that reviews escorts. We get the review itself in voiceover, just after the ostensible dramatic climax of the film:

With her smoky-eyes, dark straight hair, and perky little body, Chelsea would appear to have the potential to satisfy in the goth or girl-next-door modes. Alas, Chelsea seems intent on marketing herself as a “sophisticated escort.” With her flat affect, lack of culture, and her utter refusal to engage, Chelsea couldn’t even dazzle the likes of Forrest-Fucking-Gump. And that’s just where the problems begin. Just as her perky little tits seemed to literally shrink at my touch, so too did the connoisseur’s cock fail to launch at the clammy touch of her hand and the lukewarm and loose embrace of her mouth. To quote the great sage Jamie Gillis in Misty Beethoven, “this number is the nadir of passion.” A splendid time is absolutely not guaranteed for all.

The fact that the Connoisseur refers to his freebee sex with Chelsea as “review copy, as it were,” puts us on the right track. And further, of course, the fact that the review could hold valid not only for the character Chelsea, but probably for Sasha Gray herself (as IT puts it, she is known for “unnerving ability to look absent even (or especially) in the midst of some convoluted group penetration”) as well as for Soderbergh’s film, brings the meta in a thunderous way, is almost enough for the movie to achieve escape velocity into the Infra in a single talky bit.

But then again, meta-action is rarely enough anymore. Meta is all over the place – the shittiest film for the bored teenager market has that sort of thing in spades nowadays. Boring meta is still, or now, only just boring. It’s a base to touch, but it can’t make pseudo into hardcore all by itself nowadays, not without help.

So what is it then? Is it the fact that the film felt to me, as I watched it, like not only an illustration but even an expansion of Nina Power’s recent piece on  Nu-language (and Orwell), that does it? In the piece, she describes a recent “astonishing proliferation of coinages, buzzwords and neologisms. Rather than seeing a carefully controlled reduction in the number of officially sanctioned words, we are instead overwhelmed by wave upon wave of faddish expressions and tautologies – a kind of junk syntax in which there is no more reason for a word to be in one part of a phrase than another.” This language and its proliferation, according to Power, arrives via bureaucratic mandate – a mandate that is ultimately responsive only to the deeper mandate to seem productive despite the fact that no real production is taking place.

Sit in any meeting, whether at a company HQ or at a university, or be a participant in a focus group, and the discussion will invariably turn to questions of “benchmarking”, “quality assessment” and “blue-sky thinking” – as if one were sitting in sunny California rather than provincial England. People will “speak to” documents, forgetting that we generally speak to other human beings rather than to pieces of paper. “Clients”, whether they be students, consumers or voters, will be “consulted” as part of some “new initiative” or other. There will be “collaborations” and “partnerships” involving “stakeholders”. Participants will talk for hours and hours in an upbeat, aspirational way. And there will be coffee and biscuits, and people will congratulate one another at the end for such a “wonderfully productive session”. And yet nothing will really have been said. And certainly nothing will have been done – nothing good, at least. It’s not that we have to lie about production figures, as the Stalinist broadcasts by Orwell’s Big Brother did; rather that we have to compensate for the way we barely produce anything at all by becoming obsessed with “innovation”.

Nu-Language is, as she says, “an ominous word-cloud that drifts from one department to another, providing each of them with the illusion of activity and the false comforts of a discourse of dynamism that is incapable of recognising its own sterility.” But what’s really good about TGE, and why it both echoes Nina’s piece and provocatively focalises it into in a new and fruitful direction, is the fact that it demonstrates the spread of the “omninous world-cloud” beyond the meeting room, out into the realm of the officeless new economy of freelance worker. Becoming a yoga teacher, a magazine hack, or a high-end prostitute, it seems, doesn’t get you out of the mandate to repeat these sterilities – in fact, as we see again and again in the film, freelancing results in a deeper internalization of the same. No boss is looking because you are your own boss, but still your mouth moves and the same stuff trickled way, way down from CNBC and human resources consultants, Suze Ormand and the latest long-tailing, black-swanning pop business book.

Picture 6

But of course, this world of self-employment is in crisis – both in the film and the real world. (Serendipitously, the business section of the IHT on Saturday features a long piece about “The Self Employed Depression” – all those yoga teachers in Brooklyn faced with empty dojos and emptier wallets…) But on the other hand, the current economic downturn has only accentuated was was always already the case in the new economy of unteathered (that is, precarious, unbenefited, undercompensated) work. While the freelance prostitute has liberated herself from the protective tyranny of the pimp, freedom comes at the cost of the services of a reserve army of consultants and agents, web designers and moneyhandlers – who collectively take a piece of her or her earnings (in hourly fees and commissions) in order to hold off for as long as possible the inevitable loss of market share that she faces as she ages. Chelsea talks to her accountant about setting up her own retirement account, talks to consultants about diversifying her work into boutiquery as the clock is very much ticking down on her productive viability, and it’s hard to imagine that she has health insurance – though hers is a line of work where one would be well served to have a decent policy.

The precarity of work – especially when mixed with the tendency of that sort of work to fall under the rubrics of affective and/or communicative labor – is a particularly soil for the infra-interesting to grow. Stuck – as we all are in immaterial reaches of the economy, whether we have steady jobs or not – between the dual mandate to play things very safe and steady and constantly, incessant to rebrand and recast ourselves, to diversify our employable assets, and to handle rapid oscillations in market conditions and the tastes of the clients. And worst of all, because of the specific nature of this work, which depends upon in Chelsea’s case selling a fuck as desired, or engagement in yet another conversation about the market or the frigid wife at home as true – just as, for instance, the selling side of what I give my students is in the end based on the feeling of authentic engagement with which I endow my lectures or our conversations in my office – Chelsea, like all of us, ends up by market mandate going to work on herself, tweaking and retooling in order to summon up just one more drop of eau de presence for her customers to smell on her neck. If I were a prostitute (and I’m not sure, given what I’m saying, that I’m entirely not), I might have recourse to “personology” books as well… I too might consult a dice rolling system to trick myself into feeling just real enough about what has long since gone permanently flatline for the sake of keeping alive in my line of work.

But of course the problem is that the very strategies and discourse that we use to attempt to trick ourselves into creative / affectual productivity renders us incapable of the very productivity we seek to provoke. What comes of this, of course, is just the sort of tepid appeal, the enthusiastic benumbment, and mediocritized specialness that characterizes not only the film and the star of the film and the character that she plays, but further the culture at large from which it is drawn. The situation takes the shape of a vicious circle, a tragic trajectory. The infra-interesting, then, might best be characterized by the dramatic emplotment – almost always in tragic form – of the quest to render things interesting under conditions that would seem to prohibit such a development. Rather than simply watching a pornographic video and, you know, getting aroused, it is more like watching a video of someone watching a pornographic video and struggling, against all their boredom and jadedness and who knows, guilt, bad faith, psychophysical dysfuction, to get themselves aroused, to arouse themselves to the point of sexual functionality. It is perhaps a mark of our time that most of us know immediately, if darkly, which of the two options would be more, well, interesting to a contemporary audience of a certain demographic. Soderburgh himself certainly did way back in 1989 when he made his name on the back of another film preoccupied with vicious circles of impotence, desirelessness, frigidity, and talk.

eu

Finally, the presentation of New York in the film underscores and echoes much of what I’ve said above. The film refuses to indulge in a single “landmark” centered shot from what I can remember, instead presenting a cascade of generic looking street scenes from what could be any of the various dining and drinking districts of the city. In particular, Soderburgh sets many of the sequences that take place in restaurants and bars – and there are a ton of these, flipping through the film quickly suggests that it’s made of almost nothing but sequences like these – with opening shots of the front of the restaurants in question like the one above or this one below.

burger

I’ve been out of New York for almost four years now. I didn’t recognize any of these places in the film, and I wasn’t sure until I checked whether they were real places or fictional lookalikes. They are in fact real – or at least were, as one of the two pictured above is already out of business according to New York Magazine. But my non-recognition is probably in fact the point. A great deal of The Girlfriend Experience takes place in upper-middlebrow (upper middle-palate?) gastropubs and bistros – the film starts in one, and proceeds to fill itself with Chelsea’s appointments with clients, consultants, and friends that take place in a seemingly endless sequence of places just like these.

I’ve spent an enormous amount of time – even in London, even despite the fact that I barely get out anymore – in places just like these. In fact, there’s one that I think of as something like the platonic ideal of the form. The first time I walked into Canteen, the place tucked into the netherparts of the Royal Festival Hall facing Waterloo Station, I thought to myself that I should take a picture of the place, as this is what the world looked like for much of my adult life, but soon, perhaps, would look no more.

I am not sure I have the interior design knowledge to do the place justice, but this snippet from a review online might do the trick, and in more than one way:

In keeping with a traditional canteen, the tables and seating are low and simply styled. The seats covered in olive leather are punched Aertex style, menus and cutlery are stored in shelves edging the seating sections, a long bar lines one wall and the open plan kitchen complete with school canteen shelves for trays, the other. This is how you’d expect the executive dining room at IKEA HQ to be styled.

Anyway, why am I so fixated on these places, both in real life and in The Girlfriend Experience? They are collectively, I believe, not only one of the most characteristic spaces of the period we have just lived through, they are further (it follows) perfect spatial correlatives of the infra-interesting itself. The highend and dinnertime version of the would-be-freelancer’s seat at Starbucks, these thirdspaces fall ever deeper into derivativeness and genericness the harder they try to assert, ever so subtlely, their greyscale idiosyncrasy. Whereas the mid-to-highend world once only had low and high restaurants (the pizzeria and the french bisto) to choose from, now we can stumble along the long-since gentrified streets of our capital cities or even our suburban enclaves and find all manner of teak trimmed imitations of the “executive dining room at IKEA HQ” in which to exchange bureaubanalities with our coworkers, to overshare with our lovers and acquaintances, or to contemplate – though not all that long or hard – another bottle of Shiraz with which to drown out the idle Nu-talk that we can’t help but produce when cornered in a “seating section.” They are the scenes of our infra-interesting evenings, after a long days of typing or encouraging or fucking, where we break it all down into words that will leave no mark by the time we leave.

Try to think. What else is there to do but eat and drink at this late stage of the game? What was there to do at night, back as far as you can remember?

The Decline of New York is a popular meme at the moment, but Soderburgh was cannier than most when we painted this decline in the earth-and-Thai tones of the rise of gastropub. We order our groceries and books on-line, we steal our music and our movies. Sex we have wherever we can, but always in places appropriate to the task. But there is nothing left to buy on our better streets than brunch mimosas and glasses of overpriced (and probably supermarket bought) Rioja. But the restaurants are steadily closing. Even in the film, set before the election, they are emptier than they are full.

Written by adswithoutproducts

June 7, 2009 at 10:34 pm

5 Responses

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  1. I’m disturbed by how much fun everyone’s having cutting down Grey’s pretentiousness, both as a literati — like *anyone* of these assholes did so much better than Minimalism, Situationism, Brecht and Yeats at 20 — and as a pornographer with what seems to be pretty painstakingly thought-out ideas for porn. I don’t know if what’s at play is anti-pornography or anti-precociousness, it’s pretty damn ugly. Reminds me of how Robert Christgau used to get a huge kick from belittling the culture-class of art-rockers.

    peli grietzer

    June 8, 2009 at 12:19 pm

  2. Been reading Duchamp lately, eh?

    This sounds interesting — and yes to the whole “self-employed instability” bit; it seems like the doctrine of externalities has been applied to absolutely everything these days.

    Did you see the film _The Wrestler_? I found it similar — I was going to say I was interested in the same thing as you are here, but you’re going off in the direction of spaces and food, whereas I’m obsessing with the need to self-promote and manage one’s aging as part of dealing with being one’s own boss for a company of one.

    Sisyphus

    June 9, 2009 at 2:49 am

  3. PS re my other comment — look at her mass-produced eyebrows in the second pic and how they don’t really fit the shape and size of her face.

    Sisyphus

    June 9, 2009 at 2:50 am

  4. I’ll admit to liking my infra-interesting better when it’s taken to extremes, which might gel with your idea of the meta-ness. My favourite practitioners are Michelangelo Antonioni and especially Georges Perec – both made works that challenged primarily one’s ability to remain attentive, find interest.

    Giovanni

    June 9, 2009 at 9:44 am

  5. Gaddis.

    Andy

    June 11, 2009 at 1:48 pm


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