Steven Shainberg (USA, 2002)

For some reason I decided a few weeks back to create a ‘Gyllenhaal’ tag, to which films of both Gyllenhaal siblings would refer. I decided that having never seen a film starring either Gyllenhaal sibling, but thought it might be nice to click on a tag and see references to both Jake and Maggie, pending mentions of them actually becoming extant. That’s right: in case anybody was unaware, there are a brother and sister knocking about Hollywood going by the name Gyllenhaal. They are in films. That’s about all I know at this stage, but I will keep you apprised as and when.

(I would say they are the modern equivalent of John and Joan Cusack, but I spent a good few years thinking Joan was a practical joke, being John in disguise. That is not, by the way, a slight on Joan, to whom I was slightly (weirdly) attracted while watching School of Rock; it’s just the way my mind works.)

So this, then, is the first step on my journey to full Gyllenhaal tag satisfaction and, if I may be so bold, is a positive start indeed. Not sure where I am going from here, but elements of the Gyllenhaal family tend to feature in films I want to see, like Jarhead, Darko and that Zodiac thing. Not so much the Maggie, then, though I might find myself watching something like Riding in Cars with Boys in the interest of fairness. I am nothing if not fair. Gyllenhaal!

Secretary, then. People see this as some kind of ‘quirky, sexy comedy’, but in reality it is a rather serious portrait of a modern (working) relationship. It is definitely amusing in places, but I found it more touching than anything else. I’ll get the big convenience (or, as an old tutor called it, the juggernaut) out of the way first, which is the coincidence that such a potential submissive (sub) as Gyllenhaal’s Lee Holloway just happened to apply for a job with a tender dominant (dom). However, seeing as we have no film without this coincidence, I am more than willing to let it go.

I haven’t really thought about a framework for this post, so I hope to just write things about the film as I think of them and then try to edit it into something that makes sense. Consider me the Holger Czukay of bloggery.

Maggie’s performance was excellent. I find her quite attractive, but I have a feeling I am supposed to find her attractive: Maggie is a good looking woman, but not too good looking; she is pretty, but not too pretty. She is the kind of woman that cinemagoers and blogsters can find somewhat attainable, even though she is rich, famous and surrounded by rich, famous men, ergo we like her. She played the shy sub well, though. I especially liked, at the point when she was comfortable with her boss spanking her bottom, her intentional – desperate – little transgressions.

Placing a worm in a letter, when even a typo would result in corporal punishment, was a thing of brilliance; that desire to transgress in order to be punished was perfectly pitched, just the right combination of mischief and desperation. Equally brilliant was, when boss E. Edward Grey (wonderfully played by James Spader, who I only knew from a cameo on Seinfeld) would circle the aforementioned typographical errors with red pen; upon seeing the returned, dried worm, he furiously and constantly outlined it in red in a great comic moment.

I loved their relationship as a whole, as contrived as it was. From the start we see their mutual attraction, too shy to be obvious, but too engulfing to keep totally secret. Grey obviously sees it at the job interview – delivered in a soft-Lynch kinda way, itself helped by the fact that the film was scored by the ever-excellent Angelo Badalamenti – and has no issue with bringing out the sub that’s dying to get out of Lee (who I should probably add had just been released from a psychological institution). Yeah, it’s a tad messed up, but in a brilliantly life-affirming way.

From what I can tell, many people might view this film as a bit of a sicko flick, but I find it incredibly touching. Lee is a fragile, bruised soul who has pretty much nothing in the way of a social skill-set; by bringing the repressed real Lee out of her, Grey is doing her a pretty massive favour. She is a woman who has to rehearse social interactions in the mirror before playing them out, and who seems to view even the most menial task as something to get excited about. She ends up wearing, as the pre-flashback intro informs us, a light stocks, and goes about her workaday (I love that word) business wearing it.

Much like Ugly Betty, which I also plan on blithering on about, there is an existing/past boyfriend, the generally unexciting, mediocre, comforting prospect of whom provides a threat to our protagonista from hooking up with the dude with which she should hook. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately for the purposes of actual narrative peril, he isn’t much of a rival and is just there as a symbol of Lee’s growth, I suppose. Pretty much the same as Ugly Betty then.

Speaking of ‘peril’, I have noticed the recent trend in film adverts for the written description of every detail of whichever ‘movie’ it is it is advertising. I don’t like it one bit, being firmly of the opinion that an age rating should suffice in terms of films content. For example, The Wild Thornberries contained ‘scenes of mild peril’ in its cartoon pores. There are also films that contain ‘scenes of animated fantasy violence’, which sounds a bit oo-er if you ask me, and probably more so than the film actually contains. I don’t need to be told if a film contains ‘language that might be considered objectionable by some’: if I go to see an 18-rated film, I expect nothing less. And I don’t care what the rating is; if a film does not contain ‘mild peril’ – at the very least – it’s not worth bothering with.

It’s a stupid, sorry state of affairs, and if a prospective cinema attendee cannot infer from an age rating that a 15 might contain scenes of a slightly sexual and/or violent nature, their troubles extend way beyond the confines of the cinema and they might want to consider seeking greater help than text on a telly advert can provide.

Anyway, marrying that rant to the review: I would love to see Secretary advertised in such a manner, if only to see the phrase ‘contains scenes of male and female masturbation’ on my telly; I’m sometimes juvenile like that. And I love the fact that the film contains scenes of male and female masturbation: almost every film containing adults has sex, but the act of self love is woefully underrepresented in films; certainly the films I watch. Maybe I’m too highbrow and need to watch American Pie or some shit.

Rather than merely being some jaded bit of sleaze, as one might well fear, one of the masturbation scenes provides the most poignant part of the film (of course, the other two such scenes provide the funniest and grossest moments). Lee is too introvert to express her feelings and desires externally, so she deals with her feelings for her boss in the most private of arenas. And it’s beautiful. Things get a tad more ‘niche’ when Grey bends Lee over, tells her to strip and then jerks off, but horses for courses and all that.

This leads to the deeper issues dealt with by the film: that Secretary is blatant in its displays of fetish – leading to a presumed level of shock from the general audience – is intentional, as it examines the fetish culture at work in the film through the private travails of the characters. I might add that this is fittingly no dungeon romp, as I imagine the majority of fetish enacting takes place in the kind of suburban mores represented by this film. So the discovery of sadomasochism is at once an awakening and moment of personal definition for the somewhat arrested Lee, while it provides both a thrill and an albatross for Grey, who hates himself for that very excitement he feels through his unconventional love practices.

The last act is a tad odd as far as I’m concerned, as Lee rushes out of her wedding to Other Bloke to declare her love for Grey, whose total immersion in lustful acts has rendered the currency of love somewhat moot, if indeed it was ever anything other than moot to him. This being Hollywood, albeit Weird Hollywood (you know: Lynch, Waters, The Ice Storm, American Beauty etc), his glacial resistance to normality – ergo happiness, according to the movie industry one might argue – eventually melts (after she stages a sit-in hunger strike, complete with wetting her wedding dress) and they find a perfect balance between freaky-deakiness and actually living lives that are not governed by lustful urges.

Overall, then, I’d consider this film quite the success; less a weirdo spectacle at which reasonable observers gawk and laugh than a genuinely moving, actually romantic, comedy in which two otherwise lost souls manage to find happiness with each other. I had originally decided to watch this one as something of a night off from my usual diet of far-eastern Shakespearean tragedy and monster movie satire, but Secretary proved surprisingly compelling and moving in a world full of contrived tearjerkers that do nothing of the sort. A very edifying start to my slow burning Gyllenhaal project.

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