'The Girlfriend Experience': Is Steven Soderbergh taking a swipe at critics?
In The Girlfriend Experience, Steven Soderbergh’s fascinating shot-on-the-fly snapshot of a high-end New York escort, the money culture that may now be vanishing, and (most resonantly) the interaction between the two, there’s one character that just about every critic who has written about the film has made a special point of mentioning. He’s a hulking, creepy-sinister, ironically over-literate sleazebucket named Glenn, who operates a Website called the Erotic Connoisseur, on which he rates and reviews the hookers who pay to advertise there. The character is a highly entertaining drooler parasite, but apart from that, the reason that such pointed attention has been paid to him is that he’s played by Glenn Kenny, a lively and erudite New York-based film blogger who just about every one of those critics (including me) happens to be friendly with.
Most of the actors in The Girlfriend Experience are non-professional, but Soderbergh showed a special shrewdness in casting Kenny; he bounces off the blogger’s real-life persona in subtly crafty ways. If you spend any time on Kenny’s website, Some Came Running, you’ll see that he’s an addictively insightful and — yes — obsessive movie buff, and The Girlfriend Experience makes an inside joke of transferring his consuming level of cinema fixation to the sex industry. The Glenn we see in the movie is a kind of oily, neurotic highbrow of sleaze — not just an Internet opportunist in the business of flesh-peddling but a self-knowing, self-mocking, self-cultivated “connoisseur.” He operates his website out of the back of his daddy’s furniture store, and when Chelsea, the escort heroine played with ambiguous teasing blankness by adult-video star Sasha Grey, shows up to have a meeting with him, the “interview” consists of Glenn delivering a monologue that is basically a casting-couch offer from hell.
At which point things get really twisted. Chelsea refuses tosleep with him, and later on, she receives her payback: We hear Glenn,in voice-over, reading his posted “review” of her services, and it isnot kind. It is outrageously ugly, vengeful, scalding, and — worsethan that — a lie. But then comes the sole moment in the movie thatstrikes me as Soderbergh taking his own form of vengeance. For a minuteor two, we see and hear a pair of boho-ragamuffin sidewalk folk singersperforming a litte ditty, the taunting refrain of which goes,“Everyone’s a critic!” It’s an oddly gratuitous moment — and not justbecause it may remind you of how much you dislike boho-ragamuffinsidewalk folk singers. I can’t help but ask if Soderbergh is using theGlenn character’s nasty smear of Chelsea as a kind of drive-by metaphorfor what he really thinks of…well, movie critics. Who are now, afterall, fighting for their relevance in an age when, thanks to theInternet, everyone really is a critic.
Okay, okay, I know: I’m hardly an unbiased messenger for thisparticular interpretation. And Soderbergh, already queried on thepoint, has denied that he’s taking any kind of slap at critics. ButI’ve seen The Girlfriend Experience twice (and loved it bothtimes), and I have to say: I can’t agree. Whatever the director’sdenials, the critic-bashing potshot is right up there on screen.
It’s reasonable to ask why. In the 20 years since he broke through with sex, lies, and videotape,Steven Soderbergh has had movie critics in his corner a lot more thanhe hasn’t. We’ve been there, collectively, for the revolution of sex, lies and for the comeback of Out of Sight, for Traffic and Erin Brockovich. A segment of us have been there for the Ocean’sfilms — or, at least, for the first one (to me, a riff on thetrickiness of male camaraderie worthy of Howard Hawks) and the third.But I’ve met enough filmmakers in my time to know that they guard theirunsuccessful cinematic “children” as zealously as they do theirhigh-profile overachievers. More to the point, they don’t distinguishbetween the two — and they shouldn’t. That’s the way artists think.
The trouble is, they naturally end up expecting, or at leastwanting, critics to think in the same way. I imagine that when adirector as acclaimed as Steven Soderbergh invests his blood, sweat,and tears in a project like last year’s heady, provocative, ambitious,and ultimately opaque two-part biopic Che, he must find itbaffling, if not perverse, when critics turn on him. He may think thatit’s arbitrary, and even a bit of a caprice, on our part — that we’vebuilt him up just enough so that it’s now time to knock him down. Hemay think that it’s a show of power, a choice.
But really, it’s not that at all. It really isn’t. Sometimes, dude, a movie just isn’t very good.But I swear to Soderbergh that I will always watch his films with openeyes, even if he persists in thinking of critics as petty hustlersthreatening to slime him from the back of the store.