Sex, Love and Videotape

On movie sex and movie love...

Tag: James Spader

Secretary

YEAR: 2002
DIRECTOR: Steven Shainberg
KEY ACTORS: Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Spader
CERTIFICATE: 18
IMDB SCORE: 7.0
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 76%

SEX SCORE: 4.5/5
✔️ Rewatchable – it just makes me so happy!
✔️ Definitely want to fuck the cast – it’s James Spader after all!!
✔️ It did inspire fantasies – not so much of BDSM, but of finding love like that…
✔️ And it does pass the Bechdel test. Lee and her mother talk a lot and very little of it is about a man.
❓ But, oh the sex positive question is a difficult one! (Could James Spader be in both 5/5 movies so far?! Is this possibility affecting my decision??) The positive representation of masturbation is so important and, while the messages within the film aren’t without flaws, I really like the main theme that you can be who you want sexually (with consent, obviously) and that’s OK. But does she really consent…? This has to be a half mark (and I don’t care if that’s cheating – my blog, my rules!!)

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Devastatingly, this doesn’t appear to be available for streaming right now (except for a German dubbed version on YouTube) so just buy the DVD already!

[Content warning: discussions of poor consent, mental health and self-harm]

Secretary poster showing a drawing of a woman bending over, wearing tights with a seam up the backI’ve realised that the last few posts here have been more technical than emotional – Eyes Wide Shut examined Kubrick’s possible true purpose; Basic Instinct discussed the Hitchcockian overtones etc – so I wanted to go back to a movie that made me feel, not think. And so it had to be Secretary!

In reverse of When Harry Met Sally, this is a film that initially appears to be all about sex but I would argue that instead, it is one of the greatest love stories ever told. I love this film. I love this film!

Secretary is about Lee, a young woman who has recently been discharged from an inpatient mental health facility. Her exact diagnosis is never discussed but her admission was prompted by a self-harm incident when she cut deeper than was usual for her and couldn’t hide what she’d done. On discharge, she wants to get a job and finds a role as a secretary for a lawyer, Mr E. Edward Grey. As they spend more time together, they develop a D/s (Dominant/submissive) relationship, centred around him disciplining and spanking her for errors at work – errors that are eventually made on purpose – and taking a controlling interest in her life, choosing her meals and encouraging her to dress better. After much soul searching, they realise that this is a lifestyle that makes them both happy and they marry, presumably to live happily ever after!

Lee crawling across the floor with a letter between her teeth

Now before I gush about my love for this film, I need to acknowledge straight away that this isn’t an ideal representation of a BDSM relationship. Although it is perhaps not as dangerous for novices as that portrayed in Fifty Shades of Grey, Secretary is not blameless when it comes to perpetuating damaging stereotypes about people who enjoy BDSM. As Violet Fawkes described in her movie-themed ‘Food for Thought Friday’ post a few weeks ago, Secretary is problematic because there is a definite ‘conflation between poor mental health and BDSM.’ This is an assumption that the BDSM community works very hard to get away from – the idea that people would only allow themselves to be treated this way because they are damaged, not because they enjoy it.

Violet also correctly states that Mr E. Edward Grey actually isn’t that much better a Dom than the other Mr Grey, describing him as a ‘neurotic, explosive, impulsive and sulky “Dominant”’ who never really gains consent or discusses boundaries with his submissive.’ Mr Grey is very lucky that Lee so clearly enjoys the spanking immediately as he does not ask for consent…ever, until he tries to end their relationship. The consent is all implied because she never says no, and that isn’t good enough. ‘It feels like a BDSM PR nightmare, the sort of skewed message and illustration of deviance that we should be avoiding and trying to mitigate.’ Violet concludes. ‘Is it too much to ask for happy, healthy, responsible BDSM in cinema?’

She definitely has a point! And in a way, Secretary is more dangerous than FSoG as the flaws are more subtle. This Mr Grey doesn’t seem as ridiculous or extravagant as Christian Grey. He’s quietly spoken, he doesn’t make many requests, any encroachment on Lee’s wider life is definitely both consensual and wanted…and yet, he too is ashamed of who he is. He too communicates about BDSM poorly. He too could improve how he obtains consent.

Mr Grey, lying on the floor and looking alarmed

So if it is such a bad advert for BDSM, why do I love it so and why do I still claim it’s even slightly sex positive?

In short, I will always adore this film because of the love story. It’s a perfect love story. Both were broken and ashamed of themselves, and they found they could be happy together. They didn’t have to compromise; they didn’t have to change. They could be themselves – they could be better than themselves together – and I yearned for that.

In the most stereotypical hearts and flowers way, they were made for each other and I loved that it reminded me that even people who feel so broken can find someone who fits with them perfectly. Lee needs the structure and support of Grey’s domination and attention, and he needs the confidence and dependence of her submission. It works. They work. And when she’s with him, Lee walks taller. She dresses better, she doesn’t need to self-harm as she doesn’t feel so out of control, but, importantly, neither are ‘cured’ – they just find support in each other rather than the more destructive methods they used before. As Peter Bradshaw describes in his Guardian review, ‘it proposes a happy ending which does not involve anyone being cured or having their minds changed about whether what they are doing is right. It does not condemn the sub-dom relationship or present it as a metaphor for injustice; actually, it cheekily presents the whole business as counter- cultural domesticity.’ From this point of view, perhaps this film could be a good advert for D/s relationships!

There are two quotes from Lee that I’ll share here that sum this all up better than I can explain it myself:

‘But because he had given me the permission to do this, because he insisted on it, I felt held by him as I walked alone. I felt he was with me. At the same time, I was feeling something was growing in Mr. Grey. An intimate tendril creeping from one of his darker areas, nursed on the feeling that he had discovered something about me.’

‘In one way or another, I’ve always suffered. I didn’t know why, exactly. But I do know that I’m not so scared of suffering now. I feel more than I’ve ever felt, and I’ve found someone to feel with, to play with, to love, in a way that feels right for me. I hope he knows that I can see that he suffers, too. And that I want to love him.’

If I’m honest, Lee’s progression is what I wanted when I started sex blogging. I felt like she looked at the beginning – awkward, uncomfortable, dressed in oversized clothes and never sure of herself or where she fitted in. From a most superficial level, I wanted to be able to wear pencil skirts and silk shirts with pussy bows like she does, but I mainly wondered if I could find that same self-confidence through sex. If I could walk taller with my shoulders straighter if I knew and accepted my desires and needs. Not necessarily through BDSM – I already knew that the specifics of Lee and Mr Grey’s relationship didn’t appeal to me nearly as much as their acceptance of each other. Could I find myself through my own sexual exploration? (Spoiler: I definitely did!)

Lee is standing up, speaking on the telephone, and being encouraged by Mr Grey

There is also an argument that consensual and controlled pain can be beneficial for our mental health, as it seems to be for Lee. Kate Sloan, a fabulous sex blogger, has written about how spanking is often exactly what she needs when her anxiety and depression are out of control: ‘The pain moves my focus from my racing brain into my body, and psychologically it feels like I am being punished for my bad thoughts about myself — like all those doubts and worries and tears are being whacked out of me, one blow at a time.’ Spanking and kink are no substitute for proper therapy and mental health treatment but can be therapeutic for some people, just as running or shopping can be for others – it’s a focused activity that creates pleasure. And it’s not self-harm as it’s not done alone: ‘Good, consensual BDSM is performed with a partner who wants to please you and support you, not destroy you or punish you the way you do to yourself when you self-harm from a depressed headspace.’

This film was also revolutionary for me as it’s one of very few truly positive portrayals of female masturbation. I’d been wanking since I was a teenager but I’d always been slightly ashamed of it. Not enough to stop, but enough to keep it a secret. And yet here’s Lee, wanking in the bath, wanking in the toilets at work, wanking lying on her stomach, which I had never seen before! Showing positive images of female masturbation like this from a female perspective, and not like it is often shown in porn, is so rare and so necessary. How else can we accept that it is normal? I loved seeing how masturbation was just part of how Lee falls for Mr Grey, part of their sexual relationship. And the fact that she was wanking over images that would seem conventionally unerotic to others (‘And…four…peas!’) was frankly life-changing.

Lee is wearing a wedding dress and being held by Mr Grey as he lays her down on a box covered in astroturf

For me, the film is summed up by the song that is played during the final love scene when Mr Grey rescues Lee from her vigil in his office – Chariots Rise by Lizzie West. It’s a song whose lyrics often give me goosebumps anyway and has long been on my regular playlist rotations, but the version in the movie is subtly but importantly different. Rather than saying ‘what a fool am I to fall in love,’ the line was changed to ‘what grace have I to fall in love.’ Because Lee isn’t a fool, and the love that they share isn’t foolish. Ridiculously, even the official movie soundtrack has the original version so I usually have to listen to that but every time I hear the line about being a fool I remember Lee and Mr E. Edward Grey and their perfect love.

Because, ‘who’s to say that love needs to be soft and gentle?’

Next week: Zac and Miri make a porno

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.

sex, lies and videotape

YEAR: 1989
DIRECTOR: Steven Soderbergh
KEY ACTORS: James Spader, Andie MacDowell, Peter Gallagher, Laura San Giacomo
CERTIFICATE: 15
IMDB SCORE: 7.2/10
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 96%

SEX SCORE: 5/5 (Fuckable cast, sex positive themes, source of fantasy material, passes the Bechdel test, rewatchable. Yes!!)

This contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: YouTube (free, with Spanish subtitles), Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £5.99), iTunes (rent £3.49, buy £5.99) Sky Store (to rent), Ratuken TV (from £2.49)

The movie poster of sex, lies and videotape, showing images of the cast intercut with thick black lines

Of course this was going to be the first movie in this new series – it was the one that inspired it all! A film about sex, relationships, voyeurism, exhibitionism and with Secretary’s James Spader as the lead? It’s safe to say that this movie had a big effect on me…

Made in 1989 and Steven Soderbergh’s feature directorial debut, sex, lies and videotape tells the story of four people: married couple, Ann (Andie MacDowell) and John (Peter Gallagher), her sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo) and an old college friend of John’s called Graham (James Spader). Ann and John’s marriage is struggling – she is in therapy discussing how she no longer likes it when John touches her and all the while, he is fucking her sister. John’s friend, Graham, has only recently moved to the area but creates ripples in the uneasy balance of these relationships. He reveals to Ann that he is impotent and unable to have penetrative sex. Instead, he gets off on videos he’s made of conversations with women talking about sex. His arrival, and the videos he makes of them, prompt both sisters to reconsider and eventually end their relationships with John. It’s such a good film!

And it’s not just me that thinks this film is great – it won the Palme d’Or and FIPRESCI prize at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, where James Spader also won the Beat Actor Award, and Steven Soderbergh was nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the 1990 Academy Awards.

I first saw this around 2005 during my many years at university and when I was deep into an obsession with the OC’s Sandy Cohen, also played by Peter Gallagher, as many women in my friendship circle were. ‘What would Sandy Cohen do?’ had become a mantra of sorts for us! I was in my early 20s and a long way from working out who I was sexually and what I liked, and I watched this with a group of girlfriends mainly to see what Sandy Cohen had done before becoming Sandy Cohen. They were intermittently shocked and bored – he is not a good person here. I could not tear my eyes away and I’m not sure I have ever been the same!

This film initiated such a paradigm shift in me because it caught me at a time when I had no real sexual experience or confidence, but I knew there was so much wonder waiting just out of reach. At that time, I recognised so much of myself in Ann; her hesitation and embarrassment about sex, her frigid existence as a housewife locking her into a life that she knew was making her unhappy but that she couldn’t work out how to change, and I was so afraid that this was my future.

A two year relationship during sixth form with an eighteen year old boy who was too afraid of being caught buying condoms to actually have PIV sex had been followed by several years of celibacy, and I was left somewhat paralysed when it came to sex. The very few times I did have sex had not gone well and I was stuck, bound by my fear and lack of experience. Maybe I would never work out how to have good sex? Maybe I too would end up in a sexless marriage, living as the perfect housewife but never be sexually fulfilled?

Andie MacDowell and Peter Gallagher in bed. He is asleep, she looks frustrated

So, like Ann, I was fascinated by Graham and his videotapes. Maybe it’s because of my love of movies but there is something nostalgic and a little romantic about Graham’s box of videotapes, each labelled with the name of the person he was filming. As a viewer of the movie, you don’t see much of what is on these tapes and it is left to your imagination, but just the idea of all of these women opening up and talking about sex, answering Graham’s questions and discussing these intimate subjects with such ease, was intoxicating.

And, oh my gosh, I wanted Graham to make a tape of me. I imagined feeling terrified and vulnerable but safe enough to talk, which is a hot combination of emotions! I imagined Graham’s questions probing me and making me realise things about myself that I wished I could vocalise. It was such a delicious fantasy, and one of the earliest that I can remember that was definitively sexual rather than more romantic. I only watched the movie once until many years later but I cannot tell you how often I reimagined that scene and that idea…

Interestingly, in 1989 Roger Ebert described his use of video as a form of sexism assault as ‘he has power not over their bodies but over their minds, over their secrets.’ While I’m not sure that this view of assault stands up in the post-#MeToo world where more definite assault has been revealed to be so dishearteningly widespread and Graham clearly has the consent of the women he’s recording, it did strike me that his simple voyeurism could be seen so negatively.

Because looking back now, this is almost the perfect acting out of my exhibitionist/voyeur tendencies. To be watched so intently by someone who will get off on watching me over and over is among the hottest things I can imagine. Equally, I love the idea of videoing a partner like this, and it proved to be as hot as I’d hoped when I filmed my husband finally breaking his 10 day orgasm denial streak a couple of years ago. The results were definitely NSFW but I got off on the filming and the watching later in almost equal measures, and I remembered Graham’s videos with new eyes.

Andie MacDowell looking towards the camera, wistfully holding a camcorder

This is also a form of voyeurism that adds distance and time to the immediacy of the experience, a deliberate choice by Soderbergh. Talking to Film Comment in 1989, he explained that ‘video is a way of distancing ourselves from people and events…[Graham] needs the distance to feel free to react without anybody watching, which, I guess, is the definition of voyeurism.’

This won’t be the last time I talk about James Spader but it is a good place to introduce him. He is among the most fuckable of all actors and, unlike most celebrity crushes, this is more because of how he is rather than how he looks. In the same review mentioned above, Roger Ebert feels that Spader has the ‘kind of sexual ambiguity of the young Brando or Dean; he seems to suggest that if he bypasses the usual sexual approaches it is because he has something more interesting up, or down, his sleeve.’ That is true of his character here and it is definitely true of his character in Secretary. Both are superficially ordinary, almost boring, and yet have such fascinating and kinky depths, and the juxtaposition is intriguing and a little dangerous.

James Spader with a mullet, gesturing towards the camera

Although the videotapes appealed to me more than the sex or lies of the title, there is so much of interest in the sex and sexual relationships from the other characters. The interplay between Graham’s impotence and Ann’s frigidity in contrast to John and Cynthia’s hypersexuality is almost a caricature. Is this to suggest a challenge or to justify the behaviour of the other characters? Roger Ebert describes the ‘fundamental fact of the human ego’ that we believe that a new partner could cure impotence or overcome frigidity – they’ve just not found yet right one, they’ve not been fucked by the right guy, and other such sexist opinions – and it is true that both Ann and Graham’s character resolutions do revolve around them finding each other. But it doesn’t play like ego; they are almost reluctant in their approaches to each other.

Unlike Cynthia who does visit Graham with the intention of ‘curing’ his impotence as he won’t be able to resist her. And I can see why she’d think that – Cynthia is just so fucking sexy in that 1980s stereotypical kind of way with big hair, a filthy laugh and denim cut off shorts (Laura San Giacomo also played Vivian’s friend Kit in Pretty Woman, another character who rightly or wrongly taught me how women can be sexy), and I did want to be her. I wanted to be that brashly sexy, that confident and capable of getting what I wanted.

Laura San Giacomo lying on her back with her feet in the air, wearing a black dress and black boots

But despite the use of unusual camera angles, sweaty faces and red based colours making it clear that her and John were having Good Sex, it’s not hot. The further through the film I got, the less attractive I found them. Certainly, neither of them are as attractive as they think they are and the sex may appear incredible – energetic, hard and fast, sweaty – but it is framed by so much deception that I struggled to find it that appealing! John is also too much of a twat to be attractive, and their sex less desirable as a consequence.

I think this was the beginning of the end of my reliance on movie sex as a visual learning aid. Porn has always been too starkly real for me, preferring to create my own imagery when reading erotica instead, so movies were really my only visual references for how sex should look. And it turns out that it’s rarely as hot as anything I’ve experienced in real life.

After this film, I stopped expecting the sex I saw to be as hot or arousing as the sex I could imagine. The words? The ideas? Fuck yes! And that’s where this film delivers those delights in spades…

Next week: The Thomas Crown Affair!

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.