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John Stagliano on The Girlfriend Experience

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Don’t you wish your girlfriend was hot like me?”
John Stagliano

John Stagliano is a pornographic producer and director and owner of the video production company Evil Angel. Stagliano is known for his Buttman series of films and for his work as a pioneer in the “gonzo” genre of pornographic film. He directed Sasha Grey, star of The Girlfriend Experience, in her first pornographic scene.

The Girlfriend Experience has created lots of buzz in my business, mainly because it stars Sasha Grey, the just-turned-21 porn star known for her rough sex and stunning natural beauty. Academy award-winning director Steven Soderbergh has created a low budget art film that experiments with improvised dialogue, unknown actors, bad lighting and out of focus shots. The flaws are done on purpose for effect, and for the most part they work, but it is a movie that demands that you pay close attention. Even then, it’s easy to get confused.

Long improvised scenes are intercut, sometimes out of order. The overall effect is a dreary New York story about a beautiful call girl who seems to be screwing up her life.

Sasha Grey

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The Girlfriend Experience
Three and a half stars
Sasha Grey, Chris Santos, Peter Zizzo.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh.
Rated R.
Related Stories
Sasha Grey bridges the gap (5/31/09)
Review: The Girlfriend Experience (5/28/09)
Porn meets mainstream in elusive crossovers (1/12/09)
VIDEO: Sasha Grey on her first time
Beyond the Weekly
The Girlfriend Experience
Rotten Tomatoes: The Girlfriend Experience
IMDb: The Girlfriend Experience

The title of the movie describes the phenomenon of call girls who are more than just an aid in getting their customers off. This subject has been explored on film many times, with major stars such as Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman portraying the roles of the call girls. Cast in the lead role here is Grey, but this movie gives us none of the sexy fun stuff that is in the other films. There is very little that could be called erotic, more that could be called pathetic.

The movie is involving by virtue of an amateurish sense of reality created by the improvisation and the lack of typical movie lighting. Soderbergh has chosen to present most of his improvised dialogue scenes with no close ups. Only the most emotionally important scene, where Sasha shines as an actress, uses the tighter shots. Almost all the rest are wide shots, captured in restaurants, stores and apartments, utilizing natural light, often mixed with the light from fixtures already there, giving the movie a cheap orange look.

The director also chooses to use extended out of focus shots for effect, as well as purposely using badly lit angles. This does create a mood that enhances the story, but the viewer cannot avoid becoming aware of these technical choices and this distracts him from getting involved in the story.

I watched the movie twice, because I was getting paid to do this review, and I had to struggle the first time through to get all the ideas woven into the improvised scenes. I was reminded of a baseball writer who praises the virtues of a hard fought one to nothing short game. (This movie is only 78 minutes long). I love the subtleties of baseball, but I hate one to nothing games. As a paying fan I want to see some action. A long 10 to nine game gives me my money’s worth. As a reviewer of this movie I had to work to appreciate this art. I had to work too hard.

The casting of Sasha Grey is interesting in that Sasha is a driven, focused performer who has a plan for her life. I put her in her first adult movie when one of the featured performers in my big budget Fashionistas sequel cancelled at the last minute. She had just turned 18 two weeks earlier. Her performance helped that scene win an AVN award.

Grey is the antithesis of the classic over the top porn star that exaggerates her pleasure. Sasha is quiet and real, and Mr. Soderbergh gets a very effective performance from her, a performance that helps the movie work.

The contrast with what Sasha is in real life and the character she portrays reveals the continued cashing in by Hollywood on preconceived notions about how sex workers are pathetic. Sasha’s character is presented as an ambitious call girl who is trying to maximize her income, but who is in a profession where a sensitive, real girl cannot survive.

However, the real Sasha Grey, in the porn business, is surviving amazingly well. Her “realness” is the currency that she offers any filmmaker. It is precisely the realness of Sasha’s character that makes her so attractive to her clients. Yes, she screws up a few things, but this call girl is doing well. Her life is not fucked up. What confounds her in this story is that the values of family and monogamy are difficult to reconcile with some of our other needs. Tell me something I don’t know already.

There are people who can emotionally handle being a porn star or a call girl; I’ve met lots of them. I think I’m one of them. A movie that explores this idea would be less predictable and far more interesting. The world is becoming more sexual and open. Interesting unexplored questions relate to the shame that society puts on sex workers and how they deal with the effects it has on them. Are all these sex workers short sighted and delusional? Or is there a lifestyle, incomprehensible to the majority, that works for these people?

During the movie a minor side story follows a group of Wall Street types who take a private plane to Vegas to party with call girls. In the context of this movie it comes across as a shallow indulgence. There is little sense that the sexual aspect of their trip will be a fun, positive experience. Hell, there isn’t even the sense that they are going to enjoy an intense guilty pleasure. It’s only in porn movies that the value of these things is explored.

The obligation here and throughout The Girlfriend Experience seems to be that we must present sexuality as something that causes problems in your life or that makes you look pathetic. This, I believe, is part of the basis for that wonderfully guilt-ridden phrase: What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. The question that is begging to be answered today, in time with our changing society, is: Can the things that happen in Las Vegas be healthily integrated into one’s life, or are we condemned to hypocrisy by our biology?

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