Fifty Shades of WHAT?

“Wow! That was definitely not inspired by Downton Abbey, was it?” observes actress-comedian Debi Durst, with a cringe, as the credits for Fifty Shades of Grey roll up the screen of this strangely silent theater in San Francisco. Durst (and yes, her husband is renowned political satirist Will Durst) knew very little about the content of the Shades of Grey movie, or the books by E L James, when she accepted my invitation to see and discuss the movie this President’s Day afternoon. “I know the book has sold a bazillion copies, and that they are not suitable for children,” Durst says. “And I knew that Charlie Hunnam from Sons of Anarchy was originally going to be in it but was replaced with this guy. But that was about all I knew. I had no expectations. Now that I actually do know what Fifty Shades is about, all I can say is … good God! I’m sure at the end of my life I’m going to want those two-and-a-half hours back!”

“I know,” I tell her. “I still feel the same about All Dogs Go to Heaven, and that was only 89 minutes long.”

“Well then,” Durst says with a laugh, rising to escape the theater, “at least the movie was kind of pretty.”

Yes it was. Pretty bad.

The story of Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), a meek, virginal, lit major drawn into a relationship with a cold-but-handsome billionaire, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan)—and her gradual introduction into his world of kinky behavior—not to mention his whips-and-chains playroom known as the Red Room of Pain—makes for a very strange movie, with its eerie reverse-rom-com sensibility and a chilly sense of distance between the characters, even in mid-coitus, gasping and grunting on the plush sex-bench in the Red Room of Pain. Not that the film’s lack of charm or plot, its epic running length, and the total lack of chemistry between its two leads stopped the film from earning nearly $250 million over its opening weekend alone. With a built-in audience of rabid fans of the books—the trilogy has sold more than 60 million copies—those opening-weekend numbers speak more to the massive public awareness of the film that they suggest any actual quality or longevity.

“I can’t imagine that anyone would want to see this twice,” notes Durst as we walk through the opulent lobby of the theater, where a pair of leather-covered massage machines stand like sentries by the door. At my observation that the Fifty Shades people missed an opportunity to convert such machines into spanking devices, Durst laughs at roughly the same volume with which Anastasia gasps with pleasure the first time Christian paddles her. “They should make them out of red leather,” Durst remarks. “The Red Chair of Pain! I bet they could get a $25 ‘massage.’”

As we exit the theater and head up the street toward a local coffee shop, I inform Durst that the original Fifty Shades was a self-published E-book written as Twilight fan fiction.

“You’re kidding me!” Durst guffaws. “Really?”

Nope, not kidding.

The best-selling trilogy about vampires in love did inspire Fifty Shades—all the former’s bloodsucking and twinkling transformed into the latter’s spanking, bondage and sadomasochistic sex. The last time Hollywood attempted to turn a popular S&M novel into a movie, it was Anne Rice’s 1985 sex-fantasy-island romance Exit to Eden, and the movie adaptation, starring Dana Delany and Paul Mercurio, was clearly made by a studio so nervous about the BDSM (Bondage and Discipline; Dominance and Submission; Sadism and Masochism) goings on that they buried it under added-on comedy routines involving diamond thieves and a pair of bumbling cops played by Dan Aykroyd and Rosie O’Donnell.

It was not a success. People just weren’t prepared for it, it seems. But evidently, the world is finally ready for a big-screen, non-vampire BDSM blockbuster, though not everyone is thrilled about the film’s existence—and I’m not talking about fundamentalist Christians or people working to stop spousal abuse and glorified violence against women.

“I understand,” I inform Durst, “that a lot of people in the BDSM community are not happy about the movie either, because it suggests that Christian Grey is into domination and pain-giving because he’s psychologically screwed up—and that makes realpeople who are into BDSM look bad!”

“Wow!” says Durst, as we take a table, caffeinated beverages in hand. “I don’t even know how to respond to that. Because sadomasochism is a lifestyle, we shouldn’t judge it? Well, OK, I don’t judge it—as a lifestyle. But I do have the right to judge this movie, don’t I? And this movie is a few too many shades of grey for my taste.”

“How many shades of grey are there?” I wonder.

“Only Ansel Adams knew for sure, and he’s dead,” Durst says with a laugh. “He was the master. That guy, with his black and white photography, knew more about grey than the rest of us will ever know. This movie was more like, fifty shades of what?”

“The only way I got through it,” I confess, “was by imagining a young Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks doing these roles back in the ’80s. It was a lot funnier imagining it that way.”

“Yeah! The contract negotiation scene would have been extra fun with them, I think,” Durst says, referring to the movie’s most entertaining scene. Fully clothed, sitting at opposite ends of a boardroom table, Anastasia and Christian go over the contract he’s asked her to sign, negotiating which sexual practices she will agree to and which are off the table.

Anastasia, for example, is OK with rope, but not masking tape, and while she never officially rules out butt plugs, she does draw the line at vaginal clamps.

“And after all of that,” Durst says, “when we finally get to the big S&M scene in the playroom, it comes down to him spanking her six times with a belt. Compared to all the whips and chains hanging on the wall, and all the stuff talked about in the negotiation scene, it was actually sort of tame and disappointing. Kids who went to Catholic school suffered worse on a daily basis.”

“I had a ninth grade English teacher named Mrs. Martin,” I tell Durst, “who, for those who agreed to submit to it, would paddle us with a ruler on our birthday. She’d hit us once for every year we’d been alive, and then we could choose a pencil from this box of cool pencils with funny sayings. Even that looked worse than this.

“The movie was kind of funny, at first,” I add. “It was like this really dark comedy, but by the end, when things get serious, it’s hard to not really hate this guy for needing to inflict pain in order to feel pleasure.”

“Though I could name a few politicians who fit that description,” Durst says with a laugh. “Ultimately, I think all there is to say aboutFifty Shades of Grey, the ultimate movie about pain and pleasure, is that the pain is having to sit through it.

“And the pleasure,” she laughs, “is leaving at the end.”

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God Save the King

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Sir Gawain and Batman walk into a bar — David Templeton discusses the new Moses movie with podcast philosophers Christian Kingery and Jason Stellman, aka The Drunk Ex-Pastors

 “It’s too early to drink a regular cocktail,” announces Christian Kingery, a big, ice-tinkling glass in one hand, “so we’ve been drinking screwdrivers instead. We’re going to record an episode of our podcast right after we talk about the movie, so we thought we should go ahead and just start drinking now.”

It’s shortly before one o’clock on Christmas Eve and with a little help from the good people behind Skype, the Drunk Ex-Pastors are ready for action.

Co-hosts of a popular weekly podcast titled, yes, Drunk Ex-Pastors (www.drunkexpastors.com), Christian Kingery and Jason Stellman are indeed former Evangelical pastors, both having served as missionaries in Hungary many years ago, before rethinking their relationship to the divine and taking other, somewhat divergent paths. Stellman is now a practicing Catholic, while Kingery—ironically enough for a guy named Christian—identifies as an agnostic.

Both live outside of Seattle, Washington, where every week, drinks in hand, the longtime friends engage in an hour or so of lively conversation, tackling everything from the state of American culture and politics, to the complexities of faith and religion—and whatever their many fans suggest through emails and phone messages.

And biebers.

The Drunk Ex-Pastors are particularly fond of discussing “biebers,” Kingery and Stellman’s word for anything small and insignificant that really annoys them, such as big-budget Hollywood movies based on stories from the Bible.

Which leads us to the present moment, as we prepare to discuss Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings. Inspired by the famous Old Testament tale of Moses (Christian Bale), the special-effects-heavy epic traces the Hebrew leader’s evolution from Egyptian prince and surrogate son to the Pharaoh (John Turturro) to liberator of the Hebrew slaves—but throws in a few surprises, many of which have drawn criticism from members of the religious right.

DEP“I was much more entertained by Exodus: Gods and Kings, and much less biebered by it, than I expected,” begins Kingery. “The use of special effects was relatively tasteful. Not too overdone. But there were definitely things about the movie that bugged me. It was weird seeing Batman playing Moses, and Knish from Rounders as the Pharaoh, and Ripley from Alien playing Ramses’ mom.

“I think Christian Bale actually did a pretty good job,” he adds. “The guy they cast as Ramses—the guy from The Great Gatsby, right?—I thought he was very good.”

“What always cracks me up,” Stellman says, “is how Hollywood does all these period pieces, and it doesn’t matter what era or epoch it’s happening in, if they put in a bunch of people with English accents, it will seem legit. Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Persians—they must all have English accents! Except Moses, evidently. For Moses, they cast an English guy and made him speak with an American accent!”

"Blackwood" - World Premiere - Red Carpet Arrivals: 57th BFI London Film Festival
Isaac Andrews, now 11, plays God in Ridley Scott’s ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings.’ In the film, he’s not as nearly as adorable as he appears here.

“In this one, even God has an English accent,” I point out. “But then he’s also portrayed as a pissed-off 10-year-old boy who only Moses can see.”

The depiction of God, in fact, may be the most interesting thing about Gods and Kings, aside from its suggestion that an army of man-eating crocodiles might have been the root cause of the 10 Plagues of Egypt.

You have to see it to believe it, but it’s pretty awesome.

“I think that was interesting, the thing about Moses fighting with this 10-year-old God all the time,” Kingery says. “In the Bible, if you read beyond the Exodus story, there is a lot of tension between God and Moses. I was wondering if Ridley Scott read all of that, and used it as a template for his version of God. Isn’t there a part, Jason, where God wants to destroy the people and start over, and Moses talks him out of it?”

“Oh yeah, there is, definitely,” Stellman says, “and there’s also the whole thing about Moses not being allowed to enter Canaan after they’ve been wandering in the desert for 40 years. God was mad at Moses for getting angry and smiting the rock.”

About that.

In the book of Exodus, when the people are about to rebel because they are dying of thirst, God tells Moses to hit a big rock with his staff, and when Moses obeys, God makes water gush out of the rock, and everyone is saved. Years later, in the book of Numbers, when the same situation is happening, God tells Moses to speak to a rock and command it to produce water, but Moses—tired of having to bail the people out over and over—just hits the rock with his stick again. The rock gives water, but because Moses disobeyed God, he was not allowed to cross over into the Promised Land once they finally found it.

5-2_moses-strikes-rock“Thanks a lot, God,” Kingery says. “I did all of this work for you, gave up being a prince of Egypt, and because I got confused one time and hit the rock instead of talking to the rock, I can’t go to the Promised Land?”

“Hey, 10-year-olds, they are hard to predict,” Stellman says. “Regarding that choice, the idea of portraying God as a child. I can see how fundamentalists would be upset about that, and see that as some sort of dig at them, and at God. Which, it kind of is. But it shows Moses questioning God, challenging him. God says he’s unhappy Moses hasn’t gotten Ramses to release the slaves, and Moses reminds God that it’s already taken him 400 years to do anything, so he should be patient, and God and Moses go at it for a while.

“A lot of people think it’s wrong to question God,” he goes on, “but I actually think there’s something wrong with you if you never question God and his choices. A listener wrote in and said that they never question God, about anything. And we were reflecting on that in our last podcast, saying that we think we’re maybe supposed to question God. We’re supposed to read the Bible and come away at times thinking, ‘What the hell is up God’s ass?’ What is wrong with him? Did he get up on the wrong side of the bed or what? Why does God act the way he acts? Out of those conversations and questions come some pretty important discoveries about the nature of God and the world and how we should behave in it.”

“Yeah,” Kingery agrees, “and that’s part of why I didn’t have a problem with God being portrayed as a 10-year-old. It was cool not to have the same old burning bush thing—though there is a burning bush at one point—and anyway, it’s just one artist’s interpretation.”

morgan“And it captures something essential about God that casting someone like Morgan Freeman would have missed,” Stellman says, “which is that, you can’t deny it, God sometimes behaves in ways that look irrational to us.”

“When Moses asks God, ‘Dude! What are you thinking?’” I mention, “he’s actually speaking for humanity.”

“Moses was the good cop,” Stellman says, “and God is the bad cop. Like Riggs and Murtaugh from Lethal Weapon. Mel Gibson was unbalanced and unpredictable. And if any believer in Jesus or God is honest, when you read the Bible—especially the Old Testament—that is how God comes across.

LEthal weapon
Good Cop/Bad Cop — Which of these police officers is God and which one is Moses. And which one would you want on your side if you were delivering half-a-million slaves out of Egypt?

“He can be a bit impetuous,” he says with a laugh, as the Drunk Ex-Pastors each pour another drink. “The question is, ‘How do we deal with that?’”

Here’s to You, Mr. Robinson

Author Dan Fost discusses the film '42,' Jackie Robinson's film career, a few onscure facts about baseball-themed pop songs, and Richard Millhouse Nixon.
Author Dan Fost discusses the film ’42,’ Jackie Robinson’s film career, a few onscure facts about baseball-themed pop songs, and Richard Millhouse Nixon.

“How come it took so long for someone to make this movie?” I ask out loud, raising my voice a tick to be heard above the music. “Why hasn’t anyone made a movie about Jackie Robinson before now?”

As the credits roll on the new Jackie Robinson biopic 42, and as Sister Wynona Carr sings the obscure but peppy sports-and-gospel anthem “The Ball Game” (“Jesus is standing at the home plate, waiting for you there/Life is a ballgame, but you have to play it fair”), journalist-author Dan Fost grins.

It’s the grin of a guy who is used to being asked difficult trivia questions, and usually knows the answers.

“There actually was a movie about Jackie Robinson, made in the early 1950s,” Fost says, “and I’m pretty sure it starred Jackie Robinson as himself. It apparently glossed over a lot of the things that happened, but at least someone made a film about him during his lifetime.”

“Really? It starred Jackie Robinson? How did I not know about this?” I ask, rising to leave as the credits come to a close (and for what it’s worth, Fost also recognized Sister Wynona Carr’s ballgame song, and owns a CD with it and other baseball tunes from the 1940s.)

Fost grins again.

“It’s a pretty obscure movie,” he shrugs.

And there you have it. One inning into our early afternoon post-film conversation, and the score is already lopsided, with the Movie Trivia Guy striking out and the Baseball Trivia Guy scoring twice.

This is going to be fun.

Dan Fost (www.danfost.com) is a Bay Area freelance writer specializing in education, business and technology journalism. His work has been seen locally in San Francisco Magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle, and nationally in The New York Times, USA Today, and Popular Science. He is also the author of the book Giants: Past and Present ($25.00, MVP Books, 2013), a brand new edition of which has just been released, freshly updated to include juicy factoids and details from the Giants’ 2012 World Series win. Packed with the photos and stories from the Giants decades-long history.

Jackie Robinson, of course—the first African-American baseball player on a major league baseball team, and one of the greatest ballplayers of all time—played for the Dodgers.

That, along with the fact that he famously supported Richard Nixon against John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential race, just proves once again that nobody, even a legend like Jackie Robinson, is entirely perfect.

Though one wouldn’t know that from 42. Graceful, emotionally rich, but occasionally a tad corny and uneven, the movie succeeds best as illustrating the difficulties faced by Robinson (an excellent Chadwick Boseman), who broke into the fiercely segregated baseball system in 1947, years before the civil rights movement began to take hold in a deeply entrenched America. Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey (an impressively shape-shifting Harrison Ford), for reasons that straddle the line between business and idealism, recruited Robinson with the full awareness that breaking the color barrier would be risky, especially for Robinson. The movie includes a number of scenes depicting the verbal and physical abuse, including thousands of death threats, which Robinson endured with a remarkable amount of strength and an almost superhuman sense of inner guts and self-control.

“It’s a very emotional film, in places,” admits Fost, agreeing that there are not many people who will be able to avoid choking up during some of the films more powerful depictions of Robinson facing the fires of racism and hate. “On the other hand,” he adds, “I loved it, but I don’t know if I loved it because it was a great movie—which it probably isn’t, or because it was a great story. This is a great story, and it’s a baseball story too. And I love baseball stories, so …”

I mention that movies about “firsts” are often powerful, films that trace the path of the first African American fighter pilots, or look forward to the first female president. It makes Fost think of the scene in 42 where Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca, attempting to reach out to Robinson, encourages him to shower with the rest of the team.

“That scene, where Branca is saying, ‘Shower with me Jackie!’ then he gets all uncomfortable, and starts going, ‘I mean … I don’t mean shower with me… I mean, shower with us … I mean …’ Watching that scene, I was thinking, I wonder if 50 years from now, we’ll be watching a biopic of the first openly gay baseball player in the major leagues. I wondered if that scene in the movie was a veiled way of making the point that baseball still has some catching up to do.”

“So…Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers in 1947…” I ask Fost, “but how long was it before the Giants integrated their team? And who was the first African-American to play for the Giants?”

“There were two,” he says. “It was Monty Irvin and Hank Thompson. It was two years after Jackie started playing for the Dodgers. Irvin was an established star in the Negro Leagues, and he’s in the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was near the end of his career by the time baseball integrated, so when he started playing for the Giants, he only had a few more years to go.

“In 2010,” he continues, “they decided to retire his number. Jackie Robinson, of course, was number 42. Monty Irvin was number 20. So there was a big ceremony, and all the living Hall-of-Famers were there—Mays, McCovey, Marichel. Mays told great stories about how Irvin helped him along in his career.”

“2010. The year the Giants won the World Series,” I remark.

“Exactly,” Fost says, grinning again. “After 50 years in San Francisco, without ever winning the World Series, they finally win the year that Monty Irvin was properly honored for his contributions to the Giants. There are those who say it was a kind of karmic thing. The Giants finally did the right thing—and good things came of it.”

Fost has one more surprising bit of trivia to drop.

“In Jackie Robinson’s original Hall of Fame plaque, hanging in Cooperstown, there was no mention of integration,” he says.

“What? Really? How is that possible?”

“Well, that’s the thing about baseball, as the narrator says at the beginning of the movie—baseball players are known by their statistics. How many runs. How many strike outs. How many wins. It’s the ultimate equalizer. In the end, the color of a players skin doesn’t matter.

“Like the song says,” Fost smiles, “in the end, it’s how you play the game that matters—and that’s all, right?”