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the pathetic caverns - movies by title - Secretary

eclectic reviews and opinions


2002, D: Steven Shainberg; S: Erin Cressida Wilson

Secretary left me with this weird feeling that it was a very deliberate exercise, an attempt to answer a question: What things about Mary Gaitskill's B&D-spiked short story "The Secretary" would have to be changed in order to make it into a feature film palatable for a mainstream audiences?

Director Steven Shainberg and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson's answer seems to be: You can keep a few lines of dialog and a scene or two mostly intact, but most of it has to be completely transformed.

The definitive article in the title of the Gaitskill story at first seems to invite the reader to consider "The Secretary" as a general metaphor for the degradation woman experience in the workplace. One might think that Debby's submissive relationship with her boss is representative of the equally subservient and degraded (if not in a sexual sense) roles of secretaries in general. But I think that would be a grievous oversimplification; I think the story's title is a bit of a red-herring.

"The Secretary" is constructed with careful ambiguity. The degree to which Debby's humiliation is consensual is obscured. The story provides close observation, but I think it makes few value judgments, though there is space to infer them. Debby is "not even surprised" when her employer begins to spank her, nor is she surprised when, later, she thinks about it and masturbates. She quits the job, but continues to fantasize about the incidents.

On the other hand, the film Secretary goes to great -- maybe even absurd -- lengths to portray the relationship in a positive light.

It's a tall order to make sympathetic characters in a relationship with S&M or B&D overtones in a mainstream film. "Sadist" has long been Hollywood short-hand for "evil," or at best, "sick." Masochism appears much more rarely, but denotes sad and pathetic individuals when it surfaces. Careful casting is clearly necessary to make these characters viewer-friendly. James Spader is almost too easy a choice to play the dominant lawyer (unnamed in the story he becomes "E. Edward Grey" in the film); he made squirmy matters weirdly charming in Sex, Lies and Videotape and here he's similarly disarming. Maggie Gyllenhaal is maybe an even more inspired pick: a trendy young actress who is actually up to the challenge of the difficult role (oh, and decidedly easy on-the-eyes, but not in a glamorous supermodel sort of way). Since leading ladies are typically far younger than their leading men the May/September nature of the relationship needn't even be subject to scrutiny.

You can tick off on your hands the other changes the story requires. The "Debby Roe" of the short story becomes the more cosmopolitan "Lee Holloway" and her taste for (fairly tame, really) verbal and physical abuse is plainly dramatized: not only does she deliberately provoke the lawyer (who initially spanks her when she submits a typo-filled letter), her relationship with painfully vanilla boyfriend Jonathan (Oz Perkins) founders when he's resoundingly unopen to exploring her kinks. When the lawyer tries to breaks off the arrangement, she even resorts to the "Other" section of the personals. Some justification for this most un-PC of preferences is still needed, so a passing reference to a visit to a psychiatrist in the original story becomes a hospitalization for self-destructive behavior, manifested in cutting and self-scalding, with the implication that small doses of pain help her feel more alive and combat her depression. Look, Ma! A little S&M is actually healthy!

This is one of the weakest points of the film in several ways. First, it's fundamentally a psychologically unsound explanation; cutting is usually a manifestation of depression, but it's not necessarily correlated to the blurring of sexual pleasure and pain. I'd also argue that the presence or absence of depression is completely unrelated to the power-balance dances of dominance and submission, which is really what drives the relationship in the film: it's not so much that Grey spanks Lee, it's that she obeys him when he tells her to stand still for it. Second, there's a serious credibility gap in the way Lee's family deals with sharp objects after the hospitalization: many are locked up, but others are too-conveniently available. Finally, the flashback editing makes for some confusingly jumpy chronology.

On the flip side, while a major effort is undertaken to convince the viewer that yes, Lee really wants it and yes, it's okay, Spader's character is made far more conflicted than the lawyer in the story. He's not at all sure it's okay for him to like spanking young women, and he tries hard not to do it. Oh, and he knows something about depression too, apparently.

Last, but certainly not least, in contrast to the way Debby in the original story describes what might be interpreted as a mild crush on the lawyer (she dreams about him; she plays with herself and thinks of him) in the film version we get a large dose of romance with a capital "R," or even capital "L" love.

One of the oddest choices the film-makers made was to drag the story from its unspecified past (late 60's? early 70's?) into contemporary time. All of a sudden typing itself takes on a fetishistic aspect, which is kind of neat, but the issue of sexual harrassment must be dealt with (it is, a little obliquely, but not, perhaps predictably, in a terribly satisfactory way).

So we've established that it's thematically completely different from the original, substituing feel-good for quease. Does it work on its own terms, aside from the caveats I've already quibbled about? Well, mostly. The script (perhaps deliberately) has some awfully long awkward stretches; Spader and Gyllenhaal are generally up to the challenges it imposes, but every now and then I found myself thinking that a particular bit of dialog was hard to swallow. At the screening I saw, some of the viewers kept hissing imprecations at the lawyer, so maybe his transformation into a sympathetic character is not completely successful. But, yeah, basically it was watchable, it held my attention, I enjoyed it. Maybe more to the point, I thought it was worth thinking about afterwards, and I probably would have felt the same even if I didn't have source material available to contrast it to. It wasn't a real knock-out film, but I certainly didn't feel I wasted my time watching it.

Of course, sometimes "Is it good?" is code for, "Uh, is it hot? I mean, assuming you like that sort of thing?" I'll take a flyer at that: Most of it doesn't live up to the opening sequence in which Lee, wearing a restraint that keeps her wrists level with her head and her arms mostly extended, gets coffee and staples documents with careful motions and strategic use of her lips. There's a spanking scene or two, some crawling around on the floor, some masturbation and a bit of fetish gear on display, but nothing is lingered on in a very prurient way. Oh, and there's nudity, though not generally mixed with the "deviant" behavior. But it's not a story thinly wrapped around smut; look elsewhere for that. It's a story with smutty elements.

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