Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Graduate Paper...Secretary and Ecclesiastes

Along time ago when I was in graduate school for the first time my dear friend Mike used to post his papers on his blog after he finished them...I always liked that idea but never felt that what I had written was "good" enough to be posted. Ironic given the fact that many times I post total randomness on here. Anyway back to Mike and his posting of papers...this evening as I was finishing my first assignment of the quarter (see previous post it's the second half) I decided that I would pull a Mike and post a paper or two. In light of that if you want to see how one can dialogue a film about SM and the biblical book of Ecclesiastes or if you're just curious what a graduate paper looks like see below. In all it's footnotes and glory here's my final paper from last quarter...


                        Redemption and Healing in the Shadowed Spaces:
                                    Secretary and Ecclesiastes in Dialogue

What has the power to transform life, to create meaning out of chaos and hope out of despair? In the case of the film “Secretary” by Steven Shainberg redemption comes in the form of expressing dark desires and love. The basic story of this film is one of relationship and birth.
Lee Holloway, the main character is a young woman caught in the triangulation of dysfunctional family dynamics. Lee, the youngest child of a family broken by alcoholism and abuse, uses cutting and self harm as a means to express her lack of control in the world around her. When we first meet Lee she has just been released from a mental institution where she had been because of an incident of cutting that went to deep. The institution is a place where things made sense and had structure. This place offered some kind of order that Lee’s home did not have.  She is childlike and guarded with the outlook of a seventh grader, the age she was when she began cutting.  The day of Lee’s release is the day of her sister’s wedding and all the family chaos is on display, almost immediately Lee goes back to the siren’s call of self-harm.  Even though she goes back to cutting Lee is seen taking a typing class and beginning to look for a job, she is seeking something to give her stability and meaning.  Going out one night to dispose of her stash of self-mutilation instruments, Lee sees an ad in the newspaper for a secretary. The next day, during a rainstorm, she goes to the law office of E. Edward Grey and is hired for the job. As Lee enters the office to apply for the job, she encounters the former secretary leaving crying holding severance pay in her mouth.  With this, her first job, Lee begins a process of growing from a preteen mentality to a woman fully aware of who she is and what she wants in relationships and life. At the beginning of her employment Lee begins a relationship with Peter, a friend from high school. Peter thinks that he understands Lee but doesn’t really take the time to understand her. Instead from the beginning of their interactions he is juxtaposing his image of who he wants her to be on to Lee. He becomes yet another person who wants Lee to be what they want her to be.  Only Edward is able to see the pain and chaos sitting just below the surface of Lee’s mousy exterior. Early on in their relationship Edward observes Lee cutting as well as seeing the evidence of Lee’s self mutilation. Unlike the other people in her life who express a desire for her to be “ok” but are unable to actually engage or help Lee transition away from cutting, Edward offers not only his concern but also permission for her to break her co-dependency and have choice and self-agency. He is the one person who is able to accurately describe how and why she cuts.     
Edward: “Why do you cut yourself, Lee? Is it that sometimes the pain inside has come to the surface, and when you see evidence of the pain inside you finally know you’re really here? Then, when you watch the wound heal, it’s comforting…isn’t it? [1]

In her relationship with Edward, Lee shifts from abusive relationships to one that includes consent and pleasurable pain. No longer is she forced to endure the pain of others taking it into herself and then exorcising it via self-inflicted harm but rather Lee is able to choose intimacy that has both pleasure and pain. It is this intimacy and choice, which in the end gives Lee the strength to fight for Edward and their relationship.
            Director, Steven Shainberg, utilizes several cinematic elements to highlight Lee’s shifting transition in this film. The elements I will address here are; color and design motifs, Lee’s costume pieces, and the over all look of the film.   As stated previously in this paper, Lee begins her journey with the visage and emotional status of a preteen.  From her room to the containers she keeps her cutting paraphernalia in to some of the instruments she uses in her cutting everything about Lee hints to an adolescent aura. It’s hearts, cutesy Lisa Frank style designs, flowy gauze, and baby soft pinks, blues and light purples. Lee’s room is frozen in time filled with images of the idealized girlhood desires for princess-like beauty, the fantasy world that one can escape and dream away the abusive reality outside it’s walls.
When going to apply for the job with Edward, Lee is covered head to toe in shades of lavender. This color is a muddied purple which when used as an accent color enhances more vivid colors. Yet as a stand -alone color lavender is flat and mousy, the pigmented representation of Lee’s present self.  She is contrasted to the lush and inviting color pallet of Edward’s office. The décor of which is a fusion of warmth and linear strength.  Where Lee’s environment is a child-like fantasy space Edward’s office is solidly adult. All of the pieces and elements of which it is comprised of have an exotic, fantasy inducing, distressed beauty. There are also hints to the darker nature of Edward’s character and desires in the décor. For example the shadowy hallway that leads to his office. The office is hidden behind a strong and ancient looking door and guarded by two mystical statues giving it a sense of focus and mystery.   Edward’s conflicted nature is also visioned in this hallway through the lighting and incorporation of living and flourishing foliage set up on the symmetrical shelving. This is revealed to be the place of honor for icons of his pleasure. In the development of their relationship this hallway houses the framed and marked letters that are icons of their growing relationship.  As Lee moves into herself, she begins to explore with color. In one scene in particular she applies baby-blue eye shadow to her lids in the manner of a young girl playing “make-up”. Soon her clothing and color choices are marked by bold vibrant colors, in place of the muddy lavender is a vivid and scaly textured vibrant royal purple. The lavender that was once her defining color is now used as it was meant to be, on the lids of her eyes emphasizing their beautiful vibrant blue.  The use of lavender also connects Lee to the orchids that Edward takes such tender care of.  Like his cultivation of the flowers, through their relationship Lee is being cultivated and grown into a treasure of unique beauty. The costuming choices for Lee consist of illusions to specific fashion periods and women’s power in those periods, mirroring Lee’s own growing empowerment. Initially the fashion has hints of 1950/60’s professional wear and her hairstyles are a fusion between youth and those time periods.  Her hair choices are childlike and youthful, including braids and buns worn with headbands and clips. Her clothing is long unflattering skirts, with heavy boxy sweaters, turtlenecks, and flat moccasin like shoes. In many ways she resembles women who are in a conservative religious group such as fundamental Latter Day Saints or Christians. The clothing is female but lacks femininity and sexuality. As she gains power and pride in this relationship and position Lee takes on the fashion of the 1970’s where women were first gaining power and entering into the working world as equals. Her outfits now consist of silky and soft blouses, tighter knee length skirts with hints of sexuality in a properly place slit, and slightly healed shoes. In her final incarnation Lee’s hair and clothing represent a soft yet powerful feminine look and indicate a woman who is secure and seductive. A vivid example of her coming into this is the contrasts of clothing in the masturbation scene where she is fantasizing about Edward and Peter. In the interactions with Edward she is dressed in sophisticated yet sexy outfits with her hair soft and flowing, with Peter on the other hand she is clothed in brown nerdy clothing her hair pulled tightly back all of which is de-void of a feminine sensuality and sexuality.  
For Lee, Edward represents the freedom to be her whole self and Peter is that which binds and smothers her. This is true of the camera angles when used for the two relationships, with Edward the camera shifts between wider shots and intimate close ups. Edward and his reactions to his and Lee’s relationship have a central focus in the shots. The camera fixates on Edward because he is the equal to Lee and the object of her desire.  In contrast most of the shots with Peter have a tight suffocating yet also distant feel and he is never the emphasis of the shot. Peter is never the center in any of the shot always hovering off to the side and usually turned towards Lee with her as the focus. This positioning of Peter stands out most clearly in the scenes where they are meeting his parents and the sex scene. In the scene with his parents Peter is physically pulled into him self and turned toward Lee. She is the focus of this interaction and her discomfort is seen through her facial expressions and the tight camera shots. During the sex scene between these two characters the focus is solely on Lee. The camera highlights her boredom and lack of engagement, barely catching Peter’s reaction. The absolute disconnection between the two characters is evident.  Lastly, because Shainberg’s intention with the story is to see the healing and redemptive qualities of this relationship, the over all look is warm and soft. The various elements create an inviting and nostalgic look. Where as many other films that include this type of relationship would be shot in such a manner that emphasizes the untraditional dynamics of S&M relationally, this film focuses more on the restorative relationship instead of the sexual proclivities.
Shainberg: It deals in the way in which sex, love and power are all inter-related and I was very interested in doing a love story that was different and that would deal with these kinds of issues but not in a creepy way or a dark way but in a way that had a sort of lightness and beauty to it. I don't think that there's anything odd, at all, about what they're doing. I think what while what they're doing is perhaps metaphorically bigger than the way many love relationships work in reality, that all relationships have these aspects.[2]

The biblical text of Ecclesiastes, or The Preacher, is a dialogue on finding purpose and meaning in life. The author, who claims to be King Solomon, has spent his life trying to understand the ways and means of life.  Like the two main characters in “Secretary”, the Preacher is searching for meaning through a variety of area. When Lee is first encountered in this film she shares the idea with the Preacher that “all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” [3]  Nothing so far in her life has been able to offer meaning, it seems empty and void everyone around her seeks to fill their lives with constructs of meaning that have an empty center.  For the Preacher wisdom has not lead him to find meaning in life only to see greater pain and suffering (Ecclesiastes 1:18), this is true of Lee as well. Her wisdom and ability to see the truth of her parent’s abusive relationship and her father’s alcoholism contributes to her cutting and self-mutilation. As Edward identifies, for Lee cutting helps her feel alive, “sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of countenance the heart is made glad. “[4]  The Preacher understands like Lee that pain is a means through which one becomes aware of being alive.  Even as she move into a healthier expression of her self and life pain and pleasure continue to be part of how Lee understands the world around her. Life will forever be a balance between joy and sorrow, “for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”[5] In contrast Edward, for much of the movie, doesn’t understand that there might be a season and time for his darker passions a context in which they are safely expressed. He believes that they are an endless toiling appetite that can never be satisfied.[6] It is only through the determination of Lee’s love and fight for him that he is able to stop being afraid of their relationship. When he says to Lee “We can’t do this 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”[7] Edward expresses his underlying fear of this desire sexually and for Lee. He doesn’t yet understand that “two are better than one…for if they fall, one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up.”[8] Together Edward and Lee are able to find happiness, balance, and meaning in their lives. This is most evident in the scene where he bathes her and they lay down on the bed of grass. Finally these two characters are naked and unashamed before each other totally accepting of the whole person. Scars and darkness are kissed and held by the beloved.  It is Lee who first realizes that their relationship is a blessing. She takes steps to understand their unique relationship, learning how to create a safe and equal dynamic. Lee through her trial in the office calls Edward to love, to “enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life which he has given you under the sun, because this is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might.”[9] No longer will these two people live in isolation or alone in pain, they have found each other and a working relationship that inspires them to work with all their might. They have found blessing, care, and space where life is no longer vanity but rot with the essence of humanity, connection and relationship with another whom you love. Like the Preacher, Lee and Edward have found that connection and relationship are the things that are to be most treasured in life. Ecclesiastes is a wonderful biblical text for dialoguing with film, especially films of this current post-modern generation because it offers all aspects of life and yet still affirms the central human need for relationship and meaning.
            Over the years since it first came out “Secretary” has been a film that I have found myself drawn to. I was so taken with the bathing/grass bed scene that I used its imagery as my visual understanding for what the redemption of the Bride of Christ might look like in Revelation. As Edward purifies and cleanses Lee of all her past pain, so does Christ purify and cleanse his Bride the broken church. Both brides are then brought to a pure restorative state where they are naked and unashamed before their husband/lover. I believe that film has the power to speak truth in image and story, it seeps into our walled and closed off hearts softly echoing truth.  In my life film is one of the two places I have heard the voice of God clearly speaking. Often for me film has been a place of illumination, offering an image of a biblical or theological concept. For example there is a scene in the film V for Vendetta, where the main Evey has been tested until she has lost the fear of death, she is then taken naked up to a rooftop in a rainstorm by her protector “V”, for me this scene became how I understood the idea of baptism for the early church. It is that which conquers the fear of death to be released into living life fully with purpose no longer fettered by fear.  Similarly, the film “Pan’s Labyrinth” while filled with hard to watch imagery offered me as viewer a better understanding of what it means to live fully in the tension of the already and not yet of life.  This film stands for me as the personification of living as a child of God in a context where that reality is not clearly seen. The sacrifice and redemption in the film stayed in my heart for a long while after viewing the film. It forced me to sit and wrestle with those concepts. Since film has been the vehicle in which spiritual and philosophical concepts are illuminated for my understanding, I find that I want to encourage that type of engagement for others.  Recognizing that I will always encounter film through a lens that seeks relationship and redemption, I also find it important for film to speak for it’s self. As has been address in this class and the reading for this class, it can be easy to coat or seek for film to be “Christianized or Gospelized” instead of allowing the film to speak.  As I engage in dialogues between film and scripture I seek to have both hold their own weight. Like with this dialogue between Ecclesiastes and Secretary, each has places of overlap and divergence. For many Christians watching or finding redemption and biblical connection in a film that deals with an S & M relationship seems outside the context acceptable film viewing and engagement. I on the other hand find that the most powerful and redemptive films in my collection are those, which at first glance seem to having no part in the Christian story. These films resemble the over looked or passed over stories of the biblical text, stories like Tamar & Judah, Tamar & Amnon, Sarah and Hagar, these are hard and messy stories where things are not perfect but God is present and working.  I believe that dialogue between biblical text and film should be about redemption and relationship of life in all its beauty and brokenness.

[1] Shainberg, Steven, Secretary, Lions Gate, 2002
[2]  Steven Shainberg Talks about “Secretary”, About Movies Interview with Steven Shainberg,, Lions Gate Films, 2002
[3] Ecclesiastes 2:11 RSV
[4] Ecclesiastes 6: 3 RSV
[5] Ecclesiastes 3:1 RSV
[6] Ecclesiastes 6:7 RSV
[7]  Shainberg, Secretary
[8] Ecclesiastes 4:9-10
[9] Ecclesiastes 9:9-10

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