Posted tagged ‘Glenn Kenny’

Doing it, Digitally: A Chat with Glenn Kenny on Steven Soderbergh’s Girlfriend Experience

May 26, 2009

Steven Soderbergh has had what some would call a bipolar career, starting off with his widely acknowledged indie Sex, Lies and Videotape and ending up somewhere around Ocean’s 13 (a three-quel, not a thirteen-quel, thankfully), by way of Erin Brokovich. But even with his mainstream films, Soderbergh has burned the candle at both ends, continuing to make his farcically commercial vehicles while releasing camp, kitsch and craziness like the pastiche film The Good German or the crazy micro-budget Bubble.

The latter film is the result of his partnership with HDNet Films and producer Mark Cuban, shooting on the vaunted RED-One camera, a digital device with the quality of film, and casting mostly non-professional actors as largely versions of themselves for a heady experience that usually involves two-weeks-or-so of shooting and simultaneous video-on-demand releasing. This model, which he used previously for Bubble and his political-epic Che (a selection of the New York Film Festival 2008), is turned towards the smaller, upscale livelihood of a call girl and her personal-trainer boyfriend in his new film, The Girlfriend Experience.


I sat down with Glenn Kenny, a real-life blogger and film critic, who in the film plays a character out of a movie by Todd Solodnz or Todd Field: a smarmy “hobbyist” and rater of escort services who self-identifies as “The Erotic Connoisseur”.

Given that he himself is a blogger and that most of the people in the movie are playing themselves or something similar–Sasha Grey, the lead, is a porn star playing an escort–I asked him if he was worried about people thinking he actually was the part he played.

“Well,” he said, adopting a sardonic tone. “Let’s just say I’m lucky to be married in more ways than one.”

Kenny, a long time film critic and writer who wrote for Premiere magazine for over a decade, now blogs on the web at his site Some Came Running, a place where he talks about movies and his life, but does not in fact rate escorts.

“I was long-time friends with the screenwriters, David Levien and Bryan Koppleman and they had worked with Soderbergh just recently on Ocean’s 13,” Kenny explained. “They were holed up in a hotel room, writing another script entirely, when they saw a couple down outside the hotel which just didn’t seem right; an older man, with a much younger woman in intense clothes, hanging off him, as if for dear life.”

“One of them asked aloud, ‘What’s that?’ and another one of them replied ‘Oh, it’s the Girlfriend Experience, a service where a prostitute doesn’t just dole out sex, but simulated love as well.’ And this got them all thinking and so, David, Bryan and Soderbergh thought there was a script there and wrote it.”

However, even though Levien, Koppleman and Soderbergh collaborated on the script, the script was almost an outline and all the dialogue was improvised with the actors on set immediately, a sort of crystal-meth rush of Mike Leigh method. As a result, a script that was written in March 2007, according to Kenny, ended up heavily referencing September 2008, with the anxiety of the financial crisis and the upcoming election at the forefront.

“They would have newspapers for us on set from the week it was supposed to be and we would just sit around and talk about it,” Kenny recalled.

In the film, Chelsea/Christianne (Sasha Grey) is a practitioner of “The Girlfriend Experience”, while her boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos), a personal trainer, chases his own dreams of breaking it big in the world managing a gym or marketing a line of sportswear. Their relationship is interesting in the acknowledgment of Chelsea’s profession. “You’re the best at what you do.” Chris tells her, when she seems threatened by another escort’s popularity.

This anxiety drives Chelsea to seek “Glenn,” the character played by Glenn Kenny, who runs a website that rates escort services. One of the most sublime moments of the film occurs when Chelsea shows up at an old furniture store to be confronted with an old man who directs her to Kenny’s character, who lives in the back.

Kenny explains: “Steven really wanted to use that store. And when we got there, this old man, the store owner, was there. And Steven said let’s put him in the movie. So I was faced with this old man, who I had just met for the first time and of course it was improvised, so I thought, what could the relationship be between me and this guy and I thought–landlord–but wait, wouldn’t it just be more awful if it was my dad?”

Two more improvised riffs from Kenny also add up to some of the best moments in the film: a description of a prostitute “junket” in Dubai that “Glenn” offers as bait to Chelsea, and a stinging review of Chelsea’s services to him administered, off-screen, for free.

“We actually shot the sex scene, I had to ask my wife about that, but it was cut from the film,” Kenny told me. “And when I wrote my on-set diaries for GQ, they ended up dropping them and I can’t help but think it was because they didn’t see me naked next to Sasha Gray.”

“As for the ‘junket’, well I’m a film critic and I thought that would be funny. I actually heard some sailors I met overseas talk to me about their experience in Dubai and how the most beautiful women they’d ever seen were the Russian hookers they saw in Dubai. So I thought, wouldn’t it be funny if my character brought a bunch of high-class prostitutes to them to try to convince them to ‘buy American.'”

Those diaries, which ended up here on Martin Scorsese’s Auteur Project, are very humorous and provide more insight into the casting process as well as the improvisation on set.

Overall, I thought the film fairly successful, a Steven Soderbergh take on Two or Three Things I Know About Her, with Sasha Grey standing in for Mariana Vlady and an interesting time-capsule of an anxiety not-too-far-gone.

“I like Soderbergh even when he is working on Ocean’s 13, though like all directors he’s made up-and-down films. He just keeps throwing things at you until he gets what he wants; he’s really hands on,” Kenny said. “You know, when they called me up for the part, they told me they needed someone who could talk, who could go-on, who could expound…”

“Who could bloviate?” I offered, giving the root of the term “blog.”

“Yeah,” Glenn Kenny said with a smile. “That too.”

-Nicholas Feitel

Nicholas Feitel also writes for his own blog, Feitelogram

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Required Reading: Who was Manny Farber? Film bloggers respond

November 10, 2008

On the eve of our Manny Farber series, these film bloggers reflect on what makes Farber so important in the history of film.

“We lost Manny Farber in a summer shot through with worry and alarm over the state of film criticism. Returning to his essays, many of us found ourselves jolted, aroused, slapped awake all over again to the possibilities of prose – and perhaps, too, to the realization that the greatest current threat to criticism is not economics but homogeneity, the lulling lure of an always-on feedback loop offered by a community that knows no geography, no hurdles to publishing, no friction. In response to Farber’s example, mass imitation, of course, would be a disaster; but mass inspiration may be Farber’s parting gift.”

-David Hudson, Green Cine Daily

“Flip to any random page of Negative Space and start reading. Soon the feeling will come: tens of dozens of ping-pong balls of thought lobbing and smacking into the walls of your skull, and bouncing around there. It’s hardly an unpleasant sensation. In truth, it’s a giddy one; some of the balls make you laugh, some of them make you cross, some of them make you cross your eyes, some of them knock you right down and make you think, “How could I have thought that when this is so obviously right?” And of course every now and then you do think, “Well that’s just wrong. But still…” And the balls keep coming.

Everyone agrees that nobody wrote about film like Manny Farber did. Fact is, nobody wrote, or writes, like Manny Farber did, period.”

-Glenn Kenny, Some Came Running

“It seems to me that one of the problems with many critics today is that they can’t stop talking about themselves. Their place in film history, then, now, and forever; whether they feel as if they’re clinging to the hull of a sinking ship or rising above it, the need for constant self-definition is revealing and enervating. It’s hard to imagine Manny Farber putting himself through such agonizing paroxysms. Whereas too many critics see film writing as a form of problem solving (their own and the film’s), for Farber criticism was not a mathematical equation (precisely balancing flaws and redeeming traits for a hopeful outcome) but a searching, solitary act with an unknowable result.

A consensus seems to have emerged that Farber’s lasting gift to film criticism was his definition and recuperation of “underground films,” those of the Wellmans and the Fullers, the burly, two-fisted craftsmen; yet this inevitably masculine approach to film history often denies that this man’s very same set of principles were applied so well and without force to works of the avant-garde as well. Farber’s response to Chantal Akerman’s coiled, feminist Jeanne Dielman remains ever true to his focused yet expansive view of art. A beautiful quote about Jeanne Dielman explains this: “The conditions of a minimal underground film…couldn’t have found a better narrative than the one in which a life dedicated to perfection breeds its opposite, an apocalypse of sinister results.” This is not to suppose that Farber was everything to everyone at all times (through his writings, he remained fastidiously himself), but that for him film always retained its pulsating mysteries even as it evolved or mutated. While too many critics bend over backwards to establish a widely functional set of aesthetic and moral criteria, Farber just wrote, and wrote without self-betrayal. To say we should all strive for this in writing is too limited; we should strive for this in life.”

-Michael Koresky, Reverse Shot, Criterion

“For me, the foremost contribution that Manny Farber has made to my life and work as a film critic is the demonstration that criticism itself at its best can be the work of an artist. This means not only that it can explore and experiment as well as describe, explain, analyze, and imitate the work being written about. It also means that the activity of criticism can qualify as a kind of performance existing within a given frame–in the case of Manny, a literary performance resembling both an onrushing jazz solo and a multidirectional painting.”

-Jonathan Rosenbaum, www.jonathanrosenbaum.com

“Farber had few peers in his ability to describe the surfaces of films. The critic Donald Phelps wrote that for Farber, the depths of a film lay in its surfaces. This meant that the activity of interpretation–plumbing the depths of an artwork to unearth its various meanings–often held little interest for him.”

-Girish Shambu, Girish

“Manny Farber adopted the colorful style of the twenties sportwriters he admired, and with Otis Ferguson looking over his shoulder, developed an idiosyncratic critical language all his own. Early on, he championed the manly gut-punch of directors like Hawks, Walsh, and Fuller, while riotously thumping the phony, overheated theatrics of Welles, Wilder, Kazan, and Stevens. Attuned always to the aesthetics of space, he was also a phenomenally gifted (and eccentric) observer of acting talent. Even today, he has as much to teach us about the way films look and feel, the mise en scène and other machinery of cinema’s effects, of what makes good films work and why, as any film critic living or dead.”

-Damon Smith, Filmcatcher.com

“The high muzzle velocity of his films is due to the anarchic energy generated as they constantly shake themselves free of attitudes that threaten to slow them down.”  — “Preston Sturges: Success in the Movies” (1954)

That velocity is what is undoubtedly sexy about Farber’s writing; you’ll find yourself picking up speed only to jam for a moment, take a few blinks, and re-read the last paragraph again or sputter off laughing.  Here lies the ingredients of a great performance; somebody should make them into a play.  Farber’s rubber thumbed nose at ‘photographic weight’ in “the almond-paste-flavored eminence” of smug pictures has become an absorbed odometer one should check once your eyes hit the screen.”

-Daniel Stuyck & Ross Wilbanks, www.jacques-rivette.com

Required Reading is a special series of articles tied to the Film Society’s Manny Farber series. Check back frequently for new reviews, interviews, podcasts and more related to this two-week series of classic cinema.