Imagine, if you will, a movie asking for your outrage over a middle-aged white man getting passed over for a promotion in favor of a woman. Imagine that same movie bending your ear with a plea for really real talk about the double standard of sexual harassment. (The double standard being that when a man is harassed, no one will believe him.) Imagine that movie going on to gross $214 million, making it one of the most successful releases of the year, bigger even than Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction.
Disclosure comes from the imagination of novelist and noted yellow-peril truther Michael Crichton. He wrote the novel in '92, just a year after Anita Hill testified that Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her. Director Barry Levinson, a replacement for Milos Forman, brought Disclosure to the silver screen on December 9, 1994. Crichton was at the height of his commercial power then, thanks to the success of Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Jurassic Park in 1993 and the premiere of a television series Crichton created called ER. It was the "writer/creator equivalent of an EGOT," as The Dissolve's Nathan Rabin puts it.
In Disclosure, Michael Douglas plays Tom Sanders, a middle-of-the-rung guy at a tech company named DigiCom. He's got a family, a nice home in Seattle, and, thanks to an important merger, is due for a big promotion. But what this squeaky-clean plan doesn't account for is Meredith Johnson, played by Demi Moore. She's a former flame of Tom's, and is being brought in for the job he wanted.
Her first day on the job, she invites Tom to her office at the close of the day to talk. That's where things get complicated. The question of who acted inappropriately is the movie's big dilemma.
Ross: I'm broken. Disclosure broke my brain. As someone who loves the possibilities of sound x moving pictures, someone who appreciates an insightful thought delivered via a crafted piece of art, someone who ultimately wants to respect people and places and things, I no longer know what to do with myself. Because I watched Disclosure last night.
Truly, I don't think the movie has a single redeeming quality. It thinks it's so fucking smart and provocative and brave enough to say what we (older white men) all know is true. This movie is the hottest of hot garbage.
Like FA, Disclosure opens with the scene of domestic bliss, preparing us for the assault on the bliss of this regular-type family, specifically its greaseball patriarch. Has Michael Douglas's hair ever looked worse? It was disgusting, especially when it was wet and the tendrils dripped on the back of his neck. Blech.
Back to the opening: I really loved that it's a long take of a living room without people in it. It's like, "Look at what this family owns! Don't you want this?" And then there's the business about how they'll be very rich if Tom gets this promotion. They seem to be doing pretty well for themselves without the promotion, tbh.
I love the inadvertent thesis that comes from the laughing-stock character on the ferry that Tom takes pity on. He says something like, "Used to have fun with the girls, now she wants your job." Ruh-roh. Tom doesn't listen to this guy, and so he becomes the prophet of doom everyone ignores before it's too late, before Demi Moore is asking you for a back rub.
I think my favorite part was when Michael Douglas as Tom is looking at himself in the mirror before his EOD meeting with Meredith. He takes off his sad, stained tie. He stares at his sagging face, maybe notices how extra flaccid his entire head/haircut is these days, and it's like he's thinking, "This is the end. My career as a sex symbol is over." I read it against the grain of the movie, which I guess was asking me to do something more like sympathize with Tom?
What sort of acid do you want to spit on this movie? How did you feel about the grossest seduction/sex scene I've maybe ever seen? Those two spouting off porn dialogue at each other was so uncomfortable and awful. The scene was also stupidly long.
I broke my arm once, and it was worse than Disclosure. That's the nicest thing I can say about this movie.
LDP: Hey, man. I warned you. Never let it be said that I don't have your best interests at heart, especially when it comes to terrible techno-thrillers masquerading as erotic thrillers. OOH BABY POWERPOINT PRESENTATIONS AND MEDIATION HEARINGS.
One interesting thing about that long living room take: there's a bas-relief of Medusa's head over the fireplace which I didn't notice the previous time I watched this movie.
In addition to being a, um, unique interior decorating choice, it also parallels weirdly with a bas-relief of Pallas Athena in Tom's office. Basically, you've got your dangerous and overtly sexual femininity contrasted with cool rational asexual femininity, in the personas of Meredith and Catherine/Stephanie/Mrs. Sanders. (I don't know enough about Haida iconography to tell if any of the paintings in the background of various offices have similar meanings.)
Remember when I said that the early '90s were a dark time for fashion? Well, this movie is proof. Vests! The unstructured look! Viscose blends! That hairstyle, which was meant to convey the right combination of rebelliousness (length) and control (front with styling paste or wax or something giga-hold) but mostly just looks like a mullet got lost on Wall Street! Point in favor: BI.
And the thesis-spouting dude: Why, exactly, is an out-of-work conversation-inserter riding the ferry every day? He's basically representative of the entire movie in that regard as well: When scrutinized, absolutely nothing makes any sense. Not the dialogue, not the characters (extra-especially Meredith), and certainly not the plot. I imagine a law professor could use this film as a final exam and tell students to identify all of the legal and HR-related issues raised in a given fifteen-minute block, because yeesh.
But that sex scene. I'm not really comfortable calling it a sex scene; if the genders had been reversed, it would be a rape scene, no ambiguity at all. I get that the idea is that Tom is torn between passion and what passes for intellect (see: Medusa and Athena), but 1) Douglas is not selling it at all, and 2) the only real convincing element is that Demi Moore is hot. But the words coming out of her mouth bear no resemblance to anything anyone would ever say, not even in porn, and the whole thing is creepy as hell even out of context. The emphasis on oral sex as "not really sex" was no doubt reassuring for Bill Clinton several years later, but then the horror movie lighting raises the question of what that scene is, if it isn't sex.
The whole thing is definitely meant to reassure you, especially the part about how sexual harassment is just a game ginned up for other, more important things, the way that rational man can use technology to defeat evil temptress woman, and the bits at the end where Tom is revealed to be a perfectly nice guy who can take a joke—even when his assistant playfully smacks him on the butt with a file!—and is just fine and dandy having a woman for a boss, so long as she's reassuringly maternal and therefore not sexual at all. A friend indeed.
Nice things that can be said about Disclosure: It would make for a hilarious double feature with either The Hunger Games or Catching Fire, because Donald Sutherland did not change a thing from Bob Garvin to President Snow. That's a thing, at least. I'm having trouble coming up with another.
Seattle doesn't come off half as well as either San Francisco or New York, the whole thing looks cheaper, and Demi Moore may be outclassed in the femme fatale department by even Sharon Stone.
Ross: Something I want to add: virtual-reality filing cabinet chase. That has to be the nadir of suspense in techno-thrillers.
Ross: Which of the movies do you find the most interesting? Is it the one you think is the most polished? I know for me it isn't. I think, of these three, Fatal Attraction is the most holistically well constructed, if you can look beyond the basic premise. Like you said in an earlier email to me, it works great as a horror movie. It's suspenseful, well acted—and not just by Close, either; Douglas is pretty great, too—and beautifully shot.
But I think Basic Instinct is the one I most want to revisit or show to friends. Partially because I find it so funny in parts, and partially because it's so ridiculous. It's the most appealing part of Verhoeven's stuff, the craziness, and the sense of loss because most directors working with big budgets right now, making movies that lots of people in the country will see, aren't doing anything nearly as unhinged.
Where do you still see the influence these films? Is there something analogous happening in our current decade? What's reflecting fears in the American unconscious right now, the way that these movies reflected what straight older men were really afraid of in the late '80s/early '90s?
I, for one, would like to program a double feature of Spring Breakers and 12 Years a Slave, my two favorite movies from last year, movies that both come at race in America in strong, distinct ways. Of course, both of those movies are good and smart in their own ways. They do work.
Maybe a better analogy for the Sex Trilogy would be movies like the Red Dawn remake and Olympus Has Fallen, two nu-Yellow Peril movies, both directed at North Korea. But those films didn't have the kind of buzz or make the kind of money that Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, and even Disclosure, made.
Maybe our Time Capsule movies are 9/11-recreation porn like Man of Steel and The Avengers.
LDP: It depends on how you define "interesting." Of the three, I was most interested in revisiting FA, mostly because I remembered it as pretty decent. As you noticed, it took some effort to force myself to watch Disclosure. BI... I dunno. It's one thing to watch it analytically for a discussion like this, but I don't think it's something I'd ever show to friends or revisit for entertainment purposes. There's just too much ick involved, and I still feel that it's too straight, in every sense of the word.
In terms of influence, it's definitely FA; Glenn Close apparently still gets random men telling her that she scared the ever-loving shit out of them in that movie. Hardly anyone remembers anything about Disclosure except that it was bad and BI has been reduced to a beaver-shot punchline in the collective conscious, near as I can tell. I am grateful that it doesn't seem to be feasible to make such nakedly sexist movies any more, at least.
See, I didn't think Spring Breakers dealt with race very well at all, though it clearly hit a lot of buttons re: young female sexuality, which I have already expounded upon at great length. (I haven't had a chance to see 12YaS yet, unfortunately.)
Probably the most analogous movies today are those that address American insecurity re: race, though not well and mostly in the vein of reassuring white people (mostly women, now that I think about it) that things are actually okay and they are not bad people: The Blind Side, The Help, Crash, etc. This isn't new, either, but what does seem to be new is that a wider swath of the population is recognizing them for what they are. That wasn't the case back in the day with the Sex Trilogy, but they've made comparable money and done much better in terms of awards. I would hazard a guess that it can be broken down to the difference between guilt and anger (which is weird, because as a society, we definitely feel way more guilt about sex than race issues).
Ross: I genuinely love Spring Breakers, chiefly because I have a different response to it every time I watch it. (I've probably seen it four or five times now.) The first two times, I focused mainly on the film's engagement with race. The very first time, I was made so uncomfortable by the movie I thought I hated it. But the second time I found that discomfort useful, and what became very important was that it's a movie about white people killing black people and then calling their parents to talk about needing a break from fun. They get to walk away from the massacre. That registered in a very powerful, meaningful way for me. Now when I watch the movie, I find myself more and more sympathetic to the friendship between the young women, am moved by it. Of course, this makes the movie's ending more complicated, but in ways that I dig thinking about it and trying to work through.
I just spent the last few minutes looking at box office returns for the last decade and am having a hard time drawing conclusions, based on just the top 20 or so highest grossing films, that go beyond studio fixations on sequels and franchises. They really do make more money than anything. Couldn't find The Blind Side or The Help anywhere near the top. I do think you're right, though, in that the analogous films are the ones seeking to soothe white concerns about race in America.
One last thought—and this is something you spoke about earlier—is how few of the big, important movies of the last decade have sex scenes. I think of the rise of filmmakers like Christopher Nolan, whose worldview doesn't even seem to accommodate the idea that sex is a thing that happens. He made a movie about dreams that didn't have anything to do with sex, somehow. (I really dislike Nolan, but that's another story.)
There are exceptions, but many are films that are far from being sex positive. I'm thinking of Munich and its astoundingly bad sex scene, the one that connects the act to the bloodshed at the Munich Olympics.
When was the last time I saw a sex scene in an American movie that was meant to approximate something like the erotic? Last year's The Spectacular Now has a very candid, sweet sex scene between two young characters, but it's doing a different kind of work. I'm blanking on anything more.
LDP: I love SB to bits (as you probably figured out already). It's the only movie I own two copies of (one iTunes, one Blu-ray) because I couldn't wait for my physical copy to arrive in the mail prior to rewatching it. That isn't to say that I don't have big problems with it, but they're interesting big problems. Plus there's Vanessa Hudgens in a bikini.
Well, okay, but you can find Avatar at the top, and that's totally the White (Blue) Man's Burden rendered large and pretty, and it has the same reassuring vibe and resultant criticism.
The last American movie I saw in a theater that had a sex scene was Cloud Atlas, and I thought it was both well-done and relevant to the characters and themes, which is what makes them work narratively rather than just being titillating (for me, at least). I didn't think Munich's was all that bad just as a sex scene, but you're right that it was jarring contextually. They really are box-office poison these days, it seems. (CA had other, bigger problems when it came to making bank, though.) Heck, Avatar had a sex scene, but it was cut (and I haven't worked up the interest in checking out the special features). But yes, that was one thing Inception was missing in a big way, not least because of the presence of Tom Hardy. Nolan likes his sex subtextual if at all; for a movie with so little sex, the scenes between JGL and TH sure have inspired a lot of slash.
Ross: Three cheers for that slash correction.