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December 03, 2005

Comparative Media: Prostitution

Klute The Crimson Petal and the White Grand Theft Auto

Over the last months I've had the opportunity to examine prostitution in a movie, a book, and a game, and I'd like to contrast the three.

The first portrayal was in Klute, directed by Alan Pakula and released in 1971, which makes it just as old as I am. Like me, the film moves a little slower than I'd like, is showing some wear and tear around the edges, and could probably use some trimming down, but there still are some decent bits. Jane Fonda's performance as Bree, the prostitute at the center of the mysterious disappearance of a small-town businessman who went missing in a visit to the big city, swept the major film awards for Best Actress in the year it came out, and it's still what holds the film together. We see her with Donald Sutherland (the titular gumshoe) in scenes filled with sexual tension -- she is frank, he is polite and not entirely naive, but certainly has a midwestern innocence about him.

Film, of course, is a primarily visual medium. There are a couple of interesting things about the direction and cinematography of the film which seem to be making statements about prostitution. The first is that many scenes are shot through windows -- the killer, before we are shown his identity¹, is frequently separated from Bree and Klute via a skylight window, watching them interact. We hear his heavy breathing and are reminded that in watching the tension in the scene, we are similar to the voyeur. I mention this because the technique of becoming a voyeur is relevant to the next medium, not so much to what I have to say about this one.

Enough about voyeurism: the other thing I saw a lot of in watching the film was that frequently Fonda/Bree was filmed against shadows which parallel her own figure or face, as if one of those Victorian portraits² has been enlarged and used to stencil the scene. This is set apart from Fonda enough that a wedge of light can be interposed in between her and her shadow. Writing that phrase, I think of Peter Pan and wonder if what Pakula was going for was to intimate that prostitutes are cut off permanently from their innocence, though I didn't think of the connection at the time. It might also be that Pakula is suggesting that Bree is dogged by the shadows of her life thus far everywhere she goes, that she always has the shadow-self lurking in the background.

It's immensely cool, from a visual perspective, that at the end of the film, the killer gets thrown through a window -- his body shadowed in the front and backlit by the window, unifying visual themes we've been seeing throughout the experience.

Pakula uses the visual language of film to explore some themes in prostitution; in another way, Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White³ explores (among other things) the first theme I discuss above, that of the voyeur to prostitution.

In a move that is very unusual, Faber's book is often narrated in the second person -- the reader is directly addressed as "you", and instructed to follow different characters around directly by the author/3rd-person omniscient narrator in this way. To paraphrase sections in the book, since I don't have a written copy handy, it's not uncommon to have the author say things like, "You've come to a decision -- should you follow so-and-so or stay here with our-original-focus? Don't worry, we'll return to our-focus later, let's watch what so-and-so will do next."

It's an interesting technique, no less because for much of the novel we are following a particular prostitute, her client (who becomes her sole client shortly after the opening of the novel -- indeed we never hear of her being with other clients except in flashbacks), and the wife of her client. We are reminded that as readers, we are voyeurs in much the way we are voyeurs in Pakula's film -- we are seeing scenes that we would ordinarily have no access to whatsoever.

There's much here about prostitution, as well. The novel is set in the Victorian era, a time when men held all social power4; prostitutes, while often seen as women who have fallen from grace, are more accurately described as women who have fought for survival amongst the treacherous social conditions of the time. Women, in the absence of men, had few options: work for an incredibly low wage doing back-breaking labor in a factory or sell themselves. It's not as stark as all that, but it might as well be.

The novel uses prostitution as a way to examine the interplay of two conflicting masculine desires -- the madonna and the whore, the wife/mother and the prostitute. In bringing in the reader almost as a participant, and certainly as a voyeur, via the use of second person techniques and description, the novel also asks readers to consider their own views on these desires, whatever the reader's gender. Certainly, it's not all that cut-and-dried, since a novel nearly 850 pages in length needs to spend a lot of time examining several themes from a lot of angles, but this is part of what's going on. In the end, we are left knowing that Faber's prostitutes have both mother and whore in them by the novel's final passages, and in a way, we are encouraged to view the former as the more important part of their natures.

This is the point in the essay where I start talking about the most well-known representation of prostitution in games -- that of the latest games in the Grand Theft Auto series.

The thing is, I don't have a lot to say; nor do the games. I've played the game enough to know what roles they fill; prostitutes in GTA are sources of health, they're sources of money, and they're mission objectives (as in the early mission to deliver some number of prostitutes to the Policeman's Ball). In other words, they are mostly reduced to mere mechanics, just pieces on the board.

This is perhaps appropriate to the character -- like Richard Stark's character Parker, the nameless protagonist of GTA3 may well see the prostitutes and all other things as merely steps on his way to something greater, rather than people with their own motivations and needs. Like that nameless protagonist, we're invited to see them the same way.

I rebel against this -- while I appreciate the freedom of the series and the design innovation it represents, I had a hard time with the play itself, and the theme. In fact, long before I had any need to visit a prostitute in-game to regain health, I had done the early Policeman's Ball mission, and it left me feeling kind of cold. It's not that other games (nor, indeed, other media) haven't treated cops as being as steeped in crime as the criminals themselves; it's more that I don't want to believe that of policemen generally -- I want to see them as people in difficult situations who are doing the best they can.

I guess what happens here is that there's a fundamental disconnect between me and the character I control, unlike that of a novel. Although The Crimson Petal and the White seeks to implicate me via its use of second person narration, the tension serves to remind me of my role as reader. In GTA, I'm repulsed because I don't want to view other people, even prostitutes, merely as means to an end5.

I've mentioned before that there are times when this disconnect is okay with me, when I can use facts about the character to drive me forward. But there really isn't any character in GTA3 that I control -- he doesn't have a voice, his face contains no detail, I don't even think he has a name. In the end, this means a game like GTA3 has nothing to say about prostitution, only about my status as a gamer, and that's what made me put down the controller. Sure, there was lots of freedom to do as I chose -- but in a vacuum in which I could learn little about myself, or explore themes of some kind, or examine anything at all but a vast boardgame.

The medium lends itself to this kind of mechanical view of its subjects; because games are about what the player can do, it's hard to find ways to make interesting or even remotely nuanced statements about anything, to explore themes. As I said in my last post, I believe we'll have to find a way to do so, or else perish.

¹About the killer: because this is a film from the 1970s, we who have been watching movies in the three decades since are well versed in the stories that they tell, and we can pretty much identify him as soon as he comes on screen. In this way, it reminds me a little bit of how trite a movie like Play Misty for Me would seem to someone who has seen Fatal Attraction, but of course, Eastwood's film appeared in the same year as Klute -- his directorial debut. Connections like these are why I could peruse the IMDB for hours, left to my own devices. It's also why I have a Netflix queue which is nearly 400 items long...(back)
²Here, I'm afraid, I must show my ignorance. I asked a friend about the term via IM, but he didn't respond in time to make print. Basically, you know, one of those portraits where it's a profile of a head all in black against a white background.(back)
³Okay, this one I know. The title comes from the introductory line of a poem from Tennyson; what I don't have any sense of whatsoever is how the poem relates to the book. The poem is beautiful, but I am no great reader of poetry, and it's meaning to me is unclear. There are probably essays somewhere about stuff like that, for those who are interested, but I haven't run any down. I suspect that the use of color are substitutes for the reality of life (the crimson of blood, for example) contrasted against the purity of the feminine ideal of the time (the purity of white). (back)
4Here I am only reflecting the facts portrayed in the novel, and making no representations about their veracity, nor making any claims for or against any changes the modern era has or hasn't brought to this balance of power. In writing this footnote, in case you were wondering, I feel entirely like an academician. ;)(back)
5There you go, a perfectly good gamer ruined by the Golden Rule.(back)

Posted by Brett Douville at December 3, 2005 10:44 PM

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