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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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If you’ve seen any previews, you know that Secretary is a racy comedy.

If only it were that simple.

Sharp Comfort

Gyllenhaal is willing to do anything as James Spader's secretaryLee (Maggie Gyllenhaal) just got out of the hospital. It is the day of her sister’s wedding, probably not the best day to come home from an institution. When the pink taffeta crowds become too much for her, she retreats into her room and seeks solace in the one thing that has always given her comfort.

Her special “comfort” box has everything she needs. Iodine, cotton balls, gauze, a razor blade, a metal drill bit, a sharpening stone, and her favorite implement, the pointy-footed plastic ballerina whose toes sharpen nicely on the stone....

Secretary Wanted

Lee still lives with her parents. She’s never had a job nor any sort of independence, but she realizes she has to begin making an attempt. At the community college she learns she’s good at typing, which allows, even requires, a certain mental distance. Proof of skills in hand, she accepts a job as a secretary for E. Edward Gray, Esquire (James Spader, Sex Lies & Videotape, Crash). “Secretary,” she says with sincere awe and wonder. Lee’s interview is surreal. The office is a shambles, the last secretary is leaving in a huff, and Mr. Gray (Spader), seems to be drugged and dazed. The scene is even funnier to us because for all Lee knows, this is what a normal office should look like.

For most people, having Gray as a boss would be a nightmare. He belittles Lee for every typo, he criticizes her personal habits, and his attitude drips with contempt and disgust. It’s no wonder he has a permanent “Secretary Wanted” sign hanging in front of his office, like a motel’s “no/vacancy” sign.

Perverts are People Too

But Lee enjoys the pain Mr. Gray causes her, and Gray enjoys causing it. It’s a situation that works for both of them. When they both realize this, their relationship becomes, unspoken, something more than boss and secretary, it becomes master and slave.

The surprising thing about Secretary is that there is real love behind the dominant/submissive relationship. Although some of the situations are played for comedy, the film is not just a lewd joke, told by someone with a “normal” sexual appetite. Secretary actually gets into the minds of dominant/submissives and takes their point of view. By the end, it even makes the case for acceptance. “Perverts” are people too.

Secretary’s Contemporaries

This year’s The Piano Teacher also features a sexually frustrated woman who finds enjoyment in self mutilation. The big difference is that Secretary takes its subject less seriously. It’s also feels more “American” somehow. It’s not as subtle, and maybe not as deep or ambitious.

Secretary also brings to mind Igby Goes Down. Both are dark comedies with troubled heroes. However, music was a problem in Igby — it kept “helping” set a tone and ended up taking it too far — The music was much better in this film. Angelo Badalmenti, whom David Lynch uses for his films, wrote the understated music for Secretary. The other big difference is that Igby has much more mainstream appeal. I can’t recommend Secretary to my parents, for example, because of its subject matter.

Final Recommendation

Because of its subject matter, Secretary may make some people feel uncomfortable at times, but that has more to do with personal taste than with any fault of the film. Secretary is carefully crafted, well acted, and funny in all the right places. You’ll just have to decide if a little S&M is what you want served with your popcorn.