Originally published at GMP.
This is not a review. This is decidedly NOT about stripping, my piece. It has much more to do, honestly, with the piece I posted earlier this week on money and success and spirituality. This is me talking about a film that is in some ways two films that make up Steven Soderbergh’s latest, and it’s a piece of writing that mirrors that all-over-the-placeness of the film and my feelings for it. This is me talking out my feelings about a movie that was made for low budget, that opened on 3000 screens, and has done a serious magic act on its marketing, creating the illusion of one film, while showing another, an act that leaves me wondering what’s really going on in the mind of the magician, um, director.
I’m discombobulated by Magic Mike, not because there were pretty bodies bouncing around. Not because people are somehow magically waking up to the realization that women like to look at men, and not because I finally started to see what all the fuss about Channing Tatum was about.
I’m discombobulated because the movie I saw at the Alamo Ritz the other night, was not the movie I think everyone here at GMP is fussing about.
Yes. There are male strippers. And I do have some thoughts on that.
Yes. Women yelled at the screen. And I do have some thoughts on that too.
Yes. There were some fun moments. Again, more soon.
I think those things weren’t actually what the film was about. Or some of it possibly was, but there’s a meta theme there that my husband pointed out upon my discombobulation (and I give him due credit for the observation). He studies film, watched all the Soderbergh films. This film felt like two films with one meta theme over it all.
Art vs Commerce. Was this an personal allegory set in the world of lost dreams? A hand and eye trick to distract you from one story while you gawk at another?
Did you know that Soderbergh is planning on retiring after his next two films so that he can take up painting? He was born of indie film, a wonderful time in the very late 80’s and early 90’s where filmmakers made films on their own, without corporate interests.
I would imagine that many of Soderbergh’s current films are coated in corporate interests at this point. Perhaps he finds this problematic.
So, Mike. Mike is a furniture maker and he is also an amazing dancer. He has talent, real talent. And he finds himself, for some reason not mentioned, in a trap where in order to make his furniture and perhaps launch himself into the role of a craftsman, he has to use his other talent, dancing, in a strip club.
He’s really good at stripping. He seems genial and good natured, makes his customers feel wonderful, but he’s not very savvy to the machinations of his boss, Dallas, or to what it takes to get a small business loan.
So the film follows this story, of Mike’s desire to make furniture and his realization that he can’t stay in the world of stripping, drugs, all night partying and decadence. He watches a young recruit of his, The Kid, plunge aimlessly into the quicksand that is the club’s world. He gets screwed over by his boss. He gets dumped by his FWB. He sacrifices something really important to save The Kid, which totally messes up Mike’s future.
No one really trusts anyone and everyone is out for something in this big crazy game we call Hollywood, er, stripping. And Mike is a casualty of this world in the worst way. He quits but loses out, spends years saving money only to wind up with nothing, he gains the affection of a woman who disdained him for his job (even while never really allowing that side of his personality and talent to be integrated into himself…”I’m Not Magic Mike!” he cries at one point.) and only connects to him after he leaves the lifestyle
It just seemed so moralistic and sad.
The movie ends with Mike giving up commerce for…well, we aren’t sure. He’s got no cash, he’s given up the “life” of a stripper. Will he continue to dance? Will he make furniture?
We don’t know. It’s really depressing.
Here’s what I found discombobulating. The movie paints a choice-art or money. Furniture making or stripping. Getting so drugged out that you pass out and vomit and a small pig eats your sick, or living in a quiet apartment with a woman who hates your past life…..and…..we don’t know.
This is melodrama and a predictable story. I wanted Mike to be able to use his talents and skills to finance himself. No reason that a professional stripper can’t be level headed. No reason he couldn’t find a loving partner who could accept both aspects of his life. No reason that he couldn’t leverage his skills into a business deal. God knows there are people that do this all over the US! Hell, Channing Tatum WAS A DANCER. And he made the leap into Big Art (ironically sourcing this into the film!).
I wanted to see the film that could have explored those themes. Or even Mike forcing a takeover of Dallas, kicking his unscrupulous ass to the curb. Or maybe a scout from Cirque du Soleil comes to see the show and whisks Mike off to train and perform amazing dance around the world while he hones his skills as a set designer.
Or a world where sex doesn’t lead to drug use and pain, or where there isn’t some bizarre division of lives (Mike the good guy/Mike the Magic Stripper). Instead it was a cautionary tale and I was sad to see that there was just emptiness and a sex negative kind of moralism in play leaving Mike to just….I have no idea what Mike was gonna do next, but I didn’t figure it was gonna be succeed at his dreams.
Mike, unlike Soderbergh, probably doesn’t have millions saved to help fund his furniture career.
So that was the sad, confounding part. That there was this movie going on, that no one may have seen because everyone is like STRIPPERS! which really was such a minor part of the film that it might have been deep sea fishing, and that the stories that could have been born of those themes might have been…well, that’s, as my husband says, a chump’s game to wonder about.
Deal with the film at hand.
The film at hand was, in my opinion, about men and the relationships they share as they reach for dreams and fail them, as they watch each other go down roads best not gone down, as they risk figuring out cheap drugs and tail, or real intimacy (much of which was with each other, albeit not sexually). It was about men without a lot of options (or maybe turning those options-desk jobs and such) down for a life of freedom and restlessness. It was about men trying to figure it out in a terrible economy, without much support, and without a lot of hope. So they took their clothes off. It was just part of the deal to keep themselves afloat. It cost them all, and that what seemed to me to be the moral. You want to make art? You want a furniture business? You’d better shake that money maker, baby, and not complain.
The fun parts? There were some.
Matthew McConaughey. Seriously. The film needed about 50 times more Matthew. Though he was bronzed to a burnt leather hue, and though he appeared to have had Wesson Oil poured all over him, he brought charm, sharpness, wit, and the actual sense of the Dionysian temptations and cynically comic despair of this particular world. From his unethical business dealings to his ability to know what the customers want, to his ability to manipulate the young dreamers, he was by far the best thing in the film.
He’s funny. He does camp well, Matthew, making fun of himself, the world, and the game of filmmaking/stripping all together. He gets it this art and commerce business and Just Keep Livin’ and man can he act.
The dancing? Channing can dance. By far he’s the best dancer in the film. And that’s his only Magic, as Mike. Mike doesn’t seem to have bead on how life works, but man when he’s onstage with a real talent he shines. Since Tatum’s own story of dancing informed the script, it was cool to see him really use his ability to move. But then again, I like dance films.
The hooting and women freaking the hell out? Yeah, it’s a piece of the experience and the women did hoot, though seemed surprised that the film wasn’t mostly that.
Erotic dancers of either gender are pretty amazing, skilled and beautiful and I wish for a world where it would be this more…like everyone would enjoy it and men and women both could see men and women dance and they wouldn’t be treated like trash by society but I have renegade views on all of that. And maybe the hooting and hollering, or sitting back and appreciating would be a sign of respect and glee that the viewer got to see some beautiful bodies do this glorious joyful thing.
As for the hooting and women: I wonder about it. I can only imagine it’s because it’s a group activity and many spectacles provoke hootin and screaming and laughing and clapping (Motocross, Superbowl Halftime Shows, FlashMobs, Circus High Wire Acts). I’m not even convinced that the hooting is due to direct erotic arousal so much as it is “OMG ALL MY FRIENDS ARE HERE AND THIS IS SO WILD AND FUN AND SO TABOO AND OMG WE ARE SO BAAAAAD AND I JUST WANT TO SCREEEEEEEEAAAAAM!!!” like a performance of “we are okay with our sexuality but we aren’t really and this is a place to scream out our culturally….whatever” and I’m totally okay with that. And I guess if it is a way women express direct erotic arousal, that’s cool too.
But it doesn’t seem all that erotic, the hooting. Maybe that’s just me. I’ve never been to a Male Revue so I can’t speak to the experience. The movie wasn’t erotic, per se, to me. It was mostly sad.
I did hoot though, for the record. I hooted when a dance scene opened on Mr. McC’’s face, shadowed and wide eyed and they launched into a huge costumed Busby Berkeley dance number and he was hilarious. I hooted because he made me laugh and that made me, if ever so begrudgingly, love him, if only to just get to say, man you are talented and you so know what’s going on and you are just having fun, aren’t you? You get it, the flesh, the art, the fun of it all.
And maybe that’s what the best part of this film tried to capture, and threaded through the rest of the sadness, and existential fears of growing older without a plan, of desires for art as an actual sustaining life, and for finding a connection with someone for deeper reasons then a late night booty call, or for points in bringing in new blood after you are getting used up.
We all, all of us, want to be wanted. We all want to want. And we want to feel vital and integrated into all of ourselves and in what we create. We want to see and be seen and perhaps a strip club setting is one of the most raw places to set that narrative. We want to dance and laugh and hoot and celebrate bodies and sex and art.
Sure the dynamics, cultural and such about power and who has it and which gaze is doing what and oppressing whom are in play, but to me that’s the least interesting thing about the film, and the most disappointing to me in all the feedback about it. I mean come on.
Maybe at our basest, and at our highest, waggling our parts at each other (especially when waggled well and to a beat and involving dance, storytelling, and humor) is humanity at it’s most honest.
And we don’t have many places to really do that, in America, at least that are honored places. The strip club perhaps is a temple of such desire, only it’s cast in shadow and shame by the legitimate world, and that’s what causes all the troubles.
And perhaps casting a spell of flesh and fantasy and longing and want and being wanted is so valuable that we all need it. And that we don’t have it? That’s a hard thing to think about. And that we want to live lives of our own making, be it furniture or film, and it costs us and we have to do things we don’t want to do in order to have that life…that’s also a hard thing to think about.
And is this moving making us sit with the distraction technique of spectacle that leaves us hooting and hollering, the fuzzy frantic camera angles and cuts that make us feel dizzy and drunk, the camp and “it’s all for fun” aspects of the dance? Is it doing so while cutting us off when it gets good, with the marketing of a film to get women in seats and magazines talking about women and desire and men and bodies?
Is it a story that keeps actual sex and pleasure out of the story, while promising both, all held up against a system that keeps artists from being able to afford to create art without selling out? And is it a total misfire of a film or a choice to get ladies in the theater for naked men, when really it’s a film about men with their clothes on, and their struggles to figure out how to make a living, how to make art, how to figure this shit out without selling out? And who need friends to not jerk them around or fuck up along the way? And partners who don’t judge them and who can accept them for who they are? And how life is not magic, but that we all want magic in our lives.
Perhaps this was it all along. The magic moment, a sleight of hand, a joke perhaps is all on us, the viewers. The women who come for the skin and the men who avoid it. Are we missing the point? I wonder.
I really hope Mike figures out how to make his furniture without hesitation, and that he keeps dancing without shame, and that he finds love from someone who can accept all of him, past and present.
And I hope Mr. Soderbergh gets to paint to his hearts content if that’s what he wants. Cause it’s his option to do so. Would that we all have that option and the magic to make our lives as we wish.
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