Monday, July 02, 2012

Tampa and Xquisite

It's important to keep up with whatever Steven Soderbergh's doing because he's one of the most talented American Independent filmmakers currently working. He also does studio productions, but it is apparent that creative freedom means a lot to him. There are rumors that he's "given up trying to make important films"; however, his work is nevertheless intriguing because he's finding projects that cost less and he keeps churning them out. His worldview is sophisticated and typically seeks out nuances pertaining to mass media pop culture and to a lesser degree, historical and global political subjects; but, he also knows how to be sexy and gear vehicles toward younger or say, more lowbrow audiences.

Magic Mike (2012, Steven Soderbergh) is both fun and funny. The title character definitely anchors the narrative and Channing Tatum's role in the film is a star turn that capitalizes on his star persona and a reported real life stint as a 19 year old stripper in Tampa. But, in many ways, Matthew McConaghuey steals the show. McConaghuey stars as the owner of the Xsquisite all male revue club, Dallas, and projects such charisma mixed with pastiche of his own star persona that he can come across as the only character with any real life to them.

So if I may backtrack, Magic Mike is a fun movie about Dallas and his career. Dallas is flamboyantly over the top, larger than life, dripping with some West Coast type semblance of what must be an attempt at the country boy mystique, but all the while completely straight-faced about it. At one hilarious moment, Dallas is getting his troops motivated and waxes something like: "This isn't a joke."

But of course we know it is. The tone of the film is that of a familiarly over-recylced narrative: backstage performer drama, or ingenue + veteran performer + power producer/manager + one star ascends as another descends. See also 42nd Street (1933, Lloyd Bacon), A Star Is Born (1937, William Wellman), Stage Door (1937, Gregory La Cava), All About Eve (1950, Joseph L. Mankiewicz) Showgirls (1995, Paul Verhoeven), Velvet Goldmine (1998, Todd Haynes) or Black Swan (2010, Darren Aronofsky) for examples.

What Magic Mike adds to the backstage performance genre is a well-placed sense of cheapness. The millieu here is morally and ethically on par with Showgirls; however, Showgirls celebrates excess, whereas there's something sad about all of these young dumb sexy kids in Tampa. Mike reminds me of a strata of subculture I perceive as dressing cooler, looking sexier, and partying way more than I do in real life. (I suppose the Olivia Munn charcter is offered as my surrogate.) So, while Mike has no problem getting paid or laid in Tampa, he also suffers from a stasis that he can't quite overcome. And in the film, he isn't equipped to. Mike's practically naïve
to the point of being stupid; or not just naïve, but disaffected. Normally I don't criticize qualms like this so harshly, but I found a few troubling issues with the script:
  • Why doesn't Mike ever tell The Kid more, like what's really bugging him?
  • Why does Mike give The Kid so much money and not seem to care?
  • Why does Mike quit right after giving away his savings?
  • Why does Dallas spend the whole movie refusing to dance, then does with no explanation?
In addition to all of this, the scene in the bank where he wears the clear lenses/fake glasses to look professional speaks a lot about what Mike's really all about. He seems to be performing the role of an entrepeneur as if he were onstage in Xquisite. And his table business at first was something I found virtuous, but by the end, like The Kid, I thought it was just stupid crap.

If I'm being hard on Mike, it's actually because I feel genuine sympathy for his character. He's like a Replikant out of Blade Runner (1982, Ridley Scott) in the sense that he's young and stupid and he knows he's about to die. In all seriousness, I find something poetically and profoundly tragic about a thirty year old male stripper.

Okay, so if Vegas is the locus of the glamorous excess found in Showgirls, then Tampa is more of a hotbead for dumb strippers and sorority sleaze. Everyone looks beautiful in this filmed Tampa, but in a cheap and trashy way. Soderbergh matches his content with a form that lets most of the strip club action play out in long takes from very wide angle masters. There's not a lot of camera movement, but Magic Mike doesn't suffer from the filmed-play look that marred The Girlfriend Experience (2009, Soderbergh). He's right--the club is filmed like a real strip club or a document of one, as opposed to a strip club that's been lit like a movie and filmed from a bunch of different coverage.

Finally, to support my claim that there's a cheap theme throughout this movie, I'll just bring up the Warner studio card from the 1970s and the montages. I can't figure out why they used the Seventies Warner logo. Because movies started showing a lot of sex in the Seventies? Because porno movies began being produced in the Seventies? I guess. The visuals are all glittery (the black and white ecstasy deal into red and blue sexcapades particularly proved eye-catching). But the montages in Magic Mike indulge the greatest strength of the montage. To compress time? No--to have cheesy fun. The montages cracked me up almost as much as wathcing the men dance.

No matter who you are, it's weird, but I imagine you'll find this movie hilarious. The theatre I was at was packed with women, but there were explosions of laughter continually throughout the screening. I think there is a sense of as laughing with/not at these courageous exhibitionists.

Riley Keough and her micro pig are awesome in the movie.


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