Sunday, July 15, 2012

Taking it off

Steven Soderbergh reminds me lately of Orson Welles’ supposed line about a film set being the biggest electric train set a boy ever had. I don’t suppose it’s really as easy as it looks, but he seems to have the ability to make whatever enters his head, and to have mastered the apparatus so that the path from dream to fulfillment is as short and smooth as humanly possible: he’s made ten movies since 2008, including the one he’s currently finishing (and including a project shot in Australia, which he reportedly doesn’t intend to release). It’s less than a year since Contagion, a very compelling, endlessly thought-provoking movie about a global pandemic. A few months after that, he released Haywire, a happily unambitious action piece, seemingly with little in its mind beyond spotlighting its star Gina Carano and smoothly changing the gears. And now he’s come out with Magic Mike, which appears to have been a bigger hit than people expected.

Magic Mike

Loosely based on the early experiences of its star Channing Tatum, it’s the story of a male stripper – and it’s quite true, when I went to see it, the audience was very predominantly female (the New York Times reported it’s also a current popular night out for groups of gay males). The movie kicks off at the height of the magic – Mike, seemingly in his early 30’s or so, and his girlfriend waking up in his handsome Tampa apartment, trying to remember the name of the other girl in their bed; early scenes, firing on all cylinders, lay down a portrait of smoothly-flowing money, diversion and sex (not for the first time in movies, you wonder how much sleep the guy can possibly get), kicking up to an even higher gear as Mike pals around with his new protégé of sorts, Adam (Alex Pettyfer). In the manner of a variation on A Star is Born, Mike starts to lose his mojo as Alex finds his, especially as he becomes more preoccupied by Alex’s sister Brooke, who takes a dim view of the lifestyle. The ending is not remotely difficult to foresee.

Writing here about Contagion, I said that “not for the first time with Soderbergh, you miss the wildness and revelation that characterizes art rather than instruction.” Magic Mike prompts a similar train of thought. The film has any number of strong points – it’s expertly controlled, and Tatum gives a deft performance. Those who paid to see this movie in between summer superhero flicks may have felt, in comparison, that they were being hit over the head with gritty realism. But the key term there, of course, is “in comparison.” In the film’s own vernacular, the film’s an expertly choreographed stripper routine, but Soderbergh never comes close to letting you see the size of his junk.

Satan of strip

I can’t really comment on whether the portrayal of the club is accurate, but it feels too clean and coherent to be. Matthew McConaughey plays the owner and master of ceremonies, strutting and preening like some gleeful Satan of strip. The routines are as tightly choreographed and conceptually advanced as rock videos; the audience is compliant and unthreatening (except for a heavier woman who puts out the back of one of the dancers when he tries to lift her up); it’s much more about coded theatrics than the promise of sex (there’s seaminess around the edges, but the film’s treatment of drug dealing and resulting violence is particularly half-hearted). When Brooke comes to the club for the first time, Soderbergh provides many extended close-ups of her watching Mike’s performance, far apart from the prevailing mood; her precise reaction is unreadable, but the sheer amount of time devoted to her seems to be endorsing her implied critique, to be suggesting that her intelligent, analytical gaze is more worthy than that of the regular patrons, and to start clawing back any straightforward pleasure we may have taken in the spectacle to that point.

This assessment seems to be directed only toward Mike though, not toward the other men up there (including, ultimately, her own brother). His conversation and awareness mark him as embodying greater potential – he could plainly do better. The movie is appealingly specific about money at times, such as in setting out the relative remuneration of stripping versus construction, and in a central scene, Mike’s request for a loan (to finance his real dream of starting his own custom furniture business) is rejected – despite the $13,000 of cash he puts down on the table – because of his lack of an adequate credit history: when the loan officer refers to him as a distressed borrower, he says “I read the news, lady, and the only thing that's distressed is y'all." Soderbergh immediately cuts to black, emphasizing the poignancy of Mike’s plight, as if prompting us to assess him as a victim. But given that we don’t know (for instance) how much he’s looking to borrow or the merits of his business plan, it’s hard to get entirely on board.

Going Fine

The movie eschews any interest in whether, for someone who’s kind of like Mike, but without the talent for crafting custom furniture, this life might actually be viable, even virtuous. Some people, surely, find perpetual fulfillment in the adulation of others; some people remain polyamorous and unsuited for a binary relationship. Of course, Soderbergh couldn’t be expected to explore all those variations, but he chose a pretty narrow path: once we get past the initial razzle-dazzle, the movie starts to seem like a stacked deck, dismantling every element of the Zone we initially thought he occupied (the girlfriend of that opening scene, for instance, suddenly freezes him out and produces a fiancée). If you buy into this implied morality, the ending is a personal victory, but it’s also heavy with the usual Hollywood evasions.

It’s telling that one of Soderbergh’s most satisfying movies, on its own terms, is And Everything is Going Fine, a documentary he made a couple of years ago about the actor and performer Spalding Gray, whose work often consisted of self-written monologues: Soderbergh traced Gray’s life and recurring themes entirely through pre-existing footage, not adding anything new, not even a voice-over or caption, as if seizing the chance to be an assembler of custom cinematic furniture, without the messiness of having to go through the usual grind of obtaining the raw elements. I’m sure Soderbergh likes the process well enough, but his work never communicates the sheer grand/kooky relish of (say) Paul Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. It’s not so surprising that he intends his current activity as a final flourish before formally withdrawing from cinema (although he’s left the door open to change his mind later). I guess, like Mike, he’s got that “is this all there is” kind of feeling. And the truth is, it’s not so hard to believe he’s gotten as much out of this train set as he’s ever going to. 

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