Saturday, June 30, 2012

Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, 2012) -- A

Have you ever done a 180 on a director over the course of only a few films? I certainly have with Steven Soderbergh. Once reviled, now revered for his last three, progressively improving works (Contagion, Haywire) and culminating in Magic Mike, the streamlined, zeitgeist-registering masterpiece many falsely claimed The Social Network to be (though a very good film, in its own right), the artisan director has finally knocked the cover off the ball with his 24th feature film. More than simply a "flavor of the month" retreat for these long, hot summer days, Soderbergh and first time screenwriter Reid Carolin have constructed a work that deserves mention not just alongside (and atop) films like Boogie Nights and The Social Network (the two leads even say "this is our time" to each other here) but, more importantly, it settles in comfortably next to Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, especially in both its sexualized narrative and marketing strategies as maguffin's for revealing its true, au bout du fossé, la culbute aims. Magic Mike, like Kubrick's final film, is really about cinema as seduction, layering its perceived aims with implicit revelations about socio-cultural decorum and politicizing the "fuck." Everyone fucks in both films and almost everyone (the exception being Kubrick's vision is bleaker and more stunningly prescient) comes out unscathed - at least, at the expense of humanity, momentarily salvaging the individual. If Soderbergh lacks Kubrick's comprehensive structural/visual aims (or, has them in lesser degrees), he matches the great director's piercing, what I'll call, hopeful misanthropy, as ambivalent about the capacity for true societal healing (in the spiritual sense) as he is the individual's capacity for self-sacrifice. Thus, Magic Mike nearly does for self and sexploitation what Eyes Wide Shut did for capitalism.

Soderbergh's last three films have truly redefined the director's oeuvre; in the past, Soderbergh often resembled an insufferable mix/concoction filmmaker, with aims so disparate the seams not only showed, but were literally ripping apart within the frames. These works consisted of art house cliches, essentially the qualities that have created something like Sundance - dull, boring, clinical, academic works without conviction and, if not quite dispassionate, detached from anything resembling coherent humanity. All that changed, however, with Contagion, when Soderbergh began to display not only an interest in making mainstream, moderately budgeted works, but locating within its genre template more than a reveling in its visual and syntactical archetypes (The Underneath, The Limey, and The Good German are the most disgusting examples). Instead, Soderbergh located a visual short-hand that relied heavily on deceit. With Contagion, the deceit lay in presenting a seemingly straight-forward, realist horror film that focused less on those rote narrative aims and more on its clinical form as a means of tracing an affectless culture, especially with regard to crisis response and waning senses of Nationalism. The most frightening thing about Contagion is not its Outbreak-like narrative, but the rapidity with which tradition and culture are disintegrating and displaced. Improving still with Haywire, his follow-up effort, Soderbergh created a Godardian action film that equally, implicitly (but playfully) probes global capital as the root of not just Eurocentric, fetishistic return (in films), but the locus for loutish politicians and, to quote George Carlin, "piece-of-shit businessmen" that want to fuck the world (humanity, more exactly) as intensely as straight-male viewers want to fuck Gina Carano. All of this, wrapped in a sequential experiment that evokes when Godard called Vivre Sa Vie "a series of variations on how one might shoot a conversation." Haywire becomes a series of variations on how one might shoot an action sequence (among other things), retaining the rigor of formal practice with the modest, accessible textual points that embody cinema's most notable, commendable practitioners.  

Magic Mike, finally, represents the apex for this change of pace and focus. In many ways, it culminates the ultra-contemporary, immanently relevant territory Soderbergh has been venturing towards. Though many of his films have dealt explicitly with sex, Contagion, Haywire, and Magic Mike consummate not just his mainstream "Fuck" trilogy, let's call it, but also solidifies his latest films as embodying a style of mainstream filmmaking I have termed Trojan-Horse Cinema i.e. films that are sold as generic, mainstream entries, but actually contain thoughtful, subversive, and often controversial narrative/visual aspects within, a trend which has seen some interesting ascension within the past few years, Soderbergh's recent output being primary examples. I have more fully detailed these ideas in my Master's Thesis, entitled: "Postmodernism, Genre, Seduction: Identifying Trojan-Horse Cinema," which will hopefully be online in the coming months.

A central necessity of Soderbergh's aims (and a recurring theme of most Trojan-Horse Cinema) is a generic narrative. In this case, Magic Mike (Channing Tatum) is a thirty-year-old, Tampa, Florida based stripper looking for greener pastures. Working for shit-spewing showrunner Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) and waking up with a different woman every morning (we first see him with soon-to-be squeeze Joanna (Olivia Munn)), Mike wants to move to Miami, quit stripping, and start his own, respectable business. The decision to take Adam "The Kid" (Alex Pettyfer) under his wing precipitates the film's three month chronology, where fun times turn to dark days (at least, that's a reductive way of putting it).

Thus, with generic set-up in hand, Soderbergh chooses to go the Eisensteinian route and "make it strange," opting for the semblance of a three-act structure given the triptych temporal demarcations (each tableaux paints a varied, but almost tonally consistent portrait), and framing, shooting, and insisting upon his trademark "detachment," but this time (like in Contagion, especially) as means for examining both the head and ass-end of a culture (forgive the crude, anatomic metaphor). Cerebrally, Soderbergh's vision of contemporary ennui and affective drives work by contrapuntal means; what's on-screen is often exciting and while Soderbergh does not seek to outright "destroy pleasure by analyzing it" (Laura Mulvey), he is ambivalent about socio-political tendencies that excuse/allow anything at the individual's discretion. A generation founded on ecstasy, cocaine, and post-traditional, electronic aural stimulation (a movement which is garnering more and more enthusiasm by the week), the opening monologue by Dallas, in which he lays down the ground rules during the show but admitting, enthusiastically "I think I see a lot of law breakers up in this house," establishes the ambivalent, potentially self-destructive mores the film wishes to parse out.

Entailed within this are social-capitalist superficialities which begin to pile up. Of course, the aesthetic (refreshingly playful, instead of clinical) insistence by the strippers to meet "perfection" (an aging stripper gets The Kid to spray tanner on his leg) extends outside of the club, as when Mike explains why he keeps the plastic on the interior dashboard of his car: "If I keep the plastic on, it'll look brand new when I want to sell it." Looks or, more precisely, resemblance becomes a thematic tick at the heart of Soderbergh's dialogic aims; inherent to that is the necessity of seduction - an invitation for a proposed activity that has alternative motives - and it's a quality Soderbergh has embraced on both micro and macro levels in his recent work.

Building on that, Soderbergh permeates every scene with an underlying sense of dreadful ambivalence, no better characterized than his allowance for the four central characters to get a close-up, simply letting the viewer watch as they watch the (except for one instance) on-stage proceedings. The Kid gets the first one, watching (and soon to be mimicking) the moves of his new-found friends. Dallas gets the next staring close-up when The Kid first takes the stage (patriarchal father exploiting the new blood); most importantly, Adam's sister Brooke (Cody Horn) gets an almost parodic succession of them while watching Mike perform for the first time. She has an affectless, Kubrickian face, yet she is the most stringent, moral presence in the film (Mike even calls her "mom" at one point, for good measure). Her maternal instincts are, unto this point, the only discerning set of eyes, ambiguously watching along with a perceptible mix of pleasure and disgust. Finally, Mike gets his close-up and it's the first time a set of eyes are not turned to the stage; late in the film, having had his money and dreams stripped (pardon the pun) from him, he looks angrily at his fellow dancers, fed-up, his human compassion resulting in personal degradation.

Magic Mike is peppered with economic discussion. Brooke's limp-dick boyfriend (oddly played by screenwriter Carolin) drones on about the differences or similarities between Medicare and home foreclosures. He isn't sure (typical Soderberghian ambivalence of old). Likewise, when Dallas talks about rearing a child and grooming him to watch nothing but "Mad Money" and see him "flushing cash," especially with the slow, 360 degree rotation to reveal all participants reactions, Soderbergh's polemics seems a little too on the nose. At least - such should be the conventional reaction. In many ways, Soderbergh has solved a riddle that plagued the most recent films by Steve McQueen, Drew Goddard, and Joe Carnahan (to name a select few): he has found a way to speak while saying "there's nothing to speak about." His newfound dialectic lies in personifying the inextricable duality of mind and body, the Cartesian myth debunked. Moreover, in synthesizing form and content so acutely, and reigning explicit textual opposition, Soderbergh equally engages a variety of post-cinematic affect that, to quote Steven Shaviro about Neveldine/Taylor's Gamer, is "more radical than reality remains a few steps ahead of any possible critical reflection that one might try to apply to it — including, of course, my own." Soderbergh's sense of neo-neorealism is so tightly wound in its implicit concerns over the legitimacy of narrativity, that these anxieties extend to the characters themselves, manifesting as purely organic (and often viscerally orgasmic) extensions of director-material. Style and narrative in Magic Mike are strangely, stunningly, inextricable.

I began by comparing Magic Mike with Kubrick and Eyes Wide Shut. These similarities encompass both convention and conviction. To start with convention, the less interesting of the two: Soderbergh opens his film with the old Warner Bros. logo, the one Kubrick had before Barry Lyndon, The Shining, and Full Metal Jacket. Not only does Soderbergh uses title cards to abruptly interrupt the action (a Kubrick staple), he uses the exact same lettering and font Kubrick used for Eyes Wide Shut. Dissolves, perhaps Kubrick's favorite transitional cue, are used by Soderbergh with liberal, but precise placement. These borrowings, while fun and exciting for cinephiles (at least, in theory) resemble the kind of impulses amateur directors often employ, mistaking convention for conviction. In my eyes, the entirely of neo-noir beginning with Kasdan's Body Heat are guilty of these sins (including many of Soderbergh's), but that is a speech for another sermon. Luckily, Soderbergh's explicit desires to approach a Kubrickian discursive level extend both to qualities that made the director's work so endlessly impeccable and fascinating, but also engages Soderbergh's egoist (and rightly so) eclecticism - the director who believes no film, narrative, or style is out of his grasp. As such (Kubrick rarely worked in the same genre, much less similar narratives) it's inevitable there will be overlap. Whether these qualities are explicitly intended or not (and we'll never really know) is relatively beside the point.

Nevertheless, those overarching levels of layered meaning within Magic Mike are distilled with Kubrickian patience and intensity. Kubrick had a knack for achieving seeming oxymorons, often with dry irony or polysemous methods of constructing mise-en-scene. Moreover, Soderbergh intimates prideful, shameless sexual obsession as the degeneration of a capital driven society, where pain and pleasure become inseparable or indistinguishable - jouissance. In the final moments of Eyes Wide Shut, Alice (Nicole Kidman) looks at husband Bill (Tom Cruise) and says: "There's only one thing left for us to do." Bill replies, "what's that?" Alice finishes, simply: "Fuck." Mirror this with the final, heavily-ironic and hopeless scene of Magic Mike (which many critics have predictably misread as upbeat and a cop-out) in which Mike asks Brooke, perplexed, about breakfast: "They don't open for seven hours." Brooke responds: "Hmm. What could we do with seven hours?" For a movie littered with F-bombs, Soderbergh chooses to forgo a final utterance. His omission might be the most salient and disturbing of them all.

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