Thursday, July 12, 2012

Stripping down: Magic Mike


Steven Soderbergh has worked with George Clooney, Michael Douglas, Benicio Del Toro, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, and a host of other stars, but lately he seems more intrigued by the non-actor. The Girlfriend Experience and Haywire are anchored by the awkward, wooden performances of, respectively, porn star Sasha Grey and fighter Gina Carano; and while the professional acting in Magic Mike includes Michael McConaughey's justly celebrated turn as the impresario of a strip joint, it's also full of scenes with supporting actors that feel more like line readings than glimpses into the lives of fully embodied characters. All of this can be explained away with just a dash of auteurism and a bit of Brecht, seeing Soderbergh's films as a daring balancing act between Sidney Lumet and Jean-Luc Godard. Of course he's interested in characters, but he wants to reveal the workings of cinema too. So in some way Magic Mike is not only about a bunch of Tampa-area strippers: it's also "about" the idea of performance itself. Bad acting becomes film theory.

Channing Tatum is good, actually, but I wonder how much Soderbergh had to do with this: Tatum used to be a stripper. I assume the moves he puts on display in this film are some of his golden oldies, staged for the camera with a few new inflections. (McConaughey is more impressive because you can imagine him and the director having long conversations about the exact number of gyrations necessary in a given scene: there is actually some new work being done there). I am not sure anyone else in the movie is very good, though. Cody Horn is a good sport, but her main achievement is to disprove the Kuleshov effect when she watches her little brother strip: What are we supposed to be reading into her face, exactly?

Soderbergh does attain a deft mixture of immersion and distance in the beefcake scenes. At once plunging us into the sweat and swelter of a male revue circa midnight (or into the middle of a stripper's sex romp with one of his clients a few hours later), he also comes up with just the right composition to remind us that we are watching a movie.  Of course, no one is going to see this for the film theory, and it's not a tract against consumer capitalism in any event: the closest Magic Mike gets to the critical edge of New Hollywood cinema circa the 1970s is when Soderbergh uses the old-school, Saul Bass-designed Warners logo at the beginning of the film, which is without question the coolest thing I have seen in any studio release this year. (More auteurs should pay tribute to old-school intros like that: I remember getting chills when David Gordon Green brought out the great United Artists logo from the 1980s at the beginning of Undertow). There is, however, a very nicely achieved feeling of economic desperation coursing throughout this movie, an attention to the simple everyday necessity of dollars and cents which is more acute than anything in American cinema since Take Shelter. The major plot point in this film turns not on Channing Tatum's abs, but on his character's flaccid credit score.

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