by Niles Schwartz
Once upon a time, many moons ago, in a galaxy not very far away, when I was young, handsome, and virile, I had a gig as a male stripper. It kind of happened by accident on an Easter Sunday, when some friends at the Saloon got me drunk and convinced me to compete in the amateur competition. I won, and would return to win consistently, scooping up some juicy cash in times of erratic (un)employment. I hooked up with a professional Male Entertainment company, performing with a group at gay clubs throughout the Midwest. I gave it up after awhile; as it is, I’m disposed to be bashful, and throwing away inhibitions for money, even a lot of money, can be taxing, more particularly when the performance involves working for the enjoyment of another sexual orientation. It wasn’t quite Miami Vice undercover, where “undercover” becomes the confusion of “which way is up,” but I found I ultimately preferred keeping my clothes on when dancing. It would, if anything, be an interesting story to tell the grandchildren, or an ice-breaker at parties.
In the meantime, Diablo Cody stole away my dream of being the first Minnesota stripper to be an Academy Award-winning screenwriter. I tumbled out of my twenties, and made but one more “special appearance” at a Rochester event (“Crotch-Fest”) as a favor to my hairdresser. I sort of felt like Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. Niles Schwartz is…The Stripper: an inspiring true-story of survival, hardship, sex, and a body slowly falling apart. All in all, it was better than my other baffling short-term occupation as a taxi driver.
I bring up this blushing biographical episode because male strippers are in the news this month, thanks to another true-life stripper, whose life has been considerably more successful than mine (and whose appearance, I concede, is by all measure superior), Channing Tatum, and a little film ($7 million) called Magic Mike. In the abstract, Magic Mike could be the man-candy gimmick version of Striptease, the notorious Demi Moore flop from 1994, or a new spin on the A Star is Born-styled story of an emerging talent, or Saturday Night Fever sans clothes. With sexy bodies, a hot young star, and an older popular star (Matthew McConaughey) supporting him, Magic Mike was lucky enough to be an independent production that caught big studio distribution from Warner Bros., riding an incredible wave of hype that’s spread virally with the 50 Shades of Grey crowd and radio shows like Lori & Julia on FM 107, not to mention good word-of-mouth at summertime Gay Pride festivals. It turns out there’s a lot of interest in seeing a movie about stripper dudes, the “Cock-Rocking Kings of Tampa,” featuring the novel idea of inverting the “male gaze,” having guys be the objects of the camera’s erotic scrutiny. The theaters are packed with women, some in groups of a dozen, bristling with anticipation and, from my perspective, not really different from the spectators flocking to the Xquisite Night Club featured in the film.
I’ve seen Magic Mike twice. I think it might be a great film. Yet I’m the opposite of its marketing campaign’s target audience. And outside the theaters, as this film grosses $39 million on opening weekend (fantastic for an R-rated drama), I hear bafflement, disappointment, even outright hatred. “I would have left the theater after the first five minutes!” one woman warns another who approaches the box office. Another lady complains how the movie “has these long shots of people just driving, and doing or saying nothing! How stupid!”
Why did I like it? Is it because it was “anthropologically correct,” corresponding to my own experiences? Like Magic Mike’s protégé, Adam (Alex Pettyfer), aka “The Kid,” I was also sporting baggy boxer briefs my first time (I danced to Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” while Adam’s cherry is popped to a techno cover of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”), and I was similarly confused by the protocol of gear-shopping (I didn’t know a cock-ring was supposed to go around the twig and berries; consequently, my first ring was embarrassingly small). Actually, I can’t answer to its accuracy in total good faith; Magic Mike is set in what is exclusively a heterosexual universe of gazing women, whereas I performed for the boys. Indeed, considering Magic Mike’s degree of interest in the gay community (Tatum was recently on the cover of Lavender), its lack of interest in any homosexual context is curious – and perhaps deliberate.
My personal desire to see and study Magic Mike was because it’s directed by Steven Soderbergh, one of the greatest living American filmmakers who has become increasingly demanding in his formal construction of mainstream motion pictures throughout the years (I will laugh with you if you reply, “Yeah, right”). The wunderkind Louisiana-born chameleon whose debut was about the voyeuristic camera-eye (sex, lies, and videotape) has somehow been able to secure his independence on projects big (Traffic, Ocean’s 11, Che, Contagion) and small (Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience, Haywire), interrogating the audience’s role in “Mousetrap” fashion, capturing our consciences while becoming more ruthless in interrogating our amoral late-capitalist world of excessive consumerism. Complaining about how critics and audiences are less receptive to more ambiguous stories and themes while studios have become more conservative, Soderbergh has announced a coming sabbatical/retirement. Approaching a crossroads (he has two more films to complete before he’s finished), his most recent projects are increasingly pointed in capturing the tension between employee and employer (director and studio), when the consumers (audiences) have grown more shallow.
Magic Mike is another beautifully realized zeitgeist drama by Soderbergh, perhaps more urgent in its resonance than any of his other economic commentaries. And just as we occasionally hear characters repeat themselves in a single sentence (“I can’t see a cop in sight”; “I gave the whole college thing the college try”; “He’ll try to figure out something out”), we should understand how Magic Mike is a double-edged movie, its A Star is Born tropes and clichés, promised in the poppy trailer set to the bouncy longing of Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” merely the shiny clothes – or specialty store-bought costume or thong – for a tale much more sad, exhausted, and desperate. Audiences flocked to Magic Mike for the bodies, and they get them. Technically, Soderbergh has made the film advertised.
But Magic Mike leaves its would-be fans with a case of cognitive dissonance, crafting a morality play instead of sin exhibition, where 50 Shades of Grey‘s freedom and release is symptomatic of an excessive culture that’s enabled economic decay and apathy. There’s a reason why Matthew McConaughey’s club owner, the douchey and narcissistic Dallas, moons the camera in a perfectly symmetrical close-up during the picture’s closing minutes. It’s one of the most wonderful moments of implicating a bourgeois audience imaginable (certainly when compared to the far less mirthful indictments of Michael Haneke in The White Ribbon, Cache, or Funny Games), a wry “fuck you” to an economic system that’s fostered a culture of fleshy escapism. Remember, a couple of Soderbergh’s other genre pictures – the sci-fi love story Solaris (2002) and the cubist martial arts thriller Haywire – are among the worst-received movies in history, according to the Cinemascore exit ratings of multiplex goers. For his all-star Contagion, Soderbergh made the upper-middle class family with whom the audience assumes the most agency in part responsible for creating the pandemic that wipes out millions. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Mrs. Emhoff (a name that alludes to “Madoff”) works for a business that creates unsafe environmental conditions overseas. The comfort of our suburban households is funded by a system of destruction from which we are conveniently detached.
In Magic Mike, our reaction is part of the equation – part of the movie, its story, its theme, its characters. And that’s where my memory as a stripper comes in, because as a stripper, you are aware of sight. Flesh is designed and manufactured for visual intake. As Dallas tells newbie Adam (Alex Pettyfer), “You are their vision!” and then mentors the 19-year-old how to symbolically “stick it” to the spectators. The ladies who see the Cock Rocking Kings and their myriad dance routines are part of the cabaret, used as furniture by the grinding dancers who then oftentimes carry the onlookers on stage to simulate various sexual positions (usually, it should be pointed out in this story that is so much about communication and verbal impasses, oral).
This is part of the reason why Soderbergh and his screenwriter Reid Carolin, I believe, made this a stripper tale of hetero dynamics. Women going to see strippers usually go in groups, screaming in delight and laughing to each other; men, on the other hand, generally go alone and are comparably quiet. There is a degree of privacy between spectator and performer, which can become obsessive and enveloping; think of Emil Jannings throwing everything away for Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel. If there is a sexual relationship between Magic Mike’s strippers and a patron, like with Mike and Joanna (Olivia Munn), an adventurous psychology student, it is strictly casual. She seems irritated when Mike tries to ask her too many questions about her private life: “You don’t need to talk,” she says, “just be pretty.” This interplay was somewhat familiar to me, and it’s true. Mike might have a head on his shoulders, with a dream of his own custom furniture business. But his good looks are merely a diversion, not something that renders a gazer spellbound. I’m convinced that a good deal of the cognitive dissonance in Magic Mike’s mainstream audience has to do with how the movie has its own distinctive personality – the mark of its great director and his collaborators – instead of being merely a pretty face with the weight of a Glee episode, or a movie like Dirty Dancing.
We are also tricked if we think that Magic Mike is simply inversing the norms by objectifying men. The audience is also objectified, both as commodity (a cash flow) and as tools the strippers can use for sexual convenience. Adam “the Kid” gets his rocks off with a blow-job from his first customer, a birthday girl celebrating her 21st. The next morning we overhear Mike ask Adam, “How pregnant did you get that girl’s mouth?” Magic Mike has an uncomfortable sense of how women willingly make themselves “furniture,” or “sport-fucks,” as Adam’s down-to-earth sister Brooke (impressive newcomer Cody Horn) says. There is something ridiculous in how the female audience responds to the strippers, just as, honestly, there’s a lot of silliness in the anticipation of Magic Mike’s cinema audience. This is a film that wants to talk to us, and I’m not sure if a bulk of that $39 million opening weekend is ready for the symbolic exchange of Mike’s (or Soderbergh’s) dreams and ideas. Yes, the eyes are on the boys, but they’re also on us.
As Dallas’ stripping business prepares to expand, going “global” with a move to Miami and the promise of equity for the dancers, the celebration inside his beautiful house is juxtaposed against a hurricane, silently blowing against the storm windows and broadcast on large flat-screen televisions. The strippers are sexed-up addicts to the rush of quick cash and a share of someone else’s dream. But the excesses are also meant to remind us how the play for “longevity” is an illusion, a temporary release from the storm of modernity. Just as there are beautiful male bodies in Magic Mike, there’s the constant reminder of cosmetics and tools (exfoliating, penis pumps, energy juice, uppers) and how the body will give out (an older stripper passing out backstage; a back giving out under the weight of a larger customer). Soderbergh’s good-time rock soundtrack pulses to lyrics about makin’ money, and Dallas says that if he ever had kids they wouldn’t go to school; he would just make them watch Mad Money and learn all about investing. Earlier in the film, Brooke’s business/marketing boyfriend moans about insurance clients complaining about how they think they’re owed more than they’re worth, dismissing Brooke’s comparison of housing claims to processing Medicaid forms. But the human body and its health maintenance isn’t too different from keeping houses in order: a room, bed, and car of one’s own in an economy where banks make judgments based on social security numbers being punched in.
Being lost in success is like your sight being lost in undulating flesh; perspective is misplaced. When Adam thanks Mike for giving him the gift of “money, fucking who I want to fuck, and freedom,” the fulfillment of the American dream is not treated positively, but is unbearably sad. We see it in Mike’s face. Tatum, who gives a tremendous performance (and having seen G.I. Joe, I never thought I’d say that), understands this, and Soderbergh’s camera pays attention to the way he is looking at the world around him. Gazing, whether at a strip club or in a movie theater, may create distance in an individual. The empty gloss is itself stripped and revealed to him for what it is. We see it in Mike, and we see it in Brooke, who understands how a stripper could become attached to the thrill of theatrical and plastic transcendence. But what Mike craves, while he’s running out of time as “a bullshit 30-year-old stripper,” is someone to talk and share a meal with.
As with Haywire, Magic Mike pays homage to the filmmaker who exemplified the perfect marriage between hired director and employing studio. Stanley Kubrick was able to fulfill all of his creative needs within a huge, commodity-driven infrastructure, fusing commerce and art. The ghost of Kubrick would then certainly haunt the increasingly jaded Soderbergh, who prepares to step away from his profession. These Kubrickian allusions also point us in a direction of appreciating the dialogue Magic Mike seeks to spark within us. The opening studio icon is the old-school, Saul Bass-designed Warner logo, featured in Barry Lyndon (a contender for my favorite movie, period, also starring a pretty-faced sex symbol in a great performance, Ryan O’Neal). The association is confirmed during the end credits when we see that Soderbergh has listed Magic Mike’s production company as “The Estate of Redmond Barry,” referring to Barry Lyndon’s real name before he, like Mike, adopted a new name and persona to rise through the ranks of society, only to encounter an impasse by an absurdly clockwork universe. The shiny night-club strobe-lit gloss of Magic Mike is strangely akin to Barry Lyndon’s 18th century opulence, the beautiful surfaces covering up a hollow and somber world where history tragically repeats itself.
But another divisive and slow Kubrick masterwork is woven through Magic Mike, and relevant to a much-anticipated movie where audiences are complaining about getting a meal different from the one they ordered. As with Nicole Kidman’s behind at the opening of Eyes Wide Shut, Soderbergh gives the promised ass of Channing Tatum in the opening minutes of Magic Mike. But then, like in Kubrick’s final film, sex is joyless, frustrated, and teased without satisfaction during prolonged periods of voyeurism. At the conclusion of both erotic odysseys (if one chooses to categorize them as such), the male and female leads are finally resolved to get it on – followed by the filmmaker cutting to black and rolling the credits, denying the audience’s hungry gaze!
Both films conclude with sexuality no longer being a game of debt and repayment for public consumption, charade, and spectacle, but restored to privacy and a sense of equal-footing between participants, a dialogue of speech and body that will – hopefully – be enriching, outside the perimeters of Kubrick’s uncanny upper-class panopticon of dreams (the orgy-goers of Somerton), or Dallas’ zero-sum terrain of Mad Money, with the paradox of imprisoning “freedom” in equity and contracts. When young Adam experiences a drug overdose, Soderbergh cuts between the saturated blues and reds, so similar to Eyes Wide Shut’s color scheme while also making us think of the Red, White, & Blue, the lyrics “I’ve become a victim of society” blasting on the soundtrack. Success is a cage; human fulfillment lies elsewhere.
Our eyes are then “wide shut” watching Magic Mike, and the picture insists we see the picture beneath the picture, the film within the film. I guess this “male stripper escapist fantasy” takes me back in time to my own history of covering myself up with a stage persona, but it applies to all jobs. Soderbergh wants to make all of us think about our history as workers, where occupations dictate our identities more than we’d care to admit. Foreigner’s “Feels Like the First Time” plays over the end credits, so parallel to that 1975 Warner Bros. logo at the beginning, reminding us how we haven’t escaped from history, much as we’re lost in a happy blur as time happens, forgetting the name of the person from the night before, naked and sleeping in our bed. With that realization, maybe our eyes are finally wide open.