Thursday, July 05, 2012

Magic Mike, Encore

I just finished listening to the commentary about this movie by the pundits of Slate's Culture Gabfest, and one again they have demonstrated why I listen to them. It's worth listening to--only about 12 minutes worth, and I was left wanting them to keep talking and say more!

[Link to the Culture Gabfest is here.]

I rather glibly quipped that Magic Mike  was Up in the Air with Thongs. Stephen Metcalf had a similar take--he felt that every scene, every dialogue outside the strip club itself was a devestating portrait of how people have to hustle in this economy and what they have to do to make ends meet in a shattered economy. He pointed out (and I'm embarrassed that I didn't see this myself) that the early scenes at the construction site was a portrait of non-union employment. None of these guys has any benefits, has any training, has any safety net. They are all hired off of CraigsList, and they all work for ten bucks an hour.

So this makes me think about the nature of a post-union economy. These guys aren't qualified to do the work they have been hired to do--Adam shows up in sneakers, not workboots--and it's implied that Mike has to rustle up a new crew every day. Adam quits/gets fired over taking a second can of Pepsi off the site at the end of his first day. Mike has to teach him how to do the work. This is simply an unsustainable economic model for the contractor. (It's also unsustainable for the workers, but we will take that as a given for now.) In the immediate aftermath of union busting "right to work" movements, you have a pool of experienced, conscientious, well-trained workers who are getting squeezed (screwed) by the systematic cuts in pay and benefits. The squeeze works for a while (possibly even a decade or two) because those guys are still around and still want/need to work. But as that old guard ages out of the field--who's left?

Adam, that's who. A guy who is unqualified to even do the work, and who cares so little for the job that he jeopardizes it --and the princely sum of $80 a day--for a can of soda that he could buy for less than a $1.30.  And the contractor is operating on such minimal margins (or is such a control freak, or has such disrespect for the people he's been able to hire) that he fires Adam for taking that can, which probably only cost him about a quarter.*

The movie never shows us what happens the next day. We never see Mike go back to the site. We never see how much time Mike has to spend every damn day rustling up enough guys of any competence level. But I'm guessing the next day's crew is even less talented. Because who would stick around to do that job if they could make more money doing something else--like stripping, and then selling drugs?

At some point, the "utter casualization of labor" (as Metcalf put it) will result in a workforce so utterly unqualified to actually do the work, that something is going to have to change. Whatever that will be, it probably won't be a return of the unions, in their traditional form. It might be the return of technical colleges, probably on a for-profit model. It might be the rise of employer-provided training and retention programs (which would require employers to once again offer attractive benefits and pensions to make it worthwhile for employees to remain at the job). It might be a wholesale reversal of our thinking about immigration--maybe we will stop seeing them as a threat, and recognize our current immegration "problem" as the potential workforce of hard-working, family-centric, culturally conservative, religious economic entrepreneurs that they are. 

Metcalf also mentioned the "demasculinazation" at work in this movie. That for all the hustling Mike is shown doing, what he really makes his money at is a performance of the kind of hyper-masculinity that is no longer available outside the club. Think about it--how many of the acts are based around the kind of "man's jobs" that are really no longer valued outside that club: construction worker, fireman, soldier, cowboy. These are archetypes of maleness that really have no role to play in the hustler economy because they just don't pay enough to sustain families and a middle class existence. (I'm being overly broad here--maybe it would be more accurate to say that they are no longer aspirational jobs, that culturally they are no longer relevant in the way they once were.) Instead of performing these actual jobs, the men of Magic Mike turn them into stage offerings to women, who respond not with actual lust, but with hooting and laughing.

After listening to this, I am convinced that this is a deeply thoughtful movie, and that the brilliance of it is that it's slipping the medicine in under the bright candy coating, so you don't object. Maybe you don't notice it either, but I don't think Soderbergh is worried about that. Magic Mike is a good-time, party people movie, and it can be enjoyed entirely on the level of watching very pretty men with very pretty muscles flaunt their beauty. At the same time, the real hopelessness of that as a career, the real lack of social stability from that economic model gets shown to us over and over. And that's going to get itself into the cultural conversation.

Which explains something to me about the cinematography. I was struck by the odd sepia tones of everything that happens outside the club. Sure, I get that you might want to have some visual variety--but why do you want that visual variety? What does that mean that the inside of the club is so visually appealing and outside is so--bland? Certainly, that's not how I think of Florida. To me, Florida sunshine is almost too bright, the architecture and the flora and the clothing is saturated and vivid. In contrast to the pale weak light of Minnesota (especially in the winter) where bright colors just look garish and eye-searing, Florida light makes color come alive.

And if the story is that stripping is ultimately a dead-end for a guy like Mike, who has to grow up and move on, then it's more logical that the club would start to reveal the tawdriness under the slick lighting. The real world should reveal itself as a better place to be precisely because it is real. Certainly, popular culture is rife with seedy strip clubs were the veneer of glamor has already worn so thin that anyone fooled by the illusion
is either willfully blind or in denial.

I think Soderbergh is doing something different here. Reality is hard, it's a long slog toward uncertain rewards. There is no certainty that effort will be rewarded, only that effort is inevitable. The club offers the illusion that talent will pay off, that there is a better life available. After all, all the women are young, well-groomed, compliant in playing the roles assigned to them by the club--they cheer, they offer money, they respect the dancers, they participate when pulled up on-stage. There are no gay men in this bar to challenge that cheery illusion. However attractive it appears, however, the club only actually supports the life-style aspirations of one guy--the owner. Everybody else gets a smaller slice of the pie, and eventually they will have to move on due to age, physical condition, maturity. There is only one guy in seven or eight (given the cast of the movie that is) who can make a true living at this life, and he's the guy who owns the real estate. So Soderbergh shows us a legitimately attractive club, with a hazy, browned-out "real life" and so cues us into the exact experience of life that Adam and Mike have. Life is better in the club, and Adam is young enough that he doesn't see the illusion. Mike does, and by the end of the movie, even he sees that he has to re-think his life entirely--and that hazy browned-out world is hard to see clearly.

BUT! There is plenty of joy and casual fun in this movie that that story can slip by you entirely if you want it to. And even that is a message of the movie. I tell you, I am loving this movie in retrospect more and more.

Photos from Filmofilia.
*I'm assuming that Adam buys his cold can of Pepsi at a 7-11 or similar convenience store, while the contractor buys cases at Sam's Club--because of course Adam can't afford a Sam's Club membership, and he's not the kind of guy who plans ahead and goes to the grocery store. Thus the differential cost of that can of Pepsi. Of course, in some sense, that can just cost Adam $20,000, because that's about what $10/hour annualizes to.

No comments: