Sunday, July 29, 2012

Farewell, My Queen (Les Adieux a la Reine), A Review

Of course you go to see this movie to see Versailles. Add in the ineffably gorgeous Diane Kruger as Marie Antoinette and a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 90% and it's a no-brainer. So I went to see it yesterday. And it's good. . .enough. I can recommend it, but I have some qualms about the story it is telling.

In brief, the movie covers three days after the storming of the Bastille (July 14-18, 1789) from the perspective of a minor member of the staff at the royal palace. Sidonie Laborde is the Queen's Reader, summoned on occasions to read books and plays at the queen's whim. She has unparalleled intimacy when closeted with the queen, but is only called now and again.  Then the French Revolution begins in earnest, with the storming of the Bastille, and the hundreds of people whose lives are at stake are caught with no reliable sources of information, no way to assess what is happening, and no way to protect themselves. It's a view of the privileged life of Versailles as a mixed bag of pros and cons. Sure, it's better than being poor and starving in the countryside, but it's an incredibly circumscribed and powerless life for most of the people who live there.

The first day shows a "typical" day at Versailles--Sidonie is called to read to Marie Antoinette, who is sleeping at Petit Trianon, her get-away on the grounds of the palace. Sidonie is hurried to the queen's bedroom, berated for her delay and chastised for her choice of material by the lady in waiting--only to be greeted by the queen with a bright smile and a compliment on how quickly she has arrived. Sidonie offers the Austrian sermon recommended by the lady in waiting (the funeral oration for Marie Theresa, who I believe is the queen's mother). Marie Antoinette pouts that it's too boring. Eventually Sidonie offers her own choice (which had been roundly discredited by the lady in waiting) and MA says while she likes that, a play would be better. We next see the queen (still in her nightgown, gorgeously disarrayed around her creamy shoulders) cuddled up to trade lines with Sidonie. However, MA is quickly distracted with ideas for a new dress design, fashion papers are called for, and eventually Sidonie is no longer on the queen's radar in the least. She is hustled out of the building and sent back to her quarters.

Given the prosaic nature of Sidonie's daily life, being on contact with the queen must have been a heady rush, like stumbling into a fairy tale. The queen even takes it upon herself to offer rosewood water to soothe Sidonie's mosquito bites, rubbing the balm into the sores herself, describing Sidonie's arms as "perfectly pudgy." How boring to go back to her small life, and small gossip, and rats and bugs and dark rooms. The next morning, however, there is electrifying news--the king was awakened at 2 a.m. and no one knows why. Could it be that he was sick? No, the cousin who sleeps at the foot of the king's bed has let it be known that it was not illness, it was a messenger. Could it be--? Perhaps it was--? The information trickles so slowly down to Sidonie's level, through different levels of rank and privilege, with cautions of secrecy and threats if the information leaks. Sidonie trades a chore (embroidering a dahlia for the queen) for information, and then gets further confirmation from the palace librarian.

But this only raises further questions: are the rebels headed to the palace? Are we safe? Will the royal family flee? Is this a time to worry about taking care of yourself, or is it best to put your trust in the king and cabinet? If you flee, will you be able to return or will it be viewed as a traitorous abandonment?  Several nights are passed with courtiers and servants wandering the halls holding candles and seeking information and counsel. What to do? What will happen? Some choose to flee under cover of night; one lady steals from the queen's luggage as she packs, believing that the monarchy has now fallen. One woman hangs herself to escape the future.

Sidonie declares that she will stay with the queen--and finds herself used as bait by the queen. The Duchess de Polignac must escape, and Sidonie is ordered by the queen to dress as the Duchess and sacrifice herself if the coach is stopped. The duke and duchess are disguised as a maid and valet, and Sidonie is to take the fall if they are detained. Her devotion to the queen means nothing compared to the queen's devotion to her favorite. The scene where she is dressed in Polignac's dress is loaded with meaning--the dress will fit, because their bodies are nearly identical. The movie had previously shown us the duchess's nude, sleeping body, now we see Sidonie's, which is just as lovely, just as young and vital, and the cold uncaring expression in the queen's eyes says more about class privilege and resentment than the rest of the movie could. Sidonie is a lovely, as young, as vulnerable, as worthy of love as the duchess, and the queen does not--can not--see it because Sidonie is not a "real" person, only a pawn to secure the duchess's safety.

The escape is set in motion, and the carriage is stopped, but Sidonie successfully negotiates the encounter and they travel on to Switzerland and freedom--but Sidonie was the queen's reader. Who will she be now?

I loved seeing Versailles inhabited and getting glimpses of how the entire society functioned--we saw the entire hierarchy, from the king down to the rats in the garden. You saw how power concentrated in the absolute monarchs made everyone else powerless--a throwaway line about one aristocrat who lived in a "rat hole" when he had a beautiful chateau in the country, all for the "chance to see the king pass in the Hall of Mirrors twice a week." Sidonie and her friends are more or less prisoners of their rooms, since they need to be found when called for. So many people exist as merely cogs in the machine that is royal service--such a reckless waste of human talent and agency--in the service of lives of the king and queen that they themselves don't seem to enjoy either. It's just the way things are--and so the promise/threat of the oncoming revolution is not all terrible, if it frees all these people from the tyranny of The Way Things Are Done.

The problem I have with this movie, however, is that is suffers from a weird sort of  "male gaze" problem. Ostensibly, this is the story of women--Marie Antoinette's attempts to save herself, her family, and her friends; Sidonie's awakening to the charms and horrors of royal privilege; the various paths taken by women under stress--the lady in waiting who steals the queen's clothing to finance herself, the woman who hangs herself to escape the coming revolution. The ways the various maids and female servants make lives for themselves--taking lovers, making marriages, exchanging information for favors. This is a story about women who are all in various ways and degrees powerless. When you run through the events of the movie, the men are generally seen at a distance, formal bodies in finery, but (with the exception of the palace librarian) not terribly relevant to these lives.

Yet, the women of this movie are oddly sexually performative, as though they are acting out a man's fantasy of how women would act in the absence of men, and it felt weirdly voyeuristic. Like it was the costume drama/historical classy version of  the peep-hole scene in Porky's. Marie Antoinette brings up the Duchess de Polignac with Sidonie with the very oddly phrased "Have you ever desired a woman?" Pause, pause, pause so the audience can imagine that MA is actually coming onto Sidonie and that Sidonie is sexually attracted to MA. Then she goes on with the next lines, including how much she is attracted to Polignac's youth. Of course (thanks Wikipedia!) the real Polignac was six years older than Marie Antoinette--so we have this counter-factual monologue about sexual desire--there is no subtext, no hint that MA might be speaking about some other form of attraction. No, it's straight up hetero-normative description of sexual desire, with the mostly unacknowledged "fact" that it's a woman delivering the lines.

Later, MA sends Sidonie to fetch Polignac, but the duchess has taken opium to sleep and cannot be waked. Sidonie walks into the bedroom and finds the duchess sleeping nude, her arms over her head, her bedclothes artfully disarrayed, looking like a version of The Naked Maja, only asleep. For no credible reason that I could see, other than sexual jealousy, Sidonie pulls down the sheet to reveal the duchess's entire body, and gazes at it. After a discreet amount of ogling, the duchess rolls over, so we get her ass as well. At one point, Polignac comes sashaying up to Marie Antoinette in the Hall of Mirrors, in front of the entire assembled population of the palace, looking every bit like she's parading on a catwalk. It's a weirdly modern gait--again, highly performative, and then the two of them gaze into each other's eyes and walk off with their arms around each other. The court gasps. No ambiguity here!

So it felt like there were these two different narratives going on in parallel: the one that I was interested in, which was the nature of life at Versailles and the way that privilege did not equate with power; and this sort of heated sexual fantasy about lesbianism, decadence, and corsets.

Apparently, there was a lot of resentment at the time around Polignac precisely because she was such a favorite, and there were whispers that her relationship with MA was sexual, although there is no proof. But this movie doesn't toy with ambiguity--it is all but declared that the two women were lovers, and that Sidonie's fascination with MA had to do with sexual longing, rather than the many many other elements that one could imagine. I mean, this young, poor servant finds her life periodically punctuated by close association with the Queen of fricking France--a woman of such power, beauty, and wealth that it must have seemed like magic. To reduce the complex relationships of a sophisticated society into just sex feels reductive.

Of course, the specter of Sophia Coppola's Marie Antoinette has to be addressed. Both were filmed on location at Versailles, both deal with the same historical characters, but they are very different movies. Farewell, My Queen is very claustrophobic, largely taking place in unadorned corridors, small rooms, poorly lighted locations. It's in many ways about the limits of absolute royal power, and what it takes to sustain and operate a system like Versailles. Coppola's movie focuses on the little girl inside the costume of Queen of France, striving to create sympathy for a very young woman thrust into a place that made no sense and where she was not accepted and so she tried to carve out some happiness for herself in the midst of the pomp and protocol of France. Farewell, My Queen really turns the story around to focus on the way these historical moments were experienced by those who really could only catch glimpses of it.

Worth seeing, very absorbing, but tonally a bit off-kilter. In French, with subtitles.

Photo credit: and Treasure for Your Pleasure

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Things That I Like. Or, Things Are Different Than They Used to Be

So, back in the olden days, when the drinking age was only 19, it wasn't hard to be a wine snob. Really! All you had to do was say something snotty about California wines, be condescending about Boone's Farm ("Kool Aid for Sorority Girls" was a good place to start), and categorically refuse to drink anything that came with a screw top or in a box.

See? Easy peasy.

How things have changed.

Now, it's all about "California root stock saved the French wine industry" and "California wines beat French wines and are complex and subtle" and "screw tops are more environmentally friendly plus they do a better job of keeping air out of the bottle."

Plus--now box wines are no longer a joke.

There are lots of reasons, and some of them have to do with the fact that ALL the cool kids are blending varietals now in order to get a better wine, or a more consistent taste, or smoothing out the variations in grape production. But the best thing about box wine nowdays?

You can buy your own favorite kind of wine, and you never have to share it and you (almost) never have to throw it out. Look, even for an Evil person like me, it's hard to drink and entire bottle of wine by myself at one sitting. And as soon as you have to share a bottle, you have to negotiate what you are going to drink. Does the other person want red or white? Chardonnay or riesling? Oaked or unoaked? Sparkling or still? Viognier or Pinot Grigio? What if you don't finish the wine, even with two (or more) of you? What if you like your red wine chilled to Coca-cola temperatures?

With box wines, you get your choice, you don't have to share, and it keeps and keeps and keeps. You don't need to worry about oxidation, because the bag inside the box has been vacuum sealed and there's no risk. You don't end up with a $30+ bottle reduced to cooking wine--or vinegar!!--because you didn't come back the next morning and finish it up with breakfast.

Turns out that just about everything we thought we knew about wine was wrong.

Except for Boone's Farm. That's still Kool-Aid for sorority chicks.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Roman Holiday at the Guthrie Theater, a Review

So I apparently need to take a break from seeing plays at the Guthrie Theater, because I am not enjoying them. They are not able to overcome the killing deadness of my heart, I guess. So it's time to look elsewhere for theatrical experiences, because I am not getting much out of what is happening there.

I can certainly appreciate all the effort that went into mounting this, as well as the way the cast sang and danced its collective heart out. The costumes were exquisite, the sets were more technologically sophisticated that we are used to seeing on the proscenium stage. The play itself is a lovely portmanteau--take the screenplay from the Audrey Hepburn-Cary Grant souffle Roman Holiday and dress it up in some Cole Porter tunes, and hey presto! A brand new stage musical! One that trades on the current infatuation with 1960s style, that has glamor bred into its very DNA, that's familiar to the largely geriatric demographic that supports regional theater these days.

You can imagine a stereotypical Hollywood producer chomping on his enormous cigar and growling "It's going to be the biggest thing since nickel Havanas!"

But then the reality hits, and the souffle deflates. The story--is stale and rather static. It's An American in Paris set in Rome. It's original purpose was as a travelogue dressed up in couture and a love story. Filmed entirely on location, rather than on soundstage sets, it gave a post-WWII audience a chance to actually see a city that most of them would never travel to.

The story (of the play, which may or may not deviate from the movie, which I've never seen) is the unlikely meeting between Princess Anne, the heir of a unnamed kingdom, and Joe Bradley, an American newspaper reporter working in Rome, who secretly wants to be a songwriter. Anne, worn out from a grueling good will tour of European capitals, escapes one night from her bedroom and ends up in a trattoria where Joe is celebrating his upcoming appointment with a Broadway producer who wants to hear his songs. Anne has been given a sedative before her escape, and she falls asleep. Joe assumes she's drunk and takes her back to his apartment to sober her up with some espresso in hopes of finding out her address so he can return her to her home. She falls asleep before he can brew the coffee, and the next morning he recognizes her from the local newspaper reporting that "The Princess is ill and has canceled all her appearances." Smelling a real exclusive, he squires her around the city, visiting all the tourist locations she's never been able to see. By the end of the day, he's fallen for her charms and decided that he can't sell her out, but at least now he as a subject for his Broadway play.

Like I said, it's a travelogue, and a lot of production cash went into developing a diorama of an apartment for Joe--which actually looks more like a Spanish colonial style guesthouse at Chateau Marmont, but who's quibbling? It rolls forward on a silent platform and then retreats so the scrim can drop. It's quite charming, like a little dollhouse for a Daddy doll who wears a suit, tie, and hat, and a Mommy doll in a crinoline skirt and shirtwaist. Which is to say, it's a lot of twee that nearly overwhelms the actors. There is a trompe d'oeil approximation of the Trevi Fountain which rises up from below the stage, and really fails to look like more than the two dimensional object that it is. From straight on, the tricked out shadows and lights are effective enough, but it so thoroughly fails to fill the three dimensional space that a fountain should command that it really fails to be remotely convincing that this is any place special.

The stage flat manages to approximate the central figure in its niche, but misses all the statuary in front and further fails to even hint at the substantial water basin in front. (Photo from here.) Of course, I suspect the actual fountain is larger than the entire proscenium stage, but the problem is--it's just unimpressive as stagecraft. In the age of Google Street View and image searches and inexpensive trans-Atlantic air fares--this story really doesn't have a reason to exist unless the characters get pumped up, or the conflict becomes more meaningful, or something.

Thus the justification for the Cole Porter tunes. Because musical romance would elevate the travelogue into something transcendent. And you would think Cole Porter would be up to the task. You would be wrong.

Maybe it was the musical choices--most of them were what I would characterize as C-list songs. "Experiment"? "I'm Giving A Ball Tonight"? Have you even heard of most of these? I can answer that for you, and the answer is "no." There is good reason for that. They are fine, workmanlike songs, but not the kind of unforgettable numbers that abound in a show like Anything Goes. At least, not for the first three-quarters of the show. By the last half of the last act we get "Everytime We Say Goodbye," "Just One of Those Things," and "Night and Day," but by then it is far far too late, and a couple of good songs can't save the production.

Maybe the songs are better than I could tell from their performance, but there was such a heavy reliance on the Porteresque forced rhymes that midway through "Experiment" I was wincing before the pun was delivered because they arrived with depressing regularity. And "I'm Giving A Ball Tonight" might have been a fine song, but it really didn't benefit from repeating its verse--it felt like padding. The relentlessly cheerful orchestration tended make all the songs sound the same (with a few exceptions, at the end of the show, see above re: too bloody late).

There were some lively dance numbers featuring a large ensemble, but by the end of the show, the "big, emotional numbers" tended to rely on the discredited "park and bark" model of staging. Poor Princess Anne--her character had very little to do by the end of the play except stand in one place and look with puppy dog eyes while Joe belted out yet another pun-laden tune. 

The best part of the production were the Great Broads, Michele Barber as the princess's aunt, and Christina Baldwin as Francesca, the spitfire Italian cabaret singer who was delightfully styled to the Sophia Loren archetype and who gave crackling energy and comic timing to an otherwise rather dour story.

So, is it worth seeing? If you don't have anything better to do, it's not horrible, although I was bored well before intermission, so I can't actually recommend it.

The larger problem is that I obviously need to seek out different cultural outlets, because I am not having any success with the tent-pole events that define current culture. It's just that I want to like this stuff. I really want to go to the mainstream plays, the blockbuster movies, the popular television shows and I really want to like them. I want the built in cultural conversation that attends things that are popular, and at least that stuff is easy to find. That stuff comes with its own communities of affinity who discuss and evaluate and lovingly parody and mash-up and play with these properties. But because I don't enjoy Roman Holiday, or its equivalent, I end up bitter and disappointed and I don't get to participate in the fandom conversation anyway.

So my goal is obviously to search the less central pop cultural events and try to crack open that black heart that way.

On Playing Skyrim

Have you heard about this game? It's a huge game, set in a quasi-medieval semi-Nordic/Scandinavian land that is experiencing the return of dragons. It's swords and sorcery to the nth degree, and totally not my kind of thing.

So why am I playing it?

Because I have read about this game as a breakthrough in gaming--and entirely non-linear adventure game, in which the player can control the experience. I get to choose what quests to take on, I get to decide what order to do them. The game doesn't lead me through a single narrative in a specific order, and that intrigued me enormously. What kind of story telling could you create, if you didn't have to be limited to a single narration?

I am not much of a gamer generally, I am a reader. I am deeply engaged in what stories tell us about ourselves and how they can give us visceral understanding of lives that are different from our own. Books, movies, television; and now, possibly computer gaming?

Before I get into the inevitable squawking (the heart, it remains cold and dead) I do want to acknowledge some of the remarkable achievements of this game. To begin with, it is outrageously gorgeous. The landscapes are amazingly beautiful, and the way the light changes over the course of the day is exquisite. Honestly, this is high praise from somebody who refuses to go camping. Some of my favorite time spent in this game is just wandering around the environments, looking up at the night sky (two moons! the Aurora Borealis! the sunsets!), bobbing in the rivers, as the visual field breaks the surface of the water. Truly gorgeous stuff.

The music is also wonderful, sweeping, epic at times, quietly moody and melancholy at others. It fills in and underlays the environment without overpowering it. Delightful to listen to. The voice work is solid, and although there are some exaggerated characters I don't particularly care for, I won't complain about that either. Even the sound effects of footsteps is carefully done, subtly changing as my character moves from paved roads to grassy meadows to snow fields. So much has been done to make the experience of this game effectively immersive. Playing it in a dark room on a large screen TV is an amazing experience.

The non-linearity as as promised as well. In my first iteration of the game, I made it out of the "training" portion and my companion recommended that I should head to a nearby town and talk to his brother the blacksmith. Instead, I went the opposite direction and tried to avoid whatever I was asked to do. There are some limitations to this liberty; for example, I met some witches who were far to strong for me, and so I just died over and over again, which effectively blocked me from that particular quest. I also think that had I successfully climbed the mountain to the dragon's lair, I'd never have had the weaponry or skills necessary to do anything but die a fiery death.

But there are plenty of quests, large or small, that one can accept or decline--delivering letters to lovers, joining the imperial guard, seeking out new scrolls for the library at the college of magic. Even if the game is not entirely non-linear (and really, I didn't expect that), it's sufficiently non-linear for the characters to have a realistic appearance of free will.

So with all that said--why is Skyrim so disappointing?  And the answer for me is simple--the storytelling simply fails to live up to the standards set by the other elements of this remarkable game. Because while there is an overarching narrative--the return of the dragons--and several complicating sub-arcs (the conflict between the Imperial government and the rebellious Stormcloaks, the fractures caused by the banning of a single religion in an otherwise pan-theistic world, the indications tensions between the various races and ethicities), the game basically comes down to "Meet new people, kill them and loot the corpses."

Sure, there are subtleties that justify the killings--these are bandits, these are zombies, these are vampires, these are people who attacked you first. Even so, these "stories" are sketchy at best. What you spend an ungodly amount of time doing is figuring out just how you are going to kill them: two-handed battle axe versus steel sword and hide shield, or maybe bursts of magical flame. The the more you use any particular weapon, the better you get at it, and thus you can kill more people faster, and take on the even more dangerous characters.

A couple of nights ago I decided that I was going to learn magic at the college, and I spent a (game-time) night traveling north on foot to the college at Winterheld. I could see the location on a map, but the route isn't marked and I had to simply strike out in the general direction, guided by the on-screen compass. Of course, the game landscape is not just beautifully rendered, but is also geographically complicated, and there is no straight-line course to follow. So I looked to the landscape for clues--animal paths, the remains of paved roads, gaps in the rocky terrain. And as I ran along, I would "discover" locations that were inevitably dens of bandits, or vampires, or zombies, or something where the whole point was to go in, kill everybody, and then loot their corpses and anything else in the vicinity. But I didn't want to do that, so instead I would get the notification that I had discovered a new location, I would use internet walkthroughs to determine if there was any other reason to visit the place, and (since there never was) then run away as fast as possible to avoid being killed.

In this manner, I reached the magical college, where I collected two spells before being sent out to explore an archeological excavation. And here's where the game completely lost me, because guess what? The point of this location is to kill zombies and loot.

Now, this isn't just a matter of stumbling on an abandoned fort that has been adopted by bandits, this is a location being explored by the academics of the college who are seeking information about the ancient culture and their knowledge of magic. You and your classmates are led there by your  professor and given tasks. And yet, once in this dig, you end up grabbing any artifacts you can find, as well as looting corpses--both the ones you kill and the ones that were buried their eons ago. Because this is basically a necropolis, and there are sarcophagi and wall niches holding ancient bodies. There are burial urns scattered around. And periodically, as you enter new rooms (intent, as you are, on looting the place) occasionally a couple of draigur (Skyrim zombies, basically) try to stop you.

So, let's put this in some broader context. Imagine this is Egypt, and you are in the Valley of the Kings. For millenia, the Egyptian Pharaohs have been sealed in their tombs, surrounded by their grave goods, part of a vanished culture and the objects of now-forgotten religious beliefs and rituals. What goods are present, how they were arranged, what was considered valuable and necessary for a trip to the afterlife provides information about a culture now lost to time. Many of the items are intrinsically valuable--gold, jewels, alabaster. All of them are priceless for the information they can give modern scholars about the past.

So, when something like Tutankhamen's tomb is discovered, Harold Carter should have brought in a handful of freshman students (none majoring in Egyptology or archeology, but maybe business majors looking for careers in finance--because they understand gold, right?) and just turning them loose. "Hey--just run on ahead and see what you can find. Go ahead and pocket any coins or gold bits for your own use. Since, hey! Private tuition can be really expensive, and what better way to pay for tutoring than using ancient coins for their face value!"

I mean! Sure, most Egyptian tombs were looted, usually soon after they were sealed by men who had worked on the tombs. And that's a tragedy because of the loss to our understanding of the culture of this great (and long lasting) nation. But it's also kind of understandable, since many tomb thieves needed the gold more than the corpses did. So the trade in stolen artifacts is a double-edged sword: the loss to world culture is incalcuable, but many of the people who engage in that trade really are desperately poor and the money goes to support the living rather than decorating the dead.

So you might find the situation in Egypt to be regrettable, but understandable. Knowledge is lost when artifacts are stolen and sold on the black market, but there are people who are also trying to understand and preserve the past and who conduct their archeological explorations with precision and care.

In contrast, Skyrim sends you to a site of unparalleled import--the professor keeps exclaiming about how unique it is, how the burial practices are unlike any he has encountered before. But the game is designed so that you will loot the corpses and throw away anything you don't want, with no attempts at documentation. It's bad enough that you murder bandits and leave their bodies lying around as you scavenge anything of value--it's even worse to desecrate a heritage site.

This may be where I stop playing this game. Because this is where I realize that what I am looking for in a game is to engage at a deeper level in the narrative of the land. I want to explore the dig for information, not just for loose gold coins. I want to understand the religious beliefs that inform the burial practices, not just fight sword-wielding zombies. I want a game that has a story that matches the standards set by the design and art and music of this amazing world. I want more than killing and looting, and that's my personal quest.

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.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Magic Mike, a Review

So Steven Soderburgh and Channing Tatum have made a male stripper movie. This was not something I was necessarily on-board for, but it turns out it's quite fun and not only on the Linda Holmes Index.*

*Linda Holmes Index calculates how hot it has to be before you will go see a movie for the air conditioning. Named for the host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour and host of the pop culture blog Monkey See--which are both definitely worth the time you waste with them.

Of course, if it hadn't been shoved down our throats for the last seventeen years that this was the Channing Tatum STRIPPER MOVIE, we might have shared a little more curiosity about the first ten minutes of the story. We could have been in Alex Pettyfer's shoes, following Channing Tatum's character around, thinking we are just club hopping, and finding out that he's A STRIPPER! Trying to get women to come to his MALE STRIPPER SHOW!!

So, in case you have been living in a convent with no access to the Internet and a life of enforced celibacy, I will summarize the plot. CHANNING TATUM IS A MALE STRIPPER!!!

Okay, there is slightly more than that. Channing Tatum plays Mike Lane, a thirty-something Tampa man who has entrepreneurial dreams and an affable manner. Not to mention muscles and dance moves. So between working construction, (apparently) owning a car detailing service, and building custom furniture from beach debris (!), he is the second in command at a male strip review. And once we establish his stripper job, we never go back to any of the other "jobs" he has. (We do get to see him turned down for a bank loan to launch his furniture business--we never actually see him ever *make* any furniture.) Because why? Because this is not a movie about a guy hustling in a crappy economy to make his dreams come true, this is a STRIPPER MOVIE.

Okay, secondarily, it is about a charming guy trying to get it together in a crappy economy, one who has business dreams, but crucially lacks the knowledge of what it would take to actually get ahead. In the scene at the bank, he gets turned down for having a bad credit score. He could take the cute loan officer's advice and get into a program to improve that number, but he doesn't seem to understand how important that score is to achieving his dreams. There is a lot of talk about "equity" in the new stripper club, but I'm not sure anybody knows what that means in a cash business. It's also not clear that for all his "businesses" that he is anything more than a tricked out handyman. So he's got dreams, he's got 80% of what it would take to achieve them, but he doesn't have any clue about the missing 20% that is going to make those dreams unachievable.

But Soderbergh doesn't really care about that. This isn't Up in the Air in a Thong--or maybe it is, since the most interesting part is what it takes to actually be a stripper. That's what the bulk of the film is about, that's what the ladies in the theater came to see, that's where the colors and lights and glamor of the movie are concentrated.  And it is interesting, and full of pretty men with muscles and dance moves and hairless, oiled bodies. In case you weren't sure what you were going to be getting with this movie--see above, re: convent, lack of internet access, etc.--within the first three minutes of the movie you get to see Channing Tatum's magnificently muscled butt as he climbs out of bed and heads to the bathroom.

He then goes to a job laying tile roofs for the endless new construction in Florida, and there he meets Adam (Alex Pettyfer) who is a complete noob, so Mike shows him how to do the job, and gives him a hand when his car won't start. Later that night, the two run into each other, and Mike drags Adam along, pushing him into talking to some girls at the bar. Turns out he's wrangling audience members to come to the strip club--which we already knew about because UNRELENTING INTERNET INFORMATION. So there isn't the kind of "Oh, this isn't what I thought it was going to be about" which is what Adam's arc is. Instead it's more of "when are we going to get to the club?"  But what the scene does show is Mike's easy good nature, and establishes that the stripping is also going to be good natured and fun, not sleazy and desperate. In fact, the entirety of Mike's life is a "go along to get along." His charm is what has allowed him to achieve as much as he has (however much that actually is); it's his foot in the door, the opening that allows him to introduce his talents.

But it's not enough. As the movie progresses, Adam ends up stripping and loving the life of easy cash, alcohol and women. He tries to leverage his own situation by dealing drugs, but since Adam is a screw-up, that goes almost as badly as it can. Mike ends up paying off Adam's debt, nearly depleting his savings and probably giving up his furniture dreams. Somehow, this doesn't come off as a major change in his life, and it's not clear that Soderbergh considered the drug subplot to be actually central to the movie.

So what is central to this movie? Well, obviously, it's the stripping. It's almost like a "slice of life" documentary rather than a "movie about the turning point in a man's life." If not for Adam and the drug debt, there's not much fraying to Mike's life at all, really. He seems pretty happy, he's got a nice place to live, he's got a sweet car, he's got easy access to beautiful women--he's kind of living in a timeless bubble that has probably enveloped him since he was 19, just like Adam.

There are hints that he wants a different life, that he's finally maturing enough that what he has isn't going to be enough for the long term. His friend with benefits, played by Olivia Munn, gets engaged, ending that part of his life. The strip club is moving to Miami, so he needs to decide if he's going to move with it or stay in Tampa. And, because this is Hollywood, there is a girl.

Played by nepotism candidate Cody Horn, she's Adam's big sister, and so Mike continues to mentor Adam in part for her sake. The reviews have generally not been kind to her character or Horn's acting ability, and I get that. She's able to banter with Mike well enough, but there's no there there. Which makes the ending kind of unsuccessful.


Mike abruptly decides to leave stripping, to stay in Tampa. He shows up at Brooke's house with only that decision and nothing else  Some reviewers (a phrase which here means Tara Ariano on Extra Hot Great--love you guys!) don't see what Mike sees in her that he would give up his life for her. And while I totally understand that criticism, I think there is something more subtle, more Soderberghian going on. Will Mike and Brooke be soul mates and is this their One True Love. No way in hell. They will be lucky to last more than a year. But! What Brooke does do for Mike is show him that he can be vulnerable, he can be something other than perfectly charming and accommodating, and he can still be accepted.

This is where those first scenes are so very important. Mike gets saddled at a construction site with a guy who not only doesn't know how to do the job, but arrives wearing sneakers--clearly a guy who is not even capable of recognizing the safety precautions he needs to take for his own sake. (This is Adam, in case that wasn't clear.) Mike teaches him how to do the job, and rescues him from himself  when Adam's car won't start, and again that night when Adam can't get into a club. Mike remains affable, charming, and puts up with repeated instances of Adam's fuckwittery. So it's really no surprise that Adam screws up a sorority dance gig by giving one of the women a pill, which leads to a fight, which leads to the two of them having to leave without getting paid. Again, Mike covers for him with their boss. Then, when it turns out that Adam left behind the drugs he was supposed to sell, Mike pays off the debt, again saving Adam from himself. He doesn't even challenge the thugs about the amount Adam owes them--Adam lead him to believe that it was $1000 worth of Ecstasy, the thugs tell him it was $10,000. Mike doesn't challenge, doesn't argue--he remains affable and "in control" of the situation, even as it spirals out of control around him.

Brooke doesn't see Mike as the successful, fun guy he presents himself as. She sees him as the guy who got her idiot brother into a lifestyle that was beneath Adam's talents, and which seduced him with the easy cash and glamor into remaining an indolent screw-up. Brooke sees Mike's mistakes with Adam, and she calls him on them. For a guy used to taking his clothes off in front of women, this is actually a new experience, because she sees him for what he is. There is even a scene when she screams at him "I see you, I see you." [At least, I think this is in this movie--it's been two days now, and I am forgetting some of the details.]

She does. She sees him in his imperfection, past the glossy glamor he projects, and she is still able to accept him as worthwhile. I think this is an entirely new experience for him, and it comes at the time when his life isn't holding together quite the way it used to. This is the thin edge of the wedge that is his maturation--this is the beginning of the time when he learns that he is not going to be able to stay young and golden forever, and that the coming changes are going to be harder than he expected. Having someone--even someone as two-dimentional as Cody Horn's Brooke--able to see and accept him for who he really is inside is exactly what he needs at this moment.

So there is a great film lurking inside the shiny carapace of Magic Mike. There is also a crowd-pleasing fantasy of what male stripping could be (but probably isn't, actually, not in real life). Like Mike's actual life, the glossy surface is appealing, but ultimately is unsustainable. Soderbergh has given us the story of the first cracks in that facade, and has traced the trajectory. Mike will not fall hard and fast, but he will have to change, and it's up to him to control that new trajectory.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Random Thoughts

Went to see the Soderburgh/Tatum movie Magic Mike today. Not many men in the theater. No large groups of women. . .although a few groups of large women.

Not a movie I would have wanted to see with either my mother or my daughters, especially. That didn't stop some women from bringing a teen-aged daughter with them. Did they think it was a PG movie? Of course, seeing it with your mother/daughter gives an extra 3D kick to the "ick factor" when Adam's sister comes to see him dance. . . .

How the heck do you program previews for a movie like Magic Mike? I guess you just throw a bunch of stuff up and see what sticks. Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones in sex therapy for geriatics rom-com? Yes! Many in the theater thought they might like to see that! Horror movies about kids possessed by demons and paranormal experiments gone horribly wrong? Not really the right crowd. Oddly, not many straight white males between the ages of 15-24 at a screening of Magic Mike.

Let's play a game! Which of the following is the title of a movie previewed before Magic Mike, and which is the name of a New Wave band from the 1980s?

The Words
The Pretenders
The Silencers
The Possession
The The
The Apparition
The Association

(Answer: Numbers 1, 4 and 6 were the names of movies that I saw the previews for today. Numbers 2,3 and 5 are/were New Wave bands. Number 7 was a band from the 1960s. I thought we had moved beyond the whole "definite article + noun" naming thing back when it had become a cliche.)

Is Cody Horn the knock-off handbag of Elizabeth Banks' Coach purse? Discuss.

Up next--an actual review of Magic Mike.