Saturday, 28 July 2012

The Magic of Mike

Magic Mike may be the most important American picture to be released in some time. It does something films aimed at young people have not done in thirty years: It expertly deconstructs the fallacy of the American Dream without drawing attention to it. Perhaps what is most beguiling about Magic Mike is how much it manages to say about the psychology of American economics without the viewer being overly conscience of its thematic diatribe.

You see, Magic Mike presents the entertaining story of a dysfunctional troupe of male strippers going about their business, but through its characters, the film subliminally speaks volumes about corruptive capitalism and the mindless pursuit of ambition. What is most remarkable about Magic Mike is that audiences may be none the wiser of how marvellously socialistic the film's message is, rather preferring to see it as a movie about buff strippers having a good time.

Magic Mike manages to say more about the current economic maelstrom gripping America than a dozen Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Company Men or Margin Calls, but it does it in a way that is hard to pull off in this era of unthinking entertainment. Magic Mike is a rare product in that it dramatises the lives of young blue-collar Americans, exhibiting cocksure protagonists but unafraid to expose their anxieties and fears about the uncertainties of life. In that sense, Magic Mike has to be the most realistic American film to have been made lately. Not since Eminem's 8 Mile and, prior to that John Travolta's Saturday Night Fever, has a Hollywood studio released a movie about working-class young Americans trying to deal with life in such an alarmingly fascinating way. Magic Mike is a very important film and one that will retain a stronger cultural impact than most generic knockabout movies aimed at women. The paradox is that even though Magic Mike's core audience seems to be women (not to mention a lucrative gay market); it arguably says more about masculinity and male relationships than any other film since Fight Club.

Magic Mike cost $7 million to produce and has so far earned in excess of $100 million, a remarkable achievement for what is essentially a drama about the lost generation. But there may be countless folk reading this post thinking none of this correlates with the Magic Mike they saw in theatres. For them it was a fun flick about boisterous males who take drugs and screw horny women.

Films are as much about entertainment as they are about interpretation. Magic Mike is an American movie made by Americans, but it is playing to global audiences. For a European audience the film will trigger messages and themes that may not be so apparent to casual American audiences. After all, countries like Britain have a rigid social class structure and the films produced in the UK tend to incorporate such themes. Take the Hammer horror movies produced in Britain; horror films that were based largely on well known literary properties or folklore but always retained a very British metaphor of the rich feeding off the poor. For example, while an American studio like Universal Pictures may have made its Dracula into a gothic tale of terror and seduction, Britain's version of Dracula was more about a decadent aristocracy that feeds off the blood of peasants. In fact, British horror films have always had a tradition of demonising the upper-classes as creepy monsters that devour the working masses. Our culture has attuned us to such messages and as an audience we tend to gravitate towards the social message of a movie, hence why a film likes Magic Mike presents more wonders than readily meet the eye.

Of course, the UK has its own cinematic equivalent of the plight of working-class male strippers trying to make ends meet. The Full Monty was a comedic drama about a group of unemployed steel workers who embark on establishing a stripping act in the hope of making money during hard times. Unlike Magic Mike, The Full Monty focuses its attention on the struggles of largely middle-aged men as opposed to virile hunks. In true British style, it presents a grim scenario but breathes life into it through amiable characters and straightforward plotting. What The Full Monty lacks in glamour it makes up for in heart, showcasing the unlikeliest of men attempting to do the silliest of endeavours. The Full Monty was a startling success, even more so than Magic Mike. Made on a budget of $3.5 million, the film grossed over $250 million worldwide. A parochial movie set in the north of England, featuring characters speaking in regional dialect, was never meant to be anything more than a small British film, but The Full Monty scored massive success everywhere because it told a relatable story. The film's underlying criticisms about a post-Thatcher Britain in which manufacturing industries had been decimated by Conservative governance may have escaped the attention of American audiences; however, they embraced the movie's themes of male bonding and of men trying to be better fathers and husbands during difficult times. There was something in The Full Monty's core story that resonated so profoundly with Americans that they adapted it into a Broadway Musical, bestowing it with all the glamour and blue-collar pizzazz Britain would be uncomfortable with. In that sense, the Americans honed in on elements that spoke more strongly to them than what they may have done to us. Maybe that suggests that for American audiences social strife is more palatable if there is a sprinkling of brazen fun attached to it.

Britain has a rich film history of dramatising the struggles of working-class people, imbuing them with complexities and layers usually reserved for mythic idols. The British kitchen-sink cinema of the 1960s made heroes of proletariat men, turning them into angry young icons that defined a post-war generation. The popularity of angry young men in dramas seeped its way into British fashion and music, giving birth to everything from Vidal Sassoon to The Beatles. The Americans have been sorely lacking in working-class heroes, its cinema preferring to revel in middle-class aspirations and economically comfortable situations. Although blue-collar figures like Arthur Miller and Bruce Springsteen have international reverence, American popular culture has failed to create enduring art inspired by its poor huddled masses, instead wanting to peruse stories about the rich and famous. Perhaps that explains why the number one movie in America right now is about a fictional angry billionaire who dresses in a bat costume at night and beats on destitute hoodlums.

If Magic Mike has shown us anything then that is working-class Americans are a ripe source for inspired storytelling. What's more, it can be extremely profitable too. From the outside looking in it seems that American culture has never really been divided by social class as much as it has been defined by ethnicity and race. Whereas the UK has shamefully failed to convincingly dramatise the tribulations of its black communities, America has created powerhouse movies in which people of colour have been a potent cinematic force. It is often by focussing on race that American cinema has been able to make important statements about poverty, inequality and society at large.

Once again, it is perhaps because of cultural differences that we in Britain sometimes struggle to identify complex features of American storytelling which may be very obvious to its indigenous audiences but not so apparent to us.


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  2. This is the second post I read today about how Magic Mike is more than a male stripper movie. I plan on watching it, and when I do I'll look for the deeper layers within.

  3. At first, I honestly thought that you were pulling some of your British humor on me.

    My best friend recently sent me a text saying that it was "sooo good! you have to see it!!!!" (yes, that many exclamations) And i cringed. Literally shifted in my seat. There was absolutely no way in hell I was going to waste my time watching that.

    But now, you have me re-thinking the film. Having recently watched a documentary on the adult film industry, I'm still reeling from anything that has to do with "the industry" even in the most remote sense. Of course that's not to say I ever had much to do with it in the first place.

    I agree with you in that American film doesn't want to make heros of their middle class. In America middle class is middle ground: we like to hope that we are just passing through, and on our way to bigger homes, paychecks and lifestyles. Oftentimes we are rather impatient and try to live large long before we ever secure the means of getting there.

    Your sentence "...exhibiting cocksure protagonists but unafraid to expose their anxieties and fears about the uncertainties of life." is so perfect within it's subject and content that I don't even know where to begin.

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  6. I'm back.

    This movie (which I still haven't seen), came up at the dinner table last night. Amazingly so, it was only the men at the dinner table who had seen it, and not their girlfriends. "No man, I mean it's a great movie." I thought of you.

  7. Certainly sounds interesting. It's got to be better than Haywire which I just watched. Thought Soderbergh had lost the plot with that one. Can't imagine it topping Fight Club but a very interesting comparison to make!