Cinema, Movies, And Big Dicks: On Magic Mike XXL
Hey Complete Works readers! Sorry it’s been a while, the duties of teaching, and both finalizing and recording the audio version of my forthcoming book ate all of my free time over the past month. But now… we are back, baby. I thought it’d be fun to dig up an old piece from my now defunct and password protected blog to publish here, and with the announcementthat a third Magic Mike film is in the works, I decided to revise and repost a piece I wrote about Magic Mike XXL that I remain fond of to this day. This was actually the piece that first brought me to the attention of the hosts of Culture Gabfest—Stephen Metcalf endorsed it one week—so it’s had, in its weird way, an outsized impact on my career. I’ve rewritten the piece to take out some of its bloggy embarrassments, but I’ve tried to preserve the energy of the original, which in part comes from being written during Soderbergh’s brief retirement from filmmaking. It’s narrated by a me who did not know whether Soderbergh would return to making movies or not, and I think that’s essential for what it’s doing, so I have chosen to preserve my naïveté. Hope you enjoy!
Is Magic Mike XXL a Steven Soderbergh film? Well, yes and no. While he isn’t the film’s director, he executive produced it, shot it (under a pseudonum) and edited it (under a different pseudonym). The credited director is his longtime assistant, and the movie connects to many of its dominant themes. It is about movie making itself, and exists in a kind of intertexual relationship, not only with Soderbergh’s earlier work, but with his “State of the Cinema” address, and the anxieties it revealed about filmmaking and being an artist in late capitalism:
“Given all the incredible suffering in the world I wonder, what is art for, really? If the collected works of Shakespeare can’t prevent genocide then really, what is it for? Shouldn’t we be spending the time and resources alleviating suffering and helping other people instead of going to the movies and plays and art installations? ...
So what I finally decided was, art is simply inevitable. It was on the wall of a cave in France 30,000 years ago, and it’s because we are a species that’s driven by narrative. Art is storytelling, and we need to tell stories to pass along ideas and information, and to try and make sense out of all this chaos. And sometimes when you get a really good artist and a compelling story, you can almost achieve that thing that’s impossible which is entering the consciousness of another human being – literally seeing the world the way they see it. Then, if you have a really good piece of art and a really good artist, you are altered in some way, and so the experience is transformative and in the minute you’re experiencing that piece of art, you’re not alone. You’re connected to the arts. So I feel like that can’t be too bad.
Art is also about problem solving, and it’s obvious from the news, we have a little bit of a problem with problem solving. In my experience, the main obstacle to problem solving is an entrenched ideology. The great thing about making a movie or a piece of art is that that never comes into play. All the ideas are on the table. All the ideas and everything is open for discussion, and it turns out everybody succeeds by submitting to what the thing needs to be. Art, in my view, is a very elegant problem-solving model.”
In the rest of the speech, Soderbergh discusses the difference between cinema (a televisual work of art that is “something that’s made” with a “specific vision” and a “well-developed aesthetic” but is not necessarily a movie) and movies (“something you watch”). Not all cinema are movies. Not all movies are cinema. Not all cinema is good (some of it, he says, is unwatchable garbage), but the important thing, is that Soderbergh feels that Hollywood is now completely uninterested in cinema. Cinema is not on the studio radar at all.
So here’s the thing: Magic Mike XXL is an attempt to make a mass-market, hugely entertaining movie that is also cinema and that is, on top of that, an allegory for making cinema in a world that only cares about movies. It’s a film that asks how do you make art when all anyone cares about is audience satisfaction?
This is a very different question from the concerns of Magic Mike, and it reconfigures the first film’s relationship to its central art form: male exotic dancing. Magic Mike is a Marxist allegory that would fit right at home in a Hallie Flanagan approved play for the Federal Theatre Project. In that film, Magic Mike is labor. He wants to raise enough capital so that he can control the means of production so that he can finally realize his dream of making unique, custom pieces of furniture (useful things), in an age of mechanical reproduction. In order to raise this capital, he turns himself into an object (by stripping, which objectifies him), and shrouds that object in an image (a Falstaffian party boy) that he has deeply conflicted feelings about. He even declares at one point in the film, ‘I am not my image.” Standing in the way of his goal are many things, but they’re all representatives of American Capitalism, whether they are the bank that won’t give him the loan, or the relentlessly alluring, relentlessly dishonest, nearly Satanic figure of Dallas, played by Matthew McConaughey.
In Magic Mike, stripping is the process by which Mike is objectified. It is tempting, delightful even, but it is also explicitly framed as a trap, a pit of quicksand that will keep him from realizing his dreams, and betray him at every turn. Every one of his stripping cohort are dreamers; Mike is the only one who gets to realize his dreams, and he can only do so by stopping stripping, even though it is way more lucrative and immediate in its pleasures than running a furniture business.
Magic Mike XXL changes up all of this. Gone, for the most part, is the Marxism, and the connected panic over sex work. Magic Mike XXL gives us another allegory, and Dallas is again the villain even though he never appears in the film. But what Dallas means has changed. He now represents cliché. He now represents pure surface pleasure, giving the audience only received notions of what that audience desires. Dallas isn’t wrong, exactly. Pandering to an audience will satisfy them (a thing XXL shows and mocks with a strip-tease staging of the central love triangle from Twilight performed by a crew that appears to have never seen the films or read the books), the question is just at what cost.
The cost in Magic Mike XXL is two-fold. First, it’s not actually as satisfying to be given exactly what you already know you want. When tropes become clichés, they bleach out, much as how when jokes become references they aren’t ever capable of more than a little delight at recognition. It’s all empty calories. But there’s another cost, the cost borne by the artist when they get addicted to the easy fix of audience applause, and lose their soul.
Magic Mike XXL holds out the promise that making a work of art that is authentic and made with a personal vision can be more deeply pleasurable and fulfilling for the audience. The entire film is structured around showing you this again and again. Or, to use the formulation from Soderbergh’s State of the Cinema address, for most of their lives, Mike et al. have been making movies. The question is whether or not they can make some fucking cinema.
This is what Mike demands of his fellow strippers as they make their way to a convention for one last ride. As Joe Manganiello’s Big Dick Richie announces his plans to once again reprise his fireman routine, Mike challenges him on authenticity grounds. Is Richie a fireman? No. He’s actually afraid of fire. Does he like the song he strips to in the routine? No. Dallas picked it for him. Does he feel any joy or sense of fulfillment when doing it? No, but it gets him applause. Richie’s response is initially defensive. He is enraged that Mike would question the validity of the routine. It’s only after the drugs kick in that he confesses his dream routine: a fake marriage and wedding night, using a girl chosen from the audience as his bride. As the film goes on, we learn that Richie is a romantic who wants partnership, who wants someone who can accept him. (The film uses a ridiculous metaphor for this: Richie’s penis is so large most women can’t have sex with him. When he finds one who can, all of the men are earnestly moved on his behalf). After Richie accepts his romantic nature, and signes on to Mike’s plan, the rest of the crew follow suit until one of them tosses all their old costumes—which is to say, all of their received notions of entertainment—out of the window of a speeding car.
These themes come up again in two lengthy set pieces, one set in a members-only house/strip club run by Jada Pinkett Smith’s Rome, and the other in a mansion owned by Andie MacDowell’s Nancy. Rome has built her lucrative subscription stripping business on the personal. Each stripper is allowed to find their individuality, and then use it to connect on a deeper level with their audience. The strippers are the “Kings” and they are there to make the “Queens” (the customer) feel beautiful, but they do so in ways that are unique, intimate, crafted to the individual King’s strength. The King of Kings, so to speak, is Donald Glover’s Andre, who doesn’t even dance. He simply takes a woman from the audience, asks her about her life and improvises a love ballad to her as the audience snaps, and then claps, a beat. It’s a beautiful moment: Funny, inventive, unexpected—his entrance made me gasp—and surprisingly moving.
At Nancy’s mansion, the performance Mike and his crew gives is of a different kind. They never dance for the assembled boozy white divorcés (there’s another essay to be written about race in this film and race in Soderbergh’s oeuvre in general), they instead talk until Matt Bomer’s Ken—perhaps taking a note from Andre—sings to one of them to let her know how desirable she is. The two sequences occur back to back, but they are mirror images of each other rather than contrasting opposites. The way these assembled Adonises make the women feel valued is no less a performance, no less a display, and no less a dance, than the stripping we see at Rome’s club.
When we finally see the routines the gang have been working on, they are also all rooted in each character. Big Dick Richie gets to do his wedding night thing. The stripper who is building an artisanal froyo business on the side strips to “candy shop” while making a sundae on himself and several women. The stripper who turns out to be a talented visual artist takes his clothes off while making a sketch of one of the audience members out of glue and glitter. Mike’s routine—and again, this is the guy who said “I am not my image” in the first film—is a mirror act, performed for a photographer and friend, with whom he never has sex, simply because she needs to be cheered up. They have created a form of entertainment that, when done right, with a certain level of individuality, gives something truly meaningful to their audience.
If you’ve followed Soderbergh’s career, you also can’t help but notice that all of this is situated within a movie about a legendary artist coming out of a three year retirement to help some friends, rediscovering the joy in the art he had abandoned along the way. The three-year absence is the film’s only ongoing point of tension. Will the men accept Mike again? Will they follow his leadership? Do they still love him? What wounds remain unhealed? The film isn’t interested enough in plot to really examine any of this, but it threads throughout XXL, ducking under the cloth of the film before rising up again, until finally sewing a button on itself with a short and tender scene between Mike and Tarzan right before the film’s final set-piece.
Did Soderbergh rediscover love and fulfillment in movies while working on XXL? That remains to be seen. Magic Mike XXL is a one time lark for its characters, a “last ride” before they all go into retirement, and it appears from this great profile of him by Matt Zoller Seitz that he has rediscovered fulfillment in producing, directing, shooting, and editing every frame of The Knick. He has found a vehicle for cinema, but it is divorced from movies.
So perhaps Magic Mike XXL itself is a one-time lark, a last ride before he and his longterm collaborators retire. Perhaps that is why it ends with a gritty, low budget quote of the fountain scene at the very end of Ocean’s 11, another film about a group of great craftsman pulling one last job before smiling at the beauty of the world and walking away forever. Retirement, of course, doesn’t remain permanent for Danny Ocean or Magic Mike. For movies’ sake, as much as for cinema’s, I hope it doesn’t remain permanent for Soderbergh either.