Saturday, June 30, 2012

Magic Mike & the Three Faces Of Capitalism

The team effort of Channing Tatum and Steven Soderbergh has given us Magic Mike  a strong critique of capitalism that illustrates for us three strands of capitalism in America today: the debauched (Dallas and Adam), the boring and unfulfilling (Brooke) and the American Dream (Mike). I would like to think it's just a critique of the system and of those who caused the global financial crisis which has hampered the ability of others to live their dreams. The symbols are strong and well-constructed, invoking images we have seen in other films but taking a more careful approach and not being so quick to throw away the system it sees as being totally bankrupt.
"Work all day. Work it all night." The film's tagline goes from Mike (Channing Tatum) working during the day on roofs to him working all night as a male stripper and in both jobs he has to negotiate his wages. There is a definite "exchange" taking place between his skill set as a stripper (the capitalistic theory of supply) and the demand of the women who want him and what he can do because of how he makes them feel. Mike claims that he strips so he can earn and save enough money for his slice of the American Dream, to build custom furniture for people. The problem is, while he has saved $13,000 for his equity, his credit score is bad (we don't find out why) and he can't get a loan.  
What are the capitalist symbols utilized?
Please recall that Steven Soderbergh was the director of another film recently utilizing a pig, Contagion, and someone eating what the pig had eaten also made them sick (please see Contagion: Bats & Pigs for my review; in Magic Mike, the Kid (Alex Pettyfur) is taking ecstasy and passed out on the floor and Herman the Pig comes and eats the tablets). In this film, I think we have to take Herman the Pig to be a symbol of capitalism because pigs symbolize the appetites. So what are the appetites being "exposed" in the film?
Women's appetites for sex. 
Pornocrates, 1896, Felicien Rops (this image is not in the film). This painting aptly symbolizes a culture (the woman) being led by its appetites (the pig) while blindfolded, in other words, we necessarily become blindfolded when we are led by our appetites because our mind would tell us that we should not do what we are doing, so, in order to keep doing it, we blind ourselves to the consequences of where our bad decisions are going to lead us. The little "statues" beneath the walk symbolizes the arts (music, painting, literature) and the role which they should play in cleansing culture of its animal passions to elevate people's minds above their material cravings. This is a "living" painting in Magic Mike and aims to "reveal" what we have done to ourselves; the question is, is this human nature, or is it just what capitalism does to people?
The werewolf, as we have discussed before, is traditionally a symbol of out-of-control male sexuality but it is starting to be associated with women as well: Dana in The Cabin In the Woods (she's bitten by a werewolf), the little girl from Underworld: Awakening and Carolyn Stoddard in Dark Shadows. These references are not consequences, rather, repeating/trending symbols of encoding a national cultural phenomena: women have become masculine in their sexuality and voracious in their appetite for sex and while Magic Mike doesn't specifically site werewolves, Brooke does get compared to a dog (because all the other women pant after him like a dog, Mike thinks she will, too) and Brooke mentions the "vampires" and the normal people who don't live in the dark; these are specific to the "monsters" women's sexual appetites are making them become:
Do you hear those women?
Granted, this is a film and they are being directed how to act, but the point is, we believe they are acting this way because we have seen in other sources or actually know women like this, so this can be taken as a mirror of reality. The song It's Raining Men is also a mirror of reality: for the first time in history, it's raining men; Dallas (Matthew McConaughey, named after the tycoons of the TV series Dallas) talks about the cleansing and purifying rain coming down upon the ladies as the men are getting ready to perform the number with the umbrellas (and trust me, the umbrellas are meant to be a phallic symbol). Whereas rain is a sign of a character being cleansed and even "re-born," Dallas tells Adam (Alex Pettyfer) that the strippers are the husbands the women never had, the one night-stands and the fulfilled fantasy that allows them to go home to their husbands without having cheated on them (which is false), but now the rebirth the rain symbolizes is sexual appetites being created and fulfilled and it's because women want that and think it's a part of the "new femininity" that they "buy into it" (literally by throwing money and shoving money at the strippers).
Please note how Dallas' sunglasses "reflect" but he's not "reflecting" on himself. He's drinking deeply from the silver goblet, but it's the goblet of "worldly delight," not the cup of wisdom. Dallas wears a rattlesnake belt and because he incorporates that into his stripping routine, we can juxtapose his character to the snake (because of the way he treats Mike in the Miami deal). Dallas, his playing of the stock market and business demeanor, represents that far extreme of capitalism, the debauchers, because he's taking everything he can get and wants money for the sake of money, compared to Mike who "has a dream," a calling from the talent in his heart that individualizes Mike and robs Dallas of his identity because Dallas doesn't give himself (truly) to anything, he only takes. Adam is following Dallas on this road and Mike has to choose if he's going to as well. By wanting to build custom furniture for people, Mike expresses (artistically) his understanding of the uniqueness of each person and his own uniqueness as a person that his furniture will express for them and himself, but he has to make that the platform of his dream that he really believes in before the rest of it can come together. Brooke having the "knock-off" furniture reflects her lack of individuation (in the film) but also--and perhaps more importantly, Mike's own inability to not be able to discern. When he first goes into Brooke's apartment, he thinks her dining table and chairs is a high quality set but it's not; when he's at the bank, he tells the agent helping him what a nice necklace she has and she mutters that she got it at Target (granted, it's very likely that this last example was Mike trying to "kiss up to her" to help his chances of getting a loan, but if he were doing that, wouldn't he probably say something more personal, like mention her hair, or smile, or...birthing hips? Ha ha, just joking...) in other words, Mike seems to impart quality to something that doesn't really have quality, like the life of a stripper.
Because men like Mike, Adam and Dallas are willing to do this, there is a vicious cycle being created of men in abundance who offer themselves to women so that women can enjoy casual, sexual, dehumanizing experiences (please visit this link to see Dallas training Adam on what women want from him when he's on the stage because the video wouldn't let me download it, but it's informative about what they aim to do, but it's also heavily edited). But linking sex to water in It's Raining Men--which is a traditional inversion of water as a sacrament of baptism cleansing one of their sins--is Brooke (Cody Horn) because her name also invokes water (a brook is like a stream) but she's the exact opposite of the women seen in the film (more on her below; Joanna [Olivia Munn] is another example of the masculine/feminine; her name, "Jo" and "Anna" combines the masculine and feminine and just so we don't miss this, the film makes sure to let us know that she's bisexual) linking the sexual experience to water creates the false illusion that this kind of experience is "life giving" when it's actually deadly (and we can say that because of various images in the film).
Earlier that day, Adam was doing impersonations (regrettably, I don't know who he was impersonating, if you do, please drop me a note) but the point is, impersonations is what Adam does best, and that includes "impersonating" Mike and what a stripper does. This is the reason why Adam gets into so much trouble, he doesn't know anything on his own and so he can't make good decisions and because of that, we can take him to be one of the irresponsible faces of capitalism which rightly deserves to be eradicated from the country: those who do anything to fill the needs of their ever-growing appetites.
But if women are becoming more masculine in their sexual appetites, then men are becoming more feminized. For one, there are tons of "products" the male strippers use which we see as a growing trend among men discussed in the trailer for the documentary film Mansome (scroll down the page to find). Additionally, on the Fourth of July, Mike shows up at Brooke's house dressed as Marilyn Monroe in her iconic image from The Seven Year Itch about the problems of monogamy. Mike wearing Ms. Monroe's iconic white dress and platinum blond hair (wig) is a clear indication that he's losing his masculinity even as it appears he's living the dream life of every man (we can contrast this image with Jason Statham's Luke Wright in Safe, for example; please see Safe & Counter-Culture Masculinity for examples).
Adam, left, and Mike, right, are in a sex store buying outfits for Adam's performance and talking about the different outfits and what they "channel." On Adam's right arm, his tattoo says, "What goes around, comes around," and that proves prophetic in the film, but not for him (that we see). It's not just the destabilization of sexual identities which the film explores, but the animalism. When Adam gets his new truck, he and Mike want Brooke to go with them to celebrate and Mike calls to Brooke "like she's a dog," and that's because he's trying to appeal to her animal appetites. Further, in the scene pictured just above, Adam picks up underwear that looks like an elephant and the man's penis goes into the elephant's "trunk" area, thereby dehumanizing the man and the sexual act by putting it on the level of an animal. Why is this important? It contributes to a view on capitalism--justifiably so, I think--that capitalism won't and can't succeed if all it's doing is fueling our base appetites and desires, there has to be a higher order to capitalism, the fulfillment of our true talents and dreams (Mike's desire to make custom furniture). 
It's not just an exercise in drag for Tatum, or a competition with Dustin Hoffman's Tootsie, rather, since The Seven Year Itch is about relationships, and it's the Fourth of July when he does this, Mike's showing up as Marilyn Monroe's iconic character draws our attention to the "relationship" America has had with capitalism on the anniversary of American independence and bringing it into question (I have not seen The Seven Year Itch in a really long time so I can't say anything else about it; if you would like to add something to this discussion, it would be most appreciated). Lastly, just as Marilyn Monroe is held up as a cultural standard of feminine beauty, so Mr. Tatum's very male physique is a "standard" of masculinity (as the Spartan soldiers were a few years ago in 300) but the combining of Marilyn and Channing is not a successful one, and it's not supposed to be, because men shouldn't be women and women shouldn't be men. To demonstrate that, here is another clip:
Why is this important to establish?
Because of "false" supply and demand it creates in the markets (this is an obvious Christian point for me to make, but I am going to focus on this economic one because it's unique how the film does it) and what it does to individuality. Let's watch this scene with Brooke and Mike: Mike very much reminds me of the artist William Morris who, in revolt against the Industrial Revolution devoted himself to making high-quality, original items the way things used to be made so the item would retain some of the person who made it (like a cobbler making shoes).
In this way, Mike represents the American Dream, doing what it is that you are good at and being able to make your living at it, because that is living because that is living, when your talent is being put to good use and it's supporting you because we are our talents and we are our dreams. In the opening of the film, when we first see Mike, he's with Joanna (Olivia Munn) and a third girl. Mike is leaving his house and asks Joanna to lock up and she is surprised that he would leave the two of them there; he doesn't think they will steal any of his stuff but Joanna tells him that stealing stuff is what strangers do. In truth, everything has all ready been stolen from Mike: his dignity (because he has to get drunk before he strips, meaning he can't "bear" to be fully conscious during the act) and the financial crisis caused by people like Dallas and Adam which wrecked the markets in 2008 and now mean that people like Mike can't get legitimate help because banks can't take a risk and the ones who did that, like Lehmann Brothers, stole from America and from the American Dream.
Mike had Joanna come over for an evening of casual sex and now they are chatting about Joanna finishing her psychology degree and in six weeks she will finally "get paid for it" instead of just studying and offering free advice to people. In some ways, I think we have to see Joanna as a fulfillment of the American Dream because she's getting what she originally went after whereas Mike Lane is still "chasing his dream down the lane" because the times are distressed. When Mike later sees Joanna with her fiancee that he didn't know about, he's shocked, but that symbolizes this very thing, that Joanna has "wedded" herself to a path/lane in life and Mike realizes how he hasn't been able to.
What about Brooke?
Brooke is a nurse's assistant, so she types all the nurses' paperwork for them...; now, we all have to have a job and means of supporting ourselves, so please do not take this in the wrong way, especially for those who are nurses' assistants but that would be an example of a boring, non-individuating job that is the American nightmare, the kind of job like, as Mike says, you do in order to raise money so you can do what you want to do.
Brooke has come to the club to see if Adam is really stripping. Watching her brother strip in front of sex-crazed women, she's obviously disturbed by what she sees, and she should be: remember Michael Fassbender's character in Shame? This is the same situation. What Fassbender's character does to the women in the film, he also does to his sister, because whatever any man does to a woman, he does to his sister because men are meant to respect and protect women because if they don't, they don't respect and protect themselves (like Adam in Magic Mike). Likewise, the women screaming for Adam to take off his clothes might as well be screaming for their own brother to take off his clothes because it's the same thing. We must start genuinely loving and caring for each other, or the animal appetites and passions will continue to dominate us; the consequences: Animals don't love or respect themselves and that's exactly where we, as a culture, are headed.
Before we close, there is one last character I would like to invoke in the film: David. Just as we see "Adam" in both Magic Mike and Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, in both films that character symbolizes Adam Smith who wrote the capitalist textbook The Wealth Of Nations; also in both films is Adam Smith's more important, morality work The Theory of Moral Sentiments  not invoked but necessary to making capitalism a healthy and truly productive system for societal economic sustainability (please see Radical Socialism: Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter & the Question Of American History). In the club where Mike dances, there is a statue of Michelangelo's David in gold, looking on the scene just as there is a David in Prometheus (Michael Fassbender who plays the android David to this statue David in Magic Mike). I couldn't find a photo of the statue, but here's a clip and the statue is in the background:
Why include that?
First, it reminds me of the 1960 Frederico Fellini film La Dolce Vita when Sylvia is seductively dancing (like the men's strip tease in Magic Mike) with that actor who has gotten the crazy hair cut (making him look like the pagan god Pan) while a giant statue of Constantine's head sits on the ground behind them, watching.  Creating the link with the Fellini classic correlates Magic Mike's lifestyle to that of Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) and the exhaustion of that lifestyle. But throughout some scenes in Magic Mike, they have placed a golden fig leaf over David's groin. Why? To undermine the "man after God's own heart," which David was and to make a point of David's holiness so the unholiness of the sexual lifestyle being bought and sold in the club will stand out against the gold of the statue like the black sin it is (for a more thorough analysis of David, please see 3 Davids, 3 Theologies: Donatello, Michelangelo & Bernini).
Adam lost about $10,000 worth of drugs that Mike pays for so Adam won't get killed by drug dealers and while Adam says thank you and promises to pay it back to him, but then launches into about what a great time he's having getting all the drugs and sex and money he wants while Mike listens to him and hears the reason why he's had to give up his capital (like those who lost so much in the Wall Street bail out) to save this guy who has no remorse about what he's done and doesn't seem to have learned a lesson. This brings us to a good place to discuss Adam's two tattoos: the phrase, "What goes around comes around" and the cross over his right pectoral muscle. By the end of the film, Adam hasn't gotten what is going around to come back and get him, but we know it will. Then there is the cross he has on him, meaning that Adam knows just as Adam in the Garden of Eden (and David) were types of Christ, he's meant to be a type of Christ himself and he's not doing that!
While Magic Mike was very explicit, what they did they did very well; what Magic Mike does differently from other films currently is to offer a serious and constructive critique of capitalism and how we as a society have been implementing the principles perversely and for the wrong reasons, which is the reason why we are in the mess we are in, not because of capitalism, rather, because we have been bad capitalists. Unless we change our ways--in more ways than one--that breakfast food place is never going to open, there's just going to be the ongoing night that never ends. Right now, however, there is that hope of the dark night of the trial ending and the new dawn when we finally get to "break our fast" from being so frugal and get back to comfortable levels of capitalism.
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner
So why do they dress as firemen, soldiers, cops, and then strip? Because the men in those professions are the types of men that the strippers should be but aren't. As pictured above, the men who sacrifice for this country by giving their lives to defend their country, and then these guys are just out for money, women and a good time; who do you think respects themselves, the soldiers or the strippers? This is a much needed critique of masculinity falling in line with films such as Shame, Wrath Of the Titans, Safe, This Means War and The Cabin In the Woods (among many others). Regardless of the demand for strippers (male or female) and regardless of the supply of strippers, no one should do this to themselves or some one else.