The Queer Lessons of Magic Mike XXL - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
28Dec/150

The Queer Lessons of Magic Mike XXL

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Time to make it clapLongtime readers for the site know I enjoy organizing projects for myself.  It keeps me on a regular updating schedule while delving deep into bodies of work I might otherwise not get a chance to.  I've wanted to do a shot-by-shot analysis of a flick for some time and my mind first drifted to Man of Steel.  After a great deal of thought I realized a shot-by-shot of MoS is more work than I really have time for and the abundance of internet conversation about superhero movies ensures plenty of others will have an opportunity to craft intelligent (hopefully) commentary on MoS.

My attention turned to the three-way tie I have for my "best of 2015" and what would benefit a moment-to-moment analysis.  My first two picks, The Midnight Swim and Creed, touched me personally in a way already best articulated in my reviews on each film.  This left Channing Tatum's beautifully sculpted body alone with me, an HD purchase of Magic Mike XXL, and a 70-inch television.

I couldn't resist - not just because I loved MMXXL when I first wrote about it - but because it may be the wisest movie dealing with the toxic masculinity which has become so prominent in every form of recent entertainment.  Cinema has dealt with this well in documentaries like Going Clear and What Happened, Miss Simone? while fiction like Spy and Clouds of Sils Maria offered laughs and insight aplenty.  But outside cinema we've had the seemingly endless tirade against women from Donald Trump along with his supporters, Gamergate still generated threats against women well into 2015, and the string of sexual violence in Bill Cosby's wake is still being tallied.  Heck, even in cinema the lowest points in 2015 involved the sexist characterization in Age of Ultron and Jurassic World with the former's Black Widow being excised from figures from her own action scene and the latter's Claire Dearing only becoming competent after shedding clothes and pleasing the male lead.

Why MMXXL?  Because it no joke has an important lesson we're going to need to embrace when crafting new entertainment moving forward and it almost all stems from MMXXL's visual allusions to seminal works of queer cinema.  This isn't a universal "we", but a "we" addressed to the straight white men who dictate the terms of entertainment - the "we" which I, no matter how progressive I try to be, will forever be a part of.  MMXXL is spectacular entertainment but melds cinematic history and flashy male entertainer routines as a way of educating while delighting.

This piece is a series of firsts for me.  It's the first time I've attempted a thorough breakdown of a single film versus an in-depth review, created GIFs, and the first article I've ever written probably not safe for work.  All things considered this'll be a clean affair but with the butts 'n skimpy gear your place of employment may not dig the images moving forward - so you've been duly warned.

Lesson One: Subverting Subversion (A Metasubversion Tale)

Steven Soderbergh "retired" from cinema after directing Magic Mike, which based on the trailer and other available advertising looked to be a glitzy Showgirls-affair.  Instead it got good reviews because of how it subverted the expectation that MM was going to be all flash no substance and instead examined the crushing effects of post-Recession capitalism.  I like Magic Mike, but anyone surprised by the turn wasn't paying attention to the bulk of Soderbergh's career which from Traffic, Bubble, and on to The Girlfriend Experience criticized capitalism in different ways.

Enter Gregory Jacobs, collaborator on Soderbergh projects for over twenty years.  Jacobs took over the duties as director for MMXXL while Soderbergh "demoted" himself to editor and cinematographer.  It was important Jacobs, who is as close an artist as anyone can be in replicating Soderbergh's style, understood the subversive appeal of MM and in turn subverts the subversion.  Let me show you what I mean by contrasting two important sets of shots from the first few minutes of MM and MMXXL.Kickin' off the McoughnaissanceLet's get somberUp top we've got Matthew McConaughey revving up the crowd in the opening shot of MM by letting the ladies in the audience know what they can and can't touch.  Poor Tatum on the bottom is looking mighty glum sitting on that swing-set all by his lonesome.  Looking at McConaughey you'd be forgiven in thinking MM was going to be a flashy affair and with Tatum's pouting a serious look at the post-stripper world.  Given the way MM went from McConaughey's bluster to the economic and substance abuse issues a continuation of this seriousness seems present at the start of MMXXL.  Both sets of expectations are upended by the first sign of nudity in both films.The butt of MikeBig dick's butt this timeCompare the colors of Tatum's first appearance in MM up top to Joe Manganiello's on the bottom.  Tatum looks washed out, tired, and the world feels like a grinding routine to get through.  Manganiello's world is bursting with more color and communal smiles.  I admire the bait and switch in MMXXL more because Soderbergh was already known for complicating his cinematic output no matter the genre and Jacobs looked to be following his directorial lead before taking a turn to the lighthearted.  There's also a key difference in how the dance routines and conversations framed in each which explains why critics were more receptive to MM than MMXXL.

Soderbergh's typical routine in MM is performed to "us" even though diegetically directed toward the women in the audience.  Jacobs takes a different approach in MMXXL as the performers are rarely look straight ahead into the camera and instead we watch them in a writhing mass of men and women alike (more to say here in a moment).  Soderbergh's MM functions more as entertainment for the cerebral-minded critic and Jacobs' MMXXL a broader crowd pleaser.  We see a lot of the pleasure being a stripper gives the characters in MM along with the negatives but rarely do we get into the headspace of the audience.  Jacobs shows us MMXXL will not be about men's pleasure to the same degree in a weird moment where a girl in a bikini busts in on the stripping crew and just starts head-butting Mike:Bikini girl testTying this one odd but fun moment back to my idea MMXXL is lessons for modern film-makers what we read here is simply "Don't forget your audience."  The other strippers respect the girl's intrusion and play along but when Mike isn't willing to do the same that's when she starts headbutting him.

Jacobs subverts Soderbergh's earlier subversion of the glitz and glitter stripper tale and creates a stamp of his own.  His mark deepens as MMXXL moves into the road trip central to the plot and since Soderbergh's film showed pleasure in a heteronormative sense Jacobs dips into queer cinema to make a different point about the relationship between stripper and audience.

Lesson Two: Fun in Fluid Sexuality

MM, for all its ogling, was a heteronormative flick.  The men dance for the women, women usually sleep with the men, and the non-traditional pairings usually favor the straight man like Mike's frequent 1 man 2 women threesomes.  Reid Carolin, who wrote the screenplay for MMXXL, removed most of the romantic and sexual pairings in different ways.  It's clear from the first performance in MM that the men are performing mostly to get eventual pleasure from women, but the first dance in MMXXL is a solo performance which recalls queer film instead of the straight pleasures of the first.It's business time and business time is no funMike works, lamely tells his one employee that he still can't afford to pay for health insurance, and crunches numbers at the computer.  Soderbergh's cinematography recalls the washed out exhaustion of MM until Mike is back at his tools and Ginuwine's "Pony" slinks on the soundtrack.  Tatum's physical acting is a thing of wonder here, and I love how you can read the "Is this really happening?" expression hidden by the visor from his shoulders and facial movements.

Then Mike gets to grinding, and I think of this moment from Kenneth Anger's Fireworks:

Anger's Fireworks PenisFireworks is a magnificent short film I had the good timing to watch a month or so back.  The moment above arrives close to the climax of the film when the dreamer's barely repressed homosexual lust burns down his home as his crotch excitedly shoots sparks as you see above.  This gets a direct reference as Mike gets to work:Fireworks of steel penisThe choice of referencing an image from a movie about repression is a good one because as soon as the sparks fly in Mike's hands the rest of his body loses control:Inspired to once again danceIf the allusion between Fireworks and MMXXL stopped there it would be fine, but each "lesson" in MMXXL comes with a practical application as well.  The second big routine in MMXXL comes when Mike rejoins the stripper crew and their first stop is a drag show at Mad Mary's hosted by the Notorious Snatch.  Jacobs again avoids the heteronormative performances of MM and shows each one of Mike's reformed crew gradually adjusting to the sexual fluidity of the entertainment they provide.Vogue escalationThe escalation is one of the great bits of visual fun in MMXXL.  Mike starts off doing his usual rough dance routine to great applause, but by the time Big Dick Richie (Manganiello) takes the stage he's rubbing feather boas between his legs with great enthusiasm, and Gabriel Iglesias, as their new MC Tito, pays tribute to Carmen Miranda with high heels an improvised skirt and fruit hat.  The Mad Mary's sequence builds on the allusions to queer film from the earlier workshop Fireworks routine and becomes a straight-up ode to the excellent documentary Paris Is Burning about New York City drag shows.

He doesn't snatch the prize in-movie - but Kevin Nash wins in my heart as he makes the most of his limited mobility by sassing it up with an imaginary compact:

Nash lipstick moment

Lesson Three: It's Not About Your Pleasure

I'm presenting these ideas in chronological order because Jacobs and Carolin are great at introducing new facets to entertainment then circling back to their application.  So far it's been all big emotions and flashy dance numbers but MMXXL hits gorgeous peaks when it slows down.  After the drag show the stripper crew heads down to the beach where Mike meets Zoe (Amber Heard) who takes advantage of his moment of solitude by snapping a photo of him while he's relieving himself at the beach.

Meeting while peeingStill half-seenSoderbergh lights our first glimpse of her up top and Tatum is mostly concealed in shadow when speaking with her.  Zoe arrives full of confidence and even through the darkness we can see her poise.  Mike, by contrast, is shirking in the shadow as he tries to engage in the same kind of aimless "cute" banter he had with his love interest in MM.  What's great about this scene is how they both misidentify what the other person wants and how Jacobs and Soderbergh choose to signal the breaking point in the conversation.Still not seeing each otherAfter Zoe invites Mike out on a midnight boat trip with the drag queens he declines because he knows if he gets on the boat with her it'll end in sex he doesn't want.  The conversation here is illuminating because Zoe immediately puts Mike in his place because she's not "Going through a guy phase" and that he's "Safe with me Casanova".  She thought he was being friendly, he thought she was leading him away for sex.  The former is healthy, the latter is a dangerous assumption.  Mike rightly leaves embarrassed and in the morning the strippers aren't bragging about conquests but shame and how they need to purge negative emotions.

Part of this shame comes from Big Dick Richie who - for those who've seen MM - fits his name perfectly.  But this isn't a source of macho pride or bragging rights and instead we end up with the rare conversation where the guys admit size isn't everything.  This leads to great ecstasy-fueled dialogue where Mike tries to convince everyone to try new routines which aren't about making the dollar bills fly but excite both performer and audience.

Once the drugs take effect the strippers try and cheer Richie up by telling him to do one simple thing - make a gas station clerk smile.  The results are...well...just check the whole thing out for yourself:

Let's get one thing out before addressing the myriad of pleasures in this scene.  There's a real and persistent strain of sexism where men tell women who are complete strangers to smile and cheer up because they have such a pretty face.  This scene comes close to falling in that camp and I completely understand if viewers dislike it for that reason but I feel it avoids the creep category with some important aspects of the scene.

Jacobs directed Manganiello in such a fashion Richie's enthusiasm gradually builds from modestly silly to hilariously foolish.  Richie's enthusiasm for his routines is so over-the-top when it concludes that it's tempting to read this as a farce but avoids this by focusing on the attendant's mostly deadpan reactions.  It's also important that not once in the entire scene does he dictate how the attendant should react or tell her to smile.  He's making an idiot out of himself and if that makes her happy - super - but if it didn't he would still be paying for the snacks and cleaning up the place.

With that out of the way - everything about this is perfect.  I love the expression on Richie's face when his backside receives no attention despite his deep stretch:Thought I would be pleased with myselfI love how he's so into the moment he starts lip-syncing "It's too late" to the Backstreet Boys:It's too late(Side-note, the use of "I Want It That Way" for this sequence is a great follow-up to a quick throwaway conversation where Richie defends Backstreet Boys for being the only "real" boy band.)

And I love how adorably supportive his stripper crew is - not when they're trying to contain their excitement or cheer when she smiles but when they're so happy for their friend they rush from one window to the other to keep up with him (the "HOT BOILED PEANUTS" sign is a perfect joke sign for the moment):

Gang's comin'This is a magical sequence.  When I first watched MMXXL I was giggling so hard not because it's funny (though it is hilarious) but because it had been ages since I watched a movie where a protagonist just wanted to make someone else happy.  He does it not by focusing on the pleasure he gets out of it or governing her response, but just putting himself out there and hoping he can brighten someone's day.Perfect smile

Final Lesson: Respect Your Diverse Queens

To this point in either MM or MMXXL there hasn't been a lot of diversity in the cast.  Neither the principal players nor the audience goes further than your typical twenty to thirtysomething well-built attractive white people.  There are some exceptions but they're barely commented on in MM and have only been the source of comic dialogue in MMXXL.

That all changes when the stripper crew is in need of a new MC and transportation.  Mike brings them to a club where we spend the next fifteen minutes learning about the importance of embracing diversity.  It's not done that obviously but the details paint a picture of how important diversity in entertainment is.  Jada Pinkett Smith leads us into this realm confidently and just a touch of violence to her performance as Rome.All hail the empressLook at this setup and tell me she doesn't see herself as a ruler.  Here's the trick, she absolutely deserves to and will remind us time and again how she commands such respect.  Mike enters the room and she takes exactly what she wants from him:

Empress wants what she wantsThen pushes him away:Down boySmith's confidence is intoxicating and highlights just how important proper casting is.  Rome was originally written for a man and the Jacobs coalition made the smart decision to rewrite the character as a woman.  If Rome was cast as a white man lording over all these tone black bodies, it would immediately be a symbol of racism.  What the script does is make Rome a savvy equal-opportunity employer who, as a woman, understands all women need to be respected regardless of skin color, age, or weight.  All women are queens.A queen no matter whatSoderbergh's visual references once the pleasure mansion sequence kicks off come from queer cinema of a different shade.  Rather than the experimental styling of Kenneth Anger he looks to Dee Rees' Pariah and the cinematography of Bradford Young.  Look at the way Young uses colors in the opening strip club scene of Pariah:

Pariah...and how Soderbergh lights the second pleasure mansion dance sequence to "Sex You" along with the previous sequence:Pariah colorsThe lighting and framing differences between Young's work in Pariah and Soderbergh's for MMXXL are clear, but Soderbergh's cinematography shares Young's use of color to accentuate their bodies.  All this comes together in a stunning dolly pan when Rome takes a recently divorced woman to the staircase where Donald Glover descends before singing her praises like an angel with wings stretched on the wall.  He shows respect and love to this queen not by dancing, but by creating a work of poetry and leading the crowd in a song about how special she is:The angelThe whole sequence is so hypnotically composed the sensual connections between performer and audience become damn near tactile.  Jacobs and crew show how diversity in entertainment isn't about meeting quotas but highlighting different aspects of our human experience.  In MMXXL it comes in the soundtrack, the smoother dance styles of the pleasure mansion entertainers instead of our stripper crew, and replacing the flashy spectacle of strip routines with dark and lush lighting.

What follows is a great extension of the lesson highlighted in the pleasure mansion about how diversity needs to be respected.  Smith's strong performance as Rome meets a worthy follow-up when the stripper crew tries to crash at a friend's place and meets a similarly numbered squad of middle-aged divorcees led by Nancy.  Andie MacDowell relishes the opportunity to be blunt and confident as Nancy in a different way than Smith's Rome.  MacDowell hits a Charlotte Rampling-level aura of sexual intensity finding confidence and sexiness in the experiences that brought her to this point, while the others need just a bit of encouragement.  You get the sense that Rome would be right at home working with chains, while Nancy would never be "broken in" by any cowboy.  The male gaze inverts nicely as the MacDowell and the others enjoy evaluating the crew:Ladies nightThis sequence could have gone off into troubling territory much like the convenience store sequence had the potential to.  No less than Spike Lee has set up this very same scenario for She Hate Me where Spike has Anthony Mackie meet with his queer clients before impregnating them (it's a misguided movie to put it lightly):Surrender to judgmentThe key difference between She Hate Me and MMXXL is that Spike follows up this sequence with Mackie's character giving each one of these queer women a screaming orgasm.  The flirtations and conversation in MMXXL does lead to some sex but it all happens off-screen and is only commented on the next morning.  The tact Jacobs used here references not a queer work of cinema but Faces from John Cassavettes:Please kiss meAbove is a painful moment when one of the women begs to just be held and kissed for a moment.  Cinema is great at paying attention to the libido of older men who constantly get paired off with women half their age but doesn't offer the same for older women. Jacobs and performer Matt Bomer give the moment from Faces a positive lift when Ken (Bomer) serenades one of the women with the song she wishes her husband would sing to her:

Dream dance

Keeping in line with the lessons of both Rome's pleasure mansion and the convenience store - he doesn't push her into anything and doesn't expect any pleasure in return.  He respects this queen regardless of her age and showers her with the attention she misses from her husband.  Mike even applies these lessons to his impromptu reunion with Zoe where he approaches her as a friend and not as a potential sexual partner.  Thanks to Rome's lessons in respect the stripper crew becomes a well-oiled machine built for happiness - lessons which serve them well the rest of the film.

Conclusion: Make A Miracle You Sexy Thangs

In many ways the Rome pleasure mansion sequence and subsequent rendezvous at Nancy's home are the real climax of MMXXL.  They build along tense erotic coils while paying attention to bodies of different skin colors and ages in a respectful fashion.  What happens afterward when the strippers finally make their way to the Myrtle Beach convention is more like a series of pleasing victory laps.  If the pleasure mansion was about building and sustaining tension the convention dances are about having as many climaxes in a row as possible without exhausting the audience.

With Jacobs' direction, Soderbergh's cinematography, and a stripper crew ready to please the climaxes succeed beautifully:ClimaxMy goddessLoving embraceLovin' that double imageJacobs and Soderbergh could have continued the same directorial and visual cues from MM.  By embracing the roots of queer cinema, drag, and black artists they have crafted a loving template for how entertainment can evolve and still have fun with itself in our increasingly diverse world.  Can you think of many Oscar-bait dramas which wouldn't benefit from a bit of MMXXL's philosophy in their bones?

While you ponder that I'll bask in MMXXL for one last image.We're celebrating now

Other recommended writers on MMXXL:

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Posted by Andrew

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