Archive for the ‘Gus Van Sant’ Category

I am a fan of director Steven Soderbergh. His 1989 debut, Sex, Lies and Videotape which enabled him to go on to work in Hollywood is among my favourite films. Its tale of middle class suburban sexual repression, and the complex dynamic between masculine and feminine, ‘active’ and ‘passive’, voyeurism and exhibitionism, struck a chord with 18 year old, terrified of my own sexual potency, me.

So I was intrigued to see ‘blockbuster film of the summer’ Magic Mike, about a troupe of men strippers. Would Soderbergh bring some of the subtlety and ‘queerness’ of Sex, Lies and Videotape to a romcom where Channing Tatum’s tits are the stars? On having seen the film, I say yes. And here is why.

But Before I start…                                                                                                                 There was one thing I hated about this film. It is something I have not seen mentioned in many other reviews. And that is its NAFF, MORALISTIC, INSULTING portrayal of the ‘adult industry’ and the people who work in it (and the people who love them). I suspect Laura Agustin, who conceptualised the ‘rescue industry’ in relation to people being ‘saved’ from a hellish lifetime of taking their clothes off and fucking for money, would have something to say about this too. Mike, played by Channing Tatum, is only allowed to ‘get the girl’ and achieve narrative closure, when he forsakes the stripping world and gives up his chance of going to work with the crew in Miami. Adam, who Mike introduced into that world, is stuck in a spiral of drugs (it would be more believable if the character was on  steroids by the way) and sex and immorality. This  reminds me of Pretty Woman but with the gender identities reversed. As if everyone who works in porn, stripping, lap dancing and sex work is just waiting till Richard Gere comes along and showers them with money and patronising one-liners.

Metrosexual Active and Passive Role Reversals

However, even in my hatred of this prejudiced moralism of the film’s plot, I do acknowledge that the ‘reversal’ of the gender identities involved is interesting, and important. Channing Tatum is not the active hero that is supposed to be an archetype of Hollywood masculinity. No, like Julia Roberts before him, he has to sit and look pretty until his ‘knight in shining armour’ in the form of Cody Horn, comes to rescue him from the dragon’s den.

This role reversal fits in with the culture in which metrosexuality has developed.  One reason men are able to indulge their ‘passive’, ‘object’ status is that women are becoming more active, assertive sexual beings. They do not expect men to be ‘men’ in the traditional, macho sense. Both literally and symbolically in the modern world, it is often women who ‘wear the trousers’. Both Cody Horn who makes it her ‘quest’ to bag Channing Tatum (and ‘reform’ him), and Olivia Munn who instigates threesomes with him and other women, before getting bored and finding a man to marry, are active, decision-making, assertive characters. In a scene at Tatum’s flat where he has made a booty call to Munn, she is shown to be straddling him whilst he lies back. And when he phones her another night, only to be blown off, he looks puppy-like, vulnerable.

I found my interpretation of these strong women characters in Magic Mike to completely contrast with a critical review of the film by a gay man. Ignoring the women leads,  blogger James Croft (aka @FutureTemple ) focuses on the women in the audience at the strip joint and writes:

‘A movie about male strippers – men who are paid, mainly by women, to take their clothes off, and are therefore not fully in control of their own sexual display – could have explored such tensions, showing women in a position of sexual power which is rarely portrayed with much insight or sensitivity, and investigating male sexual vulnerability.

Despite the claim by Matthew McConaughey’s character that he sees “a lot of lawbreakers up in this house”, the women are deeply passive throughout, nary a grab, a grope, or stage invasion in sight. The men may be the objects of sexual desire, but they remain the subject of sexual activity: they initiate all sexual encounters, and are ultimately in the driving seat.’

Straights Go Gay?
It is as if we watched a different film! But maybe that is because for a gay man, keen to see portrayals of gay men’s sexual and romantic relationships on the screen, the heterosexual relationships in the film were of little interest.
‘Magic Mike is really, really straight. I don’t mean “straight” simply as in “not queer”, but also “straight” as in safe, unadventurous, routine. ‘

It is a shame this gay critic switched off at the sight of women and men getting it on, because when they did in Magic Mike it was actually pretty queer. The film opens with Channing Tatum and Olivia Munn waking up after a night of sex. The camera pans round and reveals another naked woman on the bed! And the pair joke about how neither of them can remember her name.  Later in the film Pettyfer (‘the kid’) is encouraged to join in a foursome with two women and a man, in which they all find themselves saying ‘I love you’ in a slightly pathetic manner. These are examples of ‘straight’ people doing ‘queer’ acts which are becoming more acceptable in metrosexual culture. Arguably leaving gay men feeling a bit redundant.

But I suppose these ‘queer’ and ‘bisexual’ scenes were overshadowed for gay men viewers by the ‘climax’ of the movie, which happens very early on, when Tatum walks butt naked into the bathroom, displaying ‘dat ass’ proudly and invitingly.

Another way in which the ‘straight’ characters in the film are kind of ‘queer’ is through the homosociality displayed by the men in the movie. Strippers work closely together, in various forms of undress, and so the relationships between the men in the film were tinged with sexual tension. The ‘gay critic’ I quoted above was dissatisfied with this portrayal of homosocial men. He thought the ‘no homo’ attitude where they repudiated their homo desire was disappointing. I think it is realistic. As men become more open about showing off their bodies to each other, it does not necessarily follow that they will be open about the sexual undertones of this situation. Theories of declining homophobia are relevant to metrosexual masculinity where men’s behaviours are becoming less policed. UP TO A POINT. But homophobia amongst ‘straight’ men has not disappeared altogether and I think Magic Mike is a valid portrayal of some of the homo anxiety still felt by young, fit, metrosexual men. There are still no out gay or bisexual pro footballers in the UK or US for example. So the proverbial fear of ‘sharing a shower with a homo’ is still with us.

In some ways Magic Mike is a ‘failed’ buddy movie. I like this aspect of the film, as I think it adds some realism to an otherwise overly romantic genre. In films such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Die Hard men who are friends stick with each  other through thick and thin. But in Magic Mike the friendship between Adam and Mike doesn’t survive. Many friendships don’t! And men are not necessarily any closer to each other or any more loyal than women are. I am reminded here of My Own Private Idaho where Scott chooses a romantic relationship with a woman over his friendship with Mike the hustler. Just as Mike chooses a romantic relationship with a woman over the more ‘degenerate’ Adam. The homosocial ‘phantasy’ of men following each other to the ends of the earth is not indulged here.

Explaining The ‘Lack Of Bollocks’
The main criticism from gay men who have seen Magic Mike seems to be its lack of explicitly homoerotic/sexual scenes. As the gay reviewer I’ve mentioned here puts it, ‘the complete lack of bollocks’. I find this complaint unconvincing but also quite revealing about gay men in metrosexual culture.

It seems to me as if some gay men are judging Magic Mike as they may judge a gay porn film, and so of course they find it severely lacking in the ass, cock and balls department.  This film has a 15 certificate and is aimed at teenagers and young people. I expect the nudity and sex was not included in order to appeal to as wide an audience as possible.
And  censorship of men’s genitalia and particularly the erect penis is nothing new or unusual. To blame Soderbergh for the lack of hard cocks in a mainstream Hollywood film seems a bit off. Things are changing, but very slowly. The British Board of Film Classification has passed some films containing erect members in recent years.  Earlier this year a man who sold s and m gay porn was found not guilty of crimes under the Obscene Publications Act. And ‘speedophobia‘ whereby men, even men who work as strippers, are encouraged to keep covered up on beaches and in public (as illustrated quite accurately by Channing Tatum in the film), is reportedly on the decline in America. But Magic Mike is not going against the grain in its ‘false modesty’.  In fact I’d go as far as to say that Soderbergh, who has explored carefully some of the complexities of our feelings around our bodies, knew exactly what he was doing when he presented the apparent contradiction of men who get their kit off for a living, not quite getting their kit off!

One reason I find gay men being so upset about the lack of cock in Magic Mike, is that it only serves to emphasise their sense of ‘lack’ in the phallus department. As Lacan has put it :

The phallic signifier is, so to speak, an index of its own impossibility… the phallus is not simply lost but is an object which gives body to a certain fundamental loss in its very presence’.

So this ‘lack’ that gay viewers of the film feel, probably would not be corrected by the sight of Channing Tatum’s pole. Though that may comfort them momentarily! In metrosexual culture, men’s passivity and role as objects of the gaze, DOES involve some reduction of their ‘phallic’ power. That is one reason why pictures of men flashing their tits, anuses and abs so prettily, and so submissively, often include ‘phallic substitutes’ such as rugby balls, truncheons, rockets. If gay men want the myth of the ‘Great Dark Man’ and his great dark cock, they can always watch Jeff Stryker movies.

The Pathetic Femininity of Gay Daddies
I thought the most interesting character in Magic Mike, and by far the best performance, was Matthew Mcconaughey’s ‘Dallas’, the leader of the strip troupe. He was the most ‘macho’ of the men, and his stripper dance routines were full  of macho archetypes such as policemen, cowboys and tarzan. But Mcconaughey sent up this machismo, and played it for the camp performance that it is. Just as Arnold Schwarzenegger ‘s action movie displays were before him, his budgie smuggling, groin rubbing routines are funny, narcissistic, and in some ways ‘feminine’.

But also it was possible that Mcconaughey (directed by Soderbergh) was playing his character as gay. Hollywood has a long tradition of men characters who are not overtly gay but who are coded as queer. In metrosexual culture, where masculinity itself is pretty damned queer, this becomes harder to define. But Mcconaughey’s tight lycra vest-tops, his ‘mutton dressed as lamb’ attempts to stay sexy,  the scene where he sits in a dressing gown looking a bit down (which reminds me of a gay character in the film, La Cage Aux Folles), and his love of his young stripper boys, without a woman in his life to divert the homo-anxiety, all point to a ‘gay daddy’ in my view. And with him not being shown to get any sex with those boys, like some ‘gay daddies’ do, or even with the women who watch his shows, he is presented as a slightly impotent character. That’s how I saw him anyway.

And that might be what Magic Mike is exploring, just as Sex Lies and Videotape did:  sexual impotence in the (post) modern world.  I am delighted we live in more omnisexual times than we did in the past. That ‘men’ and ‘women’, ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ ‘active’ and ‘passive’ are not so easily delineated and separated. But in blurring the lines, in giving men’s tits as much screen time as women’s, in creating lead men characters who are not in control of their destiny, are we missing something?

Is narrative cinema a bit lost without traditional gender roles and tropes?

Has film gone flaccid?

I don’t know. But I am going to keep watching as, whoever wears the trousers or has the (strap on) dick, I still find the representation of gender and sexuality at the movies pretty fascinating.

Gus Van Sant is my Jarvis Cocker of cinema. If he’d have only made My Own Private Idaho and then retired, or died, like its star River Phoenix, I’d have been happy. If Jarvis had realised that he would never ever match the pop genius that was Babies, and had just given up there and then and pursued his natural career as a Radio presenter, I would have been happy. But try telling an artist to stop. It just makes them worse. You don’t have to tell me that.

So now when I remember that perfect scene where River is shown in close up, nearing climax, with the bank notes thrown on his scrawny body and the shot of the wooden house coming crashing down like an orgasm, I also have to remember Good Will Hunting, Milk, and the remake of Psycho. I haven’t seen any of those films. Why would I? I know they are no good.

But I love Gus Van Sant. And I think some respect is due for the following reasons:

1) He turns a very cold, very clinical eye on the alienation that is contemporary America (or rather he did, once). He shows how pretty it looks, whilst also being desolate and on the edge of barbarism.  Think of Elephant in particular, and its hyper-real, mediated, extra shiny colours that you saw in Idaho- autumn golds and yellows of the trees. Here, turned into bright t shirts and hairstyles of soon-to-be massacred kids. And he brings out the ‘nothingness’ of American culture. There is no cultural focal point to his best films- Elephant features a deathly high school with no cheerleaders, no sports days, just lost children. Idaho, the road is the main character. ‘I’ve been on this road forever’ says Mike. And Jerry, Jerry is the end times. America as zombie apocalypse desert.

2) He does not judge. In the best Gus Van Sant films, not just characters, but societies are shown to be complex and difficult to find a set morality within. In Idaho, rent boys and pimps live alongside each other in a confused state of mutual dependence and even love. In Elephant, the boys who conduct the Columbine massacre are shown as real people, bored, lost, as desolate as the suburban landscape they live in. We are not asked to love these villains, like, say we are Travis Bickle. We are just asked to see them in the context they find themselves in . And he doesn’t even judge that context. He’s not Michael Moore. He doesn’t blame ‘America’ for Columbine. He doesn’t blame anyone. He just paints a picture of the kind of abject conditions in which it was able to happen.

3) He knows the power of a pretty boy. If you are a filmmaker in Hollywood, you ignore the power of a pretty boy at your peril. Pretty boys sell movie tickets. But Van Sant (again in his best films which I think are Idaho, Elephant and in a kind of topsy turvy way, Jerry), shows how pretty boys are dangerous. Our fixation on them is an element of our voyeuristic, mediated, metrosexual society. Maybe in Milk, he wasn’t only renaging on the complex version of gender and sexual identities he portrayed in Idaho, and replacing it with a Gay Is Good message. Maybe he was also avoiding some of the challenges that come with recognising the chill wind of metrosexual masculinity as it blows through visual culture. In Jerry, Casey Affleck and Matt Damon get lost on a road trip and end up in a surreal desert landscape, looking beautiful and facing their imminent demise. Nothing happens. It is like Blair Witch without the woods, without the witch, without the girl, without the video project. Just the lostness, and the pretty boys.

4) He implicates the viewer. If we now live in a voyeuristic society, then surely we have to question our role as voyeurs, in that society and its morality (or lack of). Just as Hanneke does, again in his best films, Elephant in particular, Van Sant asks us to ask ourselves why we are looking. What harm can it do? As another massacre has just occurred in Europe this time, and we all turn to our TV sets to see the latest on the death toll, and to wonder if the killer was in fact wearing a wig, it is worth remembering Elephant, and its repetitions of moments in a day that seemed like any other. Its utter, disgusting, disgraceful, murderous beauty. I couldn’t keep my eyes off that boy with the white blonde hair. I didn’t care if those kids were going to die or not, I just wanted to see him again, and again, from a different angle this time. like the images of the planes crashing into the World Trade Centre. The classic which everyone else is copying.

So that’s my defence of Gus Van Sant so far. I probably have more. I mean Jarvis didn’t just have Babies did he? I could write an essay on the power and glory of Wickerman… I could defend my faulty heroes to the death.