Magic Mike (dir. Steven Soderberg, 2011) – Despite a lot of time trying to find reasons to validate this film from a critical perspective, it seems mainly noteworthy for being a film by a director with art-house street-cred that tries to switch conventional gender roles. From beginning to end, it’s the women who end dates with men by leaving and saying, “I’ll call you” disingenuously. Obviously, there’s the male stripping thing. And really, all the film’s a stage here, as the camera gives us next to no close-ups, especially of the dudes. Their bodies are on display in one way or another whether they’re on the catwalk or not, but that’s not the important thing. The important, and unfortunate, thing is that Magic Mike is a straight-up celebration of all things bro. This is what makes it odd and disappointing: it falls for so many of the narrative clichés, simplifying rather than complicating what could be an introspective story with its own critical eye toward various structures, whether gender-related, economic, political, or cultural, all of which are ripe and desperate to be worked on in this film. Despite its pretense to be about male bodies, the film keeps on reverting back to objectification of women. Sure, male bodies are on display, but you only really see female nudity. Plus, by identifying us with the men who strip, we are positioned in their shoes. This means that when they bump & grind with women frequenting their club, it’s still a male fantasy at work. In the end, the narrative finality is cheap and obligatory. Just do a Google image search for this film, and you don’t get anything like Mike’s abandonment of the profession. You get almost entirely images of the guys on the stage looking glorified in what they do. Importantly, it would be difficult to do this in a film about women strippers. For them, you either have to acknowledge the ugliness there (think of Aronofsky’s The Wrestler) or you have to jack up the erotic nature of it all to distract the audience from what they rather intuitively know is a less than ideal career.
The Artist (dir. Michel Hazanavicius, 2011) – As with all the Oscar stuff, this got overhyped, which is ultimately unfair to the film, most of all. The silent thing is great, and more than a gimmick. BUT, when you obsess over the silent thing within the film’s own diegesis, it seems to subtract from it a little. Or a lot. Singin’ in the Rain pulled this off well, because it wasn’t primarily a silent film. Silent cinema creates so many possibilities left unrealized by talkies that you hope for something inherently more visual, more Melies-esque or Keaton-esque than this. It had its moments, but its extreme self-consciousness made it hard to take it with a grain of salt. Also, melodrama all over the place. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it had the tone of Sunset Boulevard, the story of a 50s musical, and the self-reflexivity of a contemporary Oscar-winner.
Double Indemnity (dir. Billy Wilder, 1944) – This has been read in a variety of ways, and it deserves every one of them. We could go genre-historical and talk abou the film noir components of it, with attention paid to its status as a relatively early noir that was directed by a guy who, at the time, didn’t know what the genre was. V. Penelope Pelizzon and Nancy M. West have done something like this, attending to the cut ending and the role the censors played in it (Narrative 13, issue 3, 2005). There’s the homoerotic reading (Brian Gallagher, Literature Film Quarterly 15, issue 4, 1987), focusing on Neff’s and Keyes’ relationship, which is certainly important and provocative (particularly in terms of its bookending confessions of “I love you”), but limiting. A psychoanalytic analysis has been done by Hugh Manon (Cinema Journal 44, issue 4, 2005), which examines fetishism in the film. From Neff’s first words, the film is about process rather than product, wanting something and then backing off once it’s available. It’s about the game and the psychosis rather than the happily ever after. I, however, like the close reading method, one that would note things like the name of Edward G. Robinson’s character: “Keyes.” Consider, too, the way that wig sits on Phyllis’ head and the rest of her cheapness. Note the way that up and down movements coincide with characters states of guilt, how large and small spaces come into play, and the disaffecting effect of those Venetian blind shadows cast on the bodies of the morally compromised protagonists. It’s all there for another day…
Blazing Saddles (dir. Mel Brooks, 1974) – Like so many comedy cult classics, it gets better and better upon multiple viewings. Why is this? Why are some comedies better with repetition, when jokes should lose their luster when they get old? Perhaps it has to do with the absurd worlds of Young Frankenstein, Zoolander, and Blazing Saddles. It’s easier to suspend our disbelief the more attached we become to the characters and the more we see the larger goals of a film like this one, which are relatively profound. It makes asses of white folks, and rightly so. The biggest hams are the Jewish characters (ba-dum-ching), notably those played by Brooks. If the world is a stage, then cinema is the tale told by an idiot, so Brooks’ move to ridicule not so much the world itself but the world of cinema fundamentally works. He deconstructs genres (westerns, horror, sci-fi, thrillers, historical epics), subverting expectations by drawing them out to absurdity. Watching these films is tantamount to attending film school. If you don’t get the tropes of these genres, you should after watching Mel Brooks films.