Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Magic Mike XXL, It Follows, and The Americans (Season 3)

Q: What do a horror movie, the third season of a TV show about married spies, and a fun but plotless romp about male stri--pardon me, entertainers have in common?

A: Um…I watched them all recently?

The nice thing about seeing unconnected things close together is you can make connections with your own mind. It’s in that spirit that I think you can actually learn more about your own attitudes on a topic by looking at what others have to say about them.

Take sex for example.

Magic Mike XXL has been widely praised for its sex positive stance. It’s probably the most feminist movie starring a carload of shirtless dudes ever. It puts its emphasis on humour, on connection, on making the other person feel good. Characters repeatedly emphasize that people deserve to be happy in their relationships, that sexual and emotional satisfaction isn’t too much to ask for. It even makes sexuality about more than just the act of sex; there is oddly little actual sex in the movie and what there is happens off screen.

As a former burlesque performer, I also liked the attitude towards performance--using the striptease as a form of self-expression instead of just regurgitating back popular fantasies. I liked the relationship performers had with the audience. That we are showing ourselves, but we are showing ourselves to these people specifically, that they are as important a part of the show as we are.

The Amercians also treats sex as a performance. Both Phillip and Elizabeth, the married spies at the heart of series, are regularly called upon to seduce other people for information or blackmail purposes. One season 3 episode shows a flashback to Philip learning to be with different people including an elderly woman and an overweight unattractive man.

“The told me to make it real for myself,” Phillip tells his wife to explain how he is able to do it.

Sex is not an end in itself. Sex is not about wanting. Sex is about getting something.

If sex in The Americans is a power play, at least it is still fundamentally about relationships. The sex in It Follows is a lonely business. The Follower will pursue its victim until he or she passes on the curse through having sex with someone else. In other words, sex is not about the other person at all. Sex is about the choice to either accept the curse’s consequences or to save oneself by passing it on to another victim.

It Follows turns sex into a selfish act. Instead of being about connection, sex becomes about survival. Different characters approach the problem in different ways and settle their consciences via different methods, but it ultimately is a lonely decision with minimal involvement from the other person.

Until then end.

The character Paul is willing to take it on. He‘s seen the Follower and understands the consequences. He is still willing to go through with it. And Jay is willing to let him make that choice.

It’s not just about sex though. Once the Follower kills the last person suffering from the curse, it starts working its way backwards up the line. So the most basic strategy for the second-last person in line is to put as much distance between yourself and the person you have sex with as humanly possible.

Jay and Paul don’t do that. The movie ends with them walking hand in hand. Behind them, we see an indistinct silhouette following them--but it doesn’t matter. Instead of fleeing in different directions, they’ve made the choice to face whatever comes together.

Phillip and Elizabeth in The Americans also make the decision to face life together. Sometimes they choose it, sometimes it feels forced. But it is never a black and white choice, and equally often they make the choice to put emotional distance between each other as well.

“Do you have to make it real with me?” Elizabeth asks her husband after he tells her his method for making his partners feel loved.

“Sometimes,” he admits.

I’ve often heard The Americans described as grim, miserable, and tragic in the way it portrays interpersonal relationships, but I don‘t subscribe to that reading. If anything, the depiction of relationships feels normal. Heightened, but normal.

Maybe that says more about my relationships than anything. But I don’t think so.

We never truly know what life is like for the ones around us, even the ones we love. Even the ones we’re closest to. No matter how close we are, there is that unfathomable seperation. There is the struggle between the forced closeness and closeness we choose, distance we take and distance taken from us. We try to understand each other. Sometimes we are so far apart, we can’t even find a way to try. Our loved ones surprise us, betray us, or hurt us. Sometimes we are able to make the choice to go on loving them and sometimes we can’t.

Sometimes we do both at once.

We are alone AND together.

I think it’s a stretch to describe The Americans as unrelentingly alienating. The characters are often trying to connect. Not always perfectly and not always at the same time, but they are trying.

And once and a while they succeed. One of my favorites--from season 3--is when Phillip and Elizabeth find themselves smoking a joint out the window of their bedrooom, giggling to one another about the ridiculousness of their predicament. It’s a tiny moment in the grand scheme of the show, but its smallness makes it no less real. Maybe it makes it even more precious.

The characters in Magic Mike XXL have no problems talking and connecting. In fact, it’s so easy, there’s no real lasting conflict in Magic Mike XXL. It’s a strangely easygoing, affirming movie. The fact that such a conflict-free movie can also be so watchable is a testament to all involved. When it comes to the ability of men and women to reach each other, it acknowledges that it doesn’t always happen, but it is optimistic about people’s ability to do so.

Here’s my question.

Which one of these shows represents the way things are?

I think they all do.

So what’s the difference between moments when we are lonely and self-involved, when we are positive and wonderful, and something that seems to be a mix of both.

Part of the difference is time. The characters in The Americans are harried, dividing time between multiple-missions, parenting, and being as spouse. The protagonist of It Follows is fleeing the Follower’s relentless creeping approach. The boys in Magic Mike XXL have nothing but time, endless hours and stretches of open road in which they have time to give themselves, each other, and the people they meet all the time they need.

The other difference is the answer to the question: ‘Are we thinking aobut ourself or are we thinking about others?’ It Follows is all about the person with the curse. Magic Mike XXL’s performers make it all about the women, committing themselves to her pleasure. The Americans swim in a shifting seas that combine compassion and self-interest in various ways at various times.

Spies. Strippers with hearts of gold. Shape-changing monsters invisible to anyone that doesn’t have the curse.

But also truth.

Which truth do you sleep with?

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