By Ari Gunnar Thorsteinsson | Criticwire August 6, 2012 at 11:48AM
On the third night of the 2012 Locarno Film Festival, the Piazza Grande, Locarno's 8,000-seat outdoor centerpiece venue, was the setting for a fascinating double feature of recent American films: "Ruby Sparks," from the directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, and "Magic Mike," the male-stripping hit from Steven Soderbergh. In addition to their country of origin and similar levels of indie-ness, both films also shared an interest in sexual fantasies. Paul Dano’s Calvin from "Ruby Sparks" writes about his fantasy girl (Zoe Kazan), who then magically comes to life as a living breathing human being, while "Magic Mike"'s male strippers embody highly exaggerated versions of masculine archetypes. Or, as Matthew McConaughey’s character puts it: “You are the husband they never had! You are that dreamboat guy that never came along!”
In "Ruby Sparks," Calvin, a struggling novelist, is told by his therapist (Elliott Gould) to write a story featuring the fantasy girl he’s been having intense dreams about. As he starts writing, he realizes he’s becoming more and more infatuated with the character he’s created. Shortly thereafter Ruby magically appears, just as she had been written. Ruby will look familiar to anyone who's read Nathan Rabin's essay in The A.V. Club about the figure of the "manic pixie dream girl" -- she isn’t much more than a series of quirks and a colorful outfit. But as the film progresses, "Ruby Sparks" evolves into an critique of the idea of a figure like Ruby Sparks. When Calvin’s brother (Chris Messina) first reads about Ruby he says she sounds totally unrealistic. Eventually though, Ruby develops genuine emotions and begins acting like a real human being. That's something her creator can't really handle. Calvin wants someone that won’t challenge him; a surprisingly dark representation of male fantasy for such a light film.
"Magic Mike," in contrast, is a much darker film visually than "Ruby Sparks" -- but its representation of its fantasy figures is a good deal lighter. Its male strippers perform elaborately choreographed dance sequences in costumes dedicated to archetypical figures: the policeman, the fireman, the businessman, the cowboy, and even Tarzan. The camera revels in both the athleticism of their bodies on stage and the sheer goofiness of the routines. It’s important to note the screams and squeals of joy from the strip club audience that accompanies the revelation of each new muscled body. Unlike cinematic representations of female strip clubs -- like the one in Paul Verhoven’s "Showgirls," for example -- there isn’t any visible leering going on in the crowd; "Magic Mike" is simply a celebration of pure visual pleasure. The appeal of "Magic Mike"'s fantasy for the female spectator isn’t that the strippers could offer companionship or relief from loneliness, but rather a sense of shared joy over the spectacle on stage.
"Ruby Sparks" and "Magic Mike" approach their notions of fantasy from very different angles: male versus female, individual versus collective. "Magic Mike"’s fantasy figures exist almost exclusively as sexual beings -- see Channing Tatum's Mike's ass-first introduction -- while "Ruby Sparks" almost totally ignores the sexual implications of its premise. Still, both films are about the perils of succumbing to fantasies: "Ruby" through the outcome of its central relationship and "Magic Mike" through its depiction of the destructive lure of easy money.
"Ruby Sparks"' Calvin creates a woman he can manipulate and change in any way he pleases; if something happens he doesn’t approve of or if Ruby stands up to him, it only takes him a few clicks on his magical typewriter to "fix" the problem. "Magic Mike"'s strippers lay out a set of rules that the customers must abide by -- "The law says you cannot touch!" -- and then instantly breaks them -- "But I see a lot of lawbreakers in here tonight.” Setting up these rules in order to discard them enhances the air of transgression inherent in the strip club. Though many of the strippers' acts involve them physically manipulating women, by picking them up or tying them down, the women are the ones who are paying for that privilege with their tips, and thus it's the women who are really in control. Without them, the men would be out of a job -- something you could also say about Calvin's troubled writer and his relationship to Ruby as well. Both films ultimately suggest sexual fantasies have less to do with looks or personality than someone's ability to control the object of their desire.
Ari Gunnar Thorsteinsson is part of Indiewire's Critics Academy at the Locarno Film Festival. He lives in Stockholm, Sweden where he's in a Master's program in cinema studies. He's the co-host of The Movie Homework Podcast, which can be found in iTunes. Click here to read all of the Academy's work.