Monday 25 July 2011

American Gigolo (1980)


Writer-director Paul Schrader came up with the Hollywood ‘Movie Brat’ generation of the 1970s, his contemporaries being Spielberg, Coppola and Scorsese, but his youth was nothing like theirs. Whilst Martin Scorsese spent all of his time watching movies, Schrader grew up in a very strict religious household. So strict that he wasn’t allowed to watch any films at all. In fact, it wasn’t until he was 18 years old and a college student that he saw his first movies. From then on, he was hooked and ended up becoming part of the generation that, for better or worse, changed the face of American cinema forever. Come the year 1980, Schrader had written seven films, and directed three of them. American Gigolo was the third he directed.

Julian (Richard Gere) makes his living as an escort to the wealthy older women of Los Angeles. Around the same time he begins a relationship with the wife of politician, Michelle (Lauren Hutton), one of his clients is murdered and the police start looking at Julian as the prime suspect. As the investigation goes further, Julian thinks that he’s being framed.

There’s a particular character type that Schrader returns to quite regularly throughout his career. It’s a character that was seen a little in his first script, the Japanese-set thriller The Yakuza, but was then given the full show in his next script, 1976’s Taxi Driver… the character is that of God’s Lonely Man. Schrader seems to be almost obsessed with the notion of the isolation of his main characters, which is often a state of self-imposed isolation. Men of means and actions wilfully cutting themselves off from the run of normal society, living as exiles amongst the civilised, walking ghosts in the land of the living. In American Gigolo, the Lonely Man on show is Julian, a good-looking male escort who makes his money off of the city’s wealthy older women, either widowed or just ignored by their husbands. There’s a lot to suggest that this life agrees with Julian. He makes good money, has a steady client base, drives a sweet convertible Mercedes, lives in a nice apartment, has some very stylish clothes, he speaks five or six languages and he keeps himself in great shape. Best of all, he gets to bring love and comfort to those who need it, as long as they can pay for it. Really, this guy is probably the envy of so many other guys. However, this is just the starting point for Schrader. The whole idea is to show a character study of what lies beneath someone like Julian, who seems to have so much going for him. He certainly doesn’t complain about his life. He likes what he does, so you won’t hear him bemoaning his situation. What’s important for us is that we can see what Julian does not, which is just how lonely he is. He claims that he prefers older women because younger women present no challenge for him, that older women appreciate his skills more. There is the constant suspicion that Julian goes for older women because they are just as lonely as he is, that the younger women wouldn’t appreciate him because he takes the notion of seduction so seriously, that he is trying to satisfy some sort of Oedipal complex and gain a motherly approval. He doesn’t see himself as a prostitute, even though that’s exactly what he is. He thinks of himself as a companion, a hired friend to have fun with, which includes getting laid.

Richard Gere serves the film very well as Julian. Gere is a good-looking guy in a boyish kind of way, and he captures a very particular and important thing… how Julian moves. When you watch him enter the bar where he meets Lauren Hutton for the first time, you see that his gait is very smooth and sleek and deliberate, somewhere between a catwalk model and a jungle predator… a sex panther, if you will. It’s all in the economy of his movement, the deliberate manner of his steps. Gere shows more than just Julian’s ability to walk effectively, too. For all of the veneer of confidence, he’s a little bit naïve, even rather dumb. He knows he’s lonely, does his best to convince himself otherwise and sometimes maybe even succeeds. However, you can always see it in him, it’s always there under the surface. It’s never enough to spoil Julian’s affect, but it is clear, to all but himself. Lauren Hutton’s Michelle is also a very capable performance, although there really is little in the way of surprise in her. She effectively acts as a mirror to Julian, attractive and lonely. She puts no pretence on how she feels, which serves to both attract and repel Julian. Her neediness troubles him, but his need to both comfort and be comforted trump his worries. The scene where Michelle wins over Julian is a delicate one and handled very well by Gere, Hutton and Schrader.

Given the world that the film exists in, what is important to note about the places we go and the people we see is that, for all of the hedonistic touches of the sex and drugs and money, there is a real dullness to everything. Schrader doesn’t show you these people, these places, in the hope that you’ll get caught up in them and want to go along for the ride. That distance is important. We see pre- and post-game, but not the acts themselves. We don’t get much in the way of vicarious thrills. We get the preening, the stalking, the journey to and from the job, the shop talk. Schrader doesn’t want to lose us in the fray -- he’s got a point to make. I do remain unsure on the handling on the one and only sex scene, between Julian and Michelle. It’s rather clumsy and awkward and really quite unerotic. I say I’m unsure because I don’t know if this was really Schrader’s intention, continuing the lack of vicarious thrills bit; or if he tried to make it erotic, but just failed. Maybe you can work it out.

As it is, it’s not a completely flawless show. It’s very much a period piece, and feels very 80s. The film’s musical theme is Blondie’s Call Me, which is a great song, but the whole underscore rests on various cheesy synth interpretations of it that nowadays somewhat undercuts attempts at drama. Also, the oft-parodied view of the gay club as a place full of half-naked, leather-clad moustachioed men ends up being more funny, or more offensive, by today’s standards than was probably intended. It also seems like it ends about four times, which feels more clumsy than anything. Sound is also an issue in the film, too, with dialogue occasionally being drowned out by the sounds of the city… of course, that last one could be the result of a lousy DVD transfer job by Paramount or whoever did it. Nevertheless, it’s a bit off here and there.

There is an interesting element regarding homosexuality in the film. Julian himself refuses to do what he calls “fag work”, and the previously mentioned short scene in the gay club is the kind of thing that a person who didn’t like gay people would imagine a gay club to be like. There’s even a scene where Julian pretends to be a very effeminate German decorator to play a joke on someone. The film at times is really quite homophobic. However, there is something of a double-play going on there, too. I also mentioned earlier about that many men would be very envious of Julian and somewhat attracted to his life. Even Schrader’s camera seems to be a little enamoured of him, with its lingering shots on his body and the care taken to show him as being physically appealing. The interesting part comes from when you consider that the point of the film is to show how very unattractive this life is. The film is almost asking whether or not it’s the lifestyle that you find attractive or Julian. It shows an attitude towards gay men that is quite ignorant, but at the same time questions whether or not the men watching may have some mildly gay feelings towards the main character. Of course, all of this is in 1980, before the huge AIDS epidemic that rose up in America later on in the decade.

American Gigolo is a little dated in some of its production detail (regular synth music and 80s styles) and the plot does seem to have more of a soap opera quality about it, but it does still maintain the poignancy in its illustration of Julian. There’s no beating you over the head with any attempt at moralism, it’s largely a rather bleak affair in a subdued kind of way. Schrader invites you to watch someone that beforehand you may have envied, but ultimately feel sorry for. That’s a hell of a trick.

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