[21 July 2006]
The hustler is a common figure in gay arts and culture. While sex workers of all sorts appear in straight cultural productions, the queer hustler is different from his female other. Rarely, to the best of my knowledge, are female sex workers in heterosexual arts subject to the kind of sympathetic characterization and subcultural adulation as the queer hustler, gigolo, rent-boy, or street-corner cocksucker.
The hustler is simultaneously tragic, romantic, and heroic. Often his tragedies appear the result of dysfunctional if not outright abusive families, and are further tied to a general and pervasive societal homophobia. So, in Boys Briefs 4‘s Into the Night, Marcus’ (Bryan Marshall) father has rejected him, presumably because of his son’s homosexuality, and in Boy, Sam’s (Jesse Lee) life is characterized not only by poverty, but also by seemingly casual homophobia and violence. The hustlers’ stories represent all too common experience of anti-queer violence and self-determination in the face of intolerance.
The hustler is romantic as far as the audience’s fantasy extends to “rescuing” him. This is a role commonly fulfilled by a caring john. In Rock Bottom, Billy (John Militello), a sweet, overweight, 30-something, picks up twinkie street hustler Jason (Timothy Lee DePriest) and takes him home. Typical hustler-john shenanigans take place; Billy makes awkward small talk, Jason cases the apartment, insists he doesn’t kiss. Yet a real rapport develops between the two, and the film ends with Jason crossing his own hustler boundaries to kiss Billy, suggesting things might get better for both. In Gold, the aging, nearly blind artist Cal (Aron Tager) employs hustler Jay (P.J. Lazic) not for his body, but to assist him in painting new canvases; in teaching Jay about passion and beauty, he leads the young man to a kind of salvation.
In queer arts, the heroic hustler is depicted as willfully resistant to cultures of normativity. He rejects the costs and expectations of bourgeois “respectability,” becoming romantic in his tragedy. This is the queer hustler of Jean Genet, John Rechy, and Dennis Cooper (among many others). This is also the hustler of Build and Gigolo, by far the two best shorts of BB4.
Gold‘s romance is too saccharine and Rock Bottom‘s rescue narrative too easy, Into the Night‘s understanding of personal tragedy is thin and Boy is arty-farty. But Build and Gigolo offer complex characters who gesture toward larger social problems and anxieties. Build, failed-out architecture student Crete (Greg Atkins) resorts to hustling to support his alcoholic mother Sherry (Nancy Beatty), while hiding the fact that he’s no longer in school from her. They’re a working class family of two, and all of Sherry’s hopes for a better life are based in Crete’s education. The obvious commentary here is the lack of opportunities available to the urban poor; we’re not told exactly why Crete failed out of school, but he’s obviously smart, so we wonder what wasn’t available to him that might have allowed his educational success?
Working the street one night, Crete meets fellow hustler Garnet (J. Garnet Harding), and immediately develops a crush on him. So when Garnet asks to crash at his place, Crete agrees, then spends several nights dreaming of making love to Garnet. Crete is twice betrayed by Garnet, and the delicately constructed house of lies he has built to protect (or deceive?) his mother falls apart. But this isn’t some apocalyptic tragedy for Crete or Sherry; it’s merely one more disappointment in a lifetime of failed aspirations. Both face up to this disappointment and somehow, heroically, muster on.
Gigolo tells a story a different story about social and economic obstacles, one not of perseverance but of accusation and reparation. Karim, the son of Algerian immigrants, finds a way out of the banlieus by selling himself to the upper crust of Parisian society. La Femme (Amanda Lear), one of his two primary clients, feels that Karim is starting to be “too much” for her. She wanted romance, but what she got was an angry young man shaped by French racism. La Femme’s desire for romance reflects Western fantasies of the Other, and specifically French erotic subjectifications of Northern African men and women. Both La Femme and L’Homme (Stephane Rolland), Karim’s other client, are desperate to interrogate him, to find out who he is. La Femme has a private detective investigate his past, and L’Homme endlessly questions Karim about why he hustles. L’Homme offers Karim this estimation: “I don’t think you choose to be a prostitute. I think you force it, in order to punish yourself.”
Karim recognizes his self-punishment. His physical degradation is reflected in his psychological deterioration, recorded obsessively in his journals (“Must write, record everything”). But Karim also understands himself as engaged in punishing his oppressors. Karim asserts, “I want to make you pay for what I’ve been through,” and he sees his fucking of rich Parisians as symbolically enacting his revenge on a racist and oppressive French culture: “I’ll be your shame.” Gigolo directly indicts France, and the West more generally, for violence against its Others.
In recording of his life and thoughts, Karim resembles the narrator (Genet “himself”) of Jean Genet’s The Thief’s Journal, and Gigolo certainly reflects the existentialist welter out of which Genet wrote. Yet Karim and Gigolo‘s political engagement is more like Genet’s own. In his real life, Genet was dedicated to the cause of Algerian independence; he found symmetries in the exploitation and oppression of Algerians under French colonial rule with his own queer outlaw existence. For Genet and for Karim, sexuality and politics are intimately, promiscuously, intertwined. Gigolo demonstrates how the queer hustler—tragic, romantic, and heroic—still has the power to shock and to demand social change.