American Gigolo (Paul Schrader, 1980)
Watching American Gigolo, one feels that Schrader is filming not just people, objects, and their movements but the air itself, the space in between. There is a heavy and solemn solidity to this film, a way it lingers on objects and lends them a monumentality. Schrader is influenced here by Bresson–whose Pickpocket (1959) lends Gigolo many ideas, motifs, and themes–but in the time that has elapsed between 1959 and 1980, a lot has changed in the world. Both films convey a transcendence through the mundane, the sordid, and the illicit. Their protagonists endure in a state of spiritual squalor, isolated from other people, and the films trace the paths these protagonists must take to find connection with the women who will help redeem them. The films thus exist for the sole purpose of bringing two individuals together, in shared destiny, and this is construed in spatial terms, in the literal erasure of the space between these couples. But at the beginning of the 1980s and at the start of the age of consumerism, Schrader’s pseudo-remake trades Bresson’s existentialist quest for meaning and transcendence for an inquiry into the horror of sheer materiality, the pure weightiness of a world of things and bodies.
It seems apt to characterize Schrader’s films as displaying a tendency to shudder in fright at the modern world–partly the terror of repulsion, but also somewhat that of attraction. For Schrader, the modern world is perhaps nothing more than the old world denuded, which simultaneously attracts and repulses the filmmaker. In American Gigolo, this is made palpable through the quality of the imagery. Schrader films barbells or an arrangement of chairs with a material obsession that verges on surrealism, recalling also in their unsettled emptiness the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico. These images do not just depict or describe, they oppress. In part, they depict a material world that goes on existing without us, a secret life of things. In a sense, we as human beings have no place in this world, and the more this world expands, the more we diminish. These imaginary landscapes can only house us after we have made ourselves into shells and husks devoid of animating spirit. In many scenes, Richard Gere stands in a pose that, filmed by Schrader’s camera, makes him appear as nothing more than a statue, a body perfected and displayed but sapped of all life. While Gere’s gigolo Julian Kaye exercises to sculpt his body, he becomes more and more a thing; his profession quite literally asks that he be nothing more, a thing to be posed by his female clients.
Some have criticized American Gigolo for its homophobia, but in this context, Schrader is expressing something much more abstract, a fear of the body itself (and the sexuality that it expresses). Schrader is not some arch-conservative in his attitude here but simply, as in his earlier Hardcore (1979), a man at home in the modern world but also entirely bewildered and horrified by it. Consider how he playfully poses Gere on a couch in the home of the gay pimp Leon (Bill Duke), with three posters for an Andy Warhol exhibit entitled “Torsos” hanging behind his head. The sheer physicality of the body is here paired with the modern and increasingly prevalent tendency towards mechanical reproduction (two decades later becoming digital reproduction). In another scene, Gere’s Kaye is posed in a line-up with four other men dressed the same. The body, whether on a poster or in a line-up, becomes reproduced, and what is lost is the singularity that lends to it its transcendence. Julian Kaye, accused of a murder he didn’t commit, feels plucked out of his life and inserted into another, and so in the end, what really is his and who is he anyways? What are we when we become reduced to mere things? Like Bresson and Eric Rohmer, Schrader attends to the world of appearances, of things and people, and in the process seeks the transcendent. The solace he finds for Julian Kaye in the film’s stunning final shot is that, in a world of things, the space between two individuals is eliminated, binding the two inextricably together, and not even the glass between them in the visitor’s room of a prison can keep them isolated from each other anymore.