Friday, November 29, 2013

My Hustler (1966): I am a Meat Popsicle

My Hustler (1966)
dir: Andy Warhol
uncredited: Paul Morrissey

It's been said that My Hustler was Paul Morrissey's first bout of participation with Warhol's Factory, and it marks the departure of the Factory films from static images that are better as ideas to more narrative films. Paul Morrissey would say that he was responsible for My Hustler, and had to teach Andy Warhol how to move the camera. Of course, Paul Morrissey is a raving narcissist, but then so was Andy Warhol.

My Hustler was made in 1965, before Chelsea Girls, but released after that movie. The release of My Hustler shows more of a movement towards character studies and fascination with bodies compared to emotions and subjects. Before Paul Morrissey, Warhol's films were generally static shots of the subjects, like a close-up of the face of a man getting a blow job, or a multi-hour shot of the Empire State Building. Later, we started getting snap shots of personalities.

My Hustler is a character study of four people. At a beach house, an aging queen hires a blond hustler for his own pleasure. While the hustler is sunbathing, the queen's two neighbors - a rich young straight girl and an aging hustler - stop by to try to scheme on who will be getting the hustler in bed.  The first half of My Hustler is a 32 minute reel mainly leering on the body of the hustler sunbathing while the other three people talk about the hustler as a piece of meat. The second half is the aging hustler finding out that the young meat isn't really a hustler, and talking him into the hustling game; and then the aging queen tries to talk him into being his boytoy, and then the young girl tries to get him to live with her.

Originally, I had I, A Man in my Friday slot, but I moved it to a special Saturday post as I found My Hustler to be far more fascinating than I, A Man, for the pure fact that My Hustler completely objectifies a male of questionable sexuality. Paul America, the hustler in question, has maybe 3 lines in the whole first half of the 64 minute movie, but is always the object of desire. The camera is purely the gaze of the people who are desiring him.

Laura Mulvey, in her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, which I had brought up in my earlier essay of narrative with Vertigo, wrote about how the camera is inherently the straight male gaze, mainly because the director is usually a straight male (especially at the time she wrote that essay). She was wrong of course, in that the sometimes the camera takes on the personality of the characters, or has a more complex relationship to the audience. But, with that essay, Mulvey started to define how the camera retains the gaze of whomever is behind it. In the case of My Hustler, it turns out to be a gay male. But, I've noted in several other film reviews on this site, the camera has retained the desires of the director, man or woman, straight or gay.

If you'll indulge a bit of a detour, the works of David DeCoteau completely embodies how the camera retains the desires of the director and/or the intended audience. In DeCoteau's earlier works, like Sorority Babes at the Slimeball Bowl-a-Rama or Test Tube Teens from the Year 2000, both the closeted DeCoteau and his intended audience cause the camera to act like leering straight men who objectify the female body. But, in DeCoteau's later works, like The Brotherhood, or the 1313 series, or even A Talking Cat?!?, the camera operates as a gay male viewer, lingering over and objectifying the bodies of the young muscular men in their underwear.  Similarly, lesbian cinema like Go Fish or High Art, made by lesbians and for lesbians, objectifies the female body in a way appreciated by women who lust after women rather than in a manner that is completely pleasing for men.

Of course, most of this intellectualization was all underground when Mulvey was writing Visual Pleasure. Besides, the whole purpose of the essay was to start a conversation about the proliferation of male directors and female objectification. This desire to objectify the female body is still common in movies made by straight men for straight men. Last Vegas, for instance, offers primarily female bodies to ogle. Only occasionally is young nubile male flesh offered as objects for the audience to ogle. That young male flesh is in the pool party in Last Vegas where the old men participate in judging a wet t-shirt contest while the mainly male crowd cheers them on.

As far back as James Whale, the camera has always been complicated by who is behind the camera. My Hustler, especially the first half, acts as a sort of thesis about how the sexuality and gender of the characters doing the visualizing, and also the sexuality and gender of the director, are key to the behavior of the camera and how it views the world. In the first reel of My Hustler, we're subjected to the camera swinging between the holders of the conversation - that of two gay men and a straight woman - and the object of their desire, Paul America. As such, the audience feels they are watching a young male, who may or may not be straight, be talked about as if he was just a young, dumb, hunk of meat.

In turn, the conversation is only that. The aging queen who owns the beach house, and also claims to have invited Paul America through a "Dial-A-Hustler" phone line, mainly bitches about how he invited Paul to the beach house, and he deserves to fuck Paul. The young girl insists that she has the goods that Paul wants. The older hustler goads the aging queen by insinuating that he's fucked Paul in the past, and that he might know Paul through the hustler channels. But, they never really talk about Paul's true desires or his life. He's just an object of their desire. Only the young female interacts with Paul in a way that doesn't call his sexuality to attention.

In turn, Paul only can be the object of desire. By not even giving him any lines, Morrissey and Warhol neuter any agency that Paul has in the film. Paul becomes the object of lust to the audience in the film, the director, the camera, and the audience of the film. He is the piece of meat everybody desires. However, in alignment with Hitchcock's Vertigo, much like Madeline, Paul actually has the agency to be the object of lust. Paul knows that he's being lusted after. In the opening, Paul is being reprimanded that he did not arrive dressed in leather because he is wanted for more S&M practices. Consequently, he is essentially instructed to go suntan on the beach while the aging queen watches. Then while the young girl watches when she comes over. And, finally he knows the aging hustler is watching because the hustler first interacts with Paul and gets called back by the aging queen. We are not objectifying a reluctant object. Paul isn't unhappy with being objectified. Instead, he knows that he is the object and is willing to be the object to please the customer.

The dialogue and acting in the first half is about as casually degrading as it can get regarding Paul. It's about his dick size, his status as a top/bottom, his virginity, his past, etc etc But, the second half gives Paul agency as well by being the active subject of desire.

The second half, as mentioned earlier, is a static shot of, primarily, the two hustlers grooming and talking in the bathroom. The aging hustler is trying to talk the younger hustler into going into prostitution, and also taking a role as the aging hustler's protege. This line of conversation is plausible because Paul is being coy by claiming that he wasn't bought by the aging queen. during the course of the conversation, the aging hustler is telling Paul that Paul has the body to be a hustler, and can actually make a living off his body. It's half a ruse for the aging hustler to get Paul into his bed free of charge, and half a discussion about how johns are good only to fill in their pockets. It's also about the happiness and freedom of living life as a hustler, and being able to make bank off your looks while you have them. Because, really, if you can you should.

The hustlers are mainly shirtless in this reel, though we get glimpses of their asses, and a brief couple shots of the aging hustler's genitalia. But, the camera is all about the leering shots of these two glimpses of the hustlers grooming, and the aging one occasionally pawing Paul. Sometimes he'll just pet, and at one point he rubs Noxzema into Paul's back, saying it is good for the skin, even though it is mainly an excuse for the aging hustler to rub Paul's back.

At the end of this half, the aging queen comes back and desperately tries to get Paul to be his boytoy in the future, promising him cars, trips to Europe, the allowance of having girlfriends, and money. It's such a desperate ploy for this straight body, it almost reads as self-deprecating. And, it is self-depricating and desperate even though boy toys are also status symbols in the gay world. This is a trait as old as time. It is the gay version of having a trophy husband, only without he legalities. Think Behind the Candlabra. Finally, in the last couple of minutes, the young rich girl also makes a last minute pitch to get Paul in her bed long term, but that's practically a non-starter, as it is barely pitched and runs into repetition before her less than 4 minute segment is even finished.

What makes this far more fascinating than I, A Man is that there is gay agency in My Hustler. In My Hustler, there is active objectification of the male body, there is female agency, and there is even competition for the object of desire. While the camera definitely lingers on Tom Baker's body on occasion in I, A Man, it is primarily about objectification of everybody, and how almost everybody on Earth is an object of desire to everybody else. On the other hand, My Hustler implies that there are definite power structures in sex, and that they are all upturned by hustlers. Even the discussions of S&M activities and macho activities are all implying that there are definite power structures at play with money and experience having far more agency than the younger non-experienced hustler.

The appeal of the film is definitely related to how much the idea of 2 long takes of people objectifying another human being in desperate attempts to find connection, sex and love appeals to you. To me, it was fascinating in multiple fashions, obviously. But, it definitely tests your patience.

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