Sunday, January 10, 2016

American Gigolo

(Paul Schrader, USA, 1980)

Schrader's gimlet-eyed tale of American fear and desire.  That description would match any number of his films, come to think of it, but perhaps none more so than American Gigolo.  Gere is fantastic in the role he might've been born to play; he's always been an actor of intelligence but limited emotional range; here, his slightly unctuous charm and his occasional fits of petulance match the character perfectly.  He's both naive and savvy, a quintessentially American kind of hustler.  The story is a classical morality play, a specialty of Schrader's, who has made a career of fashioning flinty, high-modern tales that reveal themselves to be near-parables of sin and redemption.  Of the films of his I've seen, this might be the most perfect iteration of that subject: he draws class, sex, money, and acute psychological insight into his deceptively straightforward 80s noir.  At times, his limitations as a director are apparent, but they are the kind of flaws that merely cast his triumphs in sharp relief.  The synthesizer and the slickness are of a piece with the era, and come off as markers of authenticity rather than dated tropes.  In American Gigolo, the journey leads back to a confrontation with the self, which, in Schrader's Protestant conception, can only be redeemed through the intercession of a higher power (in this case, it's the incarnation of Love.)  I don't think I've seen a Schrader movie that wasn't on some level a noir, but unlike the cynicism and outright nihilism that are the usual philosophical markers of the genre, Schrader brings an unmistakably Christian perspective to the table.  Crucially, his films can seem bleaker than even the bleakest noir, and I get the sense that this has to do with his peculiar kind of reformist theology: only when his characters have suffered the tortures of the damned can they find the way back to the light. 

Of course, it would be wrong to view his films in exclusively this light.  Schrader is a secular filmmaker, but it's a secularism that's won through a harsh, even existential battle, and the shadows of faith - which also mark the possibility of transcendence - are what gives his films their flashes of uncanny depth and brilliance.  Schrader's work is rife with the best kind of contradictions, because he's been able to make his own inner conflicts into the substance of his art.  And it's everywhere in the film: the wary eye of the moralist, but also the gleeful cry of the neurotic who has been freed from his repression.  He knows the worldly lures of sex and money better than most of the Californian philistines, because he is an outsider twice over - a reformed believer, and an intellectual on top of it.  Gigolo has a the stamp of the definitive about it: any other treatment of Los Angeles venality and the overwhelming temptation of success has to test it's mettle against Shrader's magisterial film. 

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