Immediately, at the film’s opening montage, set to the blistering “Call Me” by Blondie, we know what American Gigolo is about. Cars, girls, sharp suits, money, and rolling around in a Mercedes-Benz convertible.
As the poet William Blake notes, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” For Julian Kaye the road of excess is the Pacific Coast Highway and the palace of wisdom is somewhere in Palm Springs. One can look at American Gigolo, released in 1980, as a complete artwork employing an aesthetic precision across all mediums: writing, acting, art direction, music, set decoration, and the phenomenological message of the film. These creative inputs blend to evoke an ambience of danger, glamour, and surfeit among a limitless urban panorama smoldering beneath an unblemished pink sky. Yet Julian Kaye’s immersion in the lifestyle that plays out under this paradisiacal canopy is complicated by his desire for something authentic, real and transcendent.
Driven to seek out the film for its distinctive style, transcendent motif, and its Los Angeles setting, I discovered a VHS copy of American Gigolo at about the time I began writing “Hit Wave,” a 17-page epic story around which my book The Malady of the Century pivots. This was likely 2006-2007, while I was living in Savannah and shortly after I began to systematically read all of Bret Easton Ellis’ novels beginning with Less Than Zero. Although the representation of Los Angeles, its subcultures, dominant culture, sunsets, and boulevards, were already haunting my thoughts as far back as 2004, heavily influencing my book The Hot Tub (2010), I had never visited the city of angels. I still had seven solid years of fantasizing to do before I’d wake up in a crumbling studio apartment in MacArthur Park and really feel the fear of God for the first time; and nine years before I’d get so animated at Hollywood soirées that it was like I was asleep dreaming. Repeated viewings of Gigolo and all of the wistful California daydreaming still weren’t enough to prepare me for the most basic of LA truths as penned by Eve Babitz, the city’s most iconic and quintessential author, “In Los Angeles it’s hard to tell if you’re dealing with the real true illusion or the false one.”
Taxi Driver (1976), written by Paul Schrader and directed by Martin Scorsese, is the first installment in Schrader’s “night workers” trilogy. I honor the themes in this set of films in my own writing, particularly in my story “Kasmir,” by referring to the “night workers vestibule.” American Gigolo, the second film in this trilogy, is built around the psychography of Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959). One will notice the same existential solipsism in Julian Kaye that is present in Michel, the pickpocket. Light Sleeper (1992), about a lonely New York City coke dealer, is the final installment in Schrader’s “night workers” trilogy. Roger Ebert remarks on Light Sleeper, “This movie isn’t about plot; it’s about a style of life, and the difficulty of preserving self-respect and playing fair when your income depends on selling people stuff that will make them hate you.”
I often consider Ebert’s aforementioned designation “style of life” because this is precisely why American Gigolo so affected me. The idea that style is substance and that surface is the content. It’s a perfect film, right up through its final genre-confirming message of redemption and love. Gigolo is so obviously a Movie. Its morphology is impeccably indexed by visual consultant Ferdinando Scarfiotti. Scarfiotti imbues the film with an exterior serenity so visually attractive and consistent that it mystifies the conflicts between the film’s characters. This is also the film that made Giorgio Armani. As a writer it has always been my aim to translate the energy, immediacy, and essence of visual culture into language. As far back as ten years ago I focused on select photo sets from fashion magazines like Dazed & Confused and others to inform my poetry. I distinctly remember spending a lot of time looking at a set featuring Balenciaga’s ready-to-wear line Le Dix and typing my thoughts onto notecards using a mechanical Olivetti typewriter. What I found lacking in poetry after Mallarmé was a visceral and affective non medium-specific response that could commingle with creative culture at large. American Gigolo came to me at a moment when I had finally quit poetry in order to pursue the broader category of literary arts. I let go of my longing for a contemporary poet to apply poetry to the sensations of art and fashion, and subsequently assumed ownership of this task.
Although Ebert’s remark concerns Light Sleeper it’s also a valid description of American Gigolo, especially the idea of “selling people stuff that will make them hate you.” For Julian Kaye that stuff is sexual competency. One can feel the palpable discontent of the other male characters in the film. They all want him to disappear or go to prison, while their wives all want to fuck him. We learn from American Gigolo that becoming an expert at giving pleasure results from an impulse to compete and thrive. Sexual skill can become a powerful form of capital that opens doors to a style of life one never thought could be attainable. While it is honorable to seek sexual fulfillment for its own sake one cannot discount the collateral implicit in this exchange. I don’t think the sole message of American Gigolo is to get really good at sex so you can get a stereo, a convertible, and a pristine apartment; but if it were , considering the grace within Julian’s application of jouissance, I don’t think there is anything wrong with that message. Each of his encounters acquiesce to needing him. When one can make erotic pleasure their business they have destabilized the limitations of a hierarchized society. In the trailer for American Gigolo Julian Kaye speaks confidently into the camera, “You wanna be here, you wanna be with me.” Because of his radiant sexuality Julian gains access to a rarefied social sphere. While we live in an economically embattled time American Gigolo explores the message that aspiring to please and delight women is not only spiritually transcendent but economically transcendent as well, and offers the assurance of ethics that doing good does lead to doing well. The poster for American Gigolo bears the tag line, “He leaves women feeling more alive than they’ve ever felt before.” Indeed Gigolo is a beautifully executed total work of art, but this tertiary message provides true joy: that to become a generous lover of women, to become the most intense source of pleasure for every woman that you touch, is quite possibly the greatest art.
Julian understands the necessity and dynamism of his vocation, yet he succumbs to a chic drift in search of something else, a drift that leads him to breaking one of his professional rules, allowing a woman into his home. When Michelle unexpectedly calls on him at his Westwood apartment he tells her, “Women don’t come here.” Julian hesitantly resists Michelle until he finally gives in to her persistent charm. He realizes that she truly cares for him, and that he loves her. By the film’s end, after she’s provided him with an alibi to the Rheiman murder, thereby freeing him from prison, we imagine he gives up his life as an escort in order to pursue a life with Michelle. Ultimately, Julian finds that no matter how powerful his art and charisma, he must quit working in order to be happy. Within this paradox lies the essence of Maurice Blanchot’s essay “Literature and the Right to Death.” The essay poignantly summarizes a conflict between identity, art and audience, and in my reading posits quitting, especially quitting authorship, as a necessary achievement in the preservation of one’s self. From American Gigolo we may surmise that art which doesn’t require complete immersion in its creation, art that does not result in the dissolution of the artist, may not even be worth retiring from. Because so much visionary work results from ephemeral and short-lived bursts of bright light one can argue that any career that lasts longer than an orgasm may not be worth pursuing.
from The Malady of the Century
There’s no other way to say this. When you texted me that night outside of the Majestic when we were still being that way and the sun was clean I wanted to tell you the way I felt. I felt like I had ruined our lives. I get so emotional when I watch the same karaoke video of us. Everything about the way people are now is hurting. The way I can be a part of this world is astonishing. I live and you aren’t the pieces of my life I’ve forgotten. When the next song comes on and you are singing remember we did this and we were kings. We ruled.
Jon Leon‘s latest book is The Malady of the Century (Futurepoem, 2012).
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