Gay independent cinema often shames me.
Oh, I consume it like candy, sure, never expecting more than a sugar rush or a tooth ache. But, in general, the familiar tastes overwhelm the memorable meals.
Strapped is far better than it has any right to be if I’d simply draw the schematic “plot” onto graph paper or write its precis: Hustler of indeterminate sexuality wanders the halls of the gayest apartment building in the gayest part of town. He encounters a number of types — closeted immigrant, drug queen, smart Village queer, hot daddy, self-hating closet case. He’s trapped and he can’t get out. Every exit sign leads, instead of to the stairs going down and out, to yet another paid encounter.
The Hustler adapts to each new trick by adopting whatever personality the john requires to fulfill the john’s fantasy. The Hustler, effortlessly and expertly portrayed by Ben Bonenfant, seems to have no character of his own — or at least not one that can be easily described or remain in view for very long — and we never learn, for sure, his real name or his “real sexuality.” However, it’s clear that within the quasi-surrealist surroundings — at one point he wanders into a large room in which a band of gypsies is performing — a narrative is intended. That narrative might be given a tagline: How a hustler learns to be gay.
Or maybe not.
In an effort to get a handle on how I felt about Strapped, I read a bunch of reviews on the Web. Almost all of them were positive but almost all of them preceded the review with something like, “Not just another gay hustler movie.”
Although I’m sure there are lot of gay-themed films with hustlers in them, I had a hard time remembering any of them other than My Own Private Idaho, from which Strapped creatively cribs and quotes. (Maybe it’s because none of the depictions of hustlers I’ve seen have matched my experience with them.) But it does more than that. Unlike similar albeit glib references that gregg araki makes in his films, the Idaho shoulder-bump is more than just name-dropping or simple homage: There’s an effort to use that material to either expand upon the themes or comment upon how they’ve been used in gay culture.
In Idaho, Van Sant adopted Shakespeare for his own purposes and that act of transposition of King’s son to Seattle hustler entered into the vernacular of urban gay men as trope, critical tool, and freak flag. Strapped’s director Joseph Graham makes reference to that appropriation in the scene in which the drug queen mistakes the Hustler for someone else and makes up his history by using the plot of Idaho. It’s that ingrained. He does, however, get the characters wrong. It’s Keanu Reeves’ character that’s being appropriated, not River Phoenix. That, too, is a comment about whom gay men would most like to be and the importance of Phoenix as a cultural icon.
That same scene quotes Foucault: Do not ask me who I am; do not ask me to remain the same. That line may well be the single source of inspiration for Strapped. Here’s the quote in full from the introduction to Foucault’s The Archeology of Knowledge, emphasis mine:
What, do you imagine that I would take so much trouble and so much pleasure in writing, do you think that I would keep so persistently to my task, if I were not preparing – with a rather shaky hand – a labyrinth into which I can venture, in which I can move my discourse, opening up underground passages, forcing it to go far from itself, finding overhangs that reduce and deform its itinerary, in which I can lose myself and appear at last to eyes that I will never have to meet again. I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face. Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write.
Some may well call the Foucault reference pretentious; but without pretense, there is no progress, and I’m grateful for Graham’s commitment to ideas rather than just shirtless studs. And so it would be a mistake to consider Strapped as only exploring gay identity, or even sexual identity. It’s after something bigger.
Unfortunately, the film’s final scene betrays the endless search proposed in that paragraph, instead nailing down The Hustler’s sexuality and ending his journey. Like Sam, the hot Daddy played by ex-porn star Paul Gerrior, I like the idea of the Hustler wandering around, out there, somewhere bringing pleasure to the world.