Gay independent cinema often shames me.
Oh, I consume it like candy, sure, never expecting more than a sugar rush or a toothache. But, in general, the familiar tastes overwhelm the memorable meals.
Strapped est bien meilleure qu'elle ne devrait l'être si je me contentais de dessiner l'intrigue schématique sur du papier millimétré ou d'en écrire le résumé : Un arnaqueur à la sexualité indéterminée erre dans les couloirs de l'immeuble le plus gay du quartier le plus gay de la ville. Il rencontre plusieurs types de personnes : immigrant refoulé, reine de la drogue, pédé intelligent du village, père sexy, cas refoulé qui se déteste. Il est pris au piège et ne peut pas s'en sortir. Chaque panneau de sortie mène, au lieu des escaliers qui descendent et sortent, à une autre rencontre payante.
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 room that’s too big for the building, 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 Ma propre Idaho privée, 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.
Sur Idaho, Van Sant adapted 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’s character that’s being appropriated, not River Phoenix’s. 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.The Archeology of Knowledge by Michel Foucault
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 wanted him to keep on moving. I like the idea of the Hustler wandering around, out there somewhere bringing pleasure to the world.