American Gigolo (1980)

“Why would anyone watch this?” read the note attached my American Gigolo DVD case. It was probably left there by one of my students. At this point I should no longer be shocked by the rather flip, blatantly ignorant statements of my younger students. In defense of this anonymous commenter, I will say the following. Perhaps, they were joking. Sarcasm, especially veiled in anonymity, never reads well. If they were not joking I might dismiss their hasty scribblings as a mis-reading of the DVD’s cover art. Even I will admit that the packaging mis-represents the film and does it little justice. I am sure, to the eyes of a youngster raised on knee-jerk reactionary comments such as “That’s gay” or “How gay”, this DVD looks quite, well, gay.* The title doesn’t help much either. However, just look at that border, all two-tone and day-glo. It even says “I love the 80’s” and what young hipster today doesn’t love the 80’s?

So, why comment rather than investigate? I would hope that by doing some research (aka Googling) or turning over the dvd case they would discover that this film was written and directed by Paul Schrader, the man who wrote the screenplays for Taxi Driver , Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ. Maybe they’d even recongize his name as the director behind Blue Collar Hardcore, or Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. He’s also the author of Transcendental Style in Film a must read for any film student. However, I am not holding my breath on that second or third part. Still, these are film students coming in and out of my office, these are people who should be excited by films they have not heard of and curious to learn more about important, if not under-valued, historical film makers like Paul Schrader.

Of course, I’m saying all of his under the assumption that whoever left that note has not seen this film. Maybe they have seem American Gigolo. Maybe the just don’t like it. If this were the case I’d at least wish they had the conviction to sign their name. But, such is a generation who does no criticizes because they have a great fear of being criticized. They only speak when they know there words can’t be traced.

Well, I am speaking back to this unknown soul. American Gigolo is a wonderful character study of a rather shallow and naive individual who also serves as a wonderful doppelganger for the 80’s themselves. Schrader is a masterful American director trying to work in the same spirit as Bresson, Ozu, and Dreyer, all those artists he wrote about in his book. Does he ever fully achieve their levels of transcendence? Not really, but that might have more to do with his choice in subject matter and setting. It takes a lot of power to transcend the trappings of the 80’s.

When I think of the quintessential 80’s films, the one that speak most to the zeitgeist of the 80’s, to the attitudes that really defined that era, American Gigolo is most certainly one of the first films I reference. It does a far better job of depicting the rather cool, yet vapid mindset of the yuppie culture. Forget those John Hughes films or St. Elmo’s fire, the only speak to the immature dreams and anxieties of people growing up in the 80’s. You need to watch things like American Gigolo or Wall Street to understand the vileness of that decade. For something more scathing and way off the beaten path find Mark Rappaport’s Chain Letters. The 80’s was not all one big teenage, new-wave dance party. It’s also not something that can be understood from watching that other ‘American’ 80’s movie, American Psycho that film is far more of parody than a portrait of life in the Reagan years. That film has too much fun with itself. It is more in the spirit of coolness that you find in Top Gun or Ferris Bueller Whereas, American Gigolo is not a fun movie. Richard Gere’s  takes women out, shows them a good time, but he himself seems incapable of enjoyment. His character is good looking. He can put on a decent act. He can, shall we say, entertain, but deep down his character is not a fun guy. He is good looking, but he is all surface, a pretty empty underneath. Pretty much like the 80’s.

*Not that there is anything wrong with gay films.

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