Several things came to mind when I rewatched Gus van Sant’s still magnificently playful and daring My Own Private Idaho recently; how great it was to see River Phoenix again, that it was refreshing to watch a Keanu Reeves movie without feeling the instant need to jump out the window as soon as he started talking; but the thought that really struck me was this: Why is the subject of hustling so fascinating?
My Own Private Idaho may itself offer some possible answers. The movie tells the story of Mike, a young, gay narcoleptic hustler (Phoenix) who cruises the streets of Portland, Oregon, with his rebellious best friend Scott (Reeves), heir to a family fortune and a political dynasty. For Scott, who insists he’s straight, hustling is presumably something he does to signal independence from his family, and a way for him to liberate himself from the dull conformity of his social class. It’s hustling as force of liberation, but at the same time it’s not the act of hustling itself that liberates him, it’s the consequences of his hustling on how he’s perceived by his father. For someone as strong, pretty and independent as Scott, life on the streets is something he can turn away from in an instant if he wants to, for several reasons. It’s neither an economic necessity, an expression of real rejection of mainstream behavior (as seen in his eventual return to his family), nor something he seeks out for emotional or other reasons. Because Scott is hustling for what we could, by a somewhat strained term, call idealistic or at least personal reasons, instead of financial necessity, he may serve as a cinematic symbol of the hustler as a bearer of individual freedom. This is not meant as some sort of sarcastic criticism of van Sant’s movie, not least because criticizing it for being insufficiently aware of its wider political implications would mean to demand of van Sant that he had made a totally different movie. Instead, he has made a movie about social outcasts and about Mike’s search for his mother, that is not necessarily totally devoid of socio-economic perspectives, even though it focuses on the people at the top of the economic ladder. Whether you consider this “class analysis” or lack thereof as a problem, probably has much to do with what your general views on prostitution are.
From there we now may be going out on a limb, but viewed in the broader light of the young hustler in modern American cinema, Mike is interesting too. Mike’s social background differs widely from Scott’s, and his admission that he is in love with his best friend opens up some ways to understand his role as a hustler. Before we go into that, however, I just have to state two things that may sound familiar to regular readers. While I’m certainly interested in the psychological (often even introspective) and performative (how people display and play with their queerness in order to fit in, or set themselves apart from, a certain social milieu) aspects of being, I’m at the same time very reluctant to embrace either a gayness-as-essentialism (where a person’s every act can and should be understood in the light of his or her sexual orientation) or a Freudian perspective, in which emotional problems can and should be traced back to a trauma of some sort, often involving family.
The challenge with Mike, then, is that his character very much invites those interpretative approaches. Mike’s gayness would suggest that he gets something else out of hustling than Scott does, although we never get to know anything directly about what he thinks about its sexual aspect (considering this is not mainly a movie about hustling). Both his need in some way to live out his gayness and the missing-mother-storyline could fit with the gang that both Mike and Scott are part of. It's centered around the shoddy presence of Bob, easily and perhaps lazily recognizable as the father figure Mike never had. Mike seems to appreciate the social inclusiveness of the gang more than Scott does, furthering the sense that while he never expresses any interest in leaving hustling, Mike serves as another kind of hustler in modern American cinema: He who’s life is somehow organized around hustling, but who retains a sense of independence, since there are no explicit signs that he’s kept in hustling against his will. These two types of hustlers are only one of several things that makes My Own Private Idaho an intellectually and visually stimulating experience.
Ironically, the inherent but rarely spoken-of loneliness of hustling is best exemplified in a direct reference to My Own Private Idaho, in John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus. According to the deeply depressed James, he was inspired by that movie to start hustling himself. In addition to proving the important position that Idaho holds in gay cinema, I also read this as a confirmation of the almost mythological power that the hustler can have on youth. There may be something alluringly subversive and independent for young gays in the prospect of hustling, and even though James’ every word in steeped in an underlying sense of sadness and even regret, he also talks about how hustling in some ways made him more confident. Looking back at his hustling days in retrospect, James’ story may not fit neatly into the relatively trouble-free hustler-narrative of Idaho, but it’s in keeping with the idea of hustling as some sort of self-affirmation for young people. The fact that James’ hustling is now in his past, however, suggests that the hustler-as-free-spirit theme only fits for a certain type of people, at a certain time in their lives. This not only could have to do with the eternal hunger for youth and beauty that permeates the trade of sexual services, but also that the hustler’s potential for rebellion naturally fades as he grows older.
Like James’ in Shortbus, Neill McCormick in Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin initially seems to embrace hustling not so much as an act of necessity than as something that seems like a natural step for an adventurous young gay man. We may suspect that Neill is driven into hustling in an attempt to feel appreciated, in the same way that he embraced the gratefulness and appreciation he received from his molestor, but before he finally acknowledges those dark feelings, he frames his hustling as part a search for sexual release and part as a way to exert control over other people. Unlike both Mike, Scott and James, and regardless of to what extent those three are satisfied with hustling, Neill can only be said to have chosen to go into hustling if we argue that his childhood trauma has had no effect whatsoever on his actions later in life. Which of course is a very tough argument to make. To himself, Neill may think he’s the embodiment of the brave hustling individualist in the mythical tradition, but this rests mostly on repressing the memories of his childhood trauma.
For one final example, consider Kevin Zegers’ character, Toby, in Duncan Tucker’s Transamerica. Here, to a greater extent than in any of the other movies we’ve discussed, the economic aspect of hustling comes into focus. When Bree (Felicity Huffman) needs money to continue her travel back to complete her sex-change, Toby immediately, though without telling her, offers his services to an older man at the local diner. From this, and the fact that Toby’s ambition is to make a career in gay porn, we learn that it falls naturally to Toby to use hustling as an economic survival strategy. If we assume that this was how Toby made his living even before Bree showed up, we get the impression that such a life is not particularly glorious, judging from the shoddy place in which he’s sleeping. Also, to a greater extent than in My Own Private Idaho, drug (ab-)use is portrayed as a less-than-desirable part of Toby’s coping strategy. If we were to reduce him to a hustler type, Toby would probably end up closer to Neill McCormick than Scott Favor: Although Toby apparently is aware of his ability to make money off his body, it also is something he has to do, thus robbing him of much the revered independence of the hustler as a mythological figure.
I could have gone on to point to Jonathan Taylor Thomas’ comfortably bisexual hustler in Nicholas Perry’s Speedway Junky (1999), or the supposedly straight Marty Pucco (the late, great Brad Renfro) operating on the unclear margin of hustling in Larry Clark’s Bully, but for now, I’ll simply pose two final questions. The first is why AIDS is mostly not even mentioned in any of these movies. In some of them, the hustler thing is only a minor plot point, which may explain it, but even in Mysterious Skin, AIDS is nowhere to be seen or spoken about, except for Neill’s best female friends instructing him to be careful. One of the reasons may lie in the fact that none of these movies – not even My Own Private Idaho, although it’s close in time – should be considered part of any wave of New Queer Cinema, the confrontational and highly AIDS-aware set of gay-themed movies from the early nineties. It could be that NQC in some ways handled the AIDS issue once and for all, or simply that AIDS is not as high on the agenda as it once was, even though it’s still a huge problem.
The second and final questions relates to the more problematic side of the hustler as a mythical symbol of independence. To me, it’s somewhat surprising how the implicit embrace of the “liberating” (self-affirming, subversive etc) potential of selling sex seems to be an exclusively male phenomenon. Could you imagine a young female prostitute being portrayed as just as liberated and independent as any of the these young men? I think not. Once female prostitution is the issue in the movie, the threat of violence, illness and human trafficking is immediately back in the picture. As someone who has worked to institute a ban on the purchase of another person’s body for sex, my point isn’t necessarily to ask for more liberated female movie prostitutes, so much as it is to ask why the mythology seems too strong to incorporate the darker aspects of hustling. Am I simply watching the wrong movies?