Its a synopsis that, on paper, might not sound very appetizing. Sullen boy hustler, meets lots of boys, and realizes that the labyrinthine apartment building he's entered will not allow him to leave. He tells a string of white lies that come easily, and seamlessly becomes whomever is needed to please. Sex is art and art is business, and for the nameless hustler-cum-hero of the film his odyssey within the complex serves as both a walk through various aspects of the gay male experience and a subtle expression of how identity plays a very complicated role in the lives and attitudes of gay men.
The characters within the story itself could have easily been sordid one offs with little substance beyond titillation- and granted, this film isn't terribly shy about its subject matter-but it manages to strike several interesting chords despite this. As the protagonist moves cynically from room to room he encounters different men with different needs, the opportunist in him seeks to fulfill. Seemingly despite himself he takes away more from these interludes than a mere exchange of currency, as the film progresses he finds himself profoundly changed.
Several of the scenes I find quite telling, though on some level the mid-point with the aging flamboyant cokehead felt gratuitous and only served introduce a character that reappears later (somewhat poorly) and to explain to the audience that the protagonist is really a "hustler with a heart of gold" for playing along with his delusion that they were long lost friends.
One scene in particular where the film offers some interesting commentary on gay culture and identity, is when the cipher of a hustler is awkwardly approached by a young, doe eyed closet case who while bemoaning the flaming neighbors that live down the hall and stressing how "not gay" he is, offers to pay to perform various acts of fellatio on the guy. Almost intuitively, the Hustler-hero seems to know what role to take on. "I knew this was going to be some fag shit." He scoffs, channeling the homophobia that radiated off the john. The closet case quickly goes to work reassuring him that the act itself, is "not gay" and spins the rationalizations that soothe whatever self loathing that may be habitual when in perpetual denial. He then, with an eagerness that betrays such nonchalance, goes about getting what he needs from the protagonist. Its the post-coital that's the problem. He turns the hustler around with a look of clouded, frustrated rage in his expressive eyes and then unleashes the other poorly restrained emotions-rage and loathing- upon the recent and former object of his lust and begins choking the life out of him.
Its a familiar commentary, and one well explored from such a brief scene. The conflicted married man who walls himself up in pretense, clings to this protective identity that projects all of the things he's not. Masculinity, being "straight" ...all of that barely restrained disdain for the "fags down the hall". All of it the Lady, protesting too much. All of it the character trapped in his own fragile identity and unable to come to terms with that which he really is- and terrified of what that aspect of self represents or really means. Not all gay men are the prancing dandies he detests his neighbors being, nor is being attracted to men entirely incompatible with being a father and family man. I find that the more light of day that is shone on the realities of homosexual people- much the way Harvey Milk suggests- the harder it will be for individuals and society to mis-characterize people like this. The more out and honest gay men and women known publicly, the less angst and stigma that can be associated with being gay.
The bloodied and slightly less pretty Hero is saved by a squarish old man who stumbles upon the pair whilst doing laundry. The man takes the hero to his room, nurses his wounds, and proceeds to have an exchange with him about intergenerational gay issues, the hustler's own identity issues (He's "not gay-politically" and "likes sex with guys" but is disconnected from emotion). The wizened sage rattles off this line, which I feel encapsulates their exchange:
"You know, guys like me fought on the front lines [of the gay movement] so that guys like you could feel ambivalent."
"Still get punched though."
And its an interesting idea to unpack. The idea that a generation ago, gay men even in the Meccas were constrained and herded off in squad cars, were pushing for acknowledgement , speaking out against institutionalized cruelty and discrimination and becoming political. Its a sad part of any generational change in a civil rights movement of a minority group. The older generation pushes against oppression and stigma, engages in rallies and sit ins- while the younger generations argue for why "nigga" is a perfectly useful term because "nigger means stupid person in the dictionary". We ultimately become disconnected from the struggles of the recent past.
The mentor/mentee relationship between the pair is instantly tender and affable. It seems apparent the nameless hero has rarely been so exposed, has rarely let his guard down in so many ways.
The old warrior presses the boy about who he is and might not be allowing himself to be. On the idea love, he plants the seed that he merely may have not been" in love with a guy, yet" and that emotional connection may well be around the corner.
And perhaps the crowning moment of the story, which saves what could have been a very cynical piece about emotionally stunted hustlers and generic johns, the Hustler wanders the halls of this vacuous building and stumbles headlong into the depth and intimacy he was previously resistant to. He meets a boy who he finds he shares a powerful connection with despite himself. The boy learns to feel and think and becomes more completely connected to himself through the sequence of events that befall him. Through sex, salvation? Not the worst prospect in the universe...