One can’t accuse of queer filmmaking icon Bruce LaBruce of not being daring, with films like No Skin Off My Ass, Otto, Super 8 ½, and, most recently Geontophilia (which is considerably tamer than this film), each unapologetically tackling not only issues of queerness, but of different facets of sexuality, identity, and their intersections. And Hustler White, a ‘90s films that has ‘80s sex appeal written all over it, is LaBruce perfectly balancing those discourses, but with an injection of cleverness, and a dose of emotionality.
Sex in the film is, like it feels (good sex at least), disassembled and re-assembled, the images almost collage like, scattered, frantic, and frantic. And, yes, sexy. There’s a knowing eroticism to this abstraction, a tease, as it were. A provocation in nudity and sexuality, where you see everything, or you think you do, but its presentation, its blast of erotic energy, is what gets you hot.
There’s an unusualness to how its temporality of the erotic moment is presented in Hustler White: heavy breath are carried over into shots where there is no character, or when there’s a different character in frame, or when the character breathing is shot from afar. Its low budget, purposefully guerilla-esque way of filming works to its advantage in this way, contextualizing sex and sexuality as something omnipresent, in every frame and even outside of it.
And yet, to some degree, Hustler White acknowledges that sexuality, arousal, and eroticism are illusory anyways. LaBruce and pornographic photographer and co-director Rick Castro aim their lens at two hunks fucking, with the directors again using a similar abstracted approach. But LaBruce cuts to medium shot of the two having sex, slowly zooming out to reveal a crew around them, filming. While the scene understands the performativity of sex, it’s disinclined to, as it easily could, write off adult filmmaking, pornographic performances, and hustling in general as cold and lifeless, a rather prudish point of view that is too often employed in scenes like this.
The disembodied voice of a hustler looms over scenes, many of them, and, evident in the dialogue of the film is this searing wit and sense of humor. The dialogue contains a baroque poeticism, strangely enough, as if each character is giving a slam or doing spoken word, the content of his poem cruel and sad and self-deprecating and sexy and vulgar.
On a larger level, the film understands sex as a commodity: bodies, sexuality, fluids are traded, bought and sold. It’s easy to miss, but so are emotions. The misconception of hustlers in movies is that they’re devoid of emotion, so hardened by the street that they might as well be automatons. Conversely, something like Pretty Woman will portray sex workers as romantic, disproportionately emotional. And while it would be hard to call Hustler White a piece of realism, necessarily, it’s not naïve about how these sex workers feel. About their work, about their clients, about each other.
Music is always used on a soundtrack to contextualize a scene, or to amplify it, but the rugged nature of the film and its respective choices of music. Particularly, it’s the sounds of “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell that haunts this dying vision of Hollywood, its playback speed ever slower and slower. It echoes and reverberates against the hot tar, the distortion reminiscent of the visible head rising from the sun struck roads. Various iterations of the song permeate the film, and its lyrics relevance is pumped into every scene. It manages to imbue its characters with a palpable sense of emotion and reason, without falling trap to traditional, conventional, melodramatic modes of characterization. Part of that is due to the screenplay, the other part is its perfect willingness to use roughhewn rock and punk in order to further sketch these scenes out, further illustrate emotions and sensations. Isn’t that what music is supposed to do, articulate our feelings?
It’s hard to discern how brutal of a Hollywood satire this is, but it’s better at creating a lifeless atmosphere inasmuch as the landscape and the people in comparison to, say, Paul Schrader’s weird misfire The Canyons, written by another vulgarist Bret Easton Ellis, or David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars (which I actually quite like), and on par with its spiritual source text Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard or even Robert Altman’s The Player. It examines a different facet of Hollywood, a different section, a ghetto, if you will, and yet the interpersonal relations, the weird detachment of it all seems familiar. Satire, maybe not; landscape, definitely.
Hustler White is very much a LaBruce topic. It doesn’t want to be confused with any of the hetero normative crap that dominates the culture. It takes pleasure in being very, very queer (well, duh, it was part of the New Queer Cinema), in the self-ghettoized, transgressive, gleefully in your face, complete with graphic sex, sadomasochism, ejaculation, and many a hustle. The anonymous interviewer with the disembodied voice asks Monti (Tony Ward) why hustlers where white. He responds, “Purity.” That kind of ironic, satiric juxtaposition of sex work and a made up idea of what “purity” is speaks to the film’s end note: in the end, everything is a hustle.
Hustler White is now available remastered on Blu-ray from Strand Releasing.