My Hustler is distinctly divided in two parts (a third part was shot but discarded because of the bad quality of the sound track). The first one lasts 31’ 46” (at 25 fps) and consists of three shots (respectively 15′ 22″, 3′ 51″, and 12′ 33″). The camera pans and zooms between the veranda of Ed’s house and the beach. Ed, as well as talking to himself out loud, also chats (in an English accent) with his new servant/body guard, then with his neighbor Genevieve and lastly with Joe who, after having come down to the beach to “court” Paul, is persuaded by the pair to join them. Paul, the hustler hired by Ed for the weekend, is on the beach and is first befriended by Joe, then by Genevieve who goes for a swim with him, after which the first part ends. The second part is one still shot (31′ 56″) of Ed’s bathroom, where Joe teaches Paul the secrets of the hustler’s trade while they shave, brush their teeth and massage one another. Towards the end, first Genevieve looks in, then Ed and a new guest (seemingly an African-American woman), and each of them makes a personal proposal to Paul. As usual, there are no titles, not even those spoken in voice-over as in Vinyl (two titles were added to the end credits: “© 1989. The Estate and Foundation of Andy Warhol. This notice is appearing at the request of The Estate and Foundation of Andy Warhol,” and, for the dubbed version, “Italian version and dubbing supervised by Mario Zonta; dubbing organization Tecnofilm srl; voices: Edward Massimo Corizza, Genevieve Valentina Tomada, Paul Luca Foggiano, Joe Maurizio Fiorentini”).
The two parts could be said to mirror one another: on-screen/off-screen fields, opening/closing of fields of view, movement/stillness etc. There are also more subtle “inner rhymes”: there is a painting by Alex Katz (similar in style to those by Edward Hopper) behind the characters sitting on the veranda, which portrays cabins and a beach, with two people (a man and a woman in bathing suits) on one side of it and another man on the other side. This painting somewhat reflects the actual situation (Ed and Genevieve on one side and Paul on the other). Similarly, in the second part there is a mirror which reflects Joe and Paul, depending on their positions in the frame of view. But its function in the painting is to join what is on-screen to what is off-screen, whereas in the second case, the mirror doubles that which is distinctly captured in the frame of view.
This play between on-screen and off-screen fields constitutes the core of the film’s stylistic strategy. In the first part, Ed is always sitting on the veranda; his bodyguard, whose face is only seen for an instant at the beginning, appears and disappears while serving drinks (“water cocktails”); Paul is always seen lying on the beach where we first saw him heading, followed by the first pan shot; lastly Genevieve and Joe go, respectively, from the veranda to the beach and from the beach to the veranda. There are also some other people: two men in a nearby house seen in a pan shot, a few bathers in the background and, more importantly, a heterosexual couple (this needs mentioning) lying down and smooching two steps away from Paul who remains indifferent to them, reframed at a certain point by the zoom in order to include them entirely in the field of view. This works as a semi-ironic alternative or anticipation of Genevieve’s arrival. But the on-screen/off-screen game is, above all, in the sound: the microphone is aimed towards the veranda (leaving the beach scenes silent, except for the sound of the waves), and the endless conversation is, therefore, sometimes on-screen and sometimes off-screen, depending on the camera’s movements as it pans at various speeds, but always from left to right or vice versa, alternating between the veranda and the beach. Since the main subject of conversation is the object of desire, in other words Paul, this alternating between on-screen and off-screen sound fields increases the characters’ erotic tension on the one hand, while frustrating it on the other.
The pan shots help to emphasize the rhythm of the action. In the first shot, the right-to-left movement accompanies Paul who heads for the beach, then goes back to left-to-right on the veranda when Genevieve arrives, then pans back to the beach when Joe arrives and back again towards the veranda when Joe joins the other two. The second shot, which includes several forward and backward zooms, is dedicated to the arrival of the couple next to Paul. In the third shot, the pan is slower than the others, coinciding with Genevieve who joins Paul on the beach, while the couple moves away, leaving the field of vision, and then returns shortly afterwards to Ed and Joe who are commenting on the “intrusion.” The last pan shot returns to Genevieve and Paul again, going for a swim after having put on some sun lotion. In the second part, Paul, once back from his swim, continues his narcissistic ritual in front of the mirror. It is Joe who speaks most of the time, trying to introduce Paul to his profession in an increasingly bolder way, without it ever being clear whether Paul is actually interested or simply curious. The film ends with three interludes in which Genevieve, then Ed and finally a newcomer appear in the bathroom doorway on the right, each offering a proposal to Paul who goes on combing his hair and perfuming himself without the slightest reaction.
One wonders whether or not Chuck Wein, the scriptwriter, drew his inspiration for the scene from Jean Cocteau’s play, Le bel indifférent (1940), a medium-length color film shot by Jacques Demy in 1957, in which a handsome young man listens in an indifferent and silent way to his older lover’s complaints about having been abandoned. Aside from the similarity of the handsome yet indifferent character, Cocteau also relied predominately on words and gazes which, in My Hustler, replace erotic acts. Paul’s narcissism is reflected in the voyeurism of his suitors, and his respective silence amidst their non-stop chatter. The aperture to the off-screen fieldin the first part and its claustrophobic exclusion in the second part (variations on the “invisible” themes in Blow Job and on the “cage” in Vinyl) make the erotic impotence twice as powerful. In any case, with one stylistic strategy or the other, the beautiful Paul remains impenetrable, in the reverse shot,with respect to his suitors in the main shot.
Despite the open-end finale (which is involuntary perhaps, as it may have depended on the existence of a third part which was discarded), My Hustler is a more solidly constructed film than other works by Warhol. The presence of “noises” or, rather, the residue of “amateurishness” – a fundamental stylistic element in silent films but also in the first ones with sound – plays a secondary role in this case. Flashes of lightand almost imperceptible perforated leaders which appear for a few frames at the end of the takes, the uncertain movements of the pan shots (with the camera placed on a tripod without a gyro head), the forward and backward zoom shots lacking fluidity, reframing and even the microphone, which can be seen for a few instants early in second part, are all elements which provide a certain “coarseness” compared to traditional professional film-making, yet are not disturbing. They are almost imperfections which “humanize” this perfect film. On the other hand, the acting is natural (as opposed to that in Vinyl) and the dialogue, which appears to be “improvised,” is excellently, even captivatingly written, so that the suspense keeps the action from ending inconclusively. The interruption of the continuity in the first part (divided into three shots), without any particular emphasis (the cuts between the main and reverse shots, between the veranda and the beach, may go unnoticed), avoids giving the endeavor the sense of a technical performance; whereas the sequence shot in the second partgoesalmost unnoticed due to the exciting dialogue. I don’t consider this almost “professional” evolution of Warhol’s work an influence of Paul Morrissey, as in his later films. But I do think that Chuck Wein’s contribution was fundamental compared to that of Ronald Tavel (his previous scriptwriter) without, however, betraying Warhol’s experimental vein. My Hustler confirms the “historical” evolution of cinematographic language, with its habitually essential nature starting with silent films, in the crucial matter of the on-screen/off-screen visual and sound dialectics used by Warhol. The result is one of the best he ever achieved, also because the conceptual aspect of the film is expanded – warmed – by the apparent spontaneity of Wein’s dialogue construction.
Published, as On-Screen and Off-Screen Cinema, in the DVD booklet for My Hustler/I a Man, Rarovideo/Interferenze, Rome 2005, pp. 39-41.