American Gigolo (Schrader, 1980)

Continuing in Paul Schrader’s post-Scorsese decades of underworld sleaze, comes the Richard Gere vehicle American Gigolo.  Perhaps, and unfortunately, best remembered as the film where you see Gere’s penis, this is actually a nice entry for the director, some of Gere’s best work, and more European than Schrader’s first two directorial efforts.  In many ways, the stylistics of this anticipate his much more aesthetically diverse (and best) film from 1985, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.

Reminiscent of a sort of cross between the vague thriller ala Blow-Up and a David Mamet conspiratorial script for much of its 117 minute run-time, the conclusion of American Gigolo is much clearer than the former, and heartfelt than the latter.

Gere plays the titular American gigolo, Julian.  Against their wishes, he works for multiple employers and steps on a lot of toes, all the while suavely making his way into many-a-woman’s bed.  When one of his clients ends up murdered the police try to frame him.  Everyone that he knows stabs Julian in the back except for Michelle (Lauren Hutton), the wife of a politician who he’s been seeing.

While Schrader will forever be tied to Scorsese, his style is nowhere near that of Marty.  American Gigolo finds Schrader amidst a true 80s world – something that Robert Towne was probably trying to achieve in Tequila Sunrise (but failing miserably).  There’s heavy concentration on clothes here – multiple shots of Julian’s drawers and suits and dialogue with the police detective (Hector Elizondo) about how the clothes make the man – alongside an ominously synthy soundtrack from Girogio Moroder (also responsible for Scarface and the NeverEnding Story, among others) and light that seems perpetually filtered through the unseen neighboring neon storefront sign.

Unlike some of those other 80s films, Schrader turns this not into a mood of forgettable period cheese, but a daytime noir, where the smoky pastels and neons take on the sinister flair of the shadows in your classic mystery flick.

Consider a paranoid scene where Julian returns to his home and turns it inside-out in search of any kind of bug or tracking device:

The first five images above are from the same shot – a wide, overhead pan and track.  There are a few stylistic elements worth noting.  First, is the emphasis on the mixed color temperature.  As Julian moves left to right through his long apartment the color changes from blue to purple to a jade green.  The slats from the blinds envelop the entire apartment and become even more noticeably prominent in frame 6 above, when there’s finally a cut to a side, wide angle.

The first few images above also exhibit the harsh, hard light.  Notice the long shadows everywhere.  And the angle itself is very graphic (strangely enough, reminiscent of Scorsese), using Julian’s shadow against the wall to mirror his actions.

All of this adds up to an awareness of classic noir technique – the shadows, the blinds – but with an added emphasis on the time period, firmly placing it visually as a combo/revisionist-looking piece.  The dramatic angles, less in use nowadays than in classic and 60s-70s Hollywood, emphasize the length of the space (needle in a haystack), of course the pervasive sense of voyeurism, and the height, shrinking Julian to a mere player in a larger game.

Slight SPOILERS below:

Schrader has more technique at the end.  The last several minutes are odd in the sudden change in presentation and time representation.  Instead of the hard cuts and dissolves that make up the large majority of the film to that point, Schrader switches to fades.  The narrative has, of course, changed as well.  Julian is in prison.  Michelle is the only who cares about him.  She’s even paying for his attorney.  The fades, so drastically different from anything else, make time uneven and off-kilter.  A suggestion of Julian’s experience of time in jail?  Perhaps.  Or, more likely, a slight suggestion of an idealist (over-idealistic) fantasy sequence.

There are two moments when Michelle visits Julian in prison.  Each sequence consists primarily of three shots.  Here’s the first sequence, after Michelle enters and sits:

Fairly standard stuff.  The first two shots are simple shot-reverse-shot.  The third shot, however, demands more attention.  This is right after, in the previous two shots, we’ve seen that their time is up and Julian has to leave.  The punch out to the wide shot in the third frame above, with the emphasis on negative space, really drives home the loneliness that Julian’s departure implies.  It’s a nice use of a frame to suggest, or reinforce, the emotion that now lingers.  It becomes more important when we consider the later sequence, and ending of the film, where Michelle again visits Julian:

Here, Schrader reverses the order of their first prison-meeting.  The implication is clear and well-played: where the first sequence starts close and ends wide implying loneliness, this sequence completes that circle.  It starts wide (loneliness) and ends close (acceptance, closure, literal closeness, etc).  The simple act of starting wide and moving in is pretty standard, but when compared to the previous scene, both scenes take on new meaning.

It’s also worth noting that here, in this final prison sequence, Schrader switches the 180 line and, in fact, breaks it.  Look at the first prison sequence again.  When on Michelle, the camera is over Julian’s right shoulder.  In that sequence, she is looking frame-left in both shots 1 and 3.

But in the second prison sequence, when on Michelle, the camera is now over Julian’s left shoulder.  Compare frame 1 and frame 2 here.  In frame 1, as Michelle prepares to sit, she’ll be looking frame-left (the same way that she is looking in frame 3 of the first prison sequence).  But then in frame two she’s suddenly looking frame-right.  We broke the 180 line.  Unlike other films I’ve written about, this doesn’t demonstrate a shift in power.  It does however, signal a change.  It’s a visual device meant to very slightly telegraph that there’s a beat.  Something new is about to happen.  And it does.  They’re closer emotionally here than anywhere else in the film.

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About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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