September 26, 2022

Julian Kay is a thrillingly charming escort, as comfortable at international art auctions as he is on the pull-up bar. His speciality is older women, and when one asks him, in one of those old hotel restaurant booths so cushioned and pink they seem almost like the womb, “How many languages do you speak?”, he replies: “five or six.” “Plus the international language?” “That’s right.”

Julian is the protagonist of Paul Schrader’s 1980 masterpiece American Gigolo, made in the golden age of the erotic thriller. He’s played, and overshadowed, by Richard Gere, who made history as the first leading man to get full-frontally nude in an American studio film. This was another golden age, after all — of sexual freedom — between the invention of the Pill and the horrors of the AIDS crisis.

Why was Julian like this? Why was he so talented at languages, and suave, and erudite; and why was he so into making older ladies feel good? Why was he selling sex, anyway? And what about that murder he was framed for? Nobody cared. The plot was always secondary to the style, merely a support structure for a case study in early Eighties seduction. The point of Julian, if there was one, was his narcissism: he’s a shiny shell draped in Armani suits, who may well have absolutely nothing inside. Later, Schrader actually disavowed Julian a bit, calling him “really just a thin guy”, superficial without knowing it. In that way, maybe, he represents that brief, proto-Reagan paradise: a little stupid, a little evil, but kind of cool.

He was a man of his time, but now, Julian is back. Showtime has created an American Gigolo miniseries, out last week. A hodge-podge of sequel, prequel and remake, the show seems so singularly hellbent on destroying its source material that one wonders: why on Earth was it made? Schrader is apparently wondering, too: though credited as a “corporate consultant” on the final product (his salary was $50,000), he has called the show a “terrible idea” and vowed not to watch it.

A wise choice. There has surely never been a more terrible remake. Julian has been reimagined as a generic, pitiable, weeping loser, a superannuated sad sack in disgusting hoodies with greasy hair. He’s 45 years old. He’s played by Jon Bernthal. And he shares nothing but a profession with the original character. Julian’s sexiness, it seems, doesn’t work with the archetypal protagonist of prestige television: the sensitive man obsessed with his childhood.

Viewers of the original American Gigolo didn’t care why Julian did what he did. But the new show insists on providing us with a hackneyed backstory, in the form of shot-for-shot flashbacks. Sometimes, there’s the same footage twice in the same episode. Here’s the post-prison Julian grabbing a fence; here’s him doing so as a poor boy in a generic Dust Bowl setting, with his extremely simple mother. Oh, there he goes sleeping with her friend. Fetish understood. And then we find out why he sells sex: a mysterious French-speaking brunette named Olga shows up to the family shack in an extraordinarily short tweed skirt suit, asks to look in his mouth, hands his mother an envelope, and tells him she’ll be waiting in the car. Julian asks his mom: “What?” She sobs: “You’re gonna go to Hollywood and you’re gonna be a big star!” He again asks: “What, Mom?” She screams: “You need to get the fuck out of here right now!” He’s then sent to, it would appear, a high-class gigolo camp.

To ensure that the audience can congratulate itself on watching virtuous prestige television attuned to the havoc wrought by toxic masculinity — not the reality shows that their less successful cousins watch — Julian must now have “feelings”, “trauma”, and “pain”. To ensure the creators have ten hours of material, in a business model premised on streaming audiences no longer leaving their homes, or even their beds, to consume “content”, he must also have an incessantly — and very slowly — rehashed “past”.

It is difficult not to see the new American Gigolo as the latest absurd iteration of the media’s anxious, obsessive search for trauma, victimhood, and injury in what, until now, have been recognised as happier chapters in the American story. As Mike Hale has aptly put it in the New York Times, it “remakes an era-defining film for the current age of victimisation”. The whole point of the original Julian was that he was young, confident, and the sexiest man imaginable, a man so alluring that the gorgeous wife of a prominent politician would risk literal death to be with him. But the new Julian is a bundle of pathetic clichés of the repentant male: “I’ve done dumb things.” “I’ve hurt people.” “If I sat on your feet, would you feed me?”

Low-effort psychology, apparently, is a key tenet of prestige television these days — as is box-ticking political lip service. American Gigolo has been reinvented to conform to our current sexual mores: all the sex in this tragic remake are more ferarum and a little rough. In the original, the only BDSM scene, which completely turns off Julian, is orchestrated by a disgusting creep who murders his wife. The whole film revolves around Julian’s sexual tenderness and care toward his love-hungry customers. But whatever! Now it’s hot for a traumatised male to “explore” kink and subsequently cry about how he’s caused “pain”.

And perhaps it’s impossible to emulate the sexiness of the original American Gigolo at a time when sex is regarded as suspect, and “sex workers” themselves embody an inscrutable mixture of saintly victimhood and feminist triumph. Plus, the day-to-day of today’s young escort is a lot more mundane: see Pacho Velez’s performatively boring portrayal of sugar babies in his recent film Searchers, just staring at their iPhones as they scroll through options. That’s a lot less compelling than the original Julian Kay sliding into fancy lounges and waiting for a lady with big earrings to walk over with her cocktail.

The new American Gigolo is, then, as representative of its moment as the first one was. The late critic Mark Fisher wrote about the cultural exhaustion of the 2000s, of the inability to create new artistic forms. In the decades since the Reagan era, he argued, with crash after crash punctuated by booms of ever more inequality and precarity, society became increasingly fearful of the future and ambivalent about the present. Culture, therefore, could be nothing more than a tranquilising and unchallenging rehash of stale nostalgia. American Gigolo is a case in point: its creators, I suppose, vaguely remembered American Gigolo as cool, thought other middle-aged people would, and most importantly, couldn’t think of anything better to make.

The series is part of a larger and more depressing trend toward anodyne, cookie-cutter, sad-sensitive-male remakes. Most cynically, perhaps, is the tendency — part of streaming services’ “microtargeting” strategies based on harvesting demographic data — toward clumsy, politically correct updates of exciting black media. Amazon’s 2021 Coming 2 America, a sequel to Eddie Murphy’s beloved 1988 film, is so lazy it de-ages the actors using CGI to recreate scenes from the original; but for contemporary audiences, it inserts unwieldy references to women’s rights. The 2019 Netflix film Dolemite is My Name likewise stars the now 61-year-old Murphy. Here he portrays Rudy Ray Moore, stand-up and Blaxploitation director best known for Dolemite (1975). In both films, Murphy’s lines are far less shocking than in his Eighties triumphs.

What made the originals funny would never be acceptable today: the humour of Coming to America largely rode on Eddie Murphy’s “African voice”; the humour of Dolemite rode on the Blaxploitation genre’s radical redeployment of Black stereotypes. Today, they have been revised to cleanse the edginess, anger, and discomfort of their originals, in the relentless march to neutralise everything that could possibly risk controversy. Like the woke-washed American Gigolo, the rehash of Dolemite includes absurdly stiff, laundered dialogue. A toothless liquor store haunt says: “Hotel Dunbar: that used to be the centre of Black arts and entertainment.” Snoop Dog, as a Rasta, turns down Murphy’s music: “Sometimes our dreams don’t work out, brother.” The original Dolemite is pretty much known for his catchphrase “Do-lo-mite!” (like “Dy-na-mite!”); now we must suffer Murphy saying things like: “I don’t have a lot of good memories of back home.”

Not even the Classics are safe. In fact, they offer the most absurd example of this bleak trend. Robert Icke, who has been described as the “great hope of British theatre”, has decided to turn the earliest extant work of Greek tragedy, set approximately 3,000 years before the invention of psychology, into another struggle session about trauma. In his adaptation of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, during a sold-out West End run, Icke had Orestes recount what he experienced after the end of the Trojan War to a therapist, in a move so inappropriate that even the Guardian called it “neurotic”. In the adaptation’s New York run this summer, Agamemnon was a selfish politician making cynical remarks to a television journalist about how difficult democracy is — despite the fact that the play was set in a pre-democratic era. The adaptation has been dubbed a “masterpiece”.

Most astonishingly, every reference to Greek gods was gone: in their place, Agamemnon, the infamously selfish and infinitely brave antihero of Greek epic, was talking about how his religion “helped” him cope and how he wished he could spend more time with his family. At his trial, Orestes protested that people who’ve been hurt in turn harm others. Yes: the leading British theatrical talent of our day has taken Aeschylus’s timeless and unsurpassed poetry about divine prophecy and replaced it with pabulum about how “hurt people hurt people”.

Taken together, these terrible cultural offerings reveal the unrestricted seepage of cut-rate therapy and its wooden jargon into the very furthest reaches of history. The past has been terrorised and defused, and audiences no longer, apparently, are considered adult enough to consider events without a pre-packaged trauma narrative to delineate who’s good and who’s bad. The gigolo must be sad; Dolemite must be wounded; and even the House of Atreus must be analysed with all the subtlety of an Instagram self-care post explaining “PTSD”.

The impact is palpable: in a major way, the purpose of art is to show that a past existed, and that it was different from the present. These bowlderised and ham-fisted revisits brainwash viewers into a terribly misleading idea: art has always been one way, as has psychology, as has politics, as has religion, as has everything. “Source material” is less marshalled into new interpretations, more colonised into uniformity. It is a sad day when Julian Kay, Dolemite and Agamemnon somehow all have precisely the same thing to say: “I’m in a lot of pain, and I’m sorry!”