Playing the Whore - Baby, There's No Other Superstar: POSTCARDS FROM LONDON
Playing the Whore, which takes its name from Melissa Gira Grant's book on sex work and policy Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work, is a new column examining and surveying queer sex work in film, from Bruce LaBruce to Chantal Akerman. Playing the Whore seeks to interrogate ideas of power, eroticism, desire, capital, artifice, performance, pornography, politics, and film.
“Tell me, my love / am I enough / when you look at me?”
Those sweet words float in the air after Jim (Harris Dickinson) has fainted after seeing Titian’s The Temptation of Christ, after reaching out to it like something familiar and overwhelming, his fall to the ground sudden, like an angel as meteorite ready to crash. He will be diagnosed with Stendhal syndrome, a psychosomatic condition where the subject experiences changes in their physiological system when they encounter great beauty. He will move from Essex to London. He will fall into a cluster of specialized sex workers, sex workers whose product isn’t sex exactly, but the tête-à-tête of intellectual conversation. Their clients are well to do eggheads that love talking about art, film, and culture. For them, beauty is an idea of Thomas Mannian proportions, and in Steve McLean’s stylized, almost out of time Postcards from London, whether beauty and the notoriety that can be gained from possessing it, is the business. And business is booming.
This column has covered queer sex work in a number of ways, and the issue of capital has thus far been fairly straight forward: either more explicit, grounded monetary terms or the more abstract, conceptual approach of power exchange. We have addressed beauty somewhat nominally, but beauty as social or monetary capital is also fairly obvious. In the neon, nearly Brechtian Soho of McClean’s film, these boys don’t just possess beauty, they emulate a very particular idea of beauty. Dickinson in particular has the kind of Platonic ideal of masculinity that is reminiscent of great Baroque artists like Caravaggio. In fact, he recreates several of Caravaggio’s work, both on purpose and in hallucination. What’s so unique about that?
Postcards from London is, if not a critique exactly, at least an interrogation of how formative very classical images of masculine beauty have shaped modern gay and queer male desire. Dickinson’s torso could easily be found on the grid on a gay cruising or dating app, but it’s explicitly recontextualized and framed as, say, St. Sebastian, arrows piercing his skin (not really) in reenactment for a client. Though Guido Reni painted The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian in 1616, fixation on masochism, sacrifice, eroticized vulnerability, and a midriff on which sweat or oil could cool and slide off of with ease and elegance still occupies contemporary queer male cultural imagination and standards. Dickinson’s cream-colored is little different on screen to the oils used on Caravaggio's The Conversion of Saint Paul, and though it’s Jim who has been transported through time (at least in his head), the film suggests a closing the gap in proximity between the 1600s and now, inasmuch of what beauty we value and how.
Without being condescending, the film does question how we consume beauty. Though training Jim to be the thinking man’s sex worker who is literate in Fassbinder and Titian, he is called upon to reenact the paintings he finds overwhelming beautiful, he is called upon to be someone’s muse, and he is effectively asked to perform the ultimate beauty of himself. When he first meets the gang of bibliophilic prostitutes, they’re behind lit booths, framed both ironically as at your service, but also in a kind of portraiture. They, too, present and perform versions of ideal beauty, which then become the ultimate beauty of themselves, linked inextricably to the past.
There’s a certain question of the costumery of beauty, not only the question of beauty itself, but the idea of putting it on. Even as the leader of the pack suggests that intimacy is what the sexy boys raconteurs sell, a sort of “boyfriend experience” as it were, that, too, is not only a role, but an emulation. They recall the names of Keanu Reeves, River Phoenix, and Joe Dallesandro, men who, too, have played the role that Jim plays, making reference to My Own Private Idaho and The Boys in the Band, two films, too, about the costumery of intimacy as beauty. The explicit invocation of those names and suggestion of those films, again, suggests a kind of dress up, where it’s not only a vague supposition of sex and desire, but version of desire that was made famous by someone else. That effectively doing an impersonation of someone else’s eroticism is the product is a curious and worthwhile assertion with regard to the way that queer men shape themselves to be desirable more broadly.
That images of male beauty, from the Baroque period to the New Queer Cinema, have proliferated in a queer cultural imagination hones in on an idea that, not unlike Hegel’s The Phenomenology of the Spirit, a dialectical relationship with the conscious and self-consciousness in the pursuit of beauty and desire is basically self-destructive, or at least the kind of thing that gets one stuck in a time loop of sorts, a habit of beauty. One creates oneself in the mold and image of other objects one desires, like getting your hair cut to look like James Dean. And since much of gay desire is predicated on envy, what the presentation of iconographic representations of beauty suggests is a self-immolatory streak into an unreachable fame. Essentially, reenacting the beauty of someone whose fame was based in beauty is an alternate death drive; the consumption of fame and beauty is finite, incestuous, and self-destructive. As aforementioned, Harris Dickinson’s Jim reenacting Saint Sebastian as a form of ultimate beauty is reaffirming that he, himself, is the ultimate beauty.
Well, Postcards from London never becomes so morbid as that, but it does at least hint at many of these ideas as existing in a world where male beauty is a Russian nesting doll: not exactly unique, but kind of a copy of a copy of a copy, even if it’s in human form. There’s an impossibility of merging “I” and “Thou” if the beauty that they/we seek is so connected to a kind of beauty queer men are socialized to believe is beautiful in the first place: white, slim, muscular, etc. It’s this obsession that makes it feel like when Eros met Thanatos. So many of the artworks that are featured in the film are about death and dying, and even if they depict someone in ecstasy, one is reminded that a colloquial term for an orgasm is “La petite mort”.
Kyle Turner is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, NY. He is a contributor to Paste Magazine, and his work has been featured in The New York Times, The Village Voice, Playboy, Brooklyn Magazine, Slate, and Esquire. His work focuses on identity and issues of queerness and race. He is relieved to know that he is not a golem.