Vested Interest – ‘My Hustler’

by Luise Mörke

“I could introduce you to people… interesting people,” Ed Hood’s character in My Hustler (1965) promises the object of his desire (Paul America) in exchange for continuing their transactional relationship. The people Ed is referring to likely stem from his upper class circles. We can imagine that he will take Paul to lavish soirées and swanky parties, where one basks in the glow of his company’s youthful beauty and the other makes use of the opportunities that open up to the invited few.

Interesting people are the bait that Ed throws out to Paul, hoping to stimulate his social aspirations; they are the currency with which he intends to pay for his time and company. The prospect of a future spent in exciting company stands in contrast to the present that My Hustler portrays: rather than inspiring encounters and stimulating conversations, the film lets us in on two dragged-out and rather boring scenes. Ed spends the first half hour hanging out on the deck of his beach house, half engaged in a conversation that circulates around Paul’s desirability. Every now and then, he and his conversation partners Joe and Genevieve look up from their drinks to comment on whatever Paul is doing, whether that’s lounging in the sand or walking towards the shoreline. Ed, who wears a striped sport coat and sunglasses, exudes a listless languor akin to those earlier dandies, who “fashioned sophistication’s signature style out of the cloth of ennui.”1 Later, we see Joe and Paul shaving and washing in a small bathroom while they discuss high school football, dental hygiene and the economic intricacies of working as a hustler. The cocktail- and shower steam-suffused lull of these scenes leaves plenty of space for an intoxicating amalgam of boredom and eroticism to arise,2 an atmosphere thick with unfulfilled and unfulfillable longing. It seems that Paul is merely the object around which this mood coagulates.


Two attempts at definition

Desire: Expending yourself. Give over freely, for free. 

Interest: Expanding yourself. An investment in the future, betting on the right horse. A very economical sentiment.


As a minimally descriptive judgment, ‘interesting’ is more or less devoid of content: the only thing it says about the thing or person in question is that they might be worth a further investment of time. Sianne Ngai points out that ‘interesting’ contains a futurity, since the speaker hopes to gain a newly enlarged consciousness through the encounter with the interesting object. She concludes, via her readings of Schlegel and Husserl, that “interest […] thus has an intimate relation to the futurity of progressive ego individuation.”3 The trouble with this forward-pulling force: it doesn’t stop. What is interesting can always be more interesting; the consciousness of the individual constituted in the encounter with “something more interesting than ourselves” can, at least in theory, expand ad infinitum.4

And so one gets tied up in a never ending series where each thing is more interesting than the next and then, slowly or all of a sudden, what was once exciting joins the indifferent mass of sameness. Ngai quotes Schlegel:

“With every pleasure the desires become only more violent; with every allowance the demands rise ever higher, and the hopes for final satisfaction become ever more distant. The new becomes old; the unusual becomes common; the frisson of what is charming becomes dull. With its own power and artistic drive diminished, languid receptivity subsides into an appalling impotence.”5

Note how easily language slips into sexual metaphors and an implicit judgment of how sexuality should be (potent, driven, creative). Schlegel warns: if one pursues the interesting too fervently, boredom will set in. Creative virility will eventually wane and give way to a purely receptive passivity, an ‘appalling’ impotence.

We must credit Warhol — his painted newspaper headlines, screen printed soup cans, Brillo boxes, terribly long and repetitive movies — with moving away from an art that must birth something new and thus mirror the ostensibly natural cycle of human creation, with inhabiting an ‘appalling’ impotence and selling it to a market that usually desires the new, the exciting, the interesting.


All desire and no interest – that is the Ed we meet over the course of My Hustler (though he knows to throw out the bait of ‘interesting’ encounters to Paul, who cannot afford to disentangle from the Tit for Tat economy). He knows that profound boredom is the interesting’s favorite bedfellow. A morbid stance to take, perhaps. Or a deadpan response to a profoundly moribund world. 


Notes

  1. Jeff Nunokawa, “The Importance of Being Bored. The Dividends of Ennui in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’,” Studies in the Novel 28, no. 3 (Fall 1996), 358.

  2. Nude Restaurant and Blow Job come to mind as other Warhol films with a similar effect. Damon R. Young writes: “Warhol, finally, understood that the boredom and eroticism of the medium are not distinct, and he anticipated an erotic-bored, oscillating mode of spectatorship that has now acquired its correlative technologies. (Reality television, which he arguably invented, would be one of its genres.)” (Damon R. Young, “The Vicarious Look, or Andy Warhol’s Apparatus Theory,” in Film Criticism 39, no. 2 (Winter 2014-15), 44.)

  3.  Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories. Zany, Cute, Interesting (Cambridge, MA/London: Harvard University Press, 2012), 129.

  4.  cf. ibid. 122.

  5.  Friedrich Schlegel, On the Study of Greek Philosophy, trans. and ed. Stuart Barnett (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001), 20-21. Quoted in Ngai, 123.

Luise Mörke lives in Berlin and is currently a graduate student in art history at Humboldt University. As a teenager, she once provocatively declared that she liked movies more than books. Today she tries to speak less absolutely, but still spends a lot of her time watching, writing and thinking about film. Updates on current writing and other projects can usually be found on Instagram @luise_moerke.

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