Greek Pete (2009) — British Rituals of Displacement and Avoidance
Andrew Haigh’s debut film Greek Pete is neither particularly novel nor particular striking. Set in the world of London’s gay escort scene, the film is a scripted drama inspired by the lives of its non-professional actors and shot in a pseudo-documentary style. In other words, it’s a hybrid piece similar to Jersey Shore and The Only Way is Essex albeit with somewhat less theatricality and spray-on tan.
Having watched Greek Pete, I almost decided not to write about it but it occurs to me that while the film’s themes and characters are never quite as interesting as they needed to be, the film actually reveals quite a lot about Haigh’s interests, methods, and the quintessentially British way in which he approaches drama. This makes Greek Pete almost a textbook example of an immature work that is only of historical interest given the quality of the work that would follow it.
The film begins by establishing the nature of the world in which its characters operate: Bleak, depressing and extraordinarily unsafe, gay sex work appears to be something that you enter into almost by accident. Many of the characters talk about being sexually assaulted and offered money for sex while still children and the impression you get is that these are people who are still living the lives they lived as teenaged runaways except that selling themselves allows them to buy nicer clothes and gain more reliable access to drugs. The character of Greek Pete is something of an exception to this rule as he comes across as extraordinarily ambitious and is organised enough to have moved on from couch-surfing to professional photoshoots and paying rent on a central London apartment that allows him to receive paying customers at a discrete location.
What Haigh manages to communicate really well is the sense that Pete is only a moment’s inattention away from his couch-surfing friends. Despite Pete investing in better locations and better promotional materials, the amount he charges clients is exactly the same as his less professional peers. This implies that the real difference between low-rent boys and high-rent boys is the amount of clients they can attract and keep. Haigh underlines the precariousness of Pete’s situation by making it clear that while he may be ambitious and have a proper work-ethic, his lifestyle is ultimately not all that different to that of his friends. As Pete says, he just wants to make money and save but he’s been doing the job for a couple of years and hasn’t yet managed to put aside any money.
Though well realised, there is nothing particularly new or interesting about Haigh’s depictions of the sex trade. Sure, it’s interesting that there appears to be a ceiling on the amount that people are willing to pay for sex and it’s interesting that many people drift into sex-work as a way of monetising an existing lifestyle but suggesting that this is quite a bleak way to earn a living is really nothing new. Bleak as fuck sex work may well be, but is it really all that different to the poorly paid jobs that most people work? These days most people seem to be a run of bad luck away from couch-surfing and where does most people’s money go if not on rent, food, and stuff to take your mind off the bleakness of existence?
The most interesting thing about Greek Pete is the way that it depicts the evolving relationship between Greek Pete and his real-world boyfriend LondonBoyKai. Kai is one of the afore-mentioned couch-surfers who use sex work to acquire money that allows them to go to night clubs and take drugs. Right from the start, we can see the difference between Pete’s professionalism and Kai’s consummate amateurism but the chemistry between the two guys is also incredibly manifest and seems to prefigure the combination of attraction and ideological opposition that fuels Haigh’s second film.
As in Weekend, the connection between Kai and Pete is too mercurial to articulate and so they sort of drift into seeing each other until their different philosophies force them to discuss why and how they are going to stay together. The big difference between Weekend and Greek Pete is that the thing keeping the couple apart in Greek Pete is obvious and generic (Kai isn’t comfortable with Pete enjoying his job) whereas the barrier to love in Weekend is a lot more complex and grounded in a combination of personality, ideology and the character of gay identities that people are expected to perform as part of their membership in the London gay scene.
Watching Greek Pete it also occurred to me that while Greek Pete and Weekend are about trying to confront and articulate the thing that keeps a couple together, 45 Years is all about recognising and coming to terms with the things that give you reason to break up.
Much like Weekend and 45 Years, Greek Pete progresses by exploring the spaces around important conversations. There’s something singularly British about the way that Haigh’s films reject the myth of the big, air-clearing arguments that have dominated American film for the last hundred years. I may have led a sheltered existence but I’m not sure that British people ever actually respond to relationship difficulties by breaking down in tears and shrieking “YOU JUST DON’T GET IT, DO YOU?!” at each other.
Andrew Haigh’s Britain is one where people speak in codes and deal with disagreement through a form of ritualised emotional signalling that minimises the need for direct confrontation over important matters. Characters bottle up their negative feelings and wait until they encounter a completely trivial issue over which they have the upper hand, so rather than arguing about the fact that your relationship has become a loveless husk, people argue about someone’s taste in tea-sets (Weekend), the decision to resume smoking (45 Years) and stomping about the flat while one of them is trying to work (Greek Pete). Whenever people do find themselves in a conversation about the state of their relationship, they will simply agree with each other and wait until the conversation is over before deciding whether or not the other person is being reasonable. For example, when Kai confronts Pete about his escort work, Pete calmly explains that it’s just about the money and Kai agrees with him and the matter seems closed until Pete winds up ranting to one of his clients about how unreasonable and destructive his boyfriend’s behaviour has become. We don’t get to see the behaviour in question but it is quite obvious that the conversation has either made Pete more sensitive to what he doesn’t like about Kai or Kai has started taking more drugs and partying a lot harder in response to Pete’s growing success as an escort.
All of Haigh’s films feature these wonderfully British rituals of displacement and avoidance:
- In Weekend, the couple talk around the fact that they have fallen in love and really need to think about building a life together.
- In 45 Years, the couple talk around the fact that their entire relationship has been a lie as one of them never got over the loss of a previous lover.
- In Greek Pete, the couple talk around the tension between being a sex worker and being someone’s loving and devoted partner.
Another interesting aspect of the film with echoes in Weekend is the amount of sexual content packed into a 70-minute film. It’s not just that Pete spends a lot of the time posing or that we frequently see it when Pete gets his cock out, it’s that Haigh chooses to include a number of quite graphic sex scenes. Now… I am aware that people like me often feel obliged to comment on the sexual content of gay films in a way that they don’t feel obliged to comment when the people having sex include at least one woman. For the record, I actually quite liked the way that the film’s sex scenes seemed to echo the combination of sexiness and bleakness that defines the emotional contours of the film. There’s one specific shot that perfectly captures the film’s sexual vibe and it’s an image of Pete sitting on a pub pool table wearing nothing but a pair of white pants and a slightly quizzical expression.
I mention the film’s sexual content for two reasons:
Firstly, it’s a really good way of working out whether or not a critic is a complete arsehole. An arsehole will flinch from any depiction of gay sexuality and immediately describe the work in question as pornography. The following example is from a review of a fantasy novel with a gay protagonist:
Now I am as broad-minded as they come, but I felt the incessant bombardment of gratuitous, hardcore, gay pornography intrusive to my enjoyment of the novel.
The following is from Toby “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People” Young’s review of Greek Pete, which appeared in the Times in 2009:
It’s basically a porn movie, though with slightly more developed characters than normal. It should do well on DVD in the video emporia of Old Compton Street, but don’t expect it to light up the multiplexes in Romford.
I found this on Rotten Tomatoes and when you click the link, it takes you to a completely different review on the Times website. Funny that.
Secondly, there’s a moment in Weekend when one of the characters says that the only reason gay men go to see gay films is on the off chance of seeing a bit of cock. As someone who has been reviewing LGBT films for a while now, I do find it amusing that films released under the rubric of ‘gay cinema’ will inevitably have a shirtless man on cover of the DVD. In fact, the DVD I got was released by Peccadillo Pictures and it features a hot pink background as well as screengrabs from the film’s few sex scenes along with a prominent image of Pete in his little white pants. Do we maybe think that the rant in Weekend might have been inspired by the way distributors handled the release of Greek Pete?
Greek Pete is neither particularly interesting nor particularly original but it does contain the DNA of the director that Andrew Haigh would later become and as such, it is a quite a good film to watch if you are looking to get a better understanding of one of Britain’s most promising directors.