Lean on Greek Pete: Andrew Haigh and Capitalism

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Lean on <i>Greek Pete</i>: Andrew Haigh and Capitalism

You can’t accuse director and writer Andrew Haigh of being apolitical. Couched in the steep hills of the San Francisco of Looking, in the foggy town near Norwich in 45 Years and in the English midlands—the sparsely populated gay bar and the homey kitchens—of Weekend is a thoughtful rumination about class and how that fundamentally shapes the trajectory of our lives. Even if one categorizes Weekend as his most romantic work, the best to watch on a date or something, the entire film is predicated on working class white gay men talking about what it means to be a working class white gay man, and how to situate oneself in the rapidly changing queer politic. Haigh’s considerations of marriage and assimilation resonate and prod even more so now, at least in the United States (where equal marriage was passed in 2015), than it did upon the film’s original premiere in 2010 at the SXSW Film Festival. Class, in fact, is a stark element of Haigh’s newest film, Lean on Pete, to the degree that the film’s lead character, Charley (Charlie Plummer), bounces around different class statuses. But Haigh has always been aware of class and how it affects people: It’s been in his work since his first feature, Greek Pete.

Haigh’s borderline social realist aesthetic—meaning: few cuts, zoom lenses, almost always focusing on working-class characters living their lives sans artifice but nonetheless conjuring a kind of intimacy between subject and viewer—can be traced back to Greek Pete being a nonfiction film. Following escort Pete Pittaros and his career as a sex worker in London, Haigh is as interested in observing Pete without interference as he is in crafting a narrative around him. “Who is this for?” Pete asks in the opening scene while we watch him doff his clothing in slow motion. His guess is as good as ours, as Haigh blurs lines of autonomy and objectification.

Pete is frank in his aspirations, his reasons for becoming a sex worker. “I want to make loads of money,” he tells a trick in his modest apartment. “This seemed like the easiest way.” The film begins when Pete is only six months into his escort work. He looks into a bathroom mirror and talks about his desire to live in a big house, borne out of his childhood embarrassment of his family’s small home (he says that he and his two siblings shared one room), an envy of others, a fatigue from that jealousy and a frustration at sleeping on floors. Haigh frames the scene so that Pete looks like he’s telling himself this, reaffirming his aspirations, looking back at himself. In a way, it’s a desire for basic need: space, happiness. Yet this monologue about why he escorts and his relationship to money quickly shifts into Pete practicing or rehearsing the dirty talk he’ll use on a client.

Pete has no illusions over what he is, or what his job is: “You’re packaging. You’re like a product.” He does a photoshoot wearing a leather uniform. He preens his RentBoy profile.

As Pete talks about his family life, one comes to understand how pathological the struggle to reconcile or situate oneself in one’s class is. Pete tells the camera about how his mother would constantly worry about what other people thought of the family, how embarrassed he became of other people coming over to visit him as a kid. When he finally gets the apartment he’s dreamed of, after garnering an award (RentBoy’s Escort of the Year), there’s an emptiness to the space.

The relationship between Pete and fellow escort Kai (which may or may not be real) is structured like that of a romantic dramedy: They balance a domestic life with that of a sex worker. Pete shakes Kai awake, telling him that he has to work today, but it’s Kai who has to leave because Pete’s bedroom is his work space. He suggests Kai should work and save up money instead of spending it all, and Pete’s somewhat paternalistic nature and compulsive relationship to earning/spending money becomes more and more apparent. They get into arguments about money, about housing, about security. Haigh doesn’t stress that it’s sex workers having this conversation, as if to better illustrate the basic idea that, oh, “sex workers are people to,” but he does understand how the velocity of their careers generally affects their attitude towards money, domesticity and class. Pete goes on to win Escort of the Year, and Kai, as we’re told, doesn’t save his money and battles drug addiction.

Made over a few years, and released in 2009, Greek Pete feels almost like a time capsule: Before the fall of RentBoy in 2015 and the deletion of the personals on Craigslist recently (their section for escorts was shuttered in 2015), Haigh comfortably profiles an escort as he negotiates money, clients and a relationship. Greek Pete is able to function as both a character study and as a glimpse into what escorting looked like for one person only less than a decade ago. Haigh doesn’t so much judge Pete as he seems to pity Pete’s money frustrations.

As sex workers’ rights, in the United States and the UK, are under threat with each passing day, one wonders how Pete’s career has changed since the film; movies about sex work are almost exclusively made as alarmist exposés (see: Hot Girls Wanted). Greek Pete is a portrait of sex work before the gig economy, before OnlyFans (a service like Patreon where you can post content and where users can subscribe), and perhaps one of the few remaining nonjudgmental peeks into how sex workers interact with capitalism. Moreover, it’s a film that works as an encapsulation for Andrew Haigh’s obsessions: masculinity, time and, throughout it all, class.