The Killing of a Chinese Bookie - John Cassavetes USA - 1976 - Ben Gazzara
Viewed Side Cinema 27 November 2005 Ticket price £3-50
From the death of a salesman to the killing of a chinese bookie it’s all a blur….
America’s trip to the theatre of the absurd.
John Cassavetes(JC) did not make films because he was paid to do it. He wasn’t making films with that sort of arrangement. The reverse is true - he paid to make his films even if they cost him everything and he had no illusions about the likelihood of them ever making money. His films represent a pure form of output rare in cinema and he is amongst a small group of film makers each of whose films answer to a specific intent. Each film that is made by JC has its point.
The killing of a Chinese bookie is an extraordinary film in which JC has a complete grasp of his chosen genre and filmic form and a certainty as to how to subvert the conventions that he has adapted as his expressive vehicle.
The genre that JC chooses (fronted with a stunning performance by Ben Gazzara as Cosmo Vitelli) is the gangster movie. Certainly after Coppola has had done with it the gangster genre in US cinema becomes a little more than parody, a mechanical exercise in visual cliché and violence allowing lazy directors to lay claim to all sorts of spurious meaning in their output.
JC plays the gangster genre as a spoof to undermine itself. But JC moves beyond this re-active impulse to make use of the genre and the material it releases as a means of pointing straight at the soft underbelly of the American dream. From the Nixon presidency onwards America was transforming itself into the theatre of the absurd, a grotesque Ubuesque spectacle. And who now gazing on the spectacle of the US led invasion of Iraq would not acknowledge that JC as a seer saw it right? JC film maker of the absurd has moved from Salesman Willie Lomax to Night Club owner Cosmo Vitelli, from the pathos of the Salesman to the bathos of Cosmo. Where once the American dream was to sell dreams now the American dream is to consume the dream. The Dream becomes a Dream of dreaming and we are lost in the Dream and the Dream loses us.
In the world of the ‘absurd’ from the players point of view nothing is unusual or wrong. Everything seems quite natural and as it should be. In the world of the absurd the players accept the rules and connections of absurdity as a given condition - they are not aware of any other possible world. Even in the trapped world Arthur Miller creates for Willie Lomax his salesman has some level of self-insight some degree of awareness; Cosmo Vitelli the night club owner(the night club is always called ‘the joint’; ‘I’m the owner of this joint’ - sic) has nothing neither insight nor self awareness. Cosmo lives the blur. He lives out a fantasies from the world of movies and popular song which he projects onto his club. He lives out the disconnections of his existence as if they were connected. Ultimately it doesn’t matter because so does everyone else: the US has become a culture of the absurd without real connection between cause and effect; the connections are all projections of the banality of wish fulfillment.
The heart, the very core of the film is the night club with its floor show. The film revolves around the fantasy of this modern expression of Utopia. An interior world of the night dedicated to escape - and for your delight and delectation a show with beautiful girls and an ugly performing MC (Hollywood Fosse recipe) In the central sequence of the night club, the floor show Mr Sophistication, the MC performs a version of ‘I can’t give you anything but love…’ whilst the showgirls dance against the backcloth of an exotic location and posture like string puppets and flash titty. The floor show is terrible. Its unbelievably very bad. Not just tatty or just tacky but lousy. Its a poorly performed and executed. It is a mechanically contrived hand-me-down facsimile of whatever it is it’s supposed to be modeled on.(Caberet?) As is, in fact, the actual reality in this type of ‘joint’. Cassavetes doesn’t give it the Hollywood pazazz make-over. And in the film nobody notices: neither Cosmo, nor the performers not the audience. The show girls dress and pose with the conventional outward trappings of an accessible sexuality. The high cut of the costumes and linear demarcation of the tights and boots draws the gaze of the eye to their cunts and tits and with the eye in thrall to the conventions of available sex, audience projection does the rest. The reality is: Mr Sophistication is dead: the girls are dead and asexual: it’s a floor show for zombies by zombies. Cosmo’s dream is that he believes he has created something that gives something a glimpse of happiness to people’s lives. The reality is he gives the audience death, and of course he gives the Chinese Bookie death. It is all he has to give. The floor show bleeds over life in the same way as Cosmo’s wound bleeds over his white shirt.
In the last long sequence of the film(before the final shot where Cosmo exits the club to stand out in the street) we see and hear Mr Sophistication sing what becomes the films leitmotif ‘I can’t give you anything but love baby…’ The way it is sung and delivered and filmed the song feels more like, ‘I can’t give you anything but death baby…’ The audience love it. The floor show is central to the movie because it highlights the confusion between reality fantasy and filmic projection that is becoming essential to understanding America. A country that has lost the ability to distinguish life and death.
Emotionally from his guts JC believed in the close up - in the big close up. The face for instance: that the face is the affect per excellence through which every thing can be expressed - not specifically about individuals but about their milieu and their culture. Faces for JC are not interesting if they are only an individualised melodramatic affect: to be interesting faces for JC have to move into the realm of cultural currency or universalism.
In Chinese Bookie although the close up of the face or faces is still an important as part of the filmic language, the close up shot of face loses the explosive intensity it accumulates in earlier films. The filmic articulation of the absurd is interaction of the blur with the long shot. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a blur. A big close up of the blur. The film is shot - not every shot of course - as a blur of reality. Characteristic shots are pans across the midriffs of the club performers, shots into the lights, shots out of focus. Life as a blur. Cassavetes fills his frames - particularly the club sequences as an inert gaseous blur: the frames possess none of the latent explosive volatility of Faces or Shadows. But out of the gaseous core of the movie, out of the blurred hazy atmosphere of the joint, comes a hallucinogenic clarity, life as a dream. Even the Chinese Bookie as he looks directly at Cosmo at the moment before he is shot looks as he thinks what is happening is unreal.
In The killing of the Chinese Bookie the series of sequences that comprise the Cosmo’s quest to kill the bookie, have a dream like quality - perhaps it is a dream of sorts. The instructions he is given by the gangsters are absurd, as if ripped from a demented fairy tale. Item: Cosmo abandons his stalled car in the middle of a freeway, then turns back remembering something. He walks across back across the busy murderous freeway to the car in order to leave the bonnet up and open which the conventional manner of marking a vehicle as broken down. Image: The car now sits in the outer lane of the freeway with its bonnet up cars hurtling past it narrowly avoiding collision with it at the last moment. But all is well. Its bonnet is up. Cosmo is in a dream world. Whilst waiting for the cab that he has ordered to drive him to the house of the Chinese Bookie, he calls his club to find out how the floor show is going. The problem is that the barman who he calls who has worked at the club for 9 years has never noticed there is a floor show in the club. Cosmo finds the conversation strange. It is his hallucination.
With the Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Cassavetes combines form structure and content to describe the USA. JC creates an enclosed world comprising of interior space. Exteriors have become either passage ways to different structures or parking lots mere adjuncts to buildings. Interior spaces define the horizon and contours of this world, spaces that are essentially plastic and like the night club can be molded or reformulated to fit any current fantasy. The natural world, the world of the American range have been forgotten. The exterior world has receded: once on the sound track we hear a news bulletin about Israel’s foreign secretary tinkling in the background like something that must have been imagined.
adrin neatrour 30 November 2005