Saturday, August 22, 2015

181. US director John Cassavetes’ “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” (1976) based on his own original script: A creditable tale about entertainment, ambitions, and reality

I won't call my work entertainment. It's exploring. It's asking questions of people, constantly. 'How much do you feel? How much do you know? Are you aware of this? Can you cope with this?' A good movie will ask you questions you don't already know the answers to. Why would I want to make a film about something I already understand? 
There is no reason why a serious film, one about life, can't be enjoyable, maybe even fun. Emotions can be very entertaining, you know. I try to use them generously in my films.

                                                              --John Cassavetes, on his own films

If this critic were asked to list his favourite US filmmakers, the first would be Orson Welles, the second Terrence Malick, and the third John Cassavetes. And while each work of Cassavetes as a film director is admirable, his The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a wee bit more fascinating than the rest.

The late John Cassavetes was an amazing man.  First, he arrived in the world of  cinema playing impressive roles in front of the camera, specifically in three films: Martin Ritt’s Edge of the City (1957), Don Siegel’s The Killers (1964), and Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967). He proved that he could act and be remembered for his performances, big and small.

Cosmo (Ben Gazzara). in his limousine, at the height of his success

Then Cassavetes, the director, came into focus of film viewers—a man committed to making films that portrayed reality without interference from the big studios that often lead to artistic compromises. Cassavetes carefully ploughed back what he earned as compensation for his acting in front of the camera to make his own independent films, based on his original screenplays in which he would often be behind the camera both as director and un-credited cinematographer. He even handled the distribution of his films. The big Hollywood studios had little or no role in his films.

Each Cassavetes film proved to be different and it is not easy to find out why he chose to write the script of each work, so distinct, so original, and so honest.  Cassavetes soon established himself as a notable American director, arguably in the league of the immensely talented Orson Welles. Like Welles, Cassavetes was an actor, a director and his own original screenplay writer. And unlike Welles who had proved his genius on the radio waves, on the stage and in cinema, Cassavetes was focussed solely on cinema; one that projected reality and not make believe. His films captured emotions and subtle human interactions of ordinary Americans, often including morally upright losers. The spoken lines were often improvised in his films. The plot mattered less than the irony of situations and human reactions to each situation.   He was the epitome of the independent filmmaker in USA. Moreover, his cinema importantly side-stepped even covert racism—all human beings were equal socially and politically in the cinema of Cassavetes (most obvious in his debut film Shadows and later in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie). His love for cinema was so great that he entirely reshot Shadows, initially made in 1958 and appreciated by critic-cum-filmmaker Jonas Mekas, replacing the improvised dialogue with a proper script. His commitment to making honest cinema even forced him to hypothecate his home as collateral for monetary loans to first make and then distribute his films independently to movie halls without big studios to back him.

Cosmo: A good man trapped and alone with a gambling debt

Why is The Killing of a Chinese Bookie Cassavetes’ best work? Many viewers might find the movie to be below average cinema, especially if they go by the title and expect to see a noir gangster film.  But The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is not a typical gangster film, though it does include a killing and is a tale that involves gangsters.  More than a gangster film it is a bleak tale of a strip club owner called Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara), who has clawed his way to the top of his personal goal to fulfil his dream of running a club that is financially viable and debt free. Cosmo Vitelli introduces himself thus:  “I'm a club owner. I deal in girls”. Notably Vitelli is not racist, he is closest to a black family.

Vitelli and the real life Cassavetes are people with their own personal visions of dedication to providing  entertainment and are honest individuals who apply a moral code to their actions.
Both the character Cosmo Vitelli in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and the director Cassavetes in real life love to control what they dish out as entertainment.  Says Cosmo Vitelli to the patrons at his club  "Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Sophistication and his De-lovlies will be along in a moment. My name is Cosmo Vitelli; I’m the owner of this joint, I choose the numbers, I direct them, I arrange them. You have any complaints you just come to me and I’ll throw you right out on your ass.” The entire plot of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and the very name of the Club in the film, “Crazy Horse West” are evident metaphors for the director Cassavetes’ own struggles for his own dream of making his own films the way he wanted without compromises where he is in complete control over all the details of his films, just as Vitelli is in control of “Crazy Horse West.”  The fictional Vitelli and the real Cassavetes have parallel objectives and yet do differ.

Cosmo, an honorable man, always pays off his debts 

Vitelli achieved his life’s ambition of owning a successful debt –free club, having his club’s star ladies accompany him publicly, travelling in a limousine with a well-attired chauffeur, and doling out gifts to those who helped him reach those heights of “style.” In the film, he corrects his chauffeur Lamarr that he, Vitelli, now has “Style, not class.” At the height of his success, Cosmo Vitelli  boasts “I've got a golden life. Got the world by the balls. That's right, I'm great... I am amazing.”

Those familiar with literature would pick up the familiar signals of hubris at this juncture in the film. When there is hubris, there is a fall that follows. Vitelli’s fatal flaw is gambling. At the peak of his achievements, he borrows $23,000 from gangsters to pay off a gambling loss.  And his life, unlike that of the real life Cassavetes, spirals downwards because Vitelli is a man of honour and will pay back his debts as he has always done before while retaining ownership of his Club.

Mr Sophistication (Meade Roberts), entertains at the club,
without sophistication, as Cosmo wills it

Cassavetes is very clear about one fact: his film is not about the gangsters who twist Vitelli’s arm to kill a Chinese bookie to pay off his $23,000 debt, his film is about Cosmo Vitelli, his love for his dream strip club, and his steadfast desire to pay off his debts, as required. He is not a killer, but he can kill if he has been driven to do so. Even while going about his killing assignment, he stops at a pay phone to enquire about his club’s affairs and sorts out a minor problem by a singing a song over the phone.  The killing is less important to Cosmo Vitelli than his club working well. Thus those who are looking for a typical noir film or an action gangster film will be disappointed.  The gangsters are seen minimally but never emphasized. For Cassavetes, the film is not about the killing but all about Cosmo Vitelli reaching his life’s aspirations and then having to lose it all—all for a game of cards.

There is more to The Killing of a Chinese Bookie than what meets the eye. Cosmo Vitelli’s club is often playing the song "I can't give you anything but love." At the end of the film you hear the song again. Cosmo Vitelli’s life is embodied in those words. He had given that love indirectly to his employees in his cloaked speech of the inevitable end when he said with a grin and a swagger while a bullet was still lodged in his body: “ ‘cause what's your truth... is my falsehood.  What's my falsehood is your truth and vice versa. Well, look. Look at me, right? I'm only happy when I'm angry... when I'm sad, when I can play the fool... when I can be what people want me to be rather than be myself.” Cosmo Vitelli’s last contrasting statements in the film follow in the same vein: "I’ve never felt better in my life,” followed by “I don’t feel too hot.” 

An important aspect of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is its deliberate avoidance of glorifying the bad guys and reducing on-screen conversation of the gangsters to the minimum. The discomforting film is not about a killing or about gangsters, but rather a film about an honest achiever, who loses everything due to a fatal tragic flaw in his character. What happened to Cosmo Vitelli at his peak of his success could happen to the best of us. Cosmo Vitelli is a loser, as most characters in a Cassavetes film are. With all his flaws and even as a killer, Cosmo Vitelli emerges as a good man and an anti-hero. Cassavetes leaves it to the perceptive viewer to imagine what is not shown. He was not bothered if a viewer misconstrued the lack of unnecessary details for a lack of quality or capability. It is a rare American film director who can do that in every film he makes.

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