Sunday, November 01, 2015

186. US directors Frank Perry’s and Sydney Pollack’s “The Swimmer” (1968): Social satire on the typical WASP US male, an abstract morality tale, rewinding in time, presented with intelligence, rarely encountered in Hollywood cinema

Short stories have made interesting feature films. In the UK, short-story writer Alan Sillitoe adapted his short story The Loneliness of the Long-distance Runner into a film screenplay to make a film classic—Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long-distance Runner (1962). A few years later, in USA, John Cheever’ s short story published in 1964 (in the New Yorker magazine) was made into a 1968 Hollywood  film directed by Frank Perry and Sydney Pollack called The Swimmer (1968). But unlike the British film, in the case of the Hollywood film, it was not the author Cheever who wrote the screenplay but director Frank Perry’s wife Eleanor Perry, a feminist, who did. Cheever merely played a cameo role in the film, probably to lend his tacit approval to the project. And happily for us Ms Eleanor Perry, substantively improves the Cheever story.  In fact this screenplay ought to be studied and appreciated by potential screenplay writers.

Having read the short story, one appreciates Cheever’s ability at writing thought provoking fiction and his engaging skill of keeping the reader hooked.  Then along comes Eleanor Perry who introduces more characters into the tale and develops the tale by changing the chronology of events and making the lead character Ned (Neddy in the short story) Merrill into a vain, WASP womanizer (played by Burt Lancaster). While the original short story begins with Ned’s wife Lucinda speaking a line about drinking too much the previous night, the film’s screenplay never includes her spoken words and never allows the film to show her physically on screen and only builds up Lucinda’s character by other women’s acidic comments about her.  One comment from Ned’s  friend  Shirley (Janice Rule) describes Lucinda as "an aging Vassar girl in an understated suit" (an Eleanor Perry add-on, not be found in the short story).

In the story and in the film, Ned swims an abstract river he calls the “Lucinda” river ("Pool by pool they form a river, all the way to our house," are the words of Ned/Neddy) where his wife Lucinda is waiting for him and his four daughters are playing tennis. The banks of this imaginary river of swimming pools are figuratively populated in the movie by all his neighbors, friends and acquaintances. 

Ned  (Lancaster) the ladies' man

The clever screenplay alludes to the temperature of the pools gradually changing from the warm water to the cold as the film progresses.  The cleanliness of the pools, the sophistication of the cleaning processes deteriorates pool by pool, until the last one is cleaned by mere excess of chlorine. And so does the wealth of the users, pool by pool in the screenplay, until you come to the pool used by shopkeepers and the working class.  (This final progression is absent in the short story.)   The sunny blue sky at the beginning of the film gradually becomes cloudy until the film ends in a heavy, cold downpour (all within a span of a day, film begins in the morning, ends in the evening). (In the Cheever short story, Ned encounters the storm midway on his strange odyssey.) The two writers agree on one fact though—while nature can be kind and lovely, it can be equally chilly and dirty. People, as well.

Now, dear reader, one would assume that most studios and producers would have been excited by the cinematic product.  The reality was just the opposite. Actor Burt Lancaster, who loved the role, was the only one who believed in the film but chose to butt heads with director Fred Perry, the husband of the film's praiseworthy screenplay writer Eleanor Perry. The rancor reached a level where director Perry who had almost completed the film was fired by its producer Sam Spiegel (Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge on the River Kwai, On the Waterfront, etc) at Lancaster’s cajoling and replaced him with  newcomer Sydney Pollack, who reshot two key segments of the film, one with Janice Rule replacing the original actress. Sam Spiegel did not realize what a wonderful film was being made and voluntarily took his own name off the credits sensing it was a disaster! The studio, Columbia, responsible for the film, stopped financing the film towards the end. It appears that Lancaster put his own money in to complete the film, which doesn’t mention Sydney Pollack as a director in the film credits.  (The two segments unofficially attributed to Pollack as the director are the pool sequence with Janice Rule and the sequence with Ned running a race with a stallion.) While actor Lancaster probably is the one  who made the completion of this lovely film possible, a close evaluation of the Frank Perry directed sequences proves beyond doubt that those segments are equally commendable.

Today, as the film is gaining in appreciation worldwide, the Hollywood studio and Spiegel have been proved wrong in their initial assessment of the film's worth.

Ned (Lancaster) realizes that his lovely hot dog wagon has
been sold by his wife Lucinda, and he is thrown out by the owner
of the pool and wagon for being  a gate crasher

The film begins with an unforgettable credit sequence. Birds and animals scurry away frightened in the woods. We do not know why they are frightened. We hear sounds of an animal or human being. At the end of the credits, we realize the sound was created by a barefoot man wearing nothing save his swimming trunks.  By the end of the movie, the credit sequence takes a new dimension of our perception—did the animals and birds recognize the psychological state of the man? After the first swim in the first pool, Ned is served his gin and lime without being asked by a lady friend as he tries to climb out of the pool. The camera zooms in on Ned’s face partly obscured by the glass holding the drink. That shot gains importance for the viewer in retrospect. Similarly, the public swimming pool sequence where the financial condition of Ned is brought to light, Ned escapes the public frantically climbing the rock face like a lizard. The man who scared animals and birds at the beginning of the film seemed to resemble a reptile at the end. (Again, this sequence with all the colorful conversations at the public pool, was not part of Cheever’s story—it is a contribution of Eleanor Perry and possibly, Frank Perry.)

Shirley (Janice Rule) deflates the ego of vain Ned (Lancaster),
in a segment directed by Sydney Pollack

Screenwriter Eleanor Perry is the real heavyweight in the wonderful film. She contributed to the inclusion of Ned’s debtors in the public swimming pool sequence, never included in Cheever's story. She invented the humiliating forced cleaning of Ned’s feet before entering the swimming pool. She added on the hotdog cart element in an earlier swimming pool sequence, which was also not in the Cheever story. She adds on other vignettes to build the authenticity of Ned’s character. Ned is a whiz at rectifying engines that are out of sync, as he rectifies a golf cart’s engine without being asked, because his ears could pick up the fault. Eleanor Perry ensures the viewer realizes that Ned’s character (a WASP or a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant) has a good knowledge of the Bible enough to quote from The Song of Solomon correctly. She builds up the character of Ned as a betraying husband, a bad father, an unreliable friend, and an uncouth neighbor. He is apparently a successful technocrat who has made a lot of money and is never ready to listen to advice from well-meaning males, but is able seduce a lot of women, who in turn idolize him due to their immaturity or for their devious personal desires. Ms Perry, a feminist, is plucking the feathers off a male peacock, as a once successful old man looks back at this past, his youth, his physical ability to nearly out-run a horse, with a large dose of vanity mixed in his cocktail drinks.

Ned comes across a swimming pool without water--and for once
speaks with concern for others, this time to a lonely rich boy

Eleanor Perry cleverly juggled the public swimming pool sequence to be the last pool in the “Lucinda” river of pools, while Cheever had inserted the public pool  in the middle. By doing so, she ensured, Ned’s worst unmasking was at the end of the film among the string of pools. She also ensured the gradual descent of the rich to the poor, pool by pool, among Ned’s neighbors, friends and acquaintances. After the rich pools, Ned comes, across an empty pool, where he meets a young boy. That is a single sequence in the film that allows the viewer to admire Ned’s concern for the lonely child. This again is an added contribution of the screenplay writer to Cheever’s tale—which merely makes a passing mention of an empty pool. Ms Perry balances the script well—it begins with swimming pools full of inviting clean water, moves on to a pool without water, followed by pools with poor quality water for which you have to pay, and finally cold rain lashing at a dirty house without a pool. In the Cheever story, a character Enid Bunker (included in the screenplay) speaks of just having spoken to Lucinda over the phone. In the film, (and Ms Perry’s script) Enid Bunker does not mention Lucinda at all. Others refer to Lucinda in the past tense in the film. The subtle change Ms Perry has made to Cheever’s story only strengthens it. Cheever's tale was a social satire. and Ms Perry, as a feminist, makes him the quixotic male chauvinist who lives in a world of vanity and, ultimately, make believe. Cheever's Lucinda was partly real, Ms Perry's Lucinda seems to be more unreal and more a female character inhabiting a disintegrating male mind. 

Ned reaches his home after swimming across all the pools in his neighborhood,
after slowly realizing the mistakes of his past vain and inconsiderate life

The couple Frank and Eleanor Perry had made Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) which was at best an above average work.  But Frank Perry had the courage to make Monsignor (1982) from Abraham Polonsky’s screenplay subsequent to Polonsky’s blacklisting by the McCarthy hearings in 1951.

Thanks to the Perrys, Sydney Pollack, and Burt Lancaster, we have a gem of a Hollywood film in The Swimmer.

P.S.  The Swimmer narrowly missed being included on the author’s top 100 films, which currently includes another Sydney Pollack and Burt Lancaster film Castle Keep made a year after this film. The Swimmer is the second film in which a rich actor influenced the making of an important film in the way we see it today. Actor Kirk Douglas influenced the acclaimed director Stanley Kubrick to change the ending of Paths of Glory (1957), reviewed earlier on this blog.

Monday, October 19, 2015

185. Soviet/Russian maestro Sergei Eisenstein’s “Ivan the Terrible, Part II: The Boyars' Plot” (completed in 1946, released in 1958): Cinematic art beyond a veiled critique of Stalin

The early works of Sergei Eisenstein such as The Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October: Ten Days that Shook the World (1928) were indisputably testaments of the visual power of montage, crowd scenes and camera angles on a viewer that are, even almost a century later, considered as masterpieces of cinema. In 1987, when Brian De Palma openly recreated the Odessa steps sequence from The Battleship Potemkin in his Hollywood film The Untouchables for his Union Station sequence, few realized that de Palma was paying homage to Eisenstein. But Eisenstein’s early works were obvious Communist propaganda films as well. In 1946, Eisenstein made an even more seminal work Ivan the Terrible, Part II: The Boyar’s Plot that was a veiled criticism of his own patron, the communist dictator Stalin. Stalin, who had loved the nationalist Ivan the Terrible, Part I, banned Part II and destroyed most of the footage of the partly shot Part III. Both Stalin and Eisenstein had died by 1958, when Khrushchev’s Soviet Union released the masterpiece Ivan the Terrible, Part II: The Boyar’s Plot for the world to admire. 

What makes Ivan the Terrible, Part II: The Boyar’s Plot different from his earlier films? Unlike the earlier films of Eisenstein, there were two departures.  Ivan the Terrible, Part II: The Boyar’s Plot was the first work of the director where propaganda took a back seat—even Ivan the Terrible, Part I, can be considered as an essentially nationalist propaganda film. Secondly, this work presents Eisenstein’s capability to make a thought provoking film on the psyche of the lead character and why he behaves in the manner he does.  This is a film that is not merely presenting history but presents Eisenstein’s view of the mind and temperament of the monarch. It is essential to note that the script/screenplay was Eisenstein’s own and he assumed he was famous enough within the Soviet Union to present his views on Stalin in a veiled manner in this film. The intellectual film theoretician Eisenstein who had once written “The hieroglyphic language of the cinema is capable of expressing any concept, any idea of class, any political or tactical slogan, without recourse to the help of a rather suspect dramatic or psychological past,” does indeed take the help of the “dramatic or psychological past” in Part II.

The key shot of Part I, repeated in Part II,
where the Tsar (Cherkasov) watches the line of people
coming to his residence to request him to lead Russia
(cinematographer Tisse and Eisenstein's most famous shot)
The lonely Tsar of Part II

A crucial part of Part II deals with a powerful man Tsar Ivan (Nikolai Cherkasov) who begs for friendship. As the film opens, the viewer is reminded of what was already disclosed in Part I—one of his two close friends Prince Kurbsky (Mikhail Nazvanov), a secret admirer of the Tsar’s Queen Anastasia, has turned traitor and is plotting against the Tsar with the Polish King. The Tsar’s only other friend Fyodor Kolychev, now Archbishop Philip, who with Kurbsky has accompanied him on his coronation, agrees to remain close to him on condition that he could defend the Boyars that Tsar is accusing of crimes against the state.  Eisenstein shows the Tsar crawling and tugging Philip’s robe, pleading for his friendship he had enjoyed in the past. The only other true friend of the Tsar who remained loyal--his Queen--has been murdered by the Tsar’s aunt in Part I.  The Tsar is a lonely man indeed.

The young orphaned Tsar is made to wear royal robes and crown
 but has no elders to guide him
Young Ivan on the throne being manipulatedby Boyar elders
 (the painting of Mary is large in the background)  

The Tsar's innocent cousin, sitting on the throne is a pawn
in the hands of the Tsar and his henchman---Eisenstein's visual comparison
of two innocents being manipulated in different circumstances
(the religious drawing in the background is smaller)

Eisenstein goes even further to take recourse to the psychological past of the Tsar by showing his childhood in Part II. The visual genius takes pains to show the young Tsar sitting on the throne when his legs have grown to touch the floor and the Boyars are selling off his kingdom’s land to foreign powers under his seal without asking his approval. The boy Tsar (Erik Pyryev) who has grown up without his father and has seen his mother poisoned to death, takes his first important decision in life by asking his guards to arrest the elderly Boyar lord who mocks him and lies down on his dead mother’s bed laughing.

Kabuki theatre influence in the colour segment as the plot
to kill the Tsar is unraveled (yellow in foreground, red in the background)
Faces watching the play--strength of  Eisenstein of of the silent era

The Tsar learns of the plot to kill him while sitting on his throne
from his own simpleton cousin

Considering that all the six preceding films of Eisenstein was in black and white, Part II is the first and only work that the director uses colour and that too for an important sequence. Two colours dominate the two reels of the film: red and blue. Yellow is used for the kabuki-like theatre sequence (Eisenstein knew Japanese language and wrote about what termed as “Theatre of Attractions” after he became a fan of kabuki theatre form.). The film reverts to black and white when the crucial part reveals the plot and the plotters.  One needs to recall that the film was made in 1946 when colour films were not common—Hollywood’s first Eastman colour films came out in 1948. It is another matter that the banned film was released only in 1958, 12 years after it was made.

Eisenstein’s sound films Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible, Part I and Part II, saw his collaboration with the famous Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev. Many of us are in awe of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001-A Space Odyssey (1968) which uses Richard Strauss’ music from his composition Also Sprach Zarathustra in the sequences when the apes throw the bones up in the air and stone monoliths appear. Compare that with Eisenstein’s choice of music towards the ends of both Ivan the Terrible, Part I and Part II and one will note a striking resemblance. All three films are asserting new found power. Though the musical pieces are different and the composers are different, the effect is almost identical.  It is well documented that Stanley Kubrick was influenced by the works of Eisenstein, though this particular connection on the use of music reminiscent of Ivan the Terrible, Part I and Part II seems to have eluded critics.

Shadows indicating politics superceding religion (trinity of candles):
Eisenstein's architectural knowledge in evidence

Now Eisenstein had studied architecture and could have ended up in that profession.  And as a filmmaker, his set designs in Ivan the Terrible, Part I and Part II are ascribed to Iosif Shpinel (credited as Production Designer and Art Director Isaak Shpinel).  Shpinel’s contribution to the films is just awesome and probably ought to be acknowledged as the finest in the history of cinema in those depatments. Evidently Eisenstein’s architectural background helped him to pick up Shpinel.  Of course, he needed the brilliant Eduard Tisse’s camera to accentuate the indoor details so skilfully as the exteriors. 

Religion plays a major role in most Russian/Soviet films over time as the Russian Orthodox Church influenced its history and most Russians continued to be religious even during the peak of Communism. Now Eisenstein was Jewish, not Christian. Apart from the coronation sequence in Part I, Part II has one major church sequence.  A play relating to a tale from the Old Testament of the Bible dealing with King Nebuchadnezzar (634-562 BCE) is staged within the church.  It is a significant choice of a tale by Eisenstein as he is a Jew—as Jews believe in the Old Testament and not the New. It’s a tale of the King commanding all to bow down before an idol he has created and three religious officials refusing to comply. Those three are cast into a furnace but survive causing the King to change his religious beliefs for himself and his nation. According to ancient texts other than the Old Testament, the King had a bout of insanity at the height of his power in ancient Babylon and recovered. What better tale to pick up for subtly criticizing Stalin!

This part of the film helps Eisenstein in two distinct ways to further his commentary. Stalin is being equated with the historical King Nebuchadnezzar. However, Eisenstein takes umbrage in the fact that it is the wicked Boyars and the custodians of the Church influenced by the Boyars that are putting up the religious play in the church. So Mr Stalin don’t blame Mr Eisenstein, blame the Church—seems to be the escapist undertone of the film. But we know the script was Eisenstein’s. The formidable enemy of the Soviet Russia was the powerful Russian Orthodox Church which Stalin could never subjugate totally. The players in the play openly term King Nebuchadnezzar as “an unlawful king, ..a satanic king...a sacrilegious despot..” and that the “earthly ruler will be humbled by the heavenly king.”

But wait, the best stroke of Eisenstein is a young kid in the church watching the play, who shouts out innocently, “Is that the terrible heathen king?” pointing at the Tsar, after the Tsar and Archbishop Philip have a war of words within the church. Cineastes will recall a similar use of a child and its innocent behaviour in the church to criticize the relationship between the Church and the State in Russia in the recent Andrei Zvyaginstev 2014 film Leviathan’s end.

Glee of  a murderess: Efrosinia (Serafima Birman)
as Eisenstein returns to black and white

Eisenstein’s film compares two mothers and their love for their sons. Early in Part II, the Tsar recalls the love of his mother towards him as she slowly dies poisoned by his foes.  He treats her bed as a sacred spot and arrests a boyar who defiles it years after she has died. In contrast, is the love of the Tsar’s aunt Efrosinia (Serafima Birman, who plays arguably cinema’s most evil female character) and her love for her feeble-minded son and the Tsar’s cousin Vladimir Andreyevich Staristsky. One is a motherless child missing his mother, the other a mother dominated child in a man’s body.

Soviet film director Mikhail Romm cross-dresses as
England's Queen Elizabeth I in Eisenstein's Part III's surviving footage

And one can glimpse Eisenstein’s true mettle in the few minutes of Part III’s footage that survived Stalin’s wrath. Eisenstein dressed up his contemporary Soviet director Mikhail Romm as Queen Elizabeth I of England. What a cross dressing role! What a film Part III could have been!

P.S. Ivan the Terrible, Part II, is one of the author’s top 100 films. The Indian TV serial Chakravartin Ashoka Samarat (2015) (script-writer Ashok Banker) dealing with the rise of the historical Emperor Ashoka (269-239 BCE) has several similarities to Eisenstein’s tale. Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan (2014) has been reviewed on this blog earlier.

Friday, October 09, 2015

184. US director Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” (2014): Transcending the sport and the true events

Foxcatcher is an amazing work of cinema from USA that recalls the quality of evolved filmmaking that one associate with Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) or Ridley Scott’s British directorial debut film The Duellists (1977).

There are two likely reasons why many cineastes would skip watching Foxcatcher.

One, the filmmakers and the distributers of the film highlight the fact that the subject is about the sport of wrestling. It is. And, yet, it is not. By a coincidence the director Bennett Miller had a made a film called Moneyball (2011), all about another sport baseball, which turned out to be truly a poor cousin of Foxcatcher as it did not offer much  beyond  baseball and those who manage/manipulate the sport.

Second, the film Foxcatcher highlights the fact that it is based on true events. That’s yet another common thread with Moneyball and with yet another Miller-directed film, Capote (2005). One is then led to assume Foxcatcher too will be all about an individual or the famous du Pont family as in Moneyball or Capote. Actually the film Foxcatcher is not about the famous family but more about three very different individuals, of which only one, John Du Pont, is from the illustrious business family. What is more, the director Bennett Miller urges the viewer to look beyond the three prime individuals in the film. Miller’s film (possibly through mere deduction, the credit ought to go to co-scriptwriter E. Max Frye rather than co-scriptwriter Dan Futterman, as the former was the sole scriptwriter of the less colourful Capote)  urges the viewer to look at priorities of the American society, if not of the larger  developed world, that the actions of the three individuals represent. And how subtly Miller and Frye does that won Miller the Cannes best director award in 2014. Predictably, the Oscar voters for whom subtlety is a weakness rather than strength overlooked the five major nominations for Foxcatcher (two acting awards, one for direction and one for screenplay) and bestowed them on lesser works. [Even the lovely impressive Oscar nominated work of British director Mark Leigh Mr Turner (2014) was ignored by the Oscar voters.]

"My name is Mark Schultz. I wanna talk about America,..."
Mark (Channing Tatum) speaking to school kids

Early in the film the viewer hears the following lines spoken by a lead character to a group of school kids: “My name is Mark Schultz. I wanna talk about America, and I wanna tell you why I wrestle.” Miller, Frye, and Futterman make it amply clear—the film is a social statement about the nation as well—if not the developed materialistic world.  It’s only later as the film progresses that nationalism recedes, and egos and materialistic factors emerge to the fore.

Foxcatcher is a complex true story of the multimillionaire John Du Pont (Steve Carell) sponsoring and “training” two US Olympic wrestling gold medallists Mark and Dave Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Rufallo) for personal aggrandizement and how it wrecks the lives and families of all concerned.

"Coach is the father.. mentor...a great power in an athlete's life":
John du Pont (Steve Carell) and Mark (Channing Tatum)

The marriage of good direction and screenplay writing comes through details—an Olympic gold medallist reduced to eating quick fix noodles bought from grocery stores with hardly any nutritional value.  He evidently needs money to eat better food. The quality of direction and screenplay comes through the lack of spoken dialogue.  It comes through bizarre, disassociating conversations that remind you of Welles’ Citizen Kane as when the mother of an adult multimillionaire discusses disposing the toy train of her son. It is not the train that matters. It is not even shown in the film.  What that little but important sequence does is that it fleshes out the characters indirectly of both John Du Pont (Steve Carell) and his caring mother Jean du Pont (Vanessa Redgrave). Ms Redgrave has very little screen time and speaks very few lines—but it is her gestures and demeanour that talk a great deal. Of course, there are the critical observations John makes of his mother Jean, revealed to Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) during an unguarded moment.  Such indirect character development is rare in cinema. The periods of silences in Miller’s Foxcatcher speak loudly and help develop the bizarre true story.

Equally stunning is the first show of a gun in the film Foxcatcher. John Du Pont arrives at the wrestling training area on his own estate with a gun and dramatically shoots at the roof.  One is reminded of the bizarre actions of the trainer in Whiplash, another 2014 film from USA. For what? To make his wrestlers train harder to win at a forthcoming wrestling event. The gun culture in USA was relevant centuries ago, but guns in a secure contemporary world of the du Pont estate, is not. It not merely recreating a possible true event John du Pont’s life for Miller but a visually critical statement of the man and the segment of society his wealth represent,  if one studies the camera positioning to capture the scene directed by Miller.

Mark (Tatum) being coached by elder brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo)

The fictional Kane in Citizen Kane and the real John du Pont in Foxcatcher are both immensely rich egomaniacs. Both films are similar in developing the characters of the super rich Americans. Both are lonely individuals and both films seek clues to flesh out their characters from their childhood toys and possessions (Kane’s sleigh vs John du Pont’s toy train). A cineaste will note the parallels between Jean du Pont (Vanessa Redgrave) in Foxcatcher and the fictional Mary Kane (Agnes Moorehead) in Citizen Kane, towards their respective sons.

It is important and interesting to note the obvious devaluation of women characters in Foxcatcher. There are only two women characters in Foxcatcher: Jean du Pont who hardly speaks in the movie and Dave Schultz’ wife Nancy (Sienna Miller, who incidentally is not related to the director Bennett Miller though they share the same surname) and both are not major figures in the film. Mark Schultz does not have a girlfriend in the entire film Foxcatcher and is never shown to have a private life. His only friend is his elder brother Dave who is happily married. Even the John du Pont in Miller’s Foxcatcher does not seem to be interested in anyone sexually. The real Mark Schuitz stated that he was privy to the fact that John du Pont was a eunuch, following a horse riding accident.  (It is not surprising to find the line spoken by John in the film..  “I do not share my mother's affection for horseflesh.”) More importantly, both John and Mark are loners, desperate for recognition, in contrast to Dave who is happy with a happy married life and two kids. As loners, both don’t care to have friends of either sex.  The only friend for Mark is his elder brother Dave, and that has its own psychological ramifications as he is also his true coach.

But the attraction of money changes the life of the two wrestlers in different ways. And tragically, at that.  On the other hand, money for John du Pont could buy brief fame as an Olympics wrestling coach, which he was not and could never be.

Steve Carell's nose (beak for ornithologists) accentuated
 in the poster... 
...and the cinematography

The real life John du Pont and the movie character John du Pont are both ornithologists.  At several points in the movie the screenplay writers bring in metaphors of birds. John asks Mark to address him as Eagle, or Golden Eagle, if he wishes to do so.  John asks Mark to watch the birdlife on the estate and gives him binoculars to that—an overt touch of friendship (“You are a good friend, Mark,” says John later). Even while describing himself, John put himself as an ornithologist first and then a philanthropist. Here are other bird metaphors from spoken lines: ”When we fail to honour that which should be honoured, it's a problem. It's a canary in a coal mine. Do you bird-watch?... You can learn a lot from birds. I'm an ornithologist. But more importantly, I am a patriot. And I want to see this country soar again. “  Birds connect with the nation and the larger social commentary in the film Foxcatcher.

Money can buy fame--Olympic Gold Medalist (Tatum) in the background,
John du Pont (Carell) a 'wannabe' coach takes the foreground

The importance of Foxcatcher as a good film is not just in its direction and commendable script but its lead actors. Beyond the brilliant casting coup of getting Steve Carell with his beak –like nose to play “Eagle” John (his profile has been used so well in some posters of the film), Carell proves that an actor typecast as such can play a complex dramatic role with a flourish. One is reminded of the comic genius Danny Kaye playing the ragpicker in Bryan Forbes’ The Madwoman of Chaillot (1969) introducing a side of Kaye the actor rarely recognized. Carell is top notch and it is truly unfortunate that he was not honoured with an Oscar for which he was nominated. Mark Ruffalo was nominated for the supporting actor Oscar but one wishes the nominators had considered Channing Tatum as well who was able to show a range of emotions, subtle and not-so-subtle.

Finally, director Miller’s choice of music that plays on the soundtrack is apt and embellishes the script.  “Für Alina” by Arvo Pärt is perhaps the most apt piece of music for the movie (director Andrei Zvyagintsev used it in his film The Banishment), followed by David Bowie’s “Fame” and Mychael Danna’s “I thought he was a very nice gentleman.” How appropriate!

The film proves to be a testament on the frailty and loneliness of the rich and famous. It equally proves that chase for lucre can wreck the lives of those not fortunate to be born rich. And it looks at distorted self aggrandizement in the garb of nationalism.

P.S. The film won the best director award at the Cannes film festival in 2014. Ridley Scott's The Duellists (1977), mentioned in the above review, has been reviewed on the blog earlier.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

183. Russian director Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky’s US film “Runaway Train” (1985): An unusual Hollywood film that intensely deals with philosophy and the choices one makes in life

Lady Anne:  “No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity” 
King Richard: “But I know none, therefore am no beast.”

              --a conversation from Shakespeare’s Richard III, 
                 appearing as an end-quote in Runaway Train

Runaway Train is a remarkable work from Hollywood.  The film was both a box office success and a critically acclaimed film.

It is directed by the Russian maestro Andrei Tarkovsky’s classmate in film school Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky.  Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky was no ordinary classmate of the legendary Tarkovsky—he co-scripted as many as 6 screenplays with Tarkovsky, in including two classics of world cinema directed by Tarkovsky:  Ivan’s Childhood (1962) and Andrei Rublev (1966). He even acted in the former.

But Runaway Train’s original script was sculpted by another giant of cinema, Japan’s maestro Akira Kurosawa.  Kurosawa  unfortunately could never make this film of his dreams—most of Kurosawa’s films are based on original screenplays written by others. Therefore, Runaway Train is no ordinary action film or a disaster film or a prison escape film—it is much, much more--- visually, artistically, and conceptually, hiding in the garb of an action film possibly for enabling Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky to make an artistically satisfying film in a commercial world.  

Manny (Jon Voight, right) and Buck (Eric Roberts) choose the train to board

Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky serves you cinema that is often deceptive and can confound an average viewer until the end quote in some of his of his films. These films shake the viewer up to re-assess what one had just seen in the light of the carefully picked end-quote. Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky did just that with another Hollywood film he directed, the superb Shy People (1987), which won Barbara Hershey a richly deserved best actress award at Cannes. (Shy People also had an enigmatic end-quote, this time from the Bible.) Runaway Train combines the best elements of Hollywood, Russian and Asian cinema, without appearing to do so. Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky, himself a very good screenplay writer, employed several  co-screenplay writers to come up with a script that was acceptable.

The title Runaway Train encapsulates the story of the film. It is supposed to give you edge of the seat entertainment ending in an inevitable disaster, with a hero emerging victorious, if one went by traditional Hollywood films that have entertained millions all over the world. With Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky, the inevitable crash is virtual, in the viewer’s mind, not shown on screen. Further, the hero is not a hero, he is an anti-hero, but “not a beast” as Richard III of Shakespeare avers. Most of all, the train is not a regular train, but four locomotives linked to each other. The passengers are four human beings, all different in attitudes and choices they make: two escaped convicts Manny and young Buck (Jon Voight and Eric Roberts, respectively), one young lady railway worker Sara (Rebecca de Mornay), who had dozed off in one of the engines after doing some routine work, and a psychotic prison warden Ranken (John P. Ryan), who climbs down from a police helicopter on to the “runaway train” to capture Manny the prison inmate he hates to the core of his body and soul and wishes to kill personally after he has escaped three times from his maximum security prison. Ranken even mutters from the helicopter “God don’t kill him (referring to Manny). Let me do it.” Thus, four vastly different individuals are brought together by fate and seem to be headed for their inevitable death. Those who have seen the movie will know who survives and who does not.

Visual strength: The monster "Runaway Train"  carries the remains of
a smashed caboose of another train in front

What is the Russian element in the tale? The snow and the freezing temperatures? For those familiar with Russian literature and cinema, it would be the plight of the prisoners in the maximum security prison in Alaska.  They have a warden who publicly derides his incarcerated prisoners by espousing his incredible twisted point of view “Let me tell you where you assholes stand. First there's God, then the warden, then my guards, then the dogs out there in the kennel, and finally, you. Pieces of human waste. No good to yourselves or anybody else.” And like most Russian literature and cinema, God is referred to and respected by this devilish warden at least twice (referred earlier) in the film. Recent Russian cinema of Andrei Zvyagintsev, specifically Leviathan (2014), often depicts evil men showing respect for God as is the case with the warden in Runaway Train.

Pitted against this evil warden is Manny, a safecracker, who has escaped twice from this maximum security prison, and recaptured twice. (In Kurosawa’s original tale, he was a rapist but Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky felt rapists are rarely treated as heroes by co-prisoners while Manny is indeed treated as a hero).  The evil Warden welds his prison door so that he cannot escape a third time, leading to a legal appeal that Manny wins after nine months allowing his free movement within the prison. The legal victory for Manny is where the film’s narrative begins.

The penultimate scene taken sideways as the locomotive hurtles onward,
with Manny on top of it

And what is the typical Asian Kurosawa moment in the Runaway Train? For this critic it is the advice of Manny to young Buck on how he should lead his life after escaping from prison. He provides the young man oriental wisdom “I'll tell you what you gonna do. You gonna get a job. That's what you gonna do. You're gonna get a little job. Some job a convict can get, like scraping off trays in a cafeteria. Or cleaning out toilets. And you're gonna hold onto that job like gold. Because it is gold. Let me tell you, that is gold. You listenin' to me? And when that man walks in at the end of the day. And he comes to see how you done, you ain't gonna look in his eyes. You gonna look at the floor. Because you don't want to see that fear in his eyes when you jump up and grab his face, and slam him to the floor, and make him scream and cry for his life. So you look right at the floor.  Pay attention to what I'm sayin', motherfucker! And then he's gonna look around the room - see how you done. And he's gonna say "Oh, you missed a little spot over there. Jeez, you didn't get this one here. What about this little bitty spot?" And you're gonna suck all that pain inside you, and you're gonna clean that spot. And you're gonna clean that spot. Until you get that shiny clean. And on Friday, you pick up your paycheck. And if you could do that, if you could do that, you could be president of Chase Manhattan... corporations! If you could do that.”

And how does Buck respond to the good advice? Buck says “Not me, man! I wouldn't do that kind of shit. I'd rather be in fuckin' jail.”

The philosophic response of Manny to that outburst is even more fascinating. “More's the pity, youngster. More's the pity,” observes Manny.

Buck bullied by Manny to cross over to the locomotive in front,
under dangerous conditions

When Manny bullies young Buck to risk his life to cross over to the lead locomotive, the lady railway worker Sara who almost got raped by Buck, yells at Manny in Buck’s defense: “You're an animal!” Manny’s response is once again philosophic: “No, worse! Human. Human!”

This sequence ought to be re-assessed by the viewer in the context of the Shakespeare end-quote in the film. Is Manny a beast, a seasoned convict, or a mere human like any one of us? And who is the “beast” in the film? The lawman warden Rankin?

Warden Rankin (John P Ryan) threatens a railway employee

Here’s another amazing interaction between the warden and Manny towards the end of the film:

        Rankin: Push the button. We're on a dead-end siding. We're gonna crash in five minutes.
        Manny: Then we'll have a nice, five-minute ride together.
        Rankin: You think you're a hero, huh? Shit. You're scum
        Manny: We're both scum, brother.

Inspector Javert thought Jean Valjean was also scum in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable. But Manny of Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky/Kurosawa admits he is scum too. Eventually in the film, he proves to be a scum who can be human, in a positive sense.

"Win, lose, what's the difference?"

The film can also be perceived as an existential film with amazing dialogues. Sara, on realizing that they are going to die, asks of young Buck, who had wanted to rape her earlier, to hold her as she does not want to die alone. Buck assures her “We gonna be all right” to which Sara weakly replies, “Yeah.” Buck re-assures her “We gonna be fine...” And Manny who had been hearing the dialogue between the two, pipes in with a wet blanket realist comment:  “Ha,ha. We all die alone.” Manny has been a loner in life and in death and is a realist. He wanted to escape the prison alone; only young Buck joined Manny uninvited. We are all drawn into an existential world of Manny who after years in prison can wistfully say “Win, lose, what's the difference?”  He is not afraid to die because he is free, finally out of prison, free of the Rankins of this world.

Runaway Train is an amazing film and can easily be recognized as one if one pays attention to the spoken and written words.  But more importantly, it is a visual film to be savoured by the eye of viewer. There are trains that crawl in the film and trains that hurtle. There are locomotives that have no visible worlds written and seem like shrouded grey coffins on wheels. The choice of Manny to pick the most ominous and depressing looking locomotive in the railway yard fits in so well with the larger story. The final visual of Manny on top of the locomotive resembles a visual cross. The final sequence has Vivaldi’s Gloria in D Major playing on the soundtrack, which reaffirms Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky’s intentional visual metaphor of the end. One of the music composers of this film, Trevor Jones, went on to compose the music of Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans (1992) which had music that complemented visuals of speed as he did previously for Runaway Train.

Sara (Rebecca De Mornay) "Hold me. I don't want to die alone"

"We all die alone"

Runaway Train won Jon Voight a Golden Globe for Best Actor and an Oscar nomination. Eric Roberts was also nominated for his performance as young Buck, in the supporting actor category along with a Oscar nomination for best editing. Unfortunately, John P. Ryan who played the unforgettable warden Rankin never won accolades for his superb performance (as he was overlooked in his smaller and negative role in the 1971 film The Missouri Breaks).

Today, Andrei  Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky is back in Russia making significant films such as The Postman’s White Nights (2014), after an erratic professional period in the US that produced both exemplary and forgettable works.

P.S. Andrei  Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train and Shy People and Andrei  Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan are all on the author’s top 100 films listMr Konchalovsky is also one of the author's 15 favourite active filmmakers

Thursday, August 27, 2015

182. Indian director Anand Gandhi's debut film “Ship of Theseus” (2012): A remarkable thought-provoking, non-commercial film from India

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had 30 oars, and was preserved by the Athenians, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places, in so much that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.
-- Plutarch (Greek historian, 45-120 A.D.)
Ship of Theseus is an unusual and a philosophical film from India. It deals with an interesting philosophical subject that Plato and Socrates debated, philosopher John Locke postulated replacing the ship with a torn sock, and Jules Verne used in his story Dr Ox’s Experiment.

It is unusual for several reasons.

First, much of the film Ship of Theseus is in English and, that too, in good spoken English, and represents visuals of mostly emerging urban India.  

Second, it is not a big budget film (made with less than the equivalent of US$ 0.19 million as per IMDB, a fraction of what it takes to make a commercial Indian film in Bollywood) and yet has good technical quality--quality that earned it international awards. The sound design  is credited to a talented Hungarian duo who did sound design of British director Peter Strickland’s Katalin Varga (2009) and two of the Hungarian director Bela Tarr’s films The Turin Horse (2011) and Werckmeister Harmonies (2000). 

Third, one segment of the movie has as an actress Aida El-Kashef, an Egyptian filmmaker, who filmed the famous Tahrir Square protests in her country. Her performance in Ship of Theseus won her the Best Actress award at the Dubai International Film Festival, and the Best Supporting Actress Award at the 61st Indian National Film Awards.  

Fourth, the film, which does not have any commercial trappings, was released briefly in major theatres in India and subsequently won the country’s top national award, the Golden Lotus, in 2014 for the best feature film of the year. The film also picked up awards for the Best Film at the Transylvania film festival. A dream achievement indeed for a debut filmmaker from India! 

And finally, Ship of Theseus is a rare work of cinema that highlights ancient Jainism as a religion that sprouted in India and continues to be a way of life of millions, even to this day.

Plutarch’s conundrum is placed before the viewer by director Anand Gandhi, and his two co-scriptwriters Khusboo Ranka and Pankaj Kumar, by presenting three disconnected modern tales on human organ replacement to extend the concept of aging parts of the fabled ship of Theseus being replaced with new parts until all its original parts are replaced . Each of the three segments of the film Ship of Theseus approaches the effects of the physical replacement with different perspectives. 

The blind photographer (Aida El-Kashef) capturing urban India
on camera aided by sounds 

In the first  segment, an almost blind photographer (Aida El-Kashef) clicks away with her camera, using intuition, touch and sounds to come up interesting photographs that are eventuially exhibited as art. On regaining her sight, the photographer reviews her blind work. The concept of “good creative“ art, once applauded, is reassessed by its creator, post her critical organ transplant.

Barefoot Jain monks meditating on the sea front captured against the backdrop
of a recently constructed  bridge in Mumbai 

In the second  segment of the film, a well-educated, well-read Jain monk Maitreya (played by theatre actor Neeraj Kabi) spearheads a legal war against the torture of animals for the benefits of medical research of the pharmaceutical industry. The very same medical world points out that Maitreya’s liver has cirrhosis and needs to be treated with drugs or even replaced. As with most Jain monks, for whom the concept of “Santhara” or fasting to death is an option, Maitreya has to choose between what his religion, which he has practised over decades promotes, and an option of modern medication combined with organ transplants. (The concept of “Santhara” has been in the news in recent days as an Indian court ruled it to be similar to abetment of suicide, provoking Jains to point out that it conflicted with their fundamental freedom guaranteed by the Indian Constitution.) The option before Maitreya is not a Hobson’s choice. However, Maitreya’s  final decision in the film makes one rethink about all our own moral stands, not just his. What director Gandhi’s film asks is if a critical organ transplant can change the views of a well-read, ethical person as well.

Wrecked and junked cars are a metaphoric backdrop for a converstion on
the illegal human organ trade 

The third segment of the film Ship of Theseus deals with the growing problem in India where the poor and the uneducated are robbed of their organs without their knowledge by a growing organ transplant villains who sell their spoils to unsuspecting rich clients worldwide who need the organ to survive. In this segment, Gandhi’s film questions the ethics and morality among the world of organ recipients, the organ robbers and the amazing evolutionary changes in the views of morality of those who were actually robbed of their critical organs. A young bright stockbroker Navin (Sohum Shah) stumbles on the larger story of unethical human organ transplants and tries to help a poor labourer, who was robbed of an organ unwittingly. But the outcome of his efforts is even more thought provoking.

Young Anand Gandhi brings all the three protagonists of his film Ship of Theseus together reprising what the famous Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski had done at end of Three Colours Red (his final part of the trilogy, made in 1993-4) by bringing the critical characters of Three Colours Blue, Three Colours White and Three Colours Red briefly by a seeming cosmic coincidence. Kieslowski showed the characters as lucky survivors of a boat tragedy, but Gandhi shows his varied characters as lucky survivors of the organ transplant medical operations in India. In Kieslowski‘s three celebrated films, a key character always cried at the end. In young Gandhi’s film, no one sheds tears as the characters from the three segments watch a film together on caves and the exploration of the unknown, a visual metaphor of the film in itself.

Anand Gandhi and Aida El-Kashef have won accolades at international film festivals for their respective contributions to Ship of Theseus. Equally creditable is the contribution of cinematographer and co-scriptwriter Pankaj Kumar, whose talents are quite evident. Several handheld photographic sequences of the film such as the sequences  involving extremely narrow and winding approaches to the labourer’s living quarters and the exterior shots of the peripatetic monks against modern windmills and electric pylons taken from another high vantage point, ask questions of the viewer the effect on the rapid changes in Indian society on past beliefs and social views that also relate to the same primary Ship of Theseus conundrum. Pankaj Kumar won awards for his contribution as a cinematographer for Ship of Theseus at the Transylvania film festival, the Tokyo International Film festival, and at the Mumbai International Film Festival. The talented Pankaj Kumar has subsequently moved on to commercial mainstream Bollywood cinema working on films such as Haider and Talwar. Ship of Theseus also brought to the limelight a fascinating stage actor Neeraj Kabi, who plays the Jain monk in the middle segment of the film. Kabi, according to reports lost 17 kg in weight, over 5 months, to enact the starving monk. Actors such as Kabi are rare to come by and he was spectacular in his role. 

The movie Ship of Theseus not merely raised the quality of contemporary Indian cinema but proved that good cinema can be made with low budgets, if truly talented people made the film. Most importantly, it is a rare film made in India that forces the viewer to think about philosophy rather than provide escapist entertainment. Such films do not just win international awards but provide quality entertainment for the discerning viewer. Evidently, it was not considered as an Indian entry for the Oscars because the film is in English, which eliminated it from being considered in the foreign film category. Young Anand Gandhi needs to be congratulated for roping in the rich talent from diverse fields to make his remarkable debut film with a limited budget.

P.S. Indian cinema has seen some young filmmakers accomplishing interesting works with limited budgets in recent years. Sudevan’s CR. No. 89 (2013) is one such film made in Malayalam language reviewed earlier on this blog. Another is Praveen Morchale’s Barefoot to Goa (2015) in Hindi, also reviewed earlier on this blog.

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.