Saturday, November 30, 2013

Love Streams

LOVE STREAMS         A                  
USA  (141 mi)  1984  d:  John Cassavetes

I’ve never seen an exploding helicopter.  I’ve never seen anyone go and blow somebody’s head off.  So why should I make films about them?  But I have seen people destroy themselves in the smallest way, I’ve seen people withdraw, I’ve seen people hide behind political ideas, behind dope, behind the sexual revolution, behind fascism, behind hypocrisy, and I’ve myself done all these things.  So I can understand them...What we are saying is so gentle.  It’s gentleness.  We have problems, terrible problems, but our problems are human problems.
—John Cassavetes   

Very few great artists, other than those named Mozart or Beethoven, save what is arguably their greatest creation for their last and final work, where a gaunt Cassavetes makes his last great film, written immediately after playing in Paul Mazursky’s film, TEMPEST (1982), filmed after he had already begun to be ill with liver damage.  LOVE STREAMS is Cassavetes’ Prospero, a farewell to his art, using dozens of references from his earlier films.  Like Faces (1968), all the interiors are filmed in the actual Cassavetes household, adding a documentary element of family photos and portraits lining the walls, interestingly containing no hand-held camera work, a staple in nearly all his earlier films, yet this may be his most intimate film.  Unlike most married couples that strive for a sense of balance and security, Cassavetes and Rowlands continued to struggle and evolve creatively directly in front of the camera during the course of their lives, an outrageously courageous and highly original form of personal expression, with Cassavetes waving goodbye to Gena Rowlands, and goodbye to the audience in the final shot.  With it, a career of risk taking comes to a climax in this rich, original, emotionally immense film about a brother who cannot love and a sister who loves too much.  The film is adapted from a series of three plays called Three Plays of Love and Hate, with Cassavetes writing the initial segment Knives, The Third Day Comes was written by Ted Allan, while the third Love Streams was supposedly co-written by Cassavetes and Ted Allan, though according to Allan it was almost all the work of Cassavetes, though both are credited with the screenplay.  Cassavetes characters insist upon their relevance, they demand to be heard, even when they don't have a clue what they're about to say, like the befuddled Rowlands who loses her daughter in the opening divorce proceedings, something inconceivable to her, as no one could love her more. But she can't find the words and her loss is immeasurable, so she spends the rest of the film trying to fill the empty void from that missing love.

Initially the film follows the separate lives of Robert and Sarah, Cassavetes and Rowlands, parallel lives of loneliness and loss, where Sarah loses her 13-year old daughter in a divorce, losing her companionship and love, trying to introduce love into the legal proceedings, but there’s simply no place for it.  Looking largely disheveled for the first half of the picture, Sarah is a natural extension of Mabel from A Woman Under the Influence (1974), a hyper-emotive woman who tends to get carried away with herself, growing deliriously happy or utterly despondent.  Referred to a psychiatrist, she attempts to explain to him, “Love is a stream.  It’s continuous.  It does not stop,” to which he replies, “It does stop,” but she insists otherwise, which is the heart of her personality, driven to be liked and appreciated, refusing to accept the middle ground of mediocrity.  Recommending that she take a trip to Europe and meet people, the film turns comically hilarious when we see the mountainous pile of luggage she drags behind.  Robert lives in a dream house on top of a Hollywood hill reachable only by a steep, winding incline making a successful living writing sex books about women.  We see him visit a gay nightclub picking up Diahnne Abbott after hearing the club’s singer doing a sultry rendition of “Kinky Reggae” Love streams - kinky reggae - YouTube (2:10).  Robert never sleeps alone, filling his house with beautiful young bimbos, where sex is all that is real.  Life is one long champagne party of women and sex, where there are literally several carfuls of call girls who spend the weekend, most of the time amusing themselves however they wish, as only one or two are ever with Robert, who occasionally takes the time to get to know them, actually asking probing questions which are beyond their years.       

In something of a surprise, mixing up the drunken revelry is an 8-year old kid Albie (Jakob Shaw) arriving on his doorstep, who turns out to be a son he never knew existed, whose mother says she’ll come back for him the next day.  Needless to say, Albie is terrified at the drinking and lewd behavior going on, so Robert clears the house of everyone else while the two get acquainted, ridiculously plying him with beer, offering him the fatherly advice that by the time he’s 14 he should hitchhike across the country and discover “real” people, “not these guys out here with their suits and ties, but real men.”  What distinguishes this film is the heavy mix of humor along with the depth of realism and warmth of the characters.  What do you do when you’re finally alone with a newly discovered son?  Take him to Vegas, obviously, where you go out partying all night leaving him alone in a hotel room, basically quivering in fright.  But before they leave, Sarah is greeted affectionately on Robert’s doorstep with her boatload of luggage that arrives in two cabs.  There’s a wonderfully extended ambiguity about their relationship, as we don’t discover the truth until about 90 minutes into the film.  Needless to say, the Vegas trip is a disaster, culminating in what could almost be described as spectacle, which is so bizarre in its own uncompromising way that Robert’s most embarrassing moment turns into something poignant and perversely comedic at the same time.

One of the more beautiful sequences involves Robert’s date with Diahnne Abbott’s mother Margaret, repaying earlier kindness, where they dance and drink champagne in her living room, where she’s treated like a queen to the music of Jack Sheldon singing “Almost in Love With You,” Love Streams 1984 - Fragmento ("Almost In Love With You") YouTube (2:53), a Bo Harwood song also heard playing in an early bar sequence featuring the suave and debonair Ben Gazarra as Cosmo Vittelli in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), given a completely different texture, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie - 1976 - Fragmento ("Almost In Love With You") YouTube (2:10), but Cosmo similarly flirts with his girl friend Rachel’s (Azizi Johari) mother, where in each instance the mother used is the real life mother.  Returning home to a quieter, darker house, Cassavetes gently tells Rowlands, “Life is a series of suicides, divorces, broken promises, children smashed, whatever,” which is not in any way meant to be downbeat or maudlin, but simply an acceptance of reality.  From that, Sarah gets the idea to go bowling dressed in a classy black sequined dress and heels, where her response to the desk clerk’s “How are you?” is simply classic, as she’s bound and determined to give the man an honest answer, most of which is simply contorted facial expressions searching for the truth.  Of course, she’s a sensation wearing no shoes on lane 13, meeting Ken (John Roselius), returning home with renewed exuberance, where the two of them sit down and discuss the idea of love as art.  Sarah, however, refuses to abandon her romantic dreams about love, and in a brilliant conversational climax, defends her ex-husband, who no longer loves her and is giving her nothing but grief, telling Robert, “We’re talking about a man who put food on the table, who held my hand in the hospital, who cried when his baby was born.  Where were you?” 

Sarah’s way of providing balance to their lives is returning in a cab one afternoon with two miniature horses, a goat, a parrot, chickens, a duck, and a dog named Jim, but swoons in a spell when Robert doesn’t seem to appreciate the gesture.  Feeling miserable and disconsolate, barely able to move, Sarah has two extraordinary dream sequences while a storm rages outside and Robert, the Ancient Mariner, lovingly gathers up all the animals, providing them a shelter from the storm.  The first dream is one of Rowlands’ greatest scenes, tragically obsessed with the idea of making her daughter and ex-husband happy, she performs a burlesque comedy routine, trying every cheap vaudeville gag, fake mustard and ketchup, water spurting out of flowers and pens, fake eyeballs on springs, funny glasses, but gets nothing, despite the fact she is simply sensational, she gets no reaction from either one of them.  Her second dream is more surreal, LOVE STREAMS de John Cassavetes - Extrait - Le reve merveilleux de Sarah (Gena Rowlands) YouTube (4:58), an intriguing Stephen Sondheim style song staged like something out of Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979), a small autobiographical operetta where her daughter’s feelings are being tugged back and forth between the mother and father, with Sarah on one side of the stage and her husband on the other, the spotlight shines on Sarah in a haunting, classical image of beauty and motherly love, where her daughter is seen as one of the dancing Degas ballet girls. 

Meanwhile, Cassavetes comically gathering all the animals is a bit like Rowlands’ earlier luggage scenes, where they are carrying their emotional baggage like an added weight on their shoulders.  Cassavetes, however, has the presence of mind to use the back door for comedy, so reminiscent of WC Fields’ “Not a fit night out for man or beast” in 1933 The Fatal Glass Of Beer (W. C. Fields) - YouTube (18:32), as each time they open it to the raging storm outside, Robert stumbles in out of the deluge with another animal.  Despite the howling storm, Sarah resolves to make something of her life right then and there, claiming sudden family clarity, not waiting another moment, while Robert urges her to never go back to any man that doesn’t love her and to stay and live with him.  But to the music of Harold Adamson and Jimmy McHugh’s “Where Are You” MILDRED BAILEY - Where Are You (1937) - YouTube  (3:15), “Must I go on pretending, where is that happy ending, where are you?” Rowlands is whisked away in a cab as Robert waves goodbye to his sister, framed in a windowsill, his image distorted by the rain.  Of  interest, there is no trace of a play in this film, arguably Cassavetes’ best and most accessible film, no dialogue driven moments, instead the occasional improvisational bursts offer needed energy to Cassavetes’ free-wheeling style, briskly moving between sequences where both Cassavetes and Rowlands offer such rare emotional authenticity, creating a cinematic farewell that will forever be beautiful and heartbreaking.  

Friday, November 29, 2013

Opening Night

OPENING NIGHT           A      
USA  (144 mi)  1977  d:  John Cassavetes 

[Opening Night] is the other side of A Woman Under the Influence, about a woman on her own, with no responsibility to anyone but herself, with a need to come together with other women. [Myrtle] is alone and in desperate fear of losing the vulnerability she feels she needs as an actress. [She is] a woman unable any longer to be regarded as young: Sex is no longer a viable weapon. You never see her as a stupendous actress. As a matter of fact, her greatest thrill was comfort, as it is for most actresses. Give me a play I can go into every night and can feel I have some awareness of who I am, what I am. [She didn't] want to expose myself in [certain] areas. So when she faints and screams on the stage, it's because it's so impossible to be told you are this boring character, you are aging and you are just like her. I would be unable to go on to the stage feeling that I'm nothing. I think that most actors would, and that's really what the picture is about. Although she resists [facing them,] Myrtle must finally accept and resolve the dilemmas which lie not only at the core of the play she is doing, but which [reflect] the basic realities of her own existence, from which she has heretofore fled, aided by alcohol, men, professional indulgence – and fantasy! The character is left in conflict, but she fights the terrifying battle to recapture hope. And wins! In and out of life the theme of the play haunts the actress until she kills the young girl in herself. 
—John Cassavetes

Perhaps the gutsiest film about theater ever made, right alongside Chaplin’s LIMELIGHT (1952) or Desplechin’s ESTHER KHAN (2000), and though filmed in 1977, it was not released commercially until 1991, two years after Cassavetes’ death, as until then, incredulously enough, no theatrical distributor expressed an interest.  A film about the making of a theatrical play, both onscreen and off, with Gena Rowlands starring as Myrtle Gordon in the play A Second Woman written by the 65-year old Joan Blondell as Sarah Goode, which concerns a woman at the moment in her life when she realizes she has lost her youth, and the second woman takes over.  The part of the writer was originally conceived with Bettie Davis in mind, both screen legends from the 30’s, where the film was originally about the writer, where the integrity of the story came by showing an actress standing up to her.  Davis would have brought a much tougher dimension to the role, adding her own sense of theatricality as well.  Rowlands plays a still vibrant middle-aged star in her forties who has difficulty coming to terms with Blondell’s age, so avoids it at all costs, continually haunted by the ghost of a teenage girl (Laura Johnson), one of her fans whose accidental death she tragically witnessed one night, fantasizing a younger version of herself.  Perhaps inspired by ALL ABOUT EVE (1950), purportedly one of Cassavetes’ favorite films, a movie that might be called a woman’s picture, as it delves into different phases of a woman’s life and career, examining the various motivations, where Cassavetes turns the adoring fan of the Hollywood picture into a disturbing hallucination that haunts the actress, while also similarly staging out of town, tryout rehearsals of the play in New Haven, Connecticut as it nears its premiere in New York on Broadway.  One of her onstage actors is Cassavetes himself as Maurice Aarons, who interestingly plays a version of himself had he not married Gena Rowlands, a charming actor onstage who is something if a cynical womanizer offstage, largely making his way on his own, much as he did before he met Ms. Rowlands.  A word about the giant photographs of aging women on the set, a similar device was used by Woody Allen in Stardust Memories (1980), who used a giant, wall-sized photograph in his apartment that continually kept changing pictures, depending on his changing moods.  Also, the introductory still photos shown in the opening credits are used to brilliant effect, opening credits montage Opening Night YouTube (1:11), where Cassavetes, as he did in Faces (1968), uses close ups of blown-up photographs to exude sensuality to the character, while also using a cavernous penthouse apartment to reflect the immensity of Myrtle’s isolation and loneliness.     

Using the theatrical device of a play within a play, what’s curiously interesting about the film is there’s more time spent together onscreen between Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands than anything previously seen in a Cassavetes film, where they appear to relish each moment shared with the audience, becoming a sheer, unadulterated joy to watch, where through various rehearsals there’s a continuous stream of looks at scenes within the play, and each time it’s played just a bit differently, where their performances are not so much acted as captured in a time capsule retaining all its original vibrancy, where their characters are so effortlessly and absolutely real.  Rowlands gives an enthralling performance, perhaps especially significant because she absolutely defies the part she’s been given, even though it’s been written especially for her.  Part of it appears like a melodramatic soap opera as she wanders into an earlier part of her life, almost like a ghost, but the scenes onstage playing ex-lovers with Myrtle and Maurice are unmistakably more significant, as it appears they’re talking about their own lives, where the film continuously blurs the line between performance and real life.  Part of the genius of the film is this rare glimpse of intimacy into their real lives, yet it’s always shown with a flair for theatricality, where the underlying emotions grow more abstract by negotiating this strange and somewhat illusory boundary world that exists between reality and the imagination.  Art impacts life, where Cassavetes and his real life wife have achieved a work of astonishing emotional depth that may be unique in all of cinema.  Cassavetes has indicated “I won’t make shorthand films, because I don’t want to manipulate audiences into assuming quick, manufactured truths,” where the beauty of this film is creating a work of art that explores the mystery of the personality and the often unfathomably complex motivations of artists.     

Myrtle, however, has found herself in the midst of a full-blown identity crisis, where an early tragic encounter with a young fan continues to haunt her for the rest of the film, as she’s literally visited by the young woman’s ghost who’s not at all happy with the outcome, yet Myrtle attempts to channel some of her own character through her youth, but her warmth and affection for the young woman is received with anger and disgust, turning brutally ugly on occasion, where the two are literally fighting spirits, creating a whirlwind of emotions that continually swirl around the theatrical production.  Countering this maelstrom of dramatic force is the play’s director, none other than Ben Gazarra as Manny, as suave and debonair as ever, who continually coddles his actress, believing she is one of the great actresses of our time, and perhaps an ex-lover as well, but he constantly pushes her to accept Sarah’s play, which he feels offers brilliant insights into a woman aging.  Manny, Sarah, and a kindly producer David, Paul Stewart, the butler in CITIZEN KANE (1941), form a kind of troika of theatrical convention, like the drama police, as they continually urge Myrtle to accept the provisions of the play, while she continually experiments with the role, often changing the lines altogether, telling Sarah “age is depressing, age is dull,” claiming “I’m looking for a way to play this part where age doesn’t make any difference,” which deeply offends the author by changing the intent of her play, who believes all the emotions are clearly evident on the written pages, where “all you need to do is say the lines clearly and with a degree of feeling.”  But therein lies the problem for Myrtle, because if she’s accepted as an “older woman,” she’ll never receive any other lead casting roles for the rest of her career, relegated to the world of older secondary character performers.  For men, like Maurice or Manny, they typically deal with the questions of aging in full denial by having an affair, but Myrtle has to reach inside herself to find something else. 

More than anything, the film is about personal transformation, where theater simply offers an artistic vehicle for personal expression.  Myrtle’s defiance to accept a role as written because she feels it’s constrictive and suffocating leads to major disagreements and confrontations with the consistently inflexible theater management, continually altering the format of the play, inventing new lines, literally fighting for her life by turning to the audience in live dress rehearsals and exclaiming, “We must never forget this is only a play.”  Exacerbating the fears is heavy alcohol use, where in the middle of the night before the play opens, Myrtle desperately turns to Maurice, her co-star and ex-lover for comfort, exactly as Judy Garland used to call Cassavetes in the middle of the night looking for reassurance during the filming of A Child Is Waiting (1963), where Myrtle encourages him to try a radically new approach to the play, “Let’s dump it upside down and see if we can’t find something human in it,” an approach the real life Cassavetes would find inspired, but Maurice rejects her, telling her “You’re not a woman to me anymore.  You’re a professional,” telling her “I have a small part. It’s unsympathetic.  The audience doesn’t like me.  I can’t afford to be in love with you.”  By morning, however, she becomes traumatized, where her inner demons take over, and she mutilates herself viciously in front of the playwright, who by this point she despises, believing this may put her own demons to rest, telling her, “I will do anything, anything, to give my character authenticity on stage.”  Myrtle is late for the opening, then arrives dead drunk, yet she is cruelly pushed by Manny to perform anyway, refusing to allow anyone to help her, forcing her to literally crawl her way to her dressing room.  Unbelievably, still careening off walls, she stumbles to her backstage position, receiving the encouraging words from Cassavetes stalwart John Finnegan, “I’ve seen a lot of drunks in my day, but I’ve never seen anybody as drunk as you and still be able to walk.  You’re fantastic!”    

Leaning against walls, and with the help from everyone involved who often carry her from one location to the next, she goes onstage, where she then proceeds to change all the lines of the play, totally improvising with co-star Maurice, leaving characters alone onstage as she disappears unexpectedly, then completely reinvents the dialogue when she returns.  Despite her state of extreme inebriation, she remains a sympathetic figure, actually reversing the roles, with Maurice playing her aging character while she flirts with everyone in sight, showing signs of Buster Keaton, Lucille Ball, even the Marx Brothers, some of which is brilliant, other times failing miserably.  Breathing life into an otherwise failed literary misadventure (despite those giant feathers in Joan Blondell’s lavishly ostentatious hats!), this is a film that is not afraid to fail, and is about the fear and pain of performing, heightening the anxiety and the insecurity of the star to the limit, somewhat similar to the exaggerated theatricality of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), but stretched and expanded here, juggling on stage and off stage actions, becoming a free-wheeling comedic improvisational farce, Opening Night (1977) - Stage play with the leg trick  YouTube (4:28), like something out of a hilariously inventive vaudeville routine with actors addressing the audience directly with personal asides, “I am not me!...There’s someone posing here as us!”  While it’s always important to recall that Rowlands is really channeling her husband, becoming his alter-ego for both his methods and his madness, OPENING NIGHT shows what happens both on the stage and behind the scenes, capturing the persona of all persons involved in the theater, large and small, where this is a brilliant, in-depth look at the world of performance, art, and the extraordinarily fragile connections between the performers and the audience.  Of interest, the ending was allegedly recut as the preview audience stood up and cheered at what they saw on stage, not the bewildered effect Cassavetes was looking for. 

In this outtake from a 1978 television interview (which was never broadcast), Cassavetes discusses his film Opening Night for a while, and builds into a terrific rant on movies and movie audiences.  This is a great example of Cassavetes way with words, his dislike of people who live only for the approval of others, and his anger at the low popularity of his later films (especially Opening Night and Killing of a Chinese Bookie):  John Cassavetes - "Television Sucks!"  YouTube (8:08).

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

USA  (135 mi)  1976   revised in 1978 (108 mi)  d:  John Cassavetes

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 haven't been asked before, ones that you haven't thought about every day of your life. Or, if you have thought about them, you haven't had the questions posed this way. [Film is an investigation of life.] What we are. What our responsibilities in life are – if any. What we are looking for; what problems do you have that I may have? What part of life are we both interested in knowing more about?

—John Cassavetes

Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Sophistication and his Delovlies 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.
—Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara)

Following A Woman Under the Influence (1974) and the sense of friction it caused between the controversial Cassavetes working methods and his wife Gena Rowlands, they took a step back from working with each other.  Cassavetes had an affinity for gangster pictures, largely because he had to work in them as an actor in order to support his career as a film director, and he felt the gangster genre could be commercially viable, where he could get out of the film distribution business, a time consuming and all too draining effort.  While the idea for the film came in a discussion with Martin Scorsese, Cassavetes often thought of studio heads as men who associated with gangsters, and that they were dealing with mob money, which he felt filtered into many of the most powerful businesses in America.  Also, one should not overlook the huge success of THE GODFATHER Pt’s 1 and 2 (1972, 74) in the early 70’s, a genre Cassavetes didn’t find terribly interesting, but he found a way to wield a storyline he was excited about into a gangster picture, imagining a nightclub owner owing a huge amount of debt, where he’s talked into killing someone who turns out to be completely different than what he thought, not a low rung bookie but a West coast mob boss.  He got the idea of a strip club from Alain Bernardin’s Crazy Horse Saloon in Paris, recently depicted by documentarian Fred Wiseman in Crazy Horse (2011), largely because it was such a personal vision, where Bernardin founded, owned, and operated it, hired the girls, scripted the shows, and choreographed the acts, bringing all the girls into his extended family operation, much like Cassavetes own concept of making films, which are largely family affairs.  In addition, Cassavetes drew upon the knowledge of actor Seymour Cassel and his mother, who was a burlesque dancer, where Cassel spent much of his youth hanging around strippers and old-time Vaudeville acts.  One of Cassavetes’ favorite films was Arthur Penn’s surreal and criminally underrated Mickey One (1965), which features Warren Beatty as a night club comic who goes on a drunken gambling binge and ends up owing some astronomical amount to the mob, apparently so large an amount they won’t even tell him how much, where Beatty spends the rest of the film drifting in and out of his own imagination, a dreamlike, Kafkaesque nightmare where the interior landscape is portrayed as an existential wasteland.  Both films today feel like modernist works, like a Waiting for Godot theatrical production where there's only one guy left talking to himself, stuck in his own Hellish purgatory.     

A film infused with existential angst, first released in 1976 (but recut two years later to a shorter version, which was, for awhile, the only version available), this is an intimate character study of Cosmo Vitelli, a suave and debonair Ben Gazzara, who owns a lurid Los Angeles strip club, the Crazy Horse West, with club singer Mr. Sophistication (Meade Roberts, an American television and movie screenwriter who collaborated with Tennessee Williams on several plays brought to the screen) and a staple of beautiful girls he calls his Delovlies, and has finally paid off all his debts to a lowlife loan shark, with Cassavetes own lifelong producer Al Ruban playing the role as Marty, then recklessly gambles his way back into debt one night to the tune of $23,000.  When faced with the loss of his club, which, in effect, represents his “life,” he settles with the mob, who orders him to kill a Chinese gangster to call it even, where they order a double cross to take him out afterwards.  In a departure from the norm, Cassavetes actually shows action shots, chase scenes, and a hellish life and death meeting of the minds in a seedy looking garage.  The last hour of the film follows Cosmo with a bullet in his side, slowly bleeding to death, like Johnny Depp in Jim Jarmusch’s revisionist acid western DEAD MAN (1995), as he revisits his girl friend Rachel (Azizi Johari), whose mother Betty (Virginia Carrington) kicks him out, not wanting any of that trouble making its way into her home, then his lovely showgirls, who he adores and who are his real family, as his life and its previous secrets pass before his eyes.  This intimate portrait of a man whose world is crumbling, yet never once flinches or misses a day at work, keeping his best face forward so that no one suspects a thing, revolves around his staple of lonely hearts who faithfully get up on stage everyday, talent or not, just to keep the business afloat for Cosmo.  This is a wildly idiosyncratic view of the human psyche, with similarities to Cassavetes’s own circumstances, gambling his own money on what were considered his crazy artistic ventures, offering some unusual views about what it takes to stay in business, expressed with a breath of fresh air, with theatricality and song, with a unique warmth and charm, a human face in the crowd, as Mr. Sophistication brings the film to a close singing the movie’s anthem:  “I can’t give you anything but love, baby.”  There's a lifetime of lost opportunities wrapped into this film, where things could turn out a different way, but people struggle and persevere, and oftentimes redeem themselves, gloriously expressed in a song.  Cassavetes finds the poignant moments.  It’s hard to imagine, but he finds them.

There is some confusion about the two versions of the film, as the movie bombed at the box office, with critics finding it disorganized and unfathomable, causing Cassavetes to rework the film and release it two years later in a shortened version, but also introducing new footage, which was the only version seen thereafter.  Today the film emotes a clarity of vision, with a semi-ragged, offbeat style that generates plenty of suspense, especially as he approaches the killing itself.  Due to the rarity of the original longer version, it became the cut to see.  After the Criterion label released both versions, there is rising support for the 2nd version, as this was not at a studio’s urging, but a newly revised vision from the director himself, not exactly a director’s cut, but perhaps an extension of his original vision, with both versions using as little artificial light as possible, creating a noirish mood, where people are often seen creeping through the dark, then in stunning contrast they’d shoot through color filters on the inside of the club.  Because the camera stays on Cosmo throughout the entire film, and so much is filtered through his eyes, one would think the more time you get to experience Cosmo onscreen, which is the original version, the better idea you have of the complexity of his character, where he continually has to divide his interests, always trying to please others, where the moments spent alone are particularly devastating, where he expresses a profound loneliness.  As Cassavetes sees himself in Cosmo, leading his own rag tag group of fringe characters, the story comes to typify his own experience with Hollywood.  A case can be made that this experience is better expressed without the meandering scenes that tend to get easily sidetracked, where Cosmo is in a world of woe, having to be all things to all people.  In the 2nd version, the editing eliminates any hint of excess, and actually changes many of the sequences, adding a different sense of focus to the film.  In both versions, what’s central to the film remains intact, particularly the meeting scene with the gangsters, who may as well be the producers, which must resemble the hundreds of meetings Cassavetes attended where his ideas were undermined and he was betrayed, where you have to sit around and wait, as they go through this myriad of meetings with others first, and when it’s finally your turn, you’re outnumbered, as it’s eight against one, where you’re so worn out from waiting that whatever your original intent was has been worn down by the weariness and exhaustion of having to sit around, and the executives end up getting their way.  Perhaps where Cosmo differs from the director is in Cosmo’s need to please, where he only felt comfortable as a snappy dresser, always looking sharp, surrounding himself with beautiful girls, and thinking he’s got it made.      

In something of a blistering critique of American capitalism, Cassavetes invites the audience to share in Cosmo’s journey to survive in a cesspool of lies and broken promises, not to mention money and plenty of muscle that prevent you from ever succeeding.  When Seymour Cassel invites Cosmo to their gambling club, they’re looking for a patsy to do the job.  After a bit of gangster rough stuff, believing he has no other choice, Cosmo buckles, as would just about anybody if enough pressure is put on them, and reluctantly agrees to perform the hit, and surprisingly he gets out of it alive, surprising even the mob who figured that would never happen.  He’s rewarded by the mob snuffing him out in a double cross, which is Cassavetes version of how artists are treated in Hollywood.  Cassavetes sees gangsters as all the hired movie executives that prevent artists from doing what they want to do, as petty people that nag at you with details and restrictions, ordering rewrites and other various changes, all detracting from the artist’s original vision.  Even onstage, Mr. Sophistication, a man of elegance and taste sharing a stage with strippers, is forced to deal with booing from the audience, who just want to see the girls, and repeated ridicule and humiliation from his fellow performers, as they can’t believe a guy would take himself so seriously, so they pull various pranks on him, which he doesn’t find so funny.  In this environment, it’s impossible to create anything daring or new, as no one would ever come to see it, much less appreciate it, which was the story of Cassavetes’ career, largely misunderstood during his lifetime, disliked by audiences and critics alike, while anointed both critically and publicly after death to one of the founders of the American independent movement, though he remains something of an outsider, stuck as he is in the art world.  This was certainly not Cassavetes’ choice, but became the only way to survive in an ocean of sharks to get his films in front of the public.  He likely never anticipated the invention of the DVD in the mid 90’s, long after his death in 1989, or the effect of the Criterion label, where more people would view his films after death, and laud his artistry, than they ever would in his lifetime.     

Looking at a few scenes from the film, one sees how the opening sequence has been altered in the two versions, as the original opening starts with an extended scene with the loan shark, Marty, Ben Gazzara in Killing of a Chinese Bookie - Opening 15 min: OneMinFilmSchool  YouTube (13:48), followed by a bar scene with the cabdriver, who is cut out of the 2nd version, while this recut 1978 opening starts with Cosmo walking out of his club, “Things’ll pick up,” shortening the scene with Marty, the killing of a chinese bookie: opening YouTube (1:18), before moving directly to scenes at the club where Cosmo introduces himself.  One of the more interesting scenes is a waitress who asks to audition for Cosmo, Morning audition YouTube (7:12), set to the song “Rainy Fields of Frost and Magic” by Bo Harwood, where his original music leaves a timeless impression, but ends up in a fight between Rachel and the potential new girl, culminating with the classic line, “I’m a club owner.  I deal in girls.”  Here’s a hilarious phone call expressing an incredulous state of mind as Cosmo is about to pull off the hit, but calls the club on a payphone while waiting for his cab, Ben Gazzara Phone Booth scene, Killing of a Chinese Bookie  YouTube (1:39), which leads here The Killing of a Chinese Bookie - bookie gets whacked YouTube (1:27).  Like Henry V, Cosmo gives an encouraging speech to revive his floundering troops, sad about losing Rachel, one of their stars who quits, where this entire rah-rah speech comes with a bullet in his side, Scene from The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Ben Gazzara YouTube (4:13).  The final moments are given to Mr. Sophistication, The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie - end scene YouTube (1:55), a picture of futility, where an artist can expect to be humiliated and made a complete fool of, dying a slow death onstage, reminiscent of the Charles Mingus song “The Clown,” Charles Mingus - 04 The Clown - YouTube (12:13), narrated by Jean Shepherd, about a clown who in his efforts to please the audience is forced to endure more and more pain, where the greater the pain, the greater the applause, until eventually the clown dies onstage, to thunderous applause, as they all felt it was part of his act, where the public has always had a hard time distinguishing between illusion and reality, while Cosmo himself is too caught up exuding his own personal warmth and charm, ignoring the obvious reality.    

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

No Fear, No Die (S’en Fout la Mort)

NO FEAR, NO DIE (S’en Fout la Mort)          A-                  
France  Germany  (90 mi)  1990  d:  Claire Denis

It’s a film that’s influenced by Frantz Fanon’s Peaux noire, masques blancs (Black Skins, White Masks). I understood something in Fanon’s book that touched me immensely. I am a very sensitive person who can’t stand the feeling of humiliation, regardless if black or whites are the objects of this humiliation. When I read Les Damnés de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth), it increased my anger over the social inequities that groups and individuals are forced to endure […]. In S’en fout la mort, I deal with a French West Indian man here in Paris, exploring his psychological weakness and the spiritual tragedy of his life. Fanon describes a special type of neurosis – colonized people feeling psychologically defeated even though they are physically free to determine their future.
—Claire Denis in an interview taking place August 21, 1994 with Mark A. Reid from Jump Cut, Claire Denis interviewed by Mark A. Reid - Jump Cut

A powerful and brutally disturbing film, easily the most dramatically downbeat of all the Denis films, and the most racially charged work in her entire repertoire.  Not an easy film to digest, with metaphoric implications, it is nonetheless a work of extraordinary power, but one that keeps its seething undertones beneath the surface.  Coming early in her career, after having made the highly acclaimed Chocolat (1988), which is more of a classically structured, visually impressive European art film, this simply isn’t like that, at times feeling infurioratingly subliminal.  While both films deal with the effects of colonization, Chocolat (1988) examines symptoms of a colonized occupation, while NO FEAR, NO DIE focuses more upon the psychological impact left behind, where the postcolonial mindset still has traumatic reverberations from having been imprinted by a colonized mentality.  These are highly complex ideas that rarely ever translate well to the screen, where even Richard Wright’s Native Son (1951), starring the author as the lead character, comes across as less incendiary than the novel upon which it is based.  While Beau Travail (1999) receives heaps of praise, deservedly so, but especially from white critics, who may be less inclined to endorse a complicated and downbeat work about two black immigrants from former French colonies, where racist attitudes are prevalent throughout, making it intentionally uncomfortable and difficult to watch.  A work that was clearly inspired by Frantz Fanon, its grim racial implications are so subtly presented that some may miss it altogether, as Denis leaves plenty to the imagination, and there are no explanatory references communicated to the audience, as this is a film, much like psychological neuroses, that largely exists under the surface. 

Isaach de Bankolé, who played Protée in Chocolat (1988) is Dah, an African from Benin, while Alex Descas is Jocelyn from the West Indies, where the two are business partners smuggling roosters into France for illegal cockfights.  Their destination is an industrial factory district that is little more than a truck stop, a strange and mysterious landscape in the banlieues outside Paris where an abandoned warehouse has been refurbished inside for cockfights.  While Dah offers a sparse inner narration, Jocelyn provides the training for the animals, having grown up with them as a child on the islands, and Dah handles the business end with white club owner Pierre Ardennes, Jean-Claude Brialy from early New Wave films, whose sensuous wife Toni, Solveig Dommartin from Wim Wenders WINGS OF DESIRE (1987) and UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD (1991), runs the bar, while the brooding son Michel (Christopher Buchholz) handles the disco.  Dah is the more jovial and outgoing of the two and seems unaffected by the callousness of his white business associates, while Jocelyn is silent for much of the film, whose growing resentment only escalates, where his troubling relationship with the whites slowly deteriorates, becoming the centerpiece of the film.  Both black actors are superb, perhaps offering the performances of their respective careers, but they do so nonverbally, as so much of the film is expressed through their silent reaction to what’s taking place around them, an often brutal and suffocating world that if they’re not careful would swallow them whole.  What’s immediately apparent is the difference in living quarters, as the whites live upstairs in relative opulence, with their own private chef, used to the finer things in life where wine and champagne are the norm, while the two blacks live downstairs in the boiler room in the same cramped space as the caged roosters.  One can only imagine the smell. 

The film opens with a quote from black American writer Chester Himes, who emigrated to France in the 1950’s, a contemporary of fellow expatriate black writers Richard Wright, William Gardner Smith, and James Baldwin:  “All men, whatever their race, color or origins, are capable of anything and everything.”  Denis finds a way of visualizing this expression through the underworld of illegal cockfighting, a savage ritual that exists in order to please the men who bet heavily on the outcome.  The intensity of the men screaming on the sidelines with wads of cash in their hands matches the flurry of blurred movement in the pit where the two roosters continually jump around and peck at one another.  This violent portrait of exploitation overlaps with the private worlds of the men who run the operation.  No one identifies with the animals more than Jocelyn, who feeds and trains them, while also nursing them back to health after a fight, often seen dancing with them in the training ring while listening to blaring rap music.  This draws the attention of Toni, who makes unannounced visits into their lower domain, where the underlying sexual vibe suggests these are the men she’s really interested in, as they name their most prized rooster after her, where the extreme physicality of their world is beautifully captured by the director’s approach to making such uniquely sensual films.  It’s in scenes like this where the audience realizes these men have no privacy, where the lowered ceilings offer a claustrophobic environment that couldn’t feel more oppressively suffocating and confined, little more than an underground prison.  Jocelyn’s attachment to the animals becomes problematic, as he identifies only with the lower life forms, seething with resentment at the brazenly offensive manner of Ardenne, whose arrogance compels him to freely discuss how he had an affair with Jocelyn’s mother, describing how he has her eyes, where one sees hatred brewing in the eyes of his own son Michel, not to mention Toni, where men crudely brag about their sexual exploits. 

A word about Michel, as this character figures prominently in Denis films, perhaps best represented by Nicolas Duvauchelle in White Material (2010), the son of the white owner of a coffee plantation in Africa, where he inherits privilege, growing up expecting he can have anything he wants, and that he is entitled to it.  His self-centered views, never having to think of anyone else except himself, are in stark contrast to people of color, who always have to make adjustments for white people and grow up wary of people like him, as they are capable of doing just about anything, and getting away with it.  In this film, Michel has little screen time, yet he has a powerful influence, as he’s accidentally interrupted by Dah and Jocelyn who arrive in the basement while he’s having sex with Toni, his father’s wife, who stares directly at Jocelyn, which elevates the moral void to tragic Shakespearean proportions, as the Ardennes have no boundaries or shame.  When viewed in this context, nothing is more dangerous than slighted masculinity, where in the eyes of blacks, there is no greater threat than white male violence, which is so unpredictable, supposedly your friend one moment, but viciously attacking you the next, where that violence may erupt at any time.  Denis’s film pulsates with that untapped rage, ready to go off at any moment, where her film is a choreography of untapped masculinity, sexual desire, violence, and unforeseen danger, where the clash of these forces is like electrically charged objects continually bumping into one another, where it’s only a matter of time before there’s an explosion, heightened by the co-mingling forces of hostility, as represented by the oppressed and the oppressor, the colonized and the colonizer, where every scene deals with one protruding into the other.   

Relentlessly bleak and uncompromisingly honest, the film offers a parallel into the dangerous and inhumane living conditions of many black male immigrants living in France.  When viewed under the lens of Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1952), the colonized are forced to live in disgustingly cramped conditions resembling slave quarters, often made to feel like animals, which has a way of affecting their psychological outlook, as they are drawn to failure, feeling defeated before they begin, where the transience and impermanency of their lives diminishes their human value and self-worth, resembling the cheap, exploitive goods that are a staple of colonial trade and commerce.  Ultimately humiliated and ashamed, especially when looked upon by an attractive white woman, where they are powerless to reciprocate, as it was the kiss of death during the slavery era, the colonized black man’s view of himself is extremely pessimistic, as his dignity has been destroyed, where he’s inclined to have a death wish to simply put an end to his misery. Alongside this dour mindset, Denis stages a series of high stakes cockfights, where Ardenne, being the vile and contemptible man that he is, ups the ante, making the fights even more brutal, believing he can make more money if they tie razors to the rooster’s feet, which means instant death, as roosters are suddenly carried out in plastic bags.  For Jocelyn, who trains these animals like they were his own, this is the ultimate indignity and disgrace.  While he wanted to leave earlier, as he sensed Ardenne’s manic energy was uncontainable, Dah tracks him down and brings him back, where he’s forced to endure this slaughter of the only creatures that hold any meaning in his life, all in the name of greed and money, so reminiscent of the amusement of men obtained by pitting gladiators against one another in the spectacle that was the Roman Colosseum.  Slowly, through strangely unbalanced images, like a scene of Jocelyn dancing with a white girl, continually holding her too close, Jocelyn is seen losing his equilibrium, where his ultimate breakdown is heartbreaking, as is Dah’s comforting response afterwards, where the simplicity of childhood memories even under colonization reflect a time of happiness and innocence that had not yet been lost.  Once more, though sparingly used, the raw and soulful music of Abdullah Ibrahim offers a perfect compliment.      

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Trouble Every Day

TROUBLE EVERY DAY                    B                     
France  Germany  Japan  (101 mi)  2001  d:  Claire Denis

Following the unanimous acclaim for Beau Travail (1999), arguably the director’s most erotic and deeply romantic work, this boldly challenges viewers with what must be what is described as an adult film, as it’s certainly not for everyone, revealing far more than the eye can see, significant as the only Claire Denis film that dabbles in the horror genre, something of a modern era vampire film, a graphically violent and thoroughly disturbing vision of carnal desire as a form of cannibalism. becoming something exquisitely revolting and truly frightening by the end, equating sex with death, and not like anything else out there.  Panned at Cannes and critically dismissed in America, the film has undergone a certain revival among cinephiles who recognize rarity when they see it, but the slow and languid pace of the film will likely turn off horror lovers, while the excruciating blood-letting will turn off art film devotees.  Despite the raw and graphic subject matter, this remains a Claire Denis film, expressed with an artful flourish and filled with poetic ambiguity throughout.  Only a more recent film like Tomas Alfredson’s LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008) conveys a similar attention to detail when it comes to flesh-eating monsters starved for blood, while at the same time offering a haunting sensuality behind the camera.  Beautifully filmed by Agnès Godard, this must be viewed as one of her triumphs, as this is a visually stunning film that operates out of its own unique conception, where it lives by its uncompromising rules even as it references vintage horror films.  At heart, this is a FRANKENSTEIN (1931) movie, where the tropical experiments of Doctor Léo Sémeneau (Alex Descas) went awry while researching experimental brain medicine and have now altered the human gene pool, creating vampire-like creatures with a ravenous need not only for blood, but for human flesh. 

The film may also be traced to THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU (1977) and CAT PEOPLE (1982), both films with earlier Black and White versions, as the first deals with the grotesque and disfigured effects of medical experimentation gone wrong, while the second deals with erotic transformation, where the sex urge turns humans into blood devouring, flesh eating beasts, returning to human form only after feeding.  However, in the hands of Denis, a consummate artist known for her poetic subtleties, much of what’s displayed onscreen is graphically disconcerting.  Opening with the music of Tendersticks, it’s one of their better scores, especially the hauntingly beautiful funeral dirge that opens and closes the film and has a way of burrowing under your skin, Trouble Every Day Opening Song Tindersticks - YouTube (3:13), while it’s also extremely effective the way Denis opens with a darkened kiss that fades to black for a lengthy period of time, leaving the audience in a state of suspended animation.  Once the picture returns, the familiar face of actress Béatrice Dalle is seen as Coré, flagging down truckers on the side of the road, where all we see is the bloody aftermath, where her husband (Sémeneau) tracks her down and brings her home, tenderly washing the blood off of her, then locking her into a boarded up room in their mansion.  Simultaneous to this event, an American couple on their honeymoon are flying to Paris, medical researcher Shane Brown (Vincent Gallo) and his overly delicate wife June (Tricia Vessey), where Shane is inflicted with the same disease, having to continually hide from her every time he’s aroused.  While he’s using the honeymoon as a pretext to track down the infamous doctor, June only knows he’s hiding some deep, dark secret, and when she hears him violently masturbating in the bathroom, her pounds on the door evoke sheer terror. 

While this is a thoroughly confounding film, one that makes great use of Béatrice Dalle's physical features, giving her an animal-like presence, the film pushes the boundaries of cinema, much of it without dialogue, but using screams of hysteria, reflective of the Silent era, where it weaves in and out of dream states seemingly at will, and where half of this French-language film, including the title, is spoken in English, contributing to an otherworldy effect, like something out of Dreyer’s VAMPYR (1932).  When a young man’s (Nicolas Duvauchelle) curiosity leads him to Coré’s door, words can’t describe the sense of grim bewilderment overcoming the audience when they realize she is incredulously eating him before our eyes, smearing his blood all over the walls afterwards.  While the audience is aware something is not right with Shane as well, none of the people he meets have a clue, as he spends most of the film popping pills and hallucinating his blood-drenched wife, searching for a cure, but to no avail.  A seemingly innocuous event leads to the savage finale, as the maid (Florence Loiret-Caille) lingers in their room after making the bed, leaving her scent on the bedcovers.  Throughout the film this scene has been set up by shots of the back of the young maid’s neck, which Shane has obviously been tracking, like wild prey on the loose, eventually unleashing a wild, animalistic hunger that will not be denied.  It is this exploration of man’s basest rape instincts that prove to be the most deeply unsettling images of the film, like the horrors of IRREVERSIBLE (2002), complete with blood curdling screams and graphic sexual bloodletting that are among the most difficult scenes to endure in a supremely grotesque finale, as Shane finally gives in to his bloodlust, Claire Denis - Trouble Every Day...  YouTube (5:39).  A haunting shadow of doom overwhelms the senses along with a Tendersticks refrain, sending the audience out the door in a shivering fright.