The author at home

Monday, February 6, 2012

John Cassavetes and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

“Watching the film is like listening to someone use a lot of impressive words, the meanings of which are just wrong enough to keep you in a state of total confusion, but occasionally right enough to hold your attention. What is he trying to say? It takes a little while to realize that maybe the speaker not only doesn't know but doesn't even care to think things out.”
--Vincent Canby, The New York Times

“All my life I’ve fought against clarity—those stupid, definitive answers. Phooey on a formula life, on slick solutions. It’s never easy. I think it’s only in the movies that it’s easy.”
--John Cassavetes

Ben Gazzara’s death over the weekend prompted me to re-re-re-re-re-re-re-watch The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, my favorite of John Cassavetes’ films, and, I think, one of the greatest things ever committed to celluloid. It’s a weird, quiet, disorienting, confusing piece of work. It’s a hard movie to watch. None of these qualities are ever really alleviated, no matter how many viewings you give it.

Before the 1990s, when Cassavetes’ best pictures got released on video (and he was celebrated by Fugazi in the song “Cassavetes”, a dreadful tune and one of their few real missteps), he was known mainly for playing Mia Farrow’s husband in Rosemary’s Baby and the films he directed were mostly rumors spoken in revival houses. I was lucky enough in 1990 to catch a screening of A Woman Under the Influence at Boston University, where Ray Carney—the primary mover behind Cassavetes’ reputational resurrection—taught film classes. I think Carney said he had one of the two (at that time) existing prints of the film. I was prone then to having panic attacks, and I had one while watching. I needed to leave, but I also needed to go back as soon as it was over. I’m still not certain why I broke so hard, sitting there in the dark, but trying to figure it out got me hooked on Cassavetes’ movies and, especially, on The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.

What’s the film about? On the most basic level, it’s about Cosmo Vittelli, a strip-club owner (Ben Gazzara) in debt to gangsters, who’s strong armed into shooting a Chinese mobster. He’s supposed to fail but doesn’t. Lots of gunfire ensues. That, of course, doesn’t capture it.

On a less basic level, maybe you could say it’s about a man whose fantastical visions of who and what he is collide with a reality he tries to keep unacknowledged, a portrait of almost damning avoidance. Again—maybe you could say that, but it still doesn’t capture it. And its unlikely that any film, any piece of art—and the movie is most certainly a work of art—that can be described as being “about” anything in concepts like that will be all that worthwhile

To me, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is about the experience of watching it. Or maybe it’s better to say that the film is about the experience of watching an experience unfold over a set period of time. You can’t ever fully know the import and impact of an experience while it’s happening, and to sum it up later usually means to rip the nuance and complexities right out of it. Cassavetes was always mouthing off about trying to get at “the truth” in his films. I can’t really say what hard, solid “truth” he’s getting at here, because the film, like all great artworks, is a little bit inscrutable. I can only say that there are a lot of small truths, in accretion, and what you see depends on who you are when you watch it. The truths are going to morph each time you sit down, cue the film up, and press “play.”

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is disorienting the whole way through. People’s motives aren’t explained; the editing jerks your attention all over the place; there are long shots of inaction, tons of reaction shots without any indications of what trigger them; everyone talks over everyone else; some shots are so dark you can’t tell who’s who or what they’re doing. None of this is accidental. There is nothing familiar going on. You will not—cannot—react to this thing like you do with your standard movie with its standard dramatic arc and its standard stasis/conflict/resolution.

There are a lot of mysteries: Why does Cosmo celebrate paying off the mob by going out and getting $23,000 back in debt to them? Why does he stop for coffee and then audition a dancer when he’s got other important things to do? Why does he screw around with the mob when they offer him a chance to reduce his debt? Why does Cosmo’s girlfriend Rachel attack the dancer during her audition? What the hell is going on with Cosmo and Rachel’s mother? Why does Cosmo kill the gangster? Why does the gangster say, “I’m so sorry” before he gets shot?

And all the bizarre behaviors or inexplicable expressions on people’s faces: the waitress in the hamburger place; Rachel both before and after the fight; the woman looming behind Seymour Cassel when he’s on the phone in the restaurant. There are the characters themselves: You can sense the gulf between Rachel and Cosmo but never quite pin down where they connect and where they diverge; Mr. Sophistication—you want to slap him and hug him all at once; look at the utter vulnerability around the eyes of the “Chinaman”; Cosmo only really revealing—something, something ineluctably human—during those long shots of hesitation or when he’s so beset he can’t rely on his usual impenetrability.

No answers, no explanations. You sense things about the characters and what they do and why. You take an inventory of yourself and your own impulses and reactions, recognizing something of the characters in your own psycho-genetic make up but nothing precise. The whole of the movie—the summation, the thing-of-it—is in a perpetual drift and elision past the tips of your fingers. You can come back again and again and sense something new, but never quite know.

I get this same complex of sensations every time I watch this film. I never truly know it. I probably never will.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Why not?

I really like writing about food and cooking, but I like writing about other things, too. I just like writing in general. So, I figured, I didn’t need to restrict this to culinary things alone—I could pile words up about culinary things and other topics that were occupying the small space in my head. What follows is the first....

My New Turntable: 6 Musical Cliches, or How I am a Dork

“A vinyl record has a groove carved into it that mirrors the original sound's waveform. This means that no information is lost.”

“We live in the digital age, and unfortunately it’s degrading our music, not improving.”
--Neil Young

“Sitting in a room, alone, listening to a CD is to be lonely. Sitting in a room alone with an LP crackling away, or sitting next to the turntable listening to a song at a time via 7-inch single is enjoying the sublime state of solitude.”
--Henry Rollins

Cliché #1: The first music that ever blew the lid right off the top of my skull was Meet the Beatles, which my parents played for me when I was 9 and John Lennon had just been murdered. I can’t listen to it now and haven’t put it on in over 25 years; the childhood nostalgia it evokes is unbearably potent, and, on the real down side, the music sounds unbearably lightweight. By way of explaining that judgment: One of the next albums my parents played not too much later was the Rolling Stones’ Beggar’s Banquet. Compare “I Want to Hold Your Hand” with the similarly libido-driven “Stray Cat Blues” and you might see my point. The vital and historical does not always age well, aesthetically speaking.

But I digress. One of my parents found me sitting on the kitchen linoleum playing MtB (I won’t say which parent because they always accuse me of picking on them. But I would like to take a moment to say, “Hi, Mom!”), and told me that just sitting and listening to music was a waste of valuable time. Music is for pleasurable background purposes, to help pass the time while doing work of some sort, or while driving. Somewhere Nathaniel Hawthorne nodded at me in true sympathy.

Cliché #2: For more than a decade I was a music critic and the size of my music collection peaked at around 2500 pieces of music on cassette, seven-inch, LP, and CD. This meant I spent a lot of time just sitting and listening to music. That number has probably doubled and possibly trebeled with the advent of digital files, even if I accumulate them reluctantly. Digital files offer a strange disembodied sensation of both owning and not-owning a piece of music at the same time. There’s something phantasmic about digital files that hums with melancholia.

Cliché #3: When I started writing about music for fun and money in 1992, record companies sent you copies of new releases. You’d receive boxes with CDs, cassettes, or LPs in them. It was like nerd Christmas every time I’d come home to find one waiting for me, especially when the return address read SST, Sub Pop, Touch and Go, or Amphetamine Reptile. At that time, you could, as a reviewer, choose which format you’d like to receive your swag in and I always chose vinyl. I liked the physical object. It seemed more sturdy than a CD or cassette. The record companies acquiesced until around 1996 or so, when they just simply stopped making vinyl.

Not long afterwards, I stopped being a music critic. I doubt there’s a solid connection but I do know one thing: An LP side clocks in at about 20 or so minutes, which is what my attention span became geared towards. A CD can go for around 80 minutes, which is a long time to be warming a chair. And, yeah, I’m aware that you can press the “stop” button on the CD player at any time, but it’s just different not having the choice, and having the flow of momentum pre-decided. I also ceased just sitting and listening to music (I have never stopped playing it while I do stuff, though). I can’t prove it with hard science, but I believe down to my cockles that CDs and MP3s engender a blurry sort of ADHD. And while I was fully aware that there were die-hard vinyl enthusiasts out there, I assumed they were luddites, similar to cranks who say they don’t own TVs or have never turned on a computer. I figured vinyl had gone the way of the Edsel.

Cliché #4: Not long ago, we were engaged in a conversation with a trio of young women in their early 20s. Nelly was tossing the word “album” into the conversation. The trio of young women recognized “album” as an existing word, but did not seem to process it as an artifact, a conceptualized art work, an entity, a whole piece unto itself. Maybe their ears and cortexes are so attuned to the idea of singles that the arc and flow of an album wouldn’t really register on their perceptions of music. This isn’t even a criticism. It’s probably just evolution and change at work.

Cliché #5: Two weeks ago, my in-laws gave us a cache of stereo equipment that they didn’t need, including a barely-used Technics turntable. I haven’t owned a turntable in a very, very long time, and when I did own one last, my stereo was terrible and the turntable needle nearly destroyed. It was a comedy of errors, tangles, and misconnections getting all the components hooked up, and required three separate trips to Radio Shack for various wires. I tested it with a 45 of Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” that I bought for a quarter at a yard sale last summer. The 45 was in bad shape, but everything else was in working order. Next, I rooted through my stash of vinyl. Mainly, what really appealed to me right then was the novelty of hearing some stuff I hadn’t heard in ages, and in a few cases, had bought and never played.

Cliché #6: I am big enthusiast of free jazz—the honking, screaming, or at least abstracted stuff that heydayed in the late 60s and early70s. I like noise. I like chaos and the sound of things coming unhinged. I like the sound of freedom. I decided to play an LP I bought for 7 bucks and had never debuted: saxophonist Marion Brown’s Afternoon of a Georgia Faun (whether or how it’s related to Debussy’s piece by the same name, I unfortunately couldn’t tell you). As it turned out, it’s actually a very quiet free jazz album, almost a little notional and obscure, full of bells, whistles, hums, buzzes, and the voice of Jeanne Lee. And it sounded incredible: thick but spacious, dense but not muddy, clear but not shrill. I sat rapt for the first side’s 18 minutes. The lid right at the top my skull quaked. It was more than listening—it was really experiencing that music. My 9-year-old brain had really been on to something I couldn’t even realize at the time, just as I was sure my 30-year-old brain was onto something when the CD started reigning omnipotent.

I moved on to Sun Ra’s Nothing Is and then Archie Shepp’s Life at the Donaueschingen Music Festival (thank you Jon Garelick, my old editor at the Boston Phoenix). CDs of this music suddenly began to seem like mere documents of Sun Ra or Archie Shepp playing, but the vinyl held the full brunt of Shepp’s wildness and aggressive blaring. I moved on to Public Image Limited’s Metal Box (the 2006 exact reissue of the metal-boxed original, a birthday gift from my friends Joe Garden and Anita Serwacki). This was also a revelation. I had always assumed all that audiophile stuff about vinyl’s supremacy was a lot of blather. Sometimes the flavor of your own words, when forced to eat them, tastes pretty good.

Because Nelly and I are prematurely old people, many of our evenings involve watching the re-runs of 30 Rock and Law and Order: SVU that I DVR. But after the shows are done, prior to the nightly ablutions, I’ve taken to just sitting and listening to music again. The nostalgia is not unbearably potent. This is real communing, a genuine moment. I’ve got Pharaoh Sanders on deck, and the Stooges Funhouse, and my dad’s 46-year-old copy of Highway 61 Revisited (in Mono). I’ve got to get the Black Flag and Grateful Dead records out of storage. And I’m realizing there’s a whole world of new vinyl out there (these days measured in 180-gram increments) and I’m itching to get my mitts on as much of it as I can. This is amazing.