“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.”
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.