Wednesday 1 October 2008

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

When it comes to independent film in the United States, John Cassavetes has a solid claim to be the granddaddy of it all. He didn't direct the first American indie but he personifies the spirit of the independent movie in the studio era, because he had the dedication and made the sacrifices to get the control he needed to make films the way he wanted, and he did this in at a time when it wasn't easy. Subsequently his name cames up all the time, as a point of reference, a comparison or as the epitome of a spirit. It's not surprising that the award given to films made in the modern day for less than half a million dollars bears his name: the Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award.

There are fourteen films that bear his name as a director, most of which were done independently, dating back to 1959's Shadows. He paid for them any way he could: by jobbing as an actor in big budget Hollywood films, by accepting donations sent in to a radio show, by distorting truth or outright lying to get funding. You name it, he did it, and the end result is a set of highly distinctive films that scream Cassavetes. He's all over them, not just as the writer, producer, director, cameraman, whatever, but often as a character too. Both Cassavetes and his wife Gena Rowlands are often present inside the characters that populate his stories.

He's certainly here too, in the character of Cosmo Vitelli, which this film is all about. He isn't the Chinese bookie of the title, but he's the one doing the killing, and he's played with plenty of depth by Cassavetes friend and regular collaborator, Ben Gazzara. He's no killer by profession, he's pushed into the work against his will because of a gambling debt. He's really a strip club owner and apparently a good man in an often disappointing way. However he has a passion for gambling and a disregard for only betting what he actually has, the combination of which problems get him into trouble with the mob. They offer him an alternative to paying his $23,000 debt to them: that he kill a man for them.

The parallels are pretty obvious. Vitelli is Cassavetes, constantly struggling to achieve his own seedy sense of the artistic. The Crazy Horse West strip club is his body of independent work, a place for him to show his art in a world that either doesn't care or wants something else. The mob are the establishment, offering easy bargains without the integrity to follow through on them. His girls are his collaborators, the regulars who crop up time and time again in his films, though how deep the parallels go I don't know. Certainly Cosmo cares about his girls, one of whom is his girlfriend, but he doesn't always treat them as well as he could, sometimes because of lack of resources but sometimes through just imperfect humanity. The ambiguous ending is an affirmation of the future.

Peter Falk, another friend and regular collaborator, said that all Cassavetes films were about the same thing: a meditation on the concept that man is God in ruins. This exploration of imperfection certainly provides his actors with plenty of opportunity to explore their characters, and that's how Cassavetes made his films. He gave them the freedom to interpret, which is why his stories often seem improvised. They're not, but the character explorations are. Gazzara shines here, but he's not the only one. Meade Roberts, best known as a writer, is memorable as Mr Sophistication, who leads the entertainment at the Crazy Horse West. This is more powerful and melancholic stuff from a fascinating filmmaker.

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