Around Town: Cinema d?PIsordre

Buffalo Film Seminars to feature The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

The Spectrum

It's been four years since professors Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian have shown a John Cassavetes film through the Buffalo Film Seminars.

In the spring of 2010, they showed A Woman Under the Influence (1974), an intense and emotional confrontation with the suffering of a marriage afflicted by mental illness. At that point, it had been over eight years since they had last shown a Cassavetes picture. In the fall of 2002, they showed his groundbreaking film Faces (1968), another acute dissection of the minutiae of a complicated marriage, and the film that earned Cassavetes recognition as a visionary director.

This Tuesday night, Jackson and Christian will return to Cassavetes' oeuvre; they are showing The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) at the Market Arcade Film and Arts Centre in downtown Buffalo. And though this film doesn't revolve itself around a marriage the way that Faces and A Woman Under the Influence does, it is as much an exemplar of Cassavetes' personal style of non-formulaic filmmaking and the remarkable range of his emotional depth.

Cassavetes is often credited as making the first independent American film (Shadows, 1968). Professors Jackson and Christian will be the first to tell you that whenever anybody says that someone was "the first" to do something in cinema, they are wrong. Generally speaking, whatever it is in film, it's been done before.

Cassavetes wasn't "the first" American filmmaker to make an independent film, but he redefined what independent meant. He proved that independent cinema doesn't have anything to do with whether a movie is made inside or outside the Hollywood system. It has to do with filmmakers breaking free of conventions and formulas to tell a story.

He showed us that independent movies are independent ideas put on the screen.

And Cassavetes' style of filmmaking is, in both its creation and content, totally independent. His movies are completely focused on the intricacies of behavior; they are driven to find truth in human experience.

As a result, his films are some of the most entropic ever made - they lack order and inevitability and are never formed by some derivative plot arc. In fact, his films never have a plot. A plot is something that can be deconstructed and reconstructed. Cassavetes wanted to show audiences how films can be like life. And in the sheer disarray of his cinematic style, he shows us that life is inherently messy.

When Cassavetes made his gangster picture, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, he did something innovative: He took his cinema of disorder and applied it to a genre. Cassavetes' film does contain some of the established traits of gangster films - action sequences, suspense, murder, a nightclub with topless dancers - and yet it retains the quality of a unique vision.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookietells the story of Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara), the owner and operator of a strip club called Crazy Horse West. He spends much of his time there drinking, gambling and dating strippers. Right away, we see that he is a prisoner to his compulsions and weaknesses. Even as he struggles with his debt to loan sharks, he can't resist the indulgence of his desires.

After he gets into trouble with the mob, he is given an order to kill a Chinese bookie or face the alternative - be killed himself. Cosmo is in no way sharp enough to dodge this demand, so Cassavetes makes the conflict about whether he has it in him to commit the act.

The reality of what he has to do all takes place amidst the realm of fantasy; Cosmo's life is completely integrated with Crazy Horse West. The symbolic significance of strippers is almost always the same - they are something you are supposed to be made to desire, but also know that you cannot have.

But Cosmo does "have" the strippers - he even dates one - and the movie explores what happens next. It becomes a nightmare fixated on coming to terms with yourself.

In Cassavetes' universe, the self is nowhere near knowable, as it is always transforming. Cosmo shows how the projection of self is often a frantic and constant improvisation. Much like a performance, it all takes place amidst a certain set of parameters that you yourself have created.

As time passes, you inevitably evolve. As David Brooks once said, "The brain is a malleable organ. Every time you do an activity, or have a thought, you are changing a piece of yourself into something slightly different than it was before." For Cosmo, this aspect of the human condition causes severe existential angst.

Toward the end of the film, he tries to inspirit his dancers with a monologue that is really geared more at himself. "Look at me," he says. "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."

Implicit in his speech is the recognition that every person has a unique and idiosyncratic worldview, and that you need to craft a persona detached from other people's expectations to find real inner peace - you have to just be who you are. But the question is, how do you really do that? How do you make sense of yourself when the self is always changing?

Starring Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel, Timothy Agoglia Carey, Robert Phillis, Morgan Woodward and Azizi Johari, the film bombed at the box office when it was released. Critics hated it and audiences believed them. It was originally 134 minutes long, but after commercial disappointment Cassavetes cut it to 108 minutes in what became a compressed version released in 1978.

The Criterion Collection DVD includes both versions, however, and Professors Jackson and Christian will be showing the film in its original 1976 form.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie will be playing Tuesday at 7 p.m.