Saturday, May 02, 2015

Outsider burlesque: The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, The Young Marrieds

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is one of John Cassavetes' most interesting films, and one of his most self-reflexive; it stands in regard his body of work roughly where The Belly of an Architect stands in regard Peter Greenaway's canon, as a sort of self-mocking confessional, a portrait of the artist as an utter loser (though Cassavetes is kinder to his loser than Greenaway is to his and allows him a bit of redemption). Its upcoming screening on May 12th as part of a Vancity Theatre Cinema Salon is a must-attend, being the only theatrical presentation of the film in this city in recent memory, and I'm excited to revisit the film, and on the big screen no less; thanks to presenter, photographer Greg Girard, for picking it.
That said, I think even Cassavetes' admirers have to admit that, for all its noirish qualities, for all its striking imagery, The Killing of a Chinse Bookie is a bit of a failure - an interesting failure, maybe one of the most interesting film failures out there, but a failure nonetheless. The existence of two very different cuts attests to as much: after the film failed to win any attention/ acclaim in 1976, Cassavetes - who, after the success of A Woman Under the Influence, was in charge of distributing it himself, and in complete control of the film - substantially altered it, seemingly attempting to streamline the ungainly aspects of the film, rearranging scenes, including new material, cutting a lot of footage that doesn't drive the narrative forward, mostly of interminable, embarrassing song-and-dance-routines. That version, released in 1978, is the one that will screen, and it's the superior cut - there's a detailed comparison of the two versions online here - but it also failed to win much of an audience at the time. And I've always been somewhat surprised to read that Cassavetes (or anyone) was surprised by the film's failure, as interesting as I find it: the movie just doesn't quite work, structurally or artistically, is an imperfect, confusing, embarrassing, disconcerting experience in any version you see it in. The shorter version leaves you wanting more, wondering what happened at various junctures, feeling like something essential has been left out of the story; the longer version, which finally came out on home video a few years ago on the Criterion box, leaves you wanting less, and raises more questions than it answers.
The plot goes roughly like this: after accumulating a towering gambling debt, a stripclub owner, Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara) is strongarmed by gangsters (including the always great Seymour Cassel and the absolutely legendary Timothy Carey, above) into murdering a Chinese rival of theirs. The Crazy Horse West, Cosmo's establishment, puts on absurd burlesque shows, filled with sentimentality and playfulness and precious little in the way of actual titillation. The shows are at the same time wonderful - in their innocence, sincerity and apparent naive ambition - and godawful in their execution; it's outsider burlesque, which Cosmo glowingly gives himself credit for directing. "I’m the owner of this joint," he boasts from the stage. "I choose the numbers, I direct them, I arrange them." His pride, his ego, is obvious, but is undercut by the fact that most of what we see onstage is facepalm material, is so cringe-inducing that you can't even bring yourself to laugh at it.
People - including Gazarra - have spoken about the film being a metaphor for Cassavetes himself, the artist versus "business," but if these burlesque shows are meant in any way to be a representation of Cassavetes film practice, they're quite self-mocking. The fact that Cosmo - who Cassavetes has described as a "conformist" - ends up defending his club, and willing to do extreme things to protect it, is in a way admirable - he is the artist heroically defending his work against the money men, a position Cassavetes often found himself in - but it's also, when you consider exactly how daft the "work" in question is, kind of pathetic, kind of absurd. If Cosmo is in any way a self-portrait of the filmmaker, it's a shockingly humbling one, from a filmmaker not particularly noted for his humility. That's kind of what makes the film so compelling: it seems to be offering an almost bottomless insight into Cassavetes' himself, while frustratingly making it very challenging to determine what exactly is being said. Like I say, it's one of the most interesting failures out there...
An speaking of failures... an interesting side note, for enthusiasts of Ed Wood and for cult cinema in general: Alice Friedland, the buxom, airy blonde on Cosmo's arm through much of Bookie (pictured in the limo above), also appears in The Young Marrieds, a porno directed by storied film fuckup Ed Wood near the end of his life. Long believed lost, and only recently rediscovered by "porn archaeologist" Dimitrios Otis, that film will screen at the Rio May 15th-16th, Haven't seen it - I am not actually a connoisseur of Ed Wood - but Alice Friedland may just be the selling point for this screening. Pretty interesting that these two films should screen in Vancouver in such close proximity to each other! Think I might just do both...

1 comment:

Tom said...

Talking of burlesque and Bookie, check this out:
and this: