Excerpts from a
THE KILLING OF A
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....Cosmo struts through The Killing of a Chinese Bookie with an aplomb that dozens of gangster films have immortalized. From Cagney, Raft, Muni, and Bogart in the forties to Schwarzenegger, Nicholson, De Niro, and Eastwood in the nineties, we have seen this he-man maintain his cool under fire as he man-handles the women he lets into the margins of his life. But while these films celebrate masculine coolness and self-possession, Cassavetes wants us to question it. Peter Bogdanovich's Saint Jack – which features Ben Gazzara in a reprise of his role here – succinctly summarizes the difference: Bogdanovich is in love with his star's charm, panache, and style, while Cassavetes sees them as tragic evasions.
There are so many extraordinary female parts in Cassavetes' work that it is easy to forget that he was one of the supreme explorers of the male psyche in all of American art. He has Robert Harmon say "men don't interest me," but even as he says it, his tone gives away his creator's fascination with the weirdness of the male psyche. Cassavetes' films put manhood under a microscope – in all of its various manifestations, from Tony, Bennie, and Hughie in Shadows, the salesmen in Faces, and the husbands in Husbands, to Cosmo here, and Robert in Love Streams. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a searching study of what it is to be a man in our culture.
Cassavetes uses Ben Gazzara's actorly stillness and reserve to investigate the male need to be in control. Cosmo is emotionally invulnerable. He won't let anyone – even his lover Rachel – get past his veneer of poise. He keeps the show going through thick and thin, in scene after scene. He is stunningly cool in the heat of action and unflappable in the face of death. He devotes his life to looking good – on stage and off – and succeeds. But Cassavetes wants us to examine the emotional costs of caring so much about appearances. He wants us to ask what happens to our lives when looking good and acting cool become so important.
Cassavetes' work represents film as a form of knowledge – as a process of exploring and understanding people and experiences outside of the movies, but American film criticism – from Manny Farber and Andrew Sarris to David Bordwell and beyond – has never been intensely interested in film as a form of truth-telling. It is always easier to describe movies in terms of semantically empty aesthetics (the "beauty" or "virtuosity" of the photography, the "signature of the auteur" or the "stylistics" of the work); to talk about a movie's relation to other movies (its conformity to or violation of "genre conventions," its "intertextual" connections with other films); to describe it in terms of contentless cognitive arrangements (value-neutral "structures" of meaning and emotionally empty "diegetic strategies"); or to reduce it to a series of de-authored, impersonal "ideological" predispositions (as much feminist and politically engaged criticism does). Such criticism unconsciously internalizes the values of Hollywood filmmaking (the values it is supposed to place in critical perspective). It parades its knowledge of lighting, photography, and editing, but has virtually nothing to tell us about life or the relation of art to life. Like the typical high-concept pitch session, it is keen on connections of one movie with another, but falls silent if we dare to ask why any of this matters.
Since the explorations in Cassavetes' films never remain merely formal, since his style is always in service of moral values and human meanings, his work raises issues with which such criticism simply cannot deal. His films explore new human emotions, new conceptions of personality, new possibilities of social relationship. He explores new ways of being in the world, not merely new formal "moves." His films are not walled off in an artistic never-never land of stylistic inbreeding and cross-referencing. Cassavetes gives us films that tell us about life, and aspire to help us to live it. He shows us that art can be a form of knowledge, the finest, most complex form of knowledge, and of its communication, yet invented. We learn things when we watch his movies, about our culture, ourselves, and our relations with others, that we never knew and that can't be communicated in any other way. This passed relatively unnoticed and uncommented upon during his lifetime because the knowledge we acquire is not didactic, but stylistic. We don't learn new facts or observations or beliefs, but new ways of seeing, hearing, thinking, feeling, and being in the world.
The experiences in Cassavetes' films were mysterious to him and his actors when he began them, while he made them, and after he was finished with them, and they stay mysterious for a viewer, no matter how many times he sees the films. The mysteriousness is the experience itself; it is not something added to it in the writing, shooting, editing process, nor is it something eventually to be gotten beyond by figuring it out. As in a Charlie Parker performance, the experience Cassavetes presents only exists in all its speed and density; it never existed in outline form and can therefore never be subsequently translated into outline form, so it stays complex no matter how many times we have it. It may take from three to five viewings of a particular work to get the hang of it, but even when that happens, the complexity is not something we leave behind. Mastery doesn't involving rising above the soupiness, the opacity, the uncertainty, but rather learning to live in them, responding nimbly enough to stay with them, not to drop out of them for even a second. As in listening to the best of Dizzy Gillespie or watching Balanchine's Symphony in Three Movements, it's when we haven't mastered the experience that we keep dropping out of it in a quest for simplifying essences, origins, destinations, or resolutions. Understanding Cassavetes does not consist of moving from confusion to clarity, from thickness to thinness, but rather of eventually learning how to live with particularly intricate and interesting forms of uncertainty, weight, and clutter.
Cassavetes' procedures were the furthest thing imaginable from following a blueprint. His cameramen, producers, and actors all tell stories about how many different ways he wrote, rehearsed, shot, and cut his films, continuously rethinking the material. He was always ready to change in order to pursue a discovery. If he shot a scene and noticed something unexpected that interested him along the way, he might change everything to pursue it. Since he filmed in continuity, as he worked, he was truly watching and wondering, studying and learning about his scenes and his characters. As an example, Cosmo's meeting with the gangsters in the casino after his night gambling was shot over and over again with Gazzara "thanking" the gangsters for their kindness to him using almost imperceptibly different tones of voice, gestures, and facial expressions. Cassavetes later said that he regarded this as one of the key moments in the film, and wanted to understand how someone like Cosmo could carry off the experience of losing absolutely everything while still holding onto his self-respect. He wanted to understand what kind of person can "thank" someone for ruining his life. As he was editing, he repeated the process: comparing alternate takes, studying the unplanned gestures or spontaneous expressions that might have unexpectedly surfaced in a particular take for what they might mean or reveal, playing with the footage to shift the tone or change the emotional effect slightly....
This page only contains excerpts and selected passages from Ray Carney's writing about John Cassavetes. To obtain the complete text as well as the complete texts of many pieces about Cassavetes that are not included on the web site, click here.