The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

Saw the original, extended 1976 version of the classic Cassavetes film The Killing of a Chinese Bookie last night. It blew me away completely.

While I was watching the film, I noted that really, there’s no plot whatsoever except for the titular killing, which only takes up about 20 minutes or so in the middle of the film. The rest of the film is just empty dialogue to build character, or to settle things towards the end. And the dialogue really is empty. There’s a completely random anecdote about girls eating gopher tails, for example (srsly, wtf). This is no Waking Life, where every line of speech builds towards some Greater Artistic Truth, and it’s not even like the esteemed Chinatown where seemingly every other line is some sort of sarcastic gangster comeback. And when it comes to portraying everyday life, at least the block residents of Do the Right Thing play off each other and have genuine dialogue. Life in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie takes place in the business world, where people use speech to give orders or status updates, and nothing more.

Yet despite the overall lack of plot or interesting dialogue, I was somehow absolutely engrossed in the film, and I realized that it had to be the direction of Cassavetes. The acting was fine, and the cinematography was quite good, but they couldn’t hold up the film by themselves; somehow every aspect of the film just clicked together perfectly, making an extremely well-made movie, and that has to be the role of the director.

A few years ago (sorry, I don’t have any sources on hand for this), a growing debate emerged out of Hollywood pitting the directors against the screenwriters, specifically regarding who should get the lion’s share of praise in the credits, the press, and the awards ceremonies. Obviously the directors have the upper hand at this point, as you always see titles such as A STEVEN SPIELBERG FILM on posters and trailers, with the writers receiving little or no mention. The question was whether or not this bias towards directorship was indicative of the true balance of power within the making of a Hollywood film.

In the past months, I’d been leaning more towards the side of the writers, as films such as Chinatown, Being John Malkovich, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind blew me away with taut and inventive scripts that probably could’ve been made into brilliant films by any competent director. If a script is written, and actors interpret their roles based on said script and perform in front of the cameras, where exactly is the role of the director? In my mind, probably due to my lack of experience in the realm of theater, I saw them only as weak consultants pacing on the sidestages, occasionally giving advice regarding role interpretations, camera shots, and movement about the set, but nothing major. I felt that a good script could inspire brilliant performances from the actors, and render the director obsolete.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie changed my mind on this debate completely. It’s really quite an uninteresting script, yet Cassavetes is able to transform it into a beautiful, landmark film in cinematic history. Other than that bizarre gopher story, I’m really not sure if I can recall a single line of dialogue from the entire film, and the same is even somewhat true of the camera shots or the acting. Yet somehow, the film as a whole created an indelible impression on my mind.

Looking back on my film collection, I notice that there a few other films I love that have with relatively weak scripts that are saved by brilliant direction, such as Jean-Luc Godard’s groundbreaking Breathless, and my favorite film 8 1/2 somehow makes this cut as well. I can’t believe it at all, but really the script for 8 1/2 really isn’t too great either; it’s quite messy and unorganized in fact, when I look back.

And when I spoke of the great scripts of Charlie Kaufman and Robert Towne earlier, I seemingly overlooked the fact that Chinatown was directed by the unbelievable Roman Polanski, responsible for another weak-script-turned-amazing-film Knife in the Water. That movie takes place almost entirely on a small boat, with two men staring each other down, you can’t get more spartan (and awesome) than that. Kaufman’s two films have been directed by relative newcomers with little previous or subsequent directing experience, so I can’t make any complete judgements on their directorial abilities, though both Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry have shown amazing skills in the music video world. I now have to say that perhaps I overestimated the writers and underestimated the directors. Certainly writers still play a crucial role, but I have to give the directors their credit where credit is due. Thank you Mr. Cassavetes for your beautiful film, I really hope to see more of your work in the future. Rest in peace.

Links:

  • Thomas Pynchon has a new book available for pre-order, scheduled for arrival on December 5th. I’m floored. Interestingly, Thomas Pynchon provided a synopsis for it, but I now notice that Amazon has taken it down! Doesn’t matter, I want the book. [Edit: synopsis now posted below links]
  • A thief in Germany steals the judges’ keys.
  • “I still don’t understand what I’m being charged for and who is charging me,” he said. Kent Hovind, who often calls himself “Dr. Dino,” has been sparring with the IRS for at least 17 years on his claims that he is employed by God, receives no income, has no expenses and owns no property.
  • A letter from inside Beirut.
  • WHERE MY SHIPS AT?! The two cyclones in the Pacific completely make this for me. The Great Lakes, too. [Edit: suddenly, there’s only one cyclone! And check out all the ships above the Arctic Circle, and around Antarctica. What a great site.]
  • And finally, the top 10 unintentionally worst company URLs.

Edit: Here is what Pynchon initially wrote on the Amazon preorder page, taken down for unknown reasons. Perhaps it’s not authentic? It sounds authentic enough:

Spanning the period between the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and the years just after World War I, this novel moves from the labor troubles in Colorado to turn-of-the-century New York, to London and Gottingen, Venice and Vienna, the Balkans, Central Asia, Siberia at the time of the mysterious Tunguska Event, Mexico during the Revolution, postwar Paris, silent-era Hollywood, and one or two places not strictly speaking on the map at all.
With a worldwide disaster looming just a few years ahead, it is a time of unrestrained corporate greed, false religiosity, moronic fecklessness, and evil intent in high places. No reference to the present day is intended or should be inferred.

The sizable cast of characters includes anarchists, balloonists, gamblers, corporate tycoons, drug enthusiasts, innocents and decadents, mathematicians, mad scientists, shamans, psychics, and stage magicians, spies, detectives, adventuresses, and hired guns. There are cameo appearances by Nikola Tesla, Bela Lugosi, and Groucho Marx.

As an era of certainty comes crashing down around their ears and an unpredictable future commences, these folks are mostly just trying to pursue their lives. Sometimes they manage to catch up; sometimes it’s their lives that pursue them.

Meanwhile, the author is up to his usual business. Characters stop what they’re doing to sing what are for the most part stupid songs. Strange sexual practices take place. Obscure languages are spoken, not always idiomatically. Contrary-to-the-fact occurrences occur. If it is not the world, it is what the world might be with a minor adjustment or two. According to some, this is one of the main purposes of fiction.

Let the reader decide, let the reader beware. Good luck.

–Thomas Pynchon

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