Monday, March 30, 2009

film journals - My Take On Cassavetes

I'm just posting a few of my better essays from my Film History 1960 - present class.

This was my first time seeing The Killing of a Chinese Bookie(John Cassavetes, 1976), and the first thought that popped into my head after seeing the opening shot of Ben Gazzara as Cosmo Vitelli was that he looked exactly like another character I've seen him play. In his white leisure suit with the top few buttons of his shirt undone, he was the spitting image of Jackie Treehorn, the porn movie producer he played in the Coen brothers' The Big Lebowski. As the film progressed, it was clear that the Coen brothers appropriated his character traits as well. In The Big Lebowski when The Dude asks Jackie how the smut business is going, he replies, "I wouldn't know, I'm in the entertainment industry." Likewise, Cosmo essentially lives either a life of make believe or self-deception, however you'd like to look at it. He runs a club that he fancies as a cabaret act, but which in reality is little more than a tawdry strip club masquerading as a cabaret. He takes great care in putting on a show with singing and dancing, and even has one of his dancers open the night's entertainment by reciting poetry (Edward Lear's "The Owl & The Pussycat") with the words changed to include the club's name.. However, the patrons of the club seem to be interesting in the entertainer's other assets. Frequent shouts of "Take it off!" are heard from the crowd, and the occasional bared breast or ass elicits cheers far louder than the song or dance routines.
The club has a Master of Ceremonies called Mr. Sophistication (played by Meade Roberts) who is anything but sophisticated. It seems he is the butt of a joke but is completely clueless to that fact. He has also constructed an alternate reality in his mind that he fully buys into, since he is of the opinion that he is more of a draw for the club than the girls are, but as I've already mentioned the biggest crowd response are from bared flesh. He also attempts to add a sheen of glamour to the surroundings. "Let's transform ourselves into Paris" he implores of the patrons at the club, attempting to recreate the ambience of a cabaret show in "la ville lumière" during la belle epoque. However, the mundane reality of a late 1970s Los Angeles strip club is never quite transformed to turn of the century Parisian fantasy. It's hard to be coaxed into a flight of fancy by someone whose mustache is comically penciled in. Despite all this, Mr. Sophistication still has an undeniable underdog's charm that only someone so fully and sincerely committed to a cause against daunting odds can affect. Mr. Sophistication also seems to function as a Greek chorus somewhat, since his song towards the end of the film comments on the unifying theme of escapism and pretenses with its lyrics " imagination is funny / makes the cloudy days sunny / imagination is crazy / your perspective gets hazy".
The aforementioned Cosmo is also a dreamer, desperately trying to rise above his current station in life with no success. Towards the beginning of the film he is shown paying off a debt to a gangster type who he discredits as a lowlife with no class. Cosmo is hardly the picture of class himself though, driving around in beat up cars, drinking in dive bars, and running a strip club. He attempts to portray himself as a dapper playboy type of character in the vein of Bob le Flambeur. We see him riding around in a chaffeur driven Cadillac picking up girls who work at his club to accompany him at an all-night gambling party, to give him the air of a sophisticated gambler. However, he can not even manage to pin the corsage on his "dates" and has to enlist the help of his chauffeur pin the flowers on the ladies' gowns. There is a harsh juxtaposition between his fantasy world and reality the next morning when his Cadillac drops the girls off at their homes. His tuxedo and the ladies evening gowns, more suited to the milieu of a downtown nightclub, look somewhat ridiculous in the harsh light of morning on the manicured postage stamp lawns of the suburbs.

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