Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Paul Schrader: On Screenwriting

Taxi Driver (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
In the following extract Paul Schrader discusses the screenwriting process in relation to his work on the seminal films Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ – each directed by Martin Scorsese. 

You wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver in about ten days, and I know you’re of the school of thought that the faster you write a screenplay, the better.


You have to understand that the gestation period could be months, or even years, and the idea of writing fast is to keep from writing as long as possible, so that it just endures time and obstacles. By the time it comes out, it comes out almost fully formed. Then you write in approximately a time frame that’s like viewing a movie. You can sort of feel the experience as you’re living it, it doesn’t get attenuated, it doesn’t get threshed out. But I’m also of the school of I’m not going to write unless I know what I’m going to write. I pretty much know what’s going to happen on page seventy-five before I sit down and write.

So you have to have the whole thing in your head before you write it? 

Yeah, and outlined. It moves and shapes itself as you go along, but it is pretty well worked out, and it has endured numerous tests before it is written. By tests, I mean the oral tradition, telling people. You sit down and you tell people the story. You say, ‘Look, I wanna tell you a story. Man walks into a bank. There’s a robbery going on....’ There you are, you’re off and running, and you can watch people. It doesn’t really matter what they say, it’s what they do with their eyes and how they sit. You can see whether or not this story has a resonance, and as you tell it, sometimes you have to make changes. Because like a stand-up comedian, you realize you’re losing your audience, you gotta do something drastic. I think it was Chandler who once said, ‘If you ever get in trouble, introduce a character with a gun. Your reader will be so glad he’s there, he won’t ask where he came from.’ The same thing with telling a story; you realize you’re losing your listener, then you say, ‘All of a sudden, a red car pulls up, and these two guys in black coats come out.’ Boom! You got your listener back. Of course, you’ve also got a red car and two guys in black coats, but that’s one of the things you do when you work the oral tradition. By the time you write that script, you’re pretty confident that it’s worth writing because you have seen it work. If you can tell a story for forty-five minutes and keep people interested, you have a movie.

Taxi Driver (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
Who would you use as a sounding board? 

Anybody. The more ordinary someone is, the better, because they’re not going to give you arcane points, you’re just going to see if they’re interested. It’s like telling a joke – you know when it works. Obviously, certain material is very sophisticated, and it’s not going to work that way. I’m not going to sit and tell Mishima to somebody at the 7-11! But in general, if you’re dealing with a kind of a narrative, you want to get that kind of feedback. Also, another good thing about it is it stops you from writing a lot of scripts, because you see them die, and you see yourself getting stuck. It is very discouraging to write scripts that don’t get sold or made. If you can stop yourself from writing those scripts, you can prolong your career. Because all you have to do is write five or six of those scripts, and you’re about beat up. So if you have a bad idea, you can catch it in time. You haven’t lost a script, you’ve saved yourself four months. I lecture from time to time on screenwriting, and when I lecture, it’s a five-point program. It goes from theme, to metaphor, to plot, to oral tradition, to outline. That’s the progress of an idea. It all begins with a theme, and another word for a theme is a personal problem. In Taxi Driver it was loneliness, the metaphor was a taxicab. Bing-Bang-Boom, it starts to move.

When you sit down to write an original screenplay, where do you begin?

At any given time in your life, there are a number of problems running around. Problems that have a lot to do with where you are in your life cycle, whether it’s a mid-life crisis, problems with parents or children. You’re always looking for metaphors that will somehow address that problem. And once you find that metaphor, particularly if you’ve written as much as I have, it’s like a factory is standing there, fully manned, ready to go. All it needs is the raw material. The metaphor is the raw material. Once they get that, they can go to work.

The Last Temptation of Christ (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
But your last few projects have been adaptations? 

About four years ago, I ran into a little dry period. Like so many others I turned to books. I did some adaptations where I originated the projects: Touch and Affliction. For about a year now I sort of fell back into the groove and have been doing a lot of writing again. That feeling of not having anything original to say has sort of gone away. I think I’ll be good for a couple more years.

It goes through cycles. 

Yeah. I don’t think anybody has something fresh to say every year. You just don’t have an original script every year.

You adapted ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’, which was not an easy novel to turn into a film. How did you approach that adaptation?


I do the same process in terms of problem/metaphor. You look at the book, and you say, ‘Where’s the problem?’ And it’s not necessarily the problem in the book, it’s your problem that you find in the book. ‘What part of me exists in this book that I can address?’ You have to personalize it, and therefore in a book like Last Temptation, there were probably five or six different scripts that could have been written from that. You have a 600-page philosophical novel, and it’s going to become a 110-page script. What I did in that case was I listed every single thing that happened in the book – there were probably 400 or 500 things that happened in the book – then I did columns. Did they address my problem? Were they important for expositional needs? Did they address any of the sub-themes? I went through all the scenes and put checks behind them to the degree that they were useful to me. And then I just took the top fifty scenes, because only between forty to fifty-five things happen in a movie anyway, and said, ‘Okay, what do I have to add?’ Or, ‘How do I make this meld all together?’ That way I was able to take three- quarters of the book, and just wipe it off the table in one grand stroke and reduce the size of the book. Then I went back and picked up from those pages I had swiped off, whatever little bits and pieces I might need.

Raging Bull (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
You did a rewrite on the film ‘Raging Bull’, and Martin Scorsese said that your version of the script was the breakthrough that helped get the film made. What exactly did you bring to the script for ‘Raging Bull’?


Well there was no Joey La Motta. Jake La Motta had written a book called Raging Bull with Pete Savage, and he cut his brother out of his book because he didn’t like his brother! So I started doing research, and I started hearing about the fighting La Motta brothers and that they were boxers together. I interviewed Vickie [Jake’s ex-wife] and Joey, and I realized you had a sibling story. The movie was about these two brothers who had this contract. Basically the contract was, they were both boxers, but one of them had the gift of gab, and the other one didn’t. So Joey basically said to Jake, ‘Here’s the deal. You get the beatings, you get the fame, I get the girls, we set up the bookies, and we split the money.’ Well that contract is fraught with dangers [laughs]! That was the implicit contract between these two men. Jake would be the headliner and take the beatings, and Joey would be the pretty boy who got the girls and they would split the money. You know that there’s going to come a day that someone doesn’t agree with that contract! So without Joey, you didn’t have a movie...

From – Paul Schrader Interviewed by Jim Mercurio and David Konow: Creative Screenwriting, vol 6, #1 (Jan/Feb 1999) and vol 9, #5 (Sept/Oct 2002).

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

From Pen to Screen: Charlie Kaufman

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Directed by Michel Gondry)
The acclaimed writer-director Charlie Kaufman discusses his early days growing up in New York, his transition from acting to screenwriting, and his unique creative process.


Were you an avid filmgoer in your early years and, if so, which films were particularly meaningful to you?

I wouldn’t say I was obsessed with watching movies. I liked movies and I went often, but I’m not like Quentin Tarantino, I’m not that person. I gravitated more toward theater and acting, and film was kind of an offshoot of that, as it had acting and theater in it. I also made a lot of movies when I was a little kid. I had a Super 8 camera, and it was a real passion of mine. I made films with stories, little dramatic things, and I’d write scripts for a monster or vampire movie. We’d shoot in graveyards, and I did some animation. I’d direct the films, and my friends and I would act in them.

You started out as an actor in high school and performed in several plays. What made you decide to make the transition to screenwriting?

Since third grade, I wanted to be an actor. I went to school for it in my freshman year of college, and then I switched to film in my sophomore year. I think I became self-conscious. I was very shy, and I became kind of embarrassed about it. I struggled for a long time because I really loved it. It was the one thing in my life that gave me some sort of joy. Then I thought, did I make a mistake by leaving it, because I don’t feel the same way about anything else? I always thought about going back and I never did, but I don’t feel that way about it anymore. I don’t think I could do it anymore.


What are the main differences between writing a screenplay for someone else to direct and directing your own screenplay yourself?

With the exception of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), I haven’t written specifically for any director. Spike was not initially engaged to be part of Adaptation (2002); that was for Jonathan Demme, and then he decided not to do it. Being John Malkovich (1999) was written before I knew Spike.

I think the difference is that, once I began directing, I started thinking, how am I going to do this? Practically, how am I going to make this happen on film, which is something I had never thought about. When I worked with Spike, if I had been doing a rewrite and I had an idea, he would say, “Well, don’t worry about what it costs. We’ll figure it out.” So I was kind of given carte blanche. But when I’m on my own, there is this feeling of, well, am I going to know how to shoot this scene? Am I going to be able to afford to shoot this scene? That’s the difference.


I’m interested in how you build and structure your screenplays. Do you follow a similar pattern every time?

It depends on the piece. When I’m on my own and I'm doing something for myself, I don’t do an outline. I build it, little by little, as I’m working on it. I think about it for like six months, and I’ll think, “Oh, that’s interesting here!” It’s going in a cool direction, but I don’t know in advance how it’s going to end. I like to have the freedom to see where it goes. I don’t like to cement myself into something.

Sometimes it can take me a few years; it’s not an efficient way to work. I do like the idea that sometimes I come to a new thing, six months into writing it, and that changes everything. Adaptation is an example of that. It was a struggle for me in the first six months, until I came up with the idea of putting myself in, and then suddenly I knew how to write it. If I had forced myself to write any more, it wouldn’t have been the same, and I don’t think it would have been as good.


You mentioned loving the theater earlier. Who are some of your favorite dramatists?

I like Pinter, I like Beckett, Ionesco. When I was in high school, I was actually in a production of Six Characters in Search of an Author, by Pirandello. I was really struck by that, and it was very influential on me. Interestingly, I think Woody Allen has a play in one of his books, where the characters on stage talk to the audience. I like stuff like that. I liked Lanford Wilson when I was a kid, and I like John Guare.

I also loved musicals when I was a kid. I mean, when you’re in school theater you do a lot of musicals!

Finally: you’re on a desert island and are allowed to take one film with you. Which film would it be and why?

A movie I really love is Barton Fink. I don’t know if that’s the movie I’d take to a desert island, but I feel like there’s so much in there, you could watch it again and again. That’s important to me, especially if that was the only movie I’d have with me for the rest of my life.

– Excerpted from ‘From Pen to Screen: An Interview with Charlie Kaufman’ by Neil McGlone (article here).

Monday, 27 February 2017

Antonioni on ‘Blow-Up’

Blow-Up (Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni)
In 1966, Michelangelo Antonioni transplanted his existentialist ennui to the streets of swinging London for the Italian filmmaker’s first English-language feature. Blow-Up takes the form of a psychological mystery, starring David Hemmings as a fashion photographer who unknowingly captures a death on film after following two lovers in a park.

In the following extract Antonioni discusses the making of Blow-Up, the creative process and its inspirations.

My problem with Blow-Up was to recreate reality in an abstract form. I wanted to question ‘the reality of our experience.’ This is an essential point in the visual aspect of the film, considering that one of its main themes is to see or not to see the correct value of things.

Blow-Up is a performance without an epilogue, comparable to those stories from the twenties where F. Scott Fitzgerald showed his disgust with life. While I was filming, I was hoping that no one in seeing the finished film would say: ‘Blow-Up is a typically British film.’ At the same time, I was hoping that no one would define it exclusively as an Italian fIlm. Originally, Blow-Up’s story was to be set in Italy, but I real­ized from the very beginning that it would be impossible to do so. A character like Thomas doesn’t really exist in our country. At the time of the film’s narrative, the place where the famous photographers worked was London. Thomas, furthermore, finds himself at the center of a series of events which are more easily associated with life in London, rather than life in Rome or Milan. He has chosen the new mentality that took over in Great Britain with the 1960s’ revolution in lifestyle, behavior, and morality, above all among the young artists, publicists, stylists, or musicians that were part of the pop movement. Thomas leads a life as regulated as a ceremonial, and it is not by accident that he claims not to know any law other than that of anarchy.


Before the production of the film, I had lived in London for some weeks during the shooting of Modesty Blaise, a film by Joseph Losey star­ ring Monica Vitti. In that period I realized that London would be the ideal setting for a story like the one I already planned to do. But I never had the idea of making a film about London.

The same story could certainly have been set in New York or in Paris. I knew, nevertheless, that I wanted a gray sky for my script, rather than a pas­tel-blue horizon. I was looking for realistic colors and I had already given up, for this film, on certain effects I had captured in Red Desert. At that time, I had worked hard to ensure flattened perspectives with the telephoto lens, to compress characters and things and to place them in juxtaposition with one another. In Blow-Up, I instead opened up the perspective, I tried to put air and space between people and things. The only time I made use of the telephoto lens in the film was when I had to – for example in the sequence when Thomas is caught in the middle of the crowd.

The greatest difficulty I encountered was in reproducing the violence of reality. Enhanced and ultra-soft colors often seem to be the hardest and most aggressive. In Blow-Up, eroticism occupies a very important place, although the focus is often placed on a cold, calculated sensuality. Exhibitionistic and voyeuristic trends are particularly underlined. The young woman in the park undresses and offers her body to the photogra­pher in exchange for the negatives she wants so much to retrieve. Thomas witnesses a sexual encounter between Patrizia and her husband, and his presence as spectator seems to increase the young woman’s excitement.


The risque aspect of the film would have made filming in Italy almost impossible. Italian censorship would never have tolerated some of those images. Let’s not forget that, even though censorship has become more tolerant in many countries in the world, Italy remains the country of the Holy See.

In the film, for example, there is a scene in the photographer’s studio where two twenty-year-old women behave in a very provocative way.

Both are completely naked, although this scene is neither erotic nor vul­gar. It is fresh, light, and, I dare hope, funny. Certainly I cannot prevent viewers from finding it risque. I needed those images in the context of the film, and I did not want to give them up only because they might not meet with the taste and morality of the audience.

As I have written other times in reference to my films, my narratives are documents built not on a suite of coherent ideas, but rather on flashes, ideas that come forth every other moment. I refuse, therefore, to speak about the intentions I place in the film that, at one moment, occupies all my time and attention. It is impossible for me to analyze any of my works before the work is completed. I am a creator of films, a man who has certain ideas and who hopes to express them with sincerity and clarity. I am always telling a story. As far as knowing whether it is a story with any correlation to the world we live in, I am always unable to decide before telling it.


When I began to think about this film, I often stayed awake at night, thinking and taking notes. Soon this story, with its thousands of possibil­ities, fascinated me, and I attempted to understand where its thousands of implications would take me. But at a certain point, I told myself: let’s start making the film – that is to say, let’s try, for better or for worse, to tell the story and, then.... Today I still find myself at this stage, even if I am near­ly finished filming Blow-Up. To be frank, I am still not completely sure of what I am doing, because I am still in the ‘secret’ of the film.

I believe my work depends on both thought and intuition. For example, just a few minutes ago, I was all by myself, thinking about the next scene, and I tried to put myself in the shoes of the main character at the time when he finds the body. I stopped in the shade of the English lawn; I paused in the park, in the mysterious clarity of the London neon bill­ boards. I approached this imaginary corpse and I totally identified with the photographer. I strongly felt his excitement, his emotion, the thousands of sensations that were released in my ‘hero’ by the corpse’s discov­ery. And then I experienced his way of coming back to his senses, of thinking, and reacting. All of which lasted only a few minutes, one or two. Then the rest of the cast joined me and my inspiration, my sensations, vanished.


–  ‘E nato a Londra ma non e un film inglese’, from Corriere della Sera, 12 February 1982. Translated by Allison Cooper.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Akira Kurosowa: How Rashomon Was Made

Rashomon (Directed by Akira Kurosawa)
A woman is raped in a forest by a bandit, and her samurai husband murdered. In court, the victim and her attacker give contradictory accounts of what happened, while the dead man, communicating through a medium, offers another differing interpretation. Finally, a fourth account is given by a woodcutter who claims to have witnessed the attack. But whose version can be believed? Rashomon, which won the Grand Prix at Venice as well as the Oscar for best foreign language film, is an example not only of the great Kurosawa at the height of his powers – working with his regular collaborator, the imposing Toshiro Mifune – but of cinematic storytelling at its most daring. With its multiple contradictory flashbacks conspiring to present truth as an amorphous entity, Rashomon has been hugely influential on film structure and vocabulary in the 60 years since it was made (Ryan Gilbey).

In the following extract from his autobiography, Akira Kurosawa discusses the making of Rashomon.


When I had finished Scandal for the Shochiku studios, Daiei asked if I wouldn’t direct one more film for them. As I cast about for what to film, I suddenly remembered a script based on the short story ‘Yabu no naka’ (‘In a Grove’) by Akutagawa Ryunosuke. It had been written by Hashimoto Shinobu, who had been studying under director Itami Mansaku. It was a very well-written piece, but not long enough to make into a feature film. This Hashimoto had visited my home, and I talked with him for hours. He seemed to have substance, and I took a liking to him. He later wrote the screenplays for Ikiru (1952) and Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai, 1954) with me. The script I remembered was his Akutagawa adaptation called ‘Male-Female.’

Probably my subconscious told me it was not right to have put that script aside; probably I was—without being aware of it – wondering all the while if I couldn’t do something with it. At that moment the memory of it jumped out of one of those creases in my brain and told me to give it a chance. At the same time I recalled that ‘In a Grove’ is made up of three stories, and realized that if I added one more, the whole would be just the right length for a feature film. Then I remembered the Akutagawa story ‘Rashomon.’ Like ‘In a Grove,’ it was set in the Heian period (794-1184). The film Rashomon took shape in my mind.


Since the advent of the talkies in the 1930’s, I felt, we had mis­placed and forgotten what was so wonderful about the old silent movies. I was aware of the esthetic loss as a constant irritation. I sensed a need to go back to the origins of the motion picture to find this peculiar beauty again; I had to go back into the past.

In particular, I believed that there was something to be learned from the spirit of the French avant-garde films of the 1920s. Yet in Japan at this time we had no film library. I had to forage for old films, and try to remember the structure of those I had seen as a boy, rumi­nating over the esthetics that had made them special.

Rashomon would be my testing ground, the place where I could apply the ideas and wishes growing out of my silent-film research. To provide the symbolic background atmosphere, I decided to use the Akutagawa ‘In a Grove’ story, which goes into the depths of the human heart as if with a surgeon’s scalpel, laying bare its dark com­plexities and bizarre twists. These strange impulses of the human heart would be expressed through the use of an elaborately fashioned play of light and shadow. In the film, people going astray in the thicket of their hearts would wander into a wider wilderness, so I moved the setting to a large forest. I selected the virgin forest of the mountains surrounding Nara, and the forest belonging to the Komyoji temple outside Kyoto.


There were only eight characters, but the story was both complex and deep. The script was done as straightforwardly and briefly as possible, so I felt I should be able to create a rich and expansive visual image in turning it into a film. Fortunately, I had as cinematographer a man I had long wanted to work with, Miyagawa Kazuo; I had Hayasaka to compose the music and Matsuyama as art director. The cast was Mifune Toshiro, Mori Masayuki, Kyo Machiko, Shimura Takashi, Chiaki Minoru, Ueda Kichijiro, Kato Daisuke and Honma Fumiko; all were actors whose temperaments I knew, and I could not have wished for a better line-up. Moreover, the story was supposed to take place in summer, and we had, ready to hand, the scintillating midsummer heat of Kyoto and Nara. With all these conditions so neatly met, I could ask nothing more. All that was left was to begin the film.

However, one day just before the shooting was to start, the three assistant directors came to see me at the inn where I was staying. I wondered what the problem could be. It turned out that they found the script baffling and wanted me to explain it to them. ‘Please read it again more carefully,’ I told them. ‘If you read it diligently, you should be able to understand it because it was written with the intention of being comprehensible.’ But they wouldn’t leave. ‘We believe we have read it carefully, and we still don’t understand it at all; that’s why we want you to explain it to us.’ For their persis­tence I gave them this simple explanation:


Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing. This script portrays such human beings – the kind who cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better people than they really are. It even shows this sinful need for flattering falsehood going be­yond the grave – even the character who dies cannot give up his lies when he speaks to the living through a medium. Egoism is a sin the human being carries with him from birth; it is the most difficult to redeem. This film is like a strange picture scroll that is unrolled and displayed by the ego. You say that you can’t understand this script at all, but that is because the human heart itself is impossible to understand. If you focus on the impossibility of truly understanding human psychology and read the script one more time, I think you will grasp the point of it.

After I finished, two of the three assistant directors nodded and said they would try reading the script again. They got up to leave, but the third, who was the chief, remained unconvinced. He left with an angry look on his face. (As it turned out, this chief assistant director and I never did get along. I still regret that in the end I had to ask for his resignation. But, aside from this, the work went well)…


There is no end to my recollections of Rashomon. If I tried to write about all of them, I’d never finish, so I’d like to end with one incident that left an indelible impression on me. It has to do with the music.

As I was writing the script, I heard the rhythms of a bolero in my head over the episode of the woman’s side of the story. I asked Hayasaka to write a bolero kind of music for the scene. When we came to the dubbing of that scene, Hayasaka sat down next to me and said, ‘I’ll try it with the music.’ In his face I saw uneasiness and anticipa­tion. My own nervousness and expectancy gave me a painful sensation in my chest. The screen lit up with the beginning of the scene, and the strains of the bolero music softly counted out the rhythm. As the scene progressed, the music rose, but the image and the sound failed to coincide and seemed to be at odds with each other. ‘Damn it,’ I thought. The multiplication of sound and image that I had calculated in my head had failed, it seemed. It was enough to make me break out in a cold sweat.

We kept going. The bolero music rose yet again, and suddenly picture and sound fell into perfect unison. The mood created was positively eerie. I felt an icy chill run down my spine, and unwittingly I turned to Hayasaka. He was looking at me. His face was pale, and I saw that he was shuddering with the same eerie emotion I felt. From that point on, sound and image proceeded with incredible speed to surpass even the calculations I had made in my head. The effect was strange and overwhelming.

And that is how Rashomon was made.

– Excerpted from Something Like an Autobiography, trans., Audie E. Bock. Translation Copyright ©1982 by Vintage Books.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Terry Southern on Easy Rider

Easy Rider (Directed by Dennis Hopper)
Terry Southern was an influential American short story writer, novelist and screenwriter noted for his distinctive satirical style. Southern collaborated on screenplays for several popular movies of the 1960s, including Dr. Strangelove (1964), The Loved One (1965), The Cincinnati Kid (1966), Barbarella (1968), Easy Rider (1968), and End of the Road (1969). The success of these films helped define the 1960s youth counterculture.

In the following excerpt from an interview conducted with Southern that appeared in the Paris Review in 1996 Terry Southern discusses making Easy Rider with Dennis Hopper.

What was the real story of Easy Rider? There are so many versions of how, and who created it.

If Den Hopper improvises a dozen lines and six of them survive the cutting-room floor, he’ll put in for screenplay credit. That’s the name of the game for Den Hopper. Now it would be almost impossible to exaggerate his contribution to the film – but, by George, he manages to do it every time. The precise way it came down was that Dennis and Peter (Fonda) came to me with an idea. Peter was under contract to A.I.P. for several motorcycle movies, and he still owed them one. Dennis persuaded him to let him (Denis) direct the next one, and, under the guise of making an ordinary A.I.P. potboiler they would make something interesting and worthwhile – which I would write. So they came to my place on Thirty-sixth Street in New York, with an idea for a story – a sort of hippy dope-caper. Peter was to be the actor-producer. Dennis the actor-director, and a certain yours truly, the writer.


I was able to put them up there – in a room, incidentally, later immortalized by the sojourn of Dr. W.S. Benway (Burroughs). So we began smoking dope in earnest and having a nonstop story conference. The initial idea had to do with a couple of young guys who are fed up with the system, want to make one big score and split. Use the money to buy a boat in Key West and sail into the sunset was the general notion, and indeed already salted to be the film’s final poetic sequence. We would occasionally dictate to an elderly woman typist who firmly believed in the arrival, and presence everywhere of the inhabitants of Venus; so she would talk about this. Finally I started taping her and then had her rap about it, how they were everywhere – Jack Nicholson’s thing with Easy Rider was based on that.


So you can see that during these conferences the hippy dope-caper premise went through quite a few changes. The first notion was that they not be bikers but a duo of daredevil car drivers barnstorming around the U.S. being exploited by a series of unscrupulous promoters until they were finally disgusted enough to quit. Then one day the dope smoke cleared long enough to remember that Peter’s commitment was for a motorcycle flick, and we switched over pronto. It wasn’t until the end that it took on a genuinely artistic dimension. . . when it suddenly evolved into an indictment of the American redneck, and his hatred for anything that is remotely different from himself… and then somewhat to the surprise of Den Hopper (imitates Hopper in Apocalypse Now): ‘You mean kill ‘em both? Hey, man, are you outta your gourd?!’ I think for a minute he was still hoping they would somehow beat the system. Sail into the sunset with a lot of loot and freedom. But of course, he was hip enough to realize, a minute later, that it (their death) was more or less mandatory.

Are you saying that there was no improvisation in the film?

No, no, I’m, saying that the improvisation was always within the framework of the obligations of the scene – a scene which already existed.


Then how did Dennis and Peter get included in the screenplay credits?

After they had seen a couple of screenings of it on the coast, I got a call from Peter. He said that he and Dennis liked the film so much they wanted to be in on the screenplay credits. Well, one of them was the producer and the other was the director so there was no way the Writers Guild was going to allow them to take a screenplay credit unless I insisted. Even then they said there was supposed to be a “compulsory arbitration” because too often producers and directors will muscle themselves into a screenplay credit through some under-the-table deal with the writer. They (the WGA) said I would be crazy to allow it and wanted to be assured that I wasn’t being coerced or bribed in any way, because they hate the idea of these “hyphenates” – you know, writer-producer, director-producer… because of that history of muscle. Anyway, we were great friends at the time, so I went along with it without much thought. I actually did it out of a sense of camaraderie. Recently, in Interview, Dennis pretty much claimed credit for the whole script.

Writers appear to be treated like the lowest of the breed in the film biz.

Yes. Except we still have persuasion.


Thursday, 27 October 2016

Violence and Realism: An Interview with Arthur Penn

Bonnie and Clyde (Directed by Arthur Penn)
‘Bonnie and Clyde’ is a milestone in the history of American movies, a work of truth and brilliance. It is also pitilessly cruel, filled with sympathy, nauseating, funny, heartbreaking, and astonishingly beautiful. If it does not seem that those words should be strung together, perhaps that is because movies do not very often reflect the full range of human life. (Roger Ebert, September 25, 1967).
In the following interview with Cineaste magazine Arthur Penn discusses the making of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), the social and mythical background to the film, and the famous final sequence.

Cineaste: ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ was an enormously popular film but also an enormously controversial film. How do you account for the absolutely vociferous critical response, at least from some critics, which condemned the film? Were you disappointed that your artistic intentions were so misunderstood?

Penn: No, I was delighted because they were misunderstood by people who should have misunderstood, like Bosley Crowther, an old wave New York Times critic who at that time was on a crusade against violence in films in general. When he saw Bonnie and Clyde at the Montreal Film Festival, where it was first shown, he is alleged to have said to somebody that he was going to blow that film out of the water. Which he did, in his review, but it was the best advertising we could have had because people wrote scores of letters to The New York Times, which published them. Then Crowther wrote another attack, a Sunday piece, and more letters poured in, and Crowther responded again, and the more he frothed at the mouth, the more it enlisted support for the film.

It was not a film about violence, it was a metaphorical film. Violence had so little to do with it that it didn’t even occur to me, particularly, that it was a violent film. Not given the times in which we were living, because every night on the news we saw kids in Vietnam being airlifted out in body bags, with blood all over the place. Why, suddenly, the cinema had to be immaculate, I’ll never know. Crowther had philosophically painted himself into a corner by arguing that art, and particularly the cinema, has a social responsibility for setting certain mores and standards of behavior, which is a terrible argument, it just collapses in ten seconds. He was in that corner and couldn’t get out of it and it cost him his job...


Cineaste: How do you account for the film’s enormous popularity, especially with young people?

Penn: I think it caught the spirit of the times and the true radical nature of the kids. It plugged into them, it just touched all the nerves, because here were these two who, instead of knuckling under to the system, resisted it. Yes, they killed some people, but they got killed in the end, so they were heroic and martyred in that respect. I must say, in our defense, we knew a little bit of what we were doing, because the studio asked us if we wanted to do it in black and white, and Warren and I said, ‘Absolutely not. It’s gotta be a film about now. This is not a re‑creation of Bonnie and Clyde, they were a couple of thugs. We’re talking about two kind of paradigmatic figures for our times.’

Cineaste: So historical accuracy was never really a concern of yours?

Penn: Never tried, never came near. Of course, they weren’t like that. We were flagrantly inaccurate and said, right off the bat, this is metaphoric.

Cineaste: So when critics wrote that the film romanticized ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, that’s exactly what you were trying to do.

Penn: Exactly. Far from trying to do anything accurate.


Cineaste: And yet the film is not without social commentary on the period. The screenwriters, Robert Benton and David Newman, who have readily acknowledged you as the true auteur of the film, commented that they were more concerned with the mythology and that you were more concerned with social context and commentary.

Penn: What caught my fancy about the script was what I remembered as a child from the Depression, which was people in New York neighborhoods being kicked out of their homes. When I was doing research by reading newspapers from the period, what struck me was the enormity of the banks’ naiveté in holding these mortgages and then foreclosing on farm after farm after farm. It was stupidity of a monumental, punitive nature. They created a nation of displaced people who essentially began heading to California.

These kind of bucolic figures like John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde were called bank robbers by the FBI in order to aggrandize the agency when they tried to capture them. But they were really just bumpkins, who said, ‘The banks are foreclosing on the farms, so let’s go knock off the banks.’ It’s a very simple, retaliatory response, and on a small scale.

Cineaste: So the sequence with the dispossessed farmer was your contribution.

Penn: Yeah, that was a scene I built.


Cineaste: Robert Towne received a credit as ‘Special Consultant’. What was that for?

Penn: He wrote certain little scenes in the film as well as some additional dialog, but very telling dialog. In the family reunion scene, for example, when they go back to visit Bonnie’s mother, that scene was in the original script, but it didn’t include Clyde’s explanation to Bonnie’s mother about how as soon as everything blew over he and Bonnie were going to settle down and live right down the road from her. And she says, ‘You do that and you won’t live long.’ That’s Towne. He made some very salient contributions.

Cineaste: There is much made in the film of the media blowing the Barrow Gang’s exploits out of all proportion. Hoover was in office then...

Penn: Yes, but the FBI had not really been granted a national status, they were not able to go beyond state lines, and very few crimes were called national crimes. I think the Lindbergh kidnapping was one of them, so they began to call almost anything kidnapping and that gave them jurisdiction. It was an effort on Hoover’s part to build a national police force. But in this case, it was the local sheriff, Sheriff Hamer, who eventually did track them down to Louisiana – that part of it is accurate – and did blow them away. They fired something in excess of a thousand rounds of ammunition at them. It’s amazing, the pent up rage must have been enormous.


Cineaste: It’s a remarkable scene in the film, and even in film history. How was it conceived?

Penn: I had a kind of epiphany on this film where I saw the ending, literally frame by frame, before I even came near shooting it. In the earliest days, when Benton and Newman and I got together to discuss the script, I suddenly saw how that scene should look. I thought we had to launch into legend, we had to end the film with a kind of pole vault, you know, some kind of great leap into the future, as if to say, ‘They’re not Bonnie and Clyde, they’re two people who had a response to a social condition that was intolerable.’ So I thought, gee, the best way to do that is to be somewhat balletic, and, having seen enough Kurosawa by that point, I knew how to do it.

What I did do, which I think had not yet been done, was to vary the speeds of the slow motion so that I could get both the spastic and the balletic qualities at the same time. Technically, it was an enormous problem because we had to gang four cameras together, shooting simultaneously from the same vantage point. The cameras were literally joined side by side on a stand. The problem, because of the very fast speeds needed for the slowest slow motion, was that we were using up gigantic magazines and we didn’t even have time to say ‘action’ because the film would go through the camera so fast. So we said, ‘OK, when Warren squeezes the pear, that’s our cue, and everything goes.’


Cineaste: How were the bullet hits applied?

Penn: There were bundles of wires going up their legs and a special effects guy would trip them by making electrical contact with nails sticking up in a row connected to a battery. Meanwhile, as the bullets are going, someone else was pulling an invisible nylon line that took off a piece of Warren’s head, they were both going through contortions with their bodies, and all of this filmed in various slow motion speeds in four cameras.

Cineaste: How long did that scene take to shoot?

Penn: It took three or four days. We would get one take in the morning and one take in the afternoon, because it took that long to prepare. It was one of those insane moments where, as a director, you’re saying to yourself, ‘I see it this way, I see it no other way, so I’m not going to economize,’ and, meanwhile, you can see people whispering on the set, ‘This guy is nuts. What the fuck is he doing?’

I just had this vision. I knew what it would look like and, when I got into the editing room, it turned out to be a true one. Dede Allen edited the film but Jerry Greenberg, one of her assistants, edited that scene, and he was just shaking his head. I came in and I said, ‘Here’s how it goes – this shot, to this shot, then to that shot.’ It was as if I was reading it out of some other perception. I knew exactly what it would look like.


Cineaste: The various scenes of violence in the film escalate progressively in a very clear dramatic purpose. How would you describe your esthetic strategy?

Penn: The best example I can give, quoting from the film itself, is the sequence where Bonnie and Clyde, with C. W. Moss driving the car for the first time, go to rob a bank. They say ‘Wait here,’ and go into the bank, and C. W. proceeds to park the car. Now, everybody in the audience is titillated by that, and is meant to be. Then the bank alarm goes off, and out come Bonnie and Clyde who are asking, ‘Where’s the car?’ It’s wedged in between two cars, of course, because C. W. has parked it beautifully. So, into the car they go and scream, ‘Get out of here!,’ and this enormous comic tension is built up. We’ve got you laughing and laughing, and C. W. finally gets the car moving and, at that point, the guy comes out of the bank and jumps on the running board. Clyde, in a paroxysm of fear, turns and fires, and that first killing is the one that knocks you right out of the chair, because it’s a guy getting it right in the face. The intention was to disarm the audience to that point where, bam!, the shooting occurs, and then comes the scene in the movie theater where Clyde is hitting C. W. and saying, ‘You dummy,’ because he’s expressing his own remorse and panic about having killed somebody.

Cineaste: In that scene Bonnie seems relatively unaffected.

Penn: She doesn’t mind. In our choice of what we were doing, Bonnie had a more romantic view of danger. Once she’d made the determination, from the very first scene, that she was going to go downstairs and join up with this guy, she was on the qui vive.


Cineaste: Is that why you begin the film with her point of view?

Penn: Yes, it begins with a big close‑up of her lips, her hungry lips. I’m sorry it sounds so corny, but that’s what it is – a hunger for something more than her present existence.

Cineaste: Was the film’s visual style influenced by the work of Walker Evans?

Penn: Yeah, we used a lot of his photographs in the titles. The man who did them, Wayne Fitzgerald, kept saying, ‘God, there’s something not right here. I’m going to take the credits home tonight and I’ll bring them back tomorrow.’ What he put in was the sound of that box camera click and suddenly it evoked the memory we all had from our childhoods of that clicking noise of the Kodak camera shutter, and it just made the titles come alive.

– ‘The Importance of a Singular, Guiding Vision: An Interview with Arthur Penn by Gary Crowdus and Richard Porton’. First published in Cineaste, Vol. XX, No. 2/December 1993.

Friday, 26 August 2016

Terry Southern on Stanley Kubrick

Dr. Strangelove (Directed by Stanley Kubrick)
Writer Terry Southern was hired by Stanley Kubrick to make a satire out of a screenplay originally based on the novel Red Alert by Peter George. Released as Dr. Strangelove (1964), the movie takes us into the war room of a certain President Merkin Muffley, to reveal a military culture gone berserk, as its leaders cheerfully prepare for the imminent end of the world.

The following extract is taken from an interview with Terry Southern by Lee Hill in which Southern discusses his experience of working with Stanley Kubrick.

What was the status of the ‘Dr. Strangelove’ script before Stanley Kubrick decided to hire you in the fall of 1962?

When Kubrick and Peter George first began to do the script, they were trying to stick to the melodrama in George’s book, Red Alert [published under the pseudonym ‘Peter Bryant’... There was an outline. They didn’t go into a treatment but went straight into a script. They had a few pages and in fact had started shooting, but in a very tentative way. Kubrick realized that it was not going to work. You can’t do the end of the world in a conventionally dramatic way or boy–meets–girl way. You have to do it in some way that reflects your awareness that it is important and serious. It has to be a totally different treatment, and black humor is the way to go. That was Kubrick’s decision.

When you first got together with Kubrick, did you start changing the tone of the script right away?

Yeah, after the first day, at our first meeting, he told me what the situation was. All those things that I’ve told you were his very words. ‘It’s too important to be treated in the conventional way. It’s unique! The end of the world is surely a unique thing, so forget about the ordinary treatment of subject and go for something like a horror film.’ He decided to use humor. The flavor that attracted him in my novel The Magic Christian could be effective in this new approach. He would talk about the mechanics of making it totally credible and convincing in terms of the fail-safe aspect and then how to make that funny. And the way you make it funny, because the situation is absurd, is by dealing with it in terms of the dialogue and characters.


I’m curious about the day-to-day working relationship with Kubrick as you wrote the film from the preproduction period through the actual shooting.

Well, after my first day in London when he told me what he had in mind, I got settled into a hotel room not far from where he lived in Kensington. That night, I wrote the first scene, and then he picked me up at four-thirty the next morning in a limo. The limo was a big Rolls or Bentley. We rode in the backseat with the light on. There was this desk that folded down. It was very much like a train compartment. It was totally dark outside. If it got light, we would pull the shades down. He would read the script pages; then we would rewrite them and prepare them for shooting when we got to the studio, which was about an hour to an hour–and–a–half drive depending on the fog.

Kubrick is notorious for his organizational mania.

Yes, he loved nothing so much than to go into stationery stores and buy gadgets and organizational aids.

You hear all these fantastic stories about how Kubrick lives. Did you visit his home much when you were in London?

Yes, several times. He has a castlelike structure, a grand old mansion, which has this two–projector screening room. It has electric fences and security devices. It has everything except a moat. He’s super private because he lives for his children. He lives in comfort and luxury in almost total isolation.


Peter Sellers was going to play all four parts originally, including the Texan bombardier. I understand you coached Sellers on his accent.

The financing of the film was based almost 100 percent on the notion that Sellers would play multiple roles. About a week before shooting, he sent us a telegram saying he could not play a Texan, because he said it was one accent he was never able to do. Kubrick asked me to make a tape of a typical Texan accent. When Sellers arrived on the set, he plugged into this Swiss tape recorder with huge, monster earphones, and listened to the tape I made. He looked ridiculous, but he mastered the accent in about ten minutes. Then Sellers sprained his ankle and couldn’t make the moves going up and down the ladder in the bomb bay. So he was out of that part. The doctor told him he couldn’t do it. Then it was a question of replacing him. Stanley had set such store by Sellers’s acting that he felt he couldn’t replace him with just another actor. He wanted an authentic John Wayne. The part had been written with Wayne as the model.
       
Did Kubrick ever try to get Wayne to play the role?

Wayne was approached, and dismissed it immediately. Stanley hadn’t been in the States for some time, so he didn’t know anything about television programs. He wanted to know if I knew of any suitable actors on TV. I said there was this very authentic, big guy who played on Bonanza, named Dan Blocker. Big Hoss. Without seeing him, Kubrick sent off a script to his agent. Kubrick got an immediate reply: ‘It is too pinko for Mr. Blocker.’ Stanley then remembered Slim Pickens from One-Eyed Jacks [1961], which he [had] almost directed for Marlon Brando, until Brando acted in such a weird way that he forced Stanley out.


When Pickens was hired and came to London, wasn’t that the first time he had ever been out of the States?
Yes, in fact it was the first time he had ever been anywhere outside the rodeo circuit as a clown or the backlots of Hollywood. Stanley was very concerned about Slim being in London for the first time and asked me to greet him. I got some Wild Turkey from the production office and went down to the soundstage. It was only ten in the morning, so I asked Slim if it was too early for a drink. He said, ‘It’s never too early for a drink.’ So I poured out some Wild Turkey in a glass and asked him if he had gotten settled in his room. ‘Hell, it doesn’t take much to make me happy. Just a pair of loose shoes, a tight pussy, and a warm place to shit.’ One of Kubrick’s assistants, a very public-school type, couldn’t believe his ears, but went ‘Ho, ho, ho’ anyway.

Finally, I took Slim over to the actual set where we were shooting. I left him alone for a few minutes to talk to Stanley. While we were standing there talking, Stanley went, ‘Look there’s James Earl Jones on a collision course with Slim. Better go over and introduce them.’ James Earl Jones knew that Pickens had just worked with Brando. Jones was impressed and asked Pickens about the experience of working with Brando. ‘Well, I worked with Marlon Brando for six months, and in that time, I never saw him do one thing that wasn’t all man and all white.’ Slim didn’t even realize what he was saying. I glanced at James Earl Jones, and he didn’t crack [a smile]. Slim replacing Sellers worked out well because, unbeknownst to me at the time, the actor that was playing the co-pilot [Jack Creley] was taller and stockier than Sellers. Whereas Slim was about the same size [as the co-pilot] and more convincingly fulfilled the intention of this larger-than-life Texan.


To what extent did Peter Sellers’ improvisation depart from the shooting script?

It was minimal. It wasn’t like Lolita, where he improvised a great deal. His improvisational bits in Strangelove were very specific. One scene that comes to mind is when [Sterling] Hayden goes into the bathroom to kill himself, Peter’s lines are: ‘Oh, go into the bathroom and have a brushup . . . good idea.’ Sellers changed that to: ‘Splash a bit of cold water on the back of the neck . . .,’ which is more of a British thing. That was good.

What was Columbia’s reaction to this subversive black comedy that the studio had helped to finance?

Columbia was embarrassed by the picture and tried to get people to see Carl Foreman’s The Victors instead. At the time we thought we were going to be totally wiped out. People would call up the box office and be told there were no seats for Strangelove and asked if they would like to see The Victors instead. Gradually, the buzz along the rialto built word of mouth in our favor.

Wasn’t there some falling-out between Kubrick and yourself over screen credit following the film’s release?

Stanley’s obsession with the auteur syndrome – that his films are by Stanley Kubrick – overrides any other credit at all. Not just writing but anything. He’s like Chaplin in that regard. That’s the reason why he rarely uses original music in his films. [Since I had] written this great best-seller, Candy, which was number one on the New York Times best-seller list for something like twenty-one weeks, my reputation eclipsed Stanley’s; so I got total credit for all the Strangelove success in Life, the New York Times, and other publications. The credit I was getting was just so overwhelming and one sided that naturally Stanley was freaking out. He took out an ad in Variety saying I was only one of the three writers on the film, the other two being Peter George, and himself. He just lashed out. But it was like an overnight thing. I wrote a letter to the New York Times explaining that there was no mystery involved, and that I was brought in to just help with the screenplay.


Monday, 25 July 2016

John Cassavetes: The Art of Narrative

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (Directed by John Cassavetes)
In John Cassavetes’s personal cinema, the director was always trying to break away from the formulas of Hollywood narrative, in order to uncover some fugitive truth about the way people behave. At the same time, he took seriously his responsibilities as a form-giving artist, starting with a careful script (however improvised in appearance). Nowhere was the tension between Cassavetes’s linear and digressive, driven and entropic tendencies more sharply fought out than in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), one of his most fascinating achievements.


Following up his success with A Woman Under the Influence, the director thought it might be interesting to try a gangster picture to stretch himself, in effect by exchanging the domestic suburbia of quarreling married couples for a more raffish milieu, and meeting the audience halfway with some traditional Hollywood entertainment values associated with the genre: suspense, murder, double crosses, topless dancers. An amiable, courtly nightclub owner, Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara), already in debt to loan sharks, indulges his unfortunate weakness for drinking and gambling, and ends up owing twenty-three thousand dollars to gangsters, who demand that he pay off the debt by executing a competitor of theirs, a mob boss whom they inaccurately describe as a Chinese bookie. The story obeys the step-by-step fatalism of an unfolding nightmare, whereby small mistakes and temptations lead to deeper consequences, such as can be found in classic film noirs with Edward G. Robinson, Glenn Ford, and Jean Gabin. Looked at purely as narrative, there is surprisingly little waste in the script: each scene advances and intensifies the central dramatic situation. Cassavetes even fulfills the genre contract with action sequences (rare for him) that involve shootings, chases, and sinister, underlit garages, perhaps drawing on his own experience as an actor in crime movies. On the other hand, the film’s enduring power comes across most in subtle details of setting and character that play against, or in inertial counterpoint to, these obligatory propulsive scenes.


Cosmo’s strip club, the Crazy Horse West, functions as a viscous flypaper to which the film keeps attaching itself, where time dawdles and dilates in a constant night. (Cassavetes insisted these nightclub scenes be shot through gels, which created stylized pools of isolating red or blue light for the owner-impresario to walk through.) Cosmo has gilded his tawdry peep show with a series of fantasy backdrops, all introduced by the dumpy, epicene master of ceremonies, Teddy, professionally known as Mr. Sophistication, who “takes” the audience to exotic locales. Unforgettably portrayed by the Hollywood screenwriter Meade Roberts, Mr. Sophistication belongs to that tribe Dostoy­evsky called “the insulted and the injured.” He oozes affronted, buffoonish humiliation. But he also epitomizes the needy, oversensitive artist – a self-parody by Cassavetes – who is hungry for the spotlight but believes himself fundamentally homely and unloved. Teddy’s theme song, “Imagination,” becomes the film’s bleak anthem.


At bottom, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a character study of its grinning, self-estranged protagonist, Cosmo, a small-time, rough-around-the-edges businessman trying to maintain an invented persona of Mr. Lucky suavity and charm. The corsages he brings each of his “lovely ladies” – rounding them up as escorts to the gambling joint Ship Ahoy, where they will be forced to witness his defeat – are the perfect expression of his self-conscious, formal punctilio and hunger for class. Gazzara turns in a brilliant performance as the unhappy Cosmo. (That Gazzara was unhappy himself through much of the shooting, finding it hard to sympathize with or admire his character, only reinforces our sense of Cosmo as discomfited with his chump role in life.) Cosmo seems always to be sniffing himself for something rancid or fraudulent. Trying to live up to an elegant standard of sophistication, he mutes his Sicilian street temper with a false veneer of politeness and seductive blather. In a long, revealing speech near the end, he admits that he is always betraying his real nature: “Look at me—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.” Ironically, he utters this false confession as a way to motivate the troupe to get back onstage and give the customers what they want – saying, “Choose a personality,” or in other words, Fake it for me. Even at his most sincere, he’s calculating, and even at his most calculating, he is lost, unable to decide what he is undergoing or who he is. One moment he says, “I’ve never felt better in my life”; the next moment it’s “I don’t feel too hot” (no surprise, since he has a bullet lodged in his gut).


Cassavetes clearly believed the self to be a constant bluff, a desperate improvisation launched in heavy fog. He told an interviewer: “People don’t know what they are doing, myself included. They don’t know what they want or feel. It’s only in the movies that they know what their problems are and have game plans for dealing with them.” The closest thing Cosmo has to a game plan is: the show must go on. In one hilarious scene, en route to his prospective hit job, he stops in a phone booth to check up on the evening’s performance: what number are the girls and Teddy doing? He berates his help for not knowing the acts better after all these years. At bottom he is a man of the theater, at its most Felliniesque and flea-bitten. He understands two things: “I own this joint” and “Everything takes work; we’ll straighten it out.” You do your job the best you can, even if it’s just shaking your tits onstage in the no-win ­situation life hands you. It is this sort of philosophical stoicism that informs much of the nobility in Cassavetes’s grubby universe.


The plot’s biggest gamble is to make Cosmo, this likable if screwed-up schnook, actually go through with the killing. Is it plausible that someone so seemingly decent would do such a thing? We don’t know, any more than we know enough about his past to say with certainty whether it’s even the first time he’s killed someone. But if we accept Cassavetes’s model of the self as constantly in flux – provisional, unknowable, yet susceptible to the immediate claims of duty – then we may be better able to make the leap and accept the possibility.

Cosmo’s counterpart in the gangster world is Mort, shrewdly played by that superb Cassavetes regular Seymour Cassel. Morty is another character with a false self, a smiling company man hiding behind an oddly decorous manner; “Will you excuse me please? I have to freshen up,” he says to his dinner companions before ordering another rubout. Not everyone surrounding Cosmo is as empty and amoral, however. Rachel (Azizi Johari), the beautiful showgirl who is Cosmo’s lover, and her mother, Betty (Virginia Carrington), offer him an alternative of tender care. So it is all the more startling when, in a powerful scene toward the end, Betty interrupts his monologue of childhood reminiscence and sweet talk to tell him she doesn’t give a shit. “Cosmo, I think what happened was wrong,” she says, rising to full moral stature, and adds that if he won’t see a doctor to have the bullet removed, then he can’t stay in their house. Without wanting to know how he came by that bullet, she indicates to him that he represents a danger to her and her daughter, and she has an obligation to protect her family. Thus his fantasy that this black mother and daughter are his true “family” crumbles, and he retreats to the club, his only haven. So might Tony Soprano later lick his wounds in the Bada Bing! club.


In 1976, when The Killing of a Chinese Bookie was first released, it bombed at the box office, much to Cassavetes’s disappointment. Critics found it disorganized, self-indulgent, and unfathomable; audiences took their word for it and stayed away. Today, the film seems a model of narrative clarity and lucidity; either our eyes have caught up to Cassavetes or the reigning aesthetic has evolved steadily in the direction of his personal cinematic style. Now we are more accustomed to hanging out and listening in on the comic banality of low-life small talk; to a semidocumentary, handheld-camera, ambient-sound approach; to morally divided or not entirely sympathetic characters, dollops of “dead time,” and subversions of traditional genre expectations.


The film, seen today, generates considerable suspense, part of which comes from classic man-against-the-mob conventions: seeing how the noose of fate is tightened. Part of it, however, comes from Cassavetes’s perverse reluctance to play the game of simple entertainment, offering more complex rewards instead. An example is the scene where Cosmo stops off at a hamburger restaurant to pick up some meat with which to placate the guard dogs before murdering their owner. The waitress, a well-intentioned, matronly blonde, tries to convince her customer to take the burgers individually wrapped, so they won’t make a greasy mess. Cosmo obviously cannot share with her the real reason why he refuses this amenity and is reduced to repeating his request, with mounting frustration, while the bartender acts as a sympathetic bridge between the two. Classic gangster movies or film noirs often feature sharply etched cameos of garage attendants, hotel clerks, or hash slingers, but generally they perform a strict narrative function and then disappear. In this scene, however, the waitress goes beyond that point, threatening to pull you out of the hit-man narrative by insisting on her reality. Cosmo, looking tired and aggrieved, is being forced to acknowledge that every human has a distinct point of view – something he will again have to take into consideration soon enough, when he faces the old Chinese bookie, naked in the bathtub, before deciding whether to blow him away.


In Cassavetes’s cinema, these delays, these eruptions of the messy, frustrating, time-consuming, and inconvenient ways that everyone, bit player to star, asserts his or her right to be taken seriously, are not impediments to the plot but are the plot. This point is made clearer in the original, more leisurely (and, to my mind, better) version of the film, which lasted 135 minutes, as opposed to the second, tightened version of 108 minutes. In the longer version, we learn more odd details about the De Lovelies (the one who doesn’t like champagne, for instance) and get an introduction to the Seymour Cassel character at his most unctuously ingratiating. We are allowed to sink into the moment voluptuously, to see more stage routines in the nightclub, which reinforces Teddy’s/Mr. Sophistication’s role as Cosmo’s grotesque doppelgänger and makes for a better balance between crime and showbiz film. The shorter version is in some ways tougher, colder, more abstract, like a French policier; in the longer, exploratory version, Cosmo takes a while to seem completely lost, alienated. Both versions, however, end in the same ironic way, with Teddy mistaking his padrone’s philosophical spiel as proof that Cosmo “practices the best thing there is in this world – to be comfortable.” Cosmo goes off we know not where, bleeding, possibly to death, and we never see him again. The focus shifts back for the final time to the nightclub, where Teddy sings a despicably hostile rendition of “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” to the audience (and, by extension, to us), and the last line heard in the film is a chorus girl reassuring Mr. Sophistication that they really do love him, even if he thinks they don’t. We could say the same to the now departed Mr. Cassavetes.

– Phillip Lopate: ‘The Killing of a Chinese Bookie: The Raw and the Cooked’. Courtesy of www.criterion.com