slightly carla: day seven

day seven is devoted to a masterwork from my favorite director, john cassavetes' the killing of a chinese bookie (1976).

on the surface, it's a gangster picture. if i just describe the plot it sounds like something straight out of the forties - a nightclub owner, having just paid off a loanshark he was indebted to, racks up a $23,000 debt in a card game. by way of squaring the debt, he agrees to kill a rival of his creditors. he is led to believe the target is a minor crime figure but it turns out that he heads the chinese mafia on the west coast. he pulls off the hit but gets a slug in his side for the trouble. the gangsters who assigned him the job, never expecting him to survive it, double cross him and a deadly game of cat and mouse ensues. standard genre fare, right?

wrong. cassavetes is not one to play it straight. his cinema is an intensely personal one, almost as much to me as to him. there is no other single filmmaker whose work i feel is so tailor-made for me. sometimes, if you're lucky, you find an artist that makes you feel like whatever they made, they made especially for you. i love him because he was restless and fearless. i love him because he was confrontational and love was the only thing worth a damn to him. i love him because he was endlessly fascinated by people and never stopped examining them. watching his movies feels like he has put a hot wire into my heart and has galvanized everything that is great and terrible in me.

i know it won't be the same for everyone. most people, especially fans of more standard cinema, are probably going to find his work tough sledding, which is exactly why they should watch. this movie is perhaps the best example of what sets him so far apart from other filmmakers. by fashioning a genre piece, he underlines the stark contrast between what he does and what everyone else does. even with the inclusion of traditional elements like shoot outs and strippers, he manages to make something wholly unique. he's speaking a different language.

what do i mean? cinema has a language, one that you have been learning for as long as you have been going to the movies. there is a shorthand that you pick up on from the things you have seen before. for example, in horror films when you have a character standing in a room framed in the center of the screen that character is delivering exposition, most likely. if that same character is standing in the same room but is framed to the right or left of the screen that character is cannon fodder. you are now unconsciously tense, doubly so if an open window or closet door is in that empty space. something terrible may or may not be about to fill the unoccupied portion of the frame. the language of cinema is built out of thousands of things like this. a fade indicates a passage of time, a character shot from below is someone to fear and so on and so on. no one has specifically explained them to you but you understand the intent of every one of them. well, john cassavetes did not care about the language everyone else spoke. did. not. care.

the only way to adequately explain this is to just provide a demonstration. to that end, i offer two short clips.
the first is from tate taylor's the help (2011). i choose it because it was the single highest grossing adult drama last year. there were other more successful films, but every one of those was either a children's film or a special effects/action extravaganza. no film last year that told a story for adults and contained the potential for conflict and complication was seen by more moviegoers. this is what people want. embedding is disabled so please click here to view the clip before going any further.

that is the language everyone knows. the camera moves, the meandering piano, the ACTING. now take a look at this from cassavetes' film:

 he is never going to make it easy on you. six people talk at once, elbows are held in front of faces during monologues, the camera searches the room for the most interesting thing that's happening, rather than dictating to you what that is. all these things are going on and, without you even noticing, the acting becomes invisible. did i mention ben gazzara's character has a bullet in his side at this point? contrary to conventional commercial wisdom, cassavetes expects you to remember that instead of cutting to an insert that reminds you of it. he expects grown ups to perceive subtext. crazy, i know. he has a complete disregard for what you think a movie ought to be. in fact, he holds it in disdain. the result of his technique is that you had better watch everything. the result is that every character is a discrete entity, difficult and harboring the potential to be extraordinary. he demands that you carefully watch and consider each one. he demands that you do the work, and for that i love him.


  1. One reason I put this right after Gimme Shelter is the similarities I see between the Maysles Bros and Cassavete's style of pulling back and letting a scene unfold. I love having to do the work. I just remembered, I wanted to add Three Times (2005) to the list around this point, but the problem with that film is that the first story (the film shows 3) is much stronger than the other two. If you haven't watched it, you should check it out.

  2. i have not seen it yet but i will add it to my ever-growing list.