On Cinematic Transgression, Real World Trauma, and John Cassavetes

Recently I’ve been spending time thinking about how to contend with changes in taste that come as a result of real life changes in attitude and perspective, and how to reevaluate things I love aesthetically and value deeply but can no longer appreciate in the same moral/ethical sense. When my tastes started developing in a unique way for the first time, i.e. moving away from the traditional film bro faire, I found I had great interest in anything violent, hyper sexualized, and generally transgressive, as the visual language of these films would often have to be extreme and jarring to match the tone of the material. Favorites of mine were, and still are, works by figures like Jodorowsky, Noe, Fulci and his cohorts, von Trier, etc. Film viewing is a very communal act for me and I try to share everything I’m into with the people around me, so movies nights with big groups of friends would be built around double features of Martyrs and Inside, Tenebre and The Beyond, Possession and Audition, and the reactions would always be the same. Thinking now about the idea of a group of young men sitting around cheering and clapping and joking over countless hours of portrayals of women being physically, sexually, and psychologically annihilated by men through the lens of a male camera certainly gives me pause when I look at it critically, but that’s a discussion to be had on another day when I can be more honest about myself and that kind of consumption of art.

Either way, I had very little desire to watch something if it wasn’t going to upset or repulse me, as it was the only way I’d feel stimulated, much in the same vein as a porn addict going to deeper and darker corners of the web as they’re further mentally removed from the humanity of the sexual act. This isn’t in any way a condemnation of these films or their creators, I have nothing but love for them, rather of the state I was in where I viewed them with exclusivity. I don’t know that someone can absorb only darkness and violence in media and find a way to grow as a loving and empathetic person. Watching with a grin as Matt Dillon cuts off a scared young woman’s breast and pins it to the windshield of her automobile is an act that should probably be balanced with the viewing of something altruistic and giving, lest it become normalized.

So, to get this piece back on track, I was gobbling up and consuming everything transgressive I could find and sharing it with everyone around me, and was completely comfortable in both myself and the act, until a few things happened within a brief period of time that shifted my tastes drastically. The first of these incidents was watching Larry Clark’s Kids, which I had long considered to be one of the greatest of all American films, with my then-partner. Seeing the color and light drain from her countenance as the picture sunk deeper into the hell it ends in was transformative, something which I find problematic in and of itself, as white men shouldn’t have to have a catalytic moment to empathize with and understand another person’s trauma, it should be automatic. I was at a point in my life where, regrettably, I’d roll my eyes or pass silent judgement on people who had to get up and leave rooms at scenes of rape or violence, or ask before a viewing if there was any triggering content. While my journey so far hasn’t been without violence or trauma, I’ve been very lucky to never have to experience anything that would give me the frame of reference or understanding that would let me fully empathize with the need to remove oneself from the presence of fictional depictions of evil acts. However, seeing the way that the vile choices made by Casper and Telly, two fake American teenagers conceived of and written by a real American teenager, was genuinely physically affecting this person that I cared about more than anything in the world, I understood for the first time what I couldn’t before. In that moment, while the film didn’t lose any of its power or brilliance, I asked myself how responsible it was for Clark and Korrine to have depicted this act of impoverished female suffering from the point of view of affluent men.

The other two instances played out much in the same way and to go into their details would border on exploitative and would add no new layers or depth to the point I’m making. The effect of these experiences was that a loose thread had been found in my understanding of taste and transgression and pulling it was leading me to devalue and disavow both my artistic interests and the hierarchy of values that came with them. Things overlap at interesting times in life, however, and it happened that while I was taking steps away from these bad faith, anti-humanist motion pictures I decided to sit down and watch a film I’d checked out from libraries or rented numerous times over the years, but had never actually committed to viewing. That picture was John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, a mid ‘70s crime thriller co-conceived by Martin Scorcese and released into theaters a mere six days before Taxi Driver.

The picture carries with it, to this day, a black mark and the popular connotation of being Cassavetes’ worst work. To call it reviled upon its release would be an understatement, as the film’s star and close friend of Cassavetes, Ben Gazzara, would attest to in numerous interviews over the years. Many instances of Gazzara discussing the film find him relating the experience of walking outside after its first screening and hearing those leaving the theater tell people waiting in line that the picture was a disaster and leave while they still could. In 2020, many professional critics and cinephiles alike view the film as a failed genre experiment and a smudge on Cassavetes’ otherwise perfect run of independently produced features. Sitting cross-legged alone on my living room couch, with my three roommates all out of town about a month into quarantine, I was certain it was the best film I had ever seen. Shaking like a leaf and eyes running like faucets, I quietly absorbed the tale of Cosmo Vitelli, the jester-king of the little pink and blue planet dubbed the Crazy Horse West, and his cadre of would-be thespians, and I felt something shake free in my chest. In some ways, my encounter with this film, which was, incidentally, my first time viewing a Cassavetes film, was the starting pistol shot that announced the emotional free fall I would call my home for the next four months.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, which stands firm as what I consider to be the best American film (besides Cassavetes’ own A Woman Under the Influence and perhaps The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), is a lot of things. The film is angry, confused, raw, hopeful, giving, and at times schizophrenic (much like this disaster of an essay.) The visual language is mostly synchronous with Cassavetes’ other work, but moments of rupture (which, interestingly all take place inside the Crazy Horse West) make it feel like an object that, at times, leaves earth and enters a parallel reality. Blurred pink string lights consume the frame and obscure the figure of the naked young waitress as she silently begs for a place in Vitelli’s world with her body, communicating through bold though unrefined leaps and flourishes how desperately she wishes to escape the mundane little Los Angeles hell she slaves away in and spend her nights here, in the company of other hungry, despondent artists maquerading as hack dancers. Vitelli sits, contemplative, reflecting more on the song he’s chosen than the young woman he’s brought to his castle, poised in the only chair in the establishment that isn’t up on a table. The room feels infinitely vast, and Vitelli and the young woman are nearly swallowed by it.

I’ve described a nice moment in a film I love, but the indescribable aspects of Chinese Bookie are why it’s relevant to the discussion. Sewn, somehow, into this quiet moment, as well as through all the moments in the film, not to mention through Cassavetes’ entire oeuvre, is a feeling of invincible, unshakable love. As Vitelli sits and watches the woman dance, he exudes a respect, an understanding, that is nearly too human for this “gangster film.” In every encounter Vitelli has with another person in the film, be they his girls or his assailants, he radiates with warmth and love. I’ve seen a lot of films with a lot of scumbags and a lot of fabricated anger and violence, and even as the film moves towards its tragic end, Cassavetes refuses to lose sight of love, respect, and human dignity. His vision, even in this darkest of his scenarios, is one that uplifts and imbues all in front of his lens with life and depth, even his brutish gunman antagonist. Wholly antithetical to the type of films I had been inundated with (for example Gaspar Noe’s I Stand Alone, which views all acts of man as selfish and vile), the act of viewing Chinese Bookie felt like seeing color for the first time.

To put into plain text what I’ve been working up to, the combination of encounters with real world pain and evil through the eyes of my loved ones and with art that challenged what I thought was rewarding and worthwhile lead me to a realization I should have come to with much more ease: nice things are nice. Love and kindness are wonderful, powerful things. I feel that I had forgotten that in my constant consumption of works of violence and anger and hate, which I viewed as being far more artistically viable. Everyone roots for villains and the sad endings are often the more memorable ones. I had taken that ideology to an extreme and placed transgression and gore on a near unreachable pedestal. I still love those films, but Cassavetes woke me up to the awesome might of a man tucking his daughter into bed, of old friends sharing a game of basketball, of a woman continuing to love those who have no more love to give with the determination and valor of Joan of Arc. These films, which I only connected to because of a shift in my day to day life, in turn changed how I behaved and the things I valued in that same life. I’m starting to understand as I get older how deep the connection between the things we consume and the way we act towards ourselves and others is, and I think that my viewing of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and the memory of the look of horror on the face of that woman I loved bled into each other and began the next chapter of my story, one I’m attempting to fill with caring and empathy. If you find yourself with nothing to do on a Thursday night, consider watching a Cassavetes film and talking to someone you love.

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